How Not to Diet
Let me get this out of the way: I am not a fan of weight loss books. I like to align my life with science as much as possible, and when it comes to books about what we should eat, there’s just so much bull$#!† out there. It can feel impossible to wade through it all.
Amidst the fray of bad advice, though, there is one author who writes about food that I trust: Dr. Michael Greger. Greger is the founder of Nutritionfacts.org, a nonprofit organization that pores through all of nutritional research published each year, in order to separate what works from what doesn’t. His previous book, How Not to Die (which I consider to be one of the greatest productivity books), covered what we should eat in order to minimize our odds of dying from the 10 leading causes of death. In his latest book, How Not to Diet, Dr. Greger turns his attention to the science of weight loss.
Here’s what separates Dr. Greger’s work from everything else:
- He puts the science of food above all else.
- He’s terrific at wading through troves of often-conflicting research to find the most reliable, dependable studies.
- He has no agenda: he really, truly lets the science speak for itself, and donates every penny that he earns from his books, talks, and DVDs to charity.
In short, if you are interested in a book about weight loss, you should pick up How Not to Diet. It’s the only diet book you’ll ever need.
10 proven ways to cut body fat
So how can you get rid of the excess fat that’s marbling your organs, muscles, and body? Here are just 10 of my favorite strategies—of the hundreds in the book—that have been shown to accelerate fat loss, which you can start doing right away.
1. Consume more fiber. Greger writes: “telling people to increase their intakes of fiber-rich foods may actually be one of the single most effective pieces of advice for weight loss.” A high-fiber diet leads your body to absorb fewer calories: increasing your daily consumption to the recommended daily minimum actually leads you to absorb 100 fewer calories a day, even when you eat the same amount. Another reliable study found that the eight types of gut bacteria that fight against weight gain all feed on fiber. A high-fiber diet also leads you to eat less in future meals, suppressing your appetite up to 10 hours after you eat it. Our bodies are designed to get 100+ grams of fiber a day, and only 3% of Americans consume the recommended daily minimum. Fiber is only found in plants (fiber supplements derived from these plants don’t work nearly as well).
2. Consume foods that contain the greatest amount of water. Curiously, we eat a fairly consistent weight of food on a daily basis (around 3 pounds), and how much food weighs depends most on how much water food contains. Water, of course, contains zero calories, and so the more water a piece of food contains, the fewer calories it has. Unfortunately, as Greger writes, “we appear to have an inborn drive to maximize calories per mouthful.” You burn fat by minimizing how many calories you consume per mouthful, because your body will stick to eating around 3 pounds of food a day. A couple of my favorite examples from the book of foods that contain a lot of water: “eating 240 calories of carrots could take you more than two and a half hours of constant chewing”, and “you’d have to eat a wheelbarrow full of cabbage before you’d ever need to begin worrying about overindulging.” Most unprocessed, whole plant foods—vegetables and fruits included—contain an unusually high amount of water, and fill us up more as a result. Cucumbers have so few calories you’d need to eat more than 150 cups of them a day to gain weight; kale has so few calories you’d need to eat 250 cups of the stuff. (Our stomach capacity is around 4 cups.) It’s worth noting that drinking water alongside meals doesn’t have the same effect as consuming food with the water trapped inside of it.
3. You can eat an unlimited amount, as long as you eat the right stuff. One study allowed participants to eat an unlimited amount of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans for just 21 days. In those 21 days, participants lost an average of 17 pounds (7.7 kilograms). The reason for this was simple: participants automatically ate foods higher in fiber and water, and we tend to eat the same weight of food each day. For these reasons, how much you eat doesn’t matter nearly as much as what you eat. You can eat as many whole-food, plant-based products as you want each day and still lose weight.
4. Steer clear of artificial, zero-calorie sweeteners, which actually trick your brain into eating more. Artificial sweeteners make certain foods taste sweet—and as a result, your body expects your blood sugar to spike after eating them. When your blood sugar doesn’t spike, your brain feels cheated, and consumes more calories later on in the day in order to compensate. Your body does this without your knowledge or permission. For this reason, artificially-sweetened products are in practice just as fattening as the same product with sugar added.
5. Give healthy foods time to taste good. The longer we eat healthfully—consuming food that’s grown, and not made—the better real food tastes. As Dr. Greger writes, “the food industry has so deadened our palates with hypersalty, hypersweet, hyperfatty foods. The ripest peach in the world may taste sour after a bowl of Froot Loops.” Give your palette a few weeks to adjust, and your waist line will thank you. Eating real food burns more fat, but doesn’t taste as good as ultraprocessed foods at first, while your palate adjusts.
6. Eating plant-based foods leads your body to burn more fat. Our body is built to burn unprocessed plant foods as fuel. According to one study, if you feed people the same number of calories, but “simply switch out meat and butterfat for olive oil, nuts, and avocados, you lose nearly six more pounds of fat in a single month.” Another study found that your “odds of obesity may increase by 18 percent for every 1 percent increase in calories from red meat, poultry, fish, or shellfish.” If you like meat in your diet, according to Greger you should consume wild game, which has less unhealthy animal fat.
7. There are foods that reliably suppress your appetite. Some examples from the book: vinegar (which also burns more fat—balsamic vinegar tastes great drizzled over a salad or with whole-wheat bread); ground flax seeds (throw some in your morning smoothie); cumin (especially black cumin powder); saffron (though it can be expensive); and water (especially when you consume a couple of cups before each meal).
8. There are foods that reliably lead you to burn more fat. Foods that lead us to burn calories are nutritious, yet contain very few (if any) calories. Some examples of fat-burning foods from the book: hot peppers (including red pepper powder and hot sauce); ginger (dried ginger works better than fresh, surprisingly—ginger tea is a great-tasting fat-burner);
cinnamon (I love throwing some in the coffee maker, right on top of the ground beans); peppermint; and tea (each cup of tea burns around 25 calories, and contains none, assuming you don’t add milk or sugar! Green tea works best, though black coffee still leads you to burn around 17 extra calories per cup.)
9. Consume most of your calories in the morning. According to research, “morning calories don’t appear to count as much as evening calories.” In my interview with Dr. Greger (linked at the bottom of the post), he mentioned this was one of the most surprising findings he stumbled upon in writing the book. Our bodies metabolize medications differently depending on what time of day we take them—and food is the same way. As one study bluntly put it, “If you want to lose weight, eat more in the morning than in the evening.” We burn 50% more calories digesting a morning meal than we do an evening one—as Greger puts it, “our bodies just aren’t expecting us to be eating when it’s dark outside.” We even burn fewer calories when we sleep during the daytime. Because our body’s rhythms matter so much, Dr. Greger also recommends not eating past 7 p.m. if you wish to optimize fat loss: this has been shown to lead you to lose about one extra pound a week, and the best part is that you don’t have to make any other changes to when and how much you eat the rest of the day.
10. Focus on diet, not exercise—exercise is an ineffective way to burn body fat. One large study, which summarized the findings of 18 other studies that took place over a minimum of six months, found that those who dieted and exercised did not lose more weight than those who just invested in diet alone. Research suggests that we need to exercise at least 300 minutes a week in order to lose a noticeable amount of fat. The reason exercise is so ineffective is interesting: the more we exercise, the less we instinctively move the rest of the day, too. We burn most of our calories moving around throughout the day, and actually move less on days we work out. There is a saving grace to this, though: we burn far more calories when we work out before breakfast, when we haven’t eaten for a little while—around 90% more calories. As one study put it, “If exercise were a pill to burn body fat, it would be effective only when taken before breakfast.”
As How Not to Diet makes clear, the solution to fat loss is a simple one. The best, most reliable food research suggests that we should be eating real food that grows out of the ground. This means cutting out processed food, along with meat, eggs, and dairy, while maximizing how much fruit, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and herbs and spices we eat each day. The more plants you eat, the more weight you’ll lose.