Getting Started Tips: Fad Diets and Exercise

Welcome back to my “Getting Started” series where I ask people way smarter than me for advice to pass on to you.  So far we have focused on some physical preparing you can do to make sure you are ready to start hiking or exercising and some injury warning signs. We have also discussed some of the dangers and warning signs of weather.

Today I wanted to talk a little bit about the fuel that you put in your body.  If you have seen my food section you know that I am not the best person to discuss this.  Plus, if you were like me, you may have put on a few quarantine pounds and have been looking at different diets and exercise programs.  If you are half as stubborn as me you are probably thinking you will start both dieting and working out at the same time and quickly lose 100 pounds and sign a modeling contract.

To put some of this in perspective I am joined by Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Melissa Masters. Melissa has earned a doctorate degree in Nutrition and a masters degree in Nutrition and Health Sciences from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She is currently the Nutrition Graduate School Program Director and an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Disclaimer: This is for general education purposes only.  You should consult with a physician before beginning any exercise program.  Each person is different and opinions given in this article are not to be construed as a diagnosis, personal medical advice, or a treatment plan. Always personally see a medical professional for individual ailments and medical advice.   

Fatman:  Melissa, thank you so much for joining me.  There are so many fad diets out these days that focus on reducing or eliminating certain food groups.  Low carb, no carb, no sugar, no fat, etc etc etc.  They seem to be effective in the short term for quick weight loss or nobody would do them but seem difficult for people to sustain.  Just to get it out of the way what is your overall thought on these diet trends?

Melissa Masters Ph.D, RDN: Fad diets are always a good topic of discussion! Fad diets can work for the short term mainly because they reduce your total calorie consumption. However, these diets tend to cause what we call yo-yo dieting where someone may lose weight quickly, then go back to their usual eating patterns, gain it all back, and then seek out a new diet for quick weight loss. Fad diets have been around for centuries. I always like to reference the tape worm diet that was popular in the early 1900’s for a quick weight loss fix. Imagine trying that fad diet!

To sustain long term weight loss, improve internal health, emphasize wellness, and maintain a healthy weight, the focus should be on sustainable lifestyle changes. Sustainable lifestyle change involves slow changes to exercise and dietary habits and behaviors. But this is hard. Which is why people often look to quick fixes. Fad diets definitely miss the mark on the health aspect. I always encourage people to think less about their outward appearance and more about their inner health. Focus on improving your health, quality of life, and longevity. If you only focus on the outward physical aspects of changing eating and exercise habits, you will make poor choices and fall off the wagon really quickly.

FM: I know that when I decide to lose weight, usually as a New Year’s resolution, I tend to start dieting and exercising at the same time.  I’m working out harder so I get even more hungry and end up quitting one of the two plans or both.  Is there a way to avoid this?  Maybe more smaller meals, drinking more water?

MM: This is really common. As you ramp up exercise your metabolic rate increases and you may find yourself extra hungry. Plus, you are now burning more calories than you used to. There are definitely strategies to help combat the hunger. You mentioned two great strategies: smaller meals spaced throughout the day and drinking plenty of water. Ensure your meals and snacks have protein, fat and fiber. All three help with satiety, or keeping you feeling full for longer. A great example would be instead of just eating an apple for a mid-morning snack, eat an apple with peanut or almond butter. Or an apple with some cheese. The apple is a source of carbohydrates and fiber, the peanut butter has protein and fat as does the cheese.

Another tip is if you feel hungry, before grabbing for a snack, drink a glass of water. If you feel satisfied after this, skip the snack. If you are still hungry then proceed to eat something. Lastly, do some meal and snack planning and prep work. Make the healthy snacks easy and quick to access so when those hunger pangs hit, you will be making healthy food choices. For those with a typical Monday-Friday work schedule, doing your meal prep on the weekends can be a real asset to making healthy food choices throughout the busy week.

Also, make sure you are eating enough. This may seem counter-intuitive but cutting calories too much when you ramp up exercise can inhibit the benefits of exercise (a goal of exercise is muscle building; if you cut too many calories your body will not have adequate nutrition for muscle building and you may actually break down muscle tissue) AND also post exercise recovery (which is critical to being able to sustain consistent exercise multiple days a week).

FM: I focus on hiking here so more specifically to that, are there risks to having a low carb or low protein diet and then going on a 15 mile hike or hiking up a severe elevation gain?

MM: That is a great question. Let’s start with a brief explanation of energy metabolism. At rest we are typically burning fat as fuel. During moderate intensity exercise we burn a mixture of carbohydrates and fat as fuel. The fat comes mainly from our adipose tissue, or fat stores, and the carbohydrates come from either our carbohydrate stores within liver or muscle tissue or from converted fat or protein. As your exercise intensity increases, so does the need for carbohydrates as fuel. A full out sprint will burn mostly carbohydrates. A slow walk will burn mostly fats.

Let’s start with low protein diets and endurance activities. Protein is the building block of our muscles, organs, cells, tissues, etc. Interestingly, when looking at athletes, endurance athletes actually have the highest protein needs. Even greater than body builders. Endurance activities cause a lot of damage to the body, specifically to your muscle tissue. To repair this damage you need protein. Inadequate protein intake can lead to reduced ability to recover from exercise and can lead to a breakdown of protein from muscle tissue to preserve protein for more essential needs (e.g. cellular functions). Inadequate protein can also leave you feeling sick. Breaking down muscle and feeling sick are not ideal on a 15 mile hike.

As for low carb diets, yes and no. In general, low carb diets can lead to fatigue, dizziness, weakness, brain fog, etc., all of which you don’t want to experience on a 15 mile hike. Additionally, if your body is not adapted to a low carb diet, protein from muscle tissue can be broken down during exercise. There is a lot of interest in low carb diets. The ketogenic (keto) diet is probably the most popular low carb diet currently. The keto diet is a high fat and very low carb diet. If you follow a true keto diet, your body will slowly adapt to burning more fat as fuel (only after you go through the painful adaptation period known as the “keto flu”).

The body is efficient and smart. If you throw mainly fat at it, it will burn more fat. So if you have adapted to the keto diet, you may not experience the ill effects of low carbs on your hike. But this diet is questionable long term. First, little evidence (I have scoured the research) supports that this diet does anything to improve endurance performance, second, long term use of this diet could lead to abnormal cholesterol levels and even fatty liver, and last, it can be detrimental to really important microbes that live in our guts.

Finally, my prior research has looked at associations between diet and changes in lean body mass in backpackers participating in 30 day expeditions. We found that both inadequate carbohydrate and inadequate protein intake was associated with a loss of lean body mass. A goal of exercise is to sustain or build lean body mass, so this was counter-intuitive.

FM:  Assuming I decided to do a fad diet, or just have a poor diet overall (see again my food section), Are there warning signs that my body is not functioning well?  For instance, I have heard that if you workout and smell an ammonia smell it means your body is actually burning muscle for energy, any truth to this?

MM: The warning sign you are talking about, the smell of ammonia, means your body is in ketosis. Ketosis is a state where your body is breaking down protein and this breakdown produces ammonia. This would be an extreme case of protein breakdown. The protein you are breaking down could be coming from muscle tissue and even your organ tissue. Other less severe warning signs could include things discussed in the last question: fatigue, dizziness, brain fog, weakness, etc.

FM: Exercise can cause inflammation in the body but food can as well, what are some foods that cause or increase inflammation and what are some that can help with exercise induced inflammation?

MM: This is a great question! I love talking about inflammation. First of all, inflammation gets a bad rap far too often. Inflammation is not always a bad thing. For example, the inflammatory response after exercise leads to beneficial adaptations within your body. So we don’t want to totally squash, what I call, this “acute” inflammation, or short term inflammatory response. For example, if you take ibuprofen (an anti-inflammatory) within 24 or so hours post exercise, you can actually inhibit the beneficial adaptations of exercise.

What is more concerning is “chronic” or long term inflammation that can be cause by things like: air pollution, poor diet, sedentary behavior, smoking, excessive drinking, exposure to environmental toxins, and even excessive exercise. That is the type of inflammation we are trying to combat. I like to say “keep it real” when it comes to food. Real foods (think whole foods, less pre-made products), with plenty of plants (fruits, veggies, grains, legumes), is a key to reducing chronic inflammation that may be associated with lifestyle diseases.

Another thing I recommend is paying attention to ingredients. Don’t over analyze, but do pay attention. There is some research indicating that artificial additives may negatively affect the microbes in our gut. When we have healthy microbes in the gut, we have less inflammation in the body. Look for products with fewer ingredients, more ingredient names you can pronounce, and overall the more simple product.

FM:  Anything else you would like to tell the readers that I didn’t know to ask?

MM: Focus on slowly changing dietary habits. Give your palate and body time to adjust. Be kind to yourself. And most importantly, always, always, always remember that food is meant to be enjoyed. As a society we tend to go to extremes: extreme dieting, extreme over eating, extreme under eating, and more recently an extreme focus on healthy eating. Making healthy choices is important, but don’t obsess over every little thing you eat. Indulge once in a while. Make the majority of your food choices healthy and then live a little! Celebrate the wonderful gift that food is.

Wow, Melissa thank you so much. So much good information here. I think it is so important to have information like this on how to fuel your body and what your body is looking for when you start an exercise program. I also really like how many times you said I asked good questions!

Remember to check out the entire “Getting Started” series on my Thoughts page if you are looking for even more information like this. If you have questions or ideas for a future blog feel free to email me at Fatmanlittletrails@gmail.com. You can also connect with me on any of the below social media platforms. Happy Hiking!

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