Diet Palatability and Adherence
By Marcus Seidel
I believe it goes without saying that diets require discipline. If you want results you’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone. Whether it’s fighting hormonally driven urges from a caloric deficit making you hungry or a surplus making you constantly full, you’re going to have to avoid what’s comfortable in order to change your physique. The biggest missing piece in literature for “which diet method is best” is the study of adherence. The BIGGEST downfall to the success of ALL diets is lack of adherence to said diet. They all suck if you don’t follow them. There are very small but well documented case studies that show adherence to diets increases when food is less palatable or flavorful. I can confidently say that I’ve found it to be overwhelmingly true of myself and many clients over the years. The longer you go avoiding the cravings, the less desirable they become and the more desirable “boring” foods get.
If you’re reading this and have gone through a strenuous contest prep you can relate to absolutely salivating at the thought of plain oatmeal or plain grilled chicken breast. If you were sprinkling in pop tarts every now and then as a carb source I imagine that feeling wouldn’t quite be the same.
Over the past several years there have been a lot of people touting IIFYM as the revolutionary diet strategy that has created the only way to adhere to a diet and still get results…but you have to make sure to get enough micronutrients and fiber and you have to be diligent about tracking everything you eat because if you come out of your caloric deficit by miscalculating your macros it still wont work…In other words, to do it correctly, you’re going to diet exactly the same way everyone else always has but you might get one cookie at lunch and a half slice of pizza at dinner while constantly getting a calculator out to figure out what will and wont fit in your numbers. I think we can all already see some issues here. The bigger issue is that sprinkling in foods that we crave in small amounts increases palatability which makes you more likely to “look the other way” on yourself when that half slice of pizza turns into 4 slices. Adherence would seem to be easier on paper because you’re not avoiding cravings but rather just limiting them. Unfortunately, for a vast majority of people this isn’t going to work. Admittedly, it works for some people and to those people I say congrats. You might be one of those people and might be capable of getting equally shredded eating froyo as you would eating sweet potatoes. I will also say, those people would probably have a less stressful time accomplishing those results by eating traditional “healthy foods” in a somewhat repetitive nature.
This brings me to my next point, which is, “how many food choices you should use.” Well, there really is no answer to this question but I believe you should throw some variety in the food sources but make sure you’re being intuitive about it. To use myself as an example, for protein I’ll use anything from egg whites/whole eggs, whey, various lean red meats, ground turkey, chicken breast, various fish, even occasionally pork tenderloin. Within those options I’ll even occasionally combine a couple options like egg whites with steak chunks or mixing liquid egg whites with a scoop of whey protein to make a protein pancake. Right there you have numerous options and the macros are all very similar per unit measured so there’s very little stress tracking things. For carbs I use oats, rice cakes, various types of rice and various types of potatoes. There are plenty of other options here but I don’t stray from these. My diet typically doesn’t include much added fat but there are numerous quality fat sources that don’t include chicken wings and ranch dressing. To list a few: Avocado, nuts, nut butters, olive oil, MCT/Coconut oil, etc. The objective is to stick to things within these “healthy” or “high quality” options that you enjoy enough to stay consistent with it. You might get tired of chicken breast after a while. That’s ok because you can easily switch it to ground turkey without having to carry your TI-84 from high school math class around to make sure you don’t go over your protein numbers. More importantly, you’re eating a quality protein source that you enjoy enough to follow without being tempted to binge on it. This concept can be said for any of those options. It’s easy to substitute back and forth between these types of options when you get sick of something so you’re not suffering constantly to get down meals you cant stand. Replacing these types of foods with your favorite foods that you crave will just make you crave much higher amounts of those foods and increase the likelihood that you’ll just throw the diet out the window altogether.
Again, I’m not speaking as a matter of fact here and have no hard data to support these claims. I do however, have years of anecdotal experience both with myself and several hundred clients in addition to case studies where these things are considered. There’s certainly no data to support the fact that increasing palatability in your diet makes adherence higher so I’m going to go with my own evidence and feel perfectly confident recommending it to others. While we’re on the topic of anecdotes I will bring up the converse. I’ve attempted to use the general IIFYM guidelines with a handful of clients in their offseason and have never had success with it. The complaint always ends up being “too much work tracking everything I want to fit in the numbers,” and “Once I tried fitting ______ into my diet it was impossible to stop myself from eating more of it.” After all, if you give a recovering drug addict a small amount of their drug of choice, what do you think is going to happen? It also decreased their mental accountability to the diet. They thought because they were able to fit anything into their numbers that they could just eat more of it without tracking the numbers on days they were busy or just feeling a little lazy and because there was nothing specific to adhere to no one would notice.
It’s been long understood that thermodynamics is king. You must consume less than you expend to lose weight or consume more than you expend to gain weight. Within those parameters, protein needs to be equated for muscle recovery and assimilation purposes but for the most part, the total number of calories will ultimately determine what is going to happen with your body. At the end of the day, the point is to find a way of getting those calories that’s going to be optimal for your adherence. Every diet method sucks if you don’t follow it. Coming from a place of experience and some basic logic, keeping palatability relatively low with quality foods you still enjoy will take a lot of the stress out of dieting and increase your ability to stay consistent without being miserable.