Five of the best ways to lose weight and burn fat

Should you keep track of calories or macros? Cut fat or cut carbs? Eat twice as much protein as you should? Triple? Maybe just give yourself a protein shake through an IV?

Really, it shouldn’t be that hard to figure out which eating plan will burn fat and keep muscle. The International Society of Sports Nutrition just put out a position paper that looks at all the scientific studies that have been done and tells you how each diet will change your body composition. Here, we’ve taken five of the best diets for getting a six-pack and summed up why they’re great and why they might be right (or wrong) for you, based on the facts.

1. A low-calorie diet is only eating between 800 and 1,200 calories a day:

Pros: The only reason to limit your daily calories and push the limits of sanity is to lose weight as quickly as possible, and the study says it works while keeping as much lean muscle mass as possible.

Cons: From what we’ve seen, putting a low limit on how many calories you can eat will likely cause you a lot of inner conflict and stress. Also, we like to enjoy food instead of being afraid of it, and 800 calories doesn’t leave much room for taste buds to be happy. Lastly, if you eat double or triple this amount of food every day, dropping to this low of a daily caloric intake can hurt your metabolism and make it harder to lose weight than switching to one of these other diets might. (Curious? Here’s why you won’t lose weight if you don’t eat.)

2. A low-fat diet means that only 20–30% of your daily calories come from fat. The other 80–70% come from protein and carbs, with carbs being the main source:

Pros: The Institute of Medicine recommends a low-fat diet (or a high-carb diet, depending on how you look at it), which is based on the idea that cutting back on the macronutrient with the most calories will help you eat less overall. And studies do show that switching to a low-fat diet can help you lose body fat quickly, but not necessarily for the long term.

Cons: This way of eating keeps alive the old idea that eating fat is bad for body fat. And it’s not always better than other ways of eating: In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared high-protein, normal-protein, high-fat, and low-fat diets and found that at six months and two years, there was no significant difference in the amount of fat loss between the groups (though all did result in some fat loss). Also, the low-fat group was supposed to only eat 20% of the macronutrient, but they actually ate more like 26-28%. This suggests that sticking to a strict low-fat diet is hard and may not be possible for most people.

3. A low-carb diet means getting 15–40% of your daily calories from carbs and 85–60% of your calories from fat and protein:

Pros: Studies show that switching to a low-carb diet can help you lose a lot more body fat than eating a traditional diet. If you limit carbs to 20% of your daily calories, you can lose even more weight and lower your risk of heart disease and stroke. Some research shows that low-carb diets are even better than low-fat diets: Annals of Internal Medicine published a study that showed people who cut back on carbs lost eight more pounds than those who cut back on fat. If you limit carbs enough, your body will learn to burn fat instead. Studies are mixed on how low-carb diets affect performance, but some evidence suggests that endurance performance can actually get better for people whose bodies get used to burning fat quickly.

Cons: It takes time to teach your body to burn fat instead of carbs. During the weeks it takes to become fat-adapted, you may feel tired and sluggish. And not every body burns fat as well as carbs, so your endurance may never measure up (though, as we said before, others actually see an improvement here.) Without carbs, your body’s ability to make explosive energy will probably go down, so if you love sprinting or HIIT, you might need to eat more carbs than other low-fat dieters. And while you’ll probably lose body fat, this kind of diet keeps you focused on the wrong macro: Studies have shown that it is the higher protein count of a low-carb diet, not the lower carb count, that helps people lose weight.

4. Ketogenic diet:

How it works: Less than 10% of daily calories come from carbs, 10–30% from protein, and 60–80% from fat.

Pros: Technically, the keto diet is a type of low-carb diet, but it is different: By not giving your body carbs, you not only force your body to become fat-adapted, but you also raise your levels of ketone bodies, which is a sign that your body is running on fat, if you don’t eat much protein. The keto diet puts your body into a special metabolic state called ketosis, in which your brain burns ketones instead of glucose. This is thought to help you think more clearly. Physically, the study’s analysis shows that eating so much fat makes it much easier for your body to burn body fat. Researchers have also found that keto athletes have a higher VO2 max and can lose fat without losing power or strength.

Cons: The same study that found the benefits of being a keto athlete also found that those same dieters had a lower exercise economy (how efficiently you use oxygen while moving). And while almost every other diet gives you some leeway in the macro range, eating a few too many grammes of carbs or protein will kick your body out of ketosis, so you have to be pretty dedicated to see the benefits of keto. Lastly, the low amount of protein you need to stay in ketosis may be stopping you here: A study published in Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases found that adding just 5% more protein to a keto diet tripled the amount of fat lost.

5. High-protein diet:

What it means: At least 25% of your daily calories should come from protein.

Pros: This is the diet that has the most consistent benefits. Study after study has shown that increasing your protein intake can help you lose a lot of body fat and build lean muscle. For instance: A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that guys who did sprint intervals, strength training, and ate 2.4g of protein per kg of bodyweight per day (about 1g per lb of bodyweight) gained 1.2kg of lean muscle and lost almost 5kg of fat in just four weeks. If you cut calories but eat a lot of protein, the macro can help keep your metabolism from dropping and keep you from feeling hungry because protein is so filling. The study’s analysis also showed that, contrary to myths, eating a lot of protein-rich foods doesn’t make you gain weight or hurt your body’s systems.

Cons: Since the focus is on protein, it’s easy to forget to eat enough fat or carbs to fuel your workouts, so keep an eye on your energy levels and other macros. That’s the only real bad thing about it. The only other problem that the study found was that eating a lot of protein makes you less hungry so well that it might make it harder for you to gain weight.

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