The two kinds of dieters

I usually hate statements to the effect that there are two kinds of people in the world.  Such  declarations tend to be reductive at best, and outright false at worst.

That said, my experience- as well as the experience of other fitness coaches I know- has shown that almost everyone really does fall pretty neatly into one of two categories when it comes to dieting.  I mean what am I supposed to do, lie about it? 

Anyway, one of the biggest debates you’ll see coming up over and over in the fitness world is whether people should count calories or not.  And the answer is…it depends.  It depends on your personality, your relationship with food, and your body’s response to hunger. 

John Romaniello refers to these two types of dieters as freedom dieters and rules dieters.  I don’t like that terminology, because they both have rules to follow, and they both have a fair amount of freedom.  The difference is in which aspect of the diet they have strict rules for- what to eat, or how much to eat.

Instead, I call them quantity dieters and food type dieters.  Those aren’t very creative names, but as you’ll see, they describe exactly what each type of person responds to. 

Quantity dieters

Quantity dieters are the people who do well counting calories and macros.  They tend to do best on “If It Fits Your Macros” (IIFYM) type diets where diet targets are expressed as calories and grams of macronutrients. 

A macros-based diet might be something like “On workout days, eat 2400 calories, with the macro breakdown being 30% protein, 50% carbs, and 20% fat.  On non-workout days, eat 1800 calories at 35% protein, 25% carbs, and 40% fat.”  For a more detailed example of how this can look in practice, check out this article by John Romaniello.

This gives them a tremendous amount of flexibility regarding what they can eat.  Donuts and soda are totally allowed on an IIFYM diet, at least in small amounts.  In fact, in theory you could meet your macros on just soda, donuts and protein powder.

That does raise a few potential flaws in this approach.  Eating junk food that isn’t very filling might force you to contend with hunger.  Living off junk food in moderation- a la the Twinkie Diet, might fit your macros and lead to you reaching a healthy weight, while still being unhealthy in spite of it. 

As such, IIFYM diets do need to have a few rules about what to eat, even if it’s just “have vegetables with at least 3 meals a day” or something like that. 

Food type dieters

Whereas quantity dieters focus on hitting macro targets and can eat anything they want, food type dieters have strict rules about what they can eat, but very few rules about how much they can eat.

A typical food type diet might be something like “Eat meat and vegetables with every meal.  Never eat starches or processed foods or drink liquid calories.  Beans, lentils or sweet potatoes are optional.”  A great example of this approach is Tim Ferriss’s Slow-Carb Diet.    

Of course, it is possible to overeat even with strict rules about what you’re eating, so food type diets usually do have some quantity guidelines- but they’ll be expressed in terms of volume rather than grams or calories, and often will be very approximate.  For instance, “Have at least a cup of vegetables, an amount of meat about the size of your hand, no more than a teaspoon of added fats, and no more than a cup of beans.” 

A good food type diet, properly followed, will get you into excellent shape.  Unlike a quantity-based diet, it doesn’t leave much possibility of eating the right number of calories while not getting the vitamins and minerals you need. 

It does, however, allow the possibility that you’ll get fat by eating too much healthy food, which is why food type diets usually have some quantity guidelines, and focus on having you eat food that’s very filling, calorie for calorie. 

How to find out which kind of dieter you are

Now, it is possible for someone who’s sufficiently disciplined to succeed on either type of diet.  Personally, I’m a food type dieter, but I’ve had some success this year following a macros-based diet too.  But why make it hard on yourself?  Here are a few questions to ask yourself to figure out which style is likely to work better for you.

Do I like rules in general?  If you’re someone who does better with a lot of rules and structure in their life, you’ll probably do better counting calories and macros.  Food type diets tend to work better for people who take a “just wing it” approach to life.

Do you eat out a lot?  Quantity-based diets really suck for eating out, and you can end up being forced to estimate calories instead of counting them.  And people suck at estimating calories.  Food type diets have a clear advantage here, although they do force you to eat something healthy instead of sharing those nachos your friends ordered.

How hungry do you get?  Most food type diets allow you to eat whenever you’re hungry, but that means they rely on your sense of hunger to guide your eating behavior.  If you get hungry too easily, or your hunger doesn’t quickly go away when you eat, food type diets won’t work very well for you, unless your trying to gain weight.

Do you eat for reasons other than hunger?  Again, because food type diets rely on your sense of hunger to guide you, they assume you’re actually eating because of hunger.  If you eat for distraction, or comfort, or have any kind of emotional relationship with food, you have to count calories.  It may seem like you could follow a “no eating unless you’re hungry” rule, but the problem here is that your emotional attachment to food may manifest as sensations of hunger- or you may just lie to yourself and pretend you’re physically hungry in order to justify eating.  Emotional eaters need to count calories, period. 

Am I good at self-tracking?  Quantity diets require you to do some record-keeping, so they work better if you’re good at tracking the stuff you do.  If you’re the kind of person who can’t be bothered to keep records of their workouts, for instance, calorie counting is going to be tough.

Am I okay with limited variety?  Quantity diets allow a lot more variety in what you eat than food type diets do.  Food type dieters will typically eat the same breakfast every day, and rotate between 2-4 lunches, allowing themselves a bit more variety for dinner.  Quantity diets allow far more variety, as long as it fits your macros.

Which kind of rules am I better at following?  Ultimately, you can try both styles of dieting.  One thing I often have clients do is start out with moderately strict rules about both what to eat, and how much to eat.  Over time I’ll look at which of those two sets of rules they followed more consistently.  Then I’ll make the rules they were good at following stricter, while relaxing the type of rules they were worse at following. 

If you’re still not sure which group you fall into, here’s an experiment you can run.  Follow both Tim Ferriss’s slow-carb diet and Roman’s recomp macros, at the same time, for 1-2 weeks.  Take not of which set of rules is harder for you- is it harder to count macros, or harder to stick to the designated food groups? 

When you try to follow both types of rules at once, you’ll know within a week or two which kind of dieter you are.  Once you do, commit to that style of dieting and stick to it for life.  Don’t follow a macros diet if you’re a food type dieter.  Don’t follow a food type diet if you’re a macros person. 

One of the biggest reasons people fail at dieting is because they pick the wrong kind of diet for themselves.  You no longer have an excuse to make that mistake.  Figure out what kind of dieter you are, and stick with that dieting style.