Calorie restriction and maintenance
You know–everyone knows–the most basic idea behind losing weight. EAT LESS. It’s the same idea behind maintaining your weight to keep from re-gaining the weight you lost or to keep from gaining new weight. At its most basic, and as the name implies, the Portion Fix eating plans give you a specific target for controlling your portion sizes. Based on your current weight and whether you are trying to maintain it or reduce it, they give you a calorie target and tell you how much food to eat so you hit that calorie target, more or less, on most days–without having to actually do the math. And since weight fluctuations are relatively slow, they respond to the average number of calories you eat, so it really doesn’t matter if you eat a little more or a little less on any given day. Both the standard Portion Fix and the vegan plan operate on this basic principle.
Eating ‘whole’ foods
Secondly, you get a list of foods that are ‘allowed’ on these plans. While the lists themselves are limited to fit on a sheet of paper, in reality the lists are very common sense and can be much longer, since they include virtually every kind of fruit, vegetable, grain, and legume, in existence. Plus if you eat animal products, they include most relatively lean animal products, too. When you take all of that into account, the plans are not restrictive, they are just limiting you to the stuff that humans are supposed to eat at least 90% of the time.
- Overly processed foods. Just the act of chopping and applying heat to your food is also a form of processing, but eating processed packaged foods comes with a host of health risks, many of which are not yet understood. Among them are the creation of higher glycemic index foods with less fiber, which spike your blood sugar, the addition of preservatives that may not be entirely safe for frequent consumption, and chemical changes that may create harmful substances such as trans fats, which are created by partially hydrogenating oils.
- High fat animal products. Butter still gets a place on the list, but the amount you can consume per day is pretty limited. Cream cheese isn’t specifically listed, though you could also eat it if you limited your portion and accounted for all that saturated fat. Bacon from pigs is not on the list. Cheese is on the list (if you’re not vegan), but for the most part they specify ‘part-skim’.
- Empty calories. That means refined sugars and refined complex carbohydrates like white rice, white bread, etc.
When someone says ’empty calories’, what you probably think about is that you’re getting more calories than you need, and that can contribute to obesity. That’s all true, but it’s only half of the story. Putting aside for a moment the many health hazards of refined carbs, empty calories are a big deal for one really important reason: they displace the non-empty calories.
It’s true that if you are eating girl scout cookies (for example), you’ll probably be tempted to overeat, because sugar sort of hot-wires your brain into telling you that you’re not full yet. But while these kinds of foods don’t help you feel full as effectively as a healthy meal would, they do contribute to you feeling full. And when you eat a bunch of sugar and refined carbs, even if you overeat, you are going to eat LESS healthy foods. There’s no getting around that.
That’s the other side of ’empty calories’. You’re not just getting too many calories, you’re also not getting enough nutrients. I’m talking about macronutrients, specifically protein and fiber (junk food will probably have you covered on the other two that you need, fat and carbs), and micronutrients, as in vitamins and minerals. You need all of them to stay healthy, and if the vast majority of what you eat isn’t nutrient-rich, you might not be getting enough of them.
The last piece is the macro ratios. Fitness people aim for specific percentages of their calories from each macro, because it helps change your body composition.
If you want to lose fat, you COULD just do endless cardio to burn calories and then eat less to avoid replenishing them, but you’d be super hungry and cranky all the time and eventually you’d give in, eat like a pig, and gain all the weight back.
Or, you can raise your metabolism by increasing your muscle mass. Muscle is some dense, metabolically demanding stuff. (It’s also made up of cells that don’t answer to insulin, which is fantastic if you have developed any insulin resistance–as most overweight people have.) When you have more muscle, you burn more calories just sitting there, and eventually your body will start using up fat tissue to meet those demands.
But to build the muscle, you have to be getting enough protein in your diet. If you’re also trying to lose weight and so you’re restricting calories, that’s tricky, because it comes at the expense of your other major macros, fats and carbs (fiber has so few calories that people don’t really think about it when balancing macros). But you still need fats and carbs for your body to function well, so it can be a delicate balance.
The color-coded containers
Pretty much any food you’ve ever eaten is made up of more than one of your macros. So that means, if you’re counting your macros so you can target a specific balance, you’re basically counting 4 things for each food item that goes down the hatch: total calories, calories from fat, calories from carbs, AND calories from protein.
If that sounds like a super fun forever-activity that you want to do for every single meal and snack you eat until you die, then… congratulations on your successful accounting career, I guess?
Anyway, Portion Fix attempts to simplify this by having you count each food by the primary macro it contains. So for example, here’s more information than you probably want to know about avocados:
You’ll notice that an avocado has more calories than you ever dreamed, and that those calories are made up of 29 grams of fat, 17 grams of carbs (most of which is actually just fiber), and 4 grams of protein. With the Portion Fix plan, you would take all that information, summarily ignore it, and count your avocado portion as a serving of fat. Because, you know, it’s MOSTLY fat and that’s honestly close enough.
Much like with the calories, you don’t need to be obsessively exact with these things.
The standard (meat-eating) Portion Fix plan
The macro breakdown for the standard plan is, very roughly, 40% of calories from carbs, 30% from fat, and 30% from protein.
Do you actually need to get 30% of your calories from protein for the purpose of building muscle? Hell no. This plan is giving you more protein than you can use. Why? Because by eating a higher proportion of your calories from protein, and a lower proportion from carbs, this macro balance helps you change your body composition faster and lose fat faster.
The vegan plan
If you’re actually eating as a vegan, the macro breakdown for the vegan plan is, very roughly, 50% of calories from carbs, 25% from fat, and 25% from protein.
Does that 25% give you enough protein for the purpose of building muscle? Uh yeah, yeah it does. If you don’t believe me, feel free to google pictures of vegan bodybuilders. Then shield your eyes from all that glorious lumpiness.
So if you’re not getting that extra protein at the expense of carbs, will you lose weight more slowly on the vegan plan? NOPE. Because you have a different advantage: you are getting tons more fiber than you would on the standard plan. Tons of fiber is also an effective tool for weight loss.
So which one works best?
Nice try. They both work. If you’re not losing or maintaining weight in one of these plans, it’s because of other factors, such as eating in the wrong calorie bracket, or a damaged metabolism from years of yo-yo dieting, or astronomical stress hormone levels from sleep deprivation and/or STRESS.
But why are the macro balances different?
Well, that goes back to the avocado. You counted it as a source of fat, but it also had a bit of protein and carbs.
When you eat on the regular plan, most of the foods you are counting as proteins, are animal products. Even lean meat, skim and part-skim dairy products, all have a lot of fat. That means when you try to raise the amount of protein in your diet, your fat intake will come up, too. Remember, you end up at about 40 carbs : 30 fats : 30 protein.
Meanwhile when you eat on the vegan plan, the foods you are counting as proteins are all (if you’re vegan) or mostly (if you’re vegetarian/flex/etc.) plant-based. Compared to meat and dairy, plant based protein sources are low in fat, high in fiber, AND high in carbohydrates. So when you try to raise the amount of protein in your diet, your carb intake will come up, too. This lands you at 50 carbs : 25 fats : 25 protein.
One more thing: your proteins are full of carbs, but also your carbs are full of protein. The vegan plan has you eating most of your primary carb foods from whole grains. That’s because most legumes, while high in protein overall, don’t contain all of our essential amino acids. And most of our grains, while relatively lower in protein, are hiding those missing amino acids. So when we combine grains with legumes, we get a complete amino acid profile (a complete protein). No you don’t have to eat them at the same time, your body knows what’s up, it’ll take what it needs when you eat it.
So if both plans are equally effective, why am I on the vegan plan?
Pretty sure you can answer that. Pretty sure it has something to do with some combination of animal welfare and environmental impact. I could talk about it for ages, but you don’t need me for this.
There are also some hidden advantages to being on the vegan plan, which I will talk about at some point, but that’s a whole different story!
pictured: Asian cucumber sesame salad.