This article in a nutshell: Asymptotic Nutrition approach will tell you which caloric intake to permanently adopt, so that you can reach your target weight, and food culture will help you eat at that caloric level without explicitly counting calories.
Asymptotic Nutrition is all about avoiding any sort of weight loss or weight gain diets, and instead focusing just on a maintenance diet, the one that will, according to the Asymptotic Nutrition principle lead to your desired weight regardless of what your current weight is. If your weight is too low, it will lead to a weight gain, if your weight is too high it will lead to a weight loss. Eventually when you reach your target weight it will cause you to maintain it.
Asymptotic Nutrition principle states: “One should always consume as many calories each day as their energy needs WOULD BE at their target body weight with their average level of activity.” (You can calculate your caloric needs at your desired weight using some online calculators, as explained here.)
We can expand the asymptotic nutrition principle so that it allows for the alternative possibility – increasing your activity levels. Then it would say the following:
“One should always consume as many calories each day as their energy needs WOULD BE at their target body weight with their average level of activity OR modify their activity level so that they equalize their current calorie intake with the energy needs at their target body weight.“
Ideally both ways should be combined, increasing activity a bit, and lowering calories a bit, as a permanent shift, not as a temporary intervention.
So, all you need to do to start using Asymptotic Nutrition approach, is to find your ideal weight, and then calculate what your calorie needs would be at that weight, given your activity levels (current or planned). Then you adopt this calorie intake level as your permanent way of eating and eventually, this weight will become your actual weight. I recommend using your current activity levels in this calculation, because significantly increasing your activity levels, while strongly recommended, is easier said than done.
So this is the theory. In practice it can mean 2 things: either daunting calorie counting, so that you’re always near your target calorie intake levels, or developing a food culture, that would naturally shift your calorie intake in right direction even without the need for explicit calorie counting.
My choice lies in developing a food culture.
I use this term on purpose. This is because “a diet” and even “nutrition” have become sort of dirty words, associated with unhappy people desperate in their attempts to lose weight or get their eating under control. I use it also because “diet” and “nutrition” imply conscious interventions in what you eat, in other words it implies messing with your eating habits.
Culture, on the other hand, implies something that is given, something that we naturally and often unconsciously do, without much effort – culture is simply a function of belonging to a certain society and adopting its customs and ways to do things. In countries with strong traditions and social cohesion, there often exists certain predominant food culture, and people who adhere to it are rarely overweight or obese. This is because the culture gives you a structure, and even a meaning and leaves little room for deviations, which are often the cause of excess. So in today’s world, when our food culture is often scattered and hard to find, we need to develop or redefine certain cultural beliefs and practices when it comes to food, that would lead to a healthier and more moderate eating habits and caloric intakes that lead to healthy equilibrium body mass levels.
For most people, using asymptotic nutrition principle would in practice simply mean permanently lowering your average daily caloric intake by approximately 200-500 calories, as this is often the difference between your current caloric intake level that lead you to your current weight, and the caloric intake level that would lead you to your ideal weight. As an example, you can see different caloric intake levels for a lightly active 180 cm tall, 35 year old man, and equilibrium weights that these caloric intakes lead to:
So in this example, given that your average activity level remains the same, all you need to do to move from weighing 100 kg, to 75 kg, is to permanently lower your caloric intake from 2688 calories per day to 2344 calories per day. This is 344 calories of difference. If you increase your activity levels, this difference will be even smaller.
Of course the weight loss will not happen overnight, as asymptotically approaching your target weight is a slow process, that can take a year or more. But making such a shift, unlike many popular diets, is a permanent and sustainable solution. It’s important to know that when you reach 75 kg, you need to keep eating at 2344 calorie per day level. If you switch back to your old caloric intake level, so will your weight return to previous levels.
Now, food culture is there to help you eat at those healthier caloric intake levels, without the need for calorie counting. Also food culture should help you develop a different mentality, a healthier, balanced and sustainable food mentality where health promotion and weight regulation, should just come naturally and not be your main focus.
In fact, food itself should not be your main focus in life. Food should be a pleasure, a treat and a fuel to sustain you. Food culture should be something that you simply do, because that’s how it goes… Like when you brush your teeth, you don’t think much about it, you simply do it, because it’s something you’re supposed to do. We should perhaps develop a similar sense of duty and obligation when it comes following a food culture, or making right food choices.
There’s something to be said about guilt. We should never feel guilty in a way that some people feel when they eat too much, or break a diet, etc… Their guilt is usually connected to feeling that they will get fat, that their efforts are in vain etc. Eating is not about efforts or goals. You should just eat in a civilized way, not use food to reach some goals. If the culture you’re following is sane, the good outcomes will follow anyway.
We should have a different type of guilt. Any time we deviate from cultured ways of eating we should have the same type of guilt that a child feels when they do something wrong or break some rule. Eating cake before dinner is wrong because it’s wrong… It should be a culturally ingrained belief. It’s not wrong because you’ll get fat. It’s wrong because all the cultures in the world say that cake is not supposed to be eaten before dinner. Deviating from these old ways, time tested ways, is one of the reasons not only of obesity, but of generally unhealthy relationship with food that we can develop.
Now to say develop a food culture, it’s easy. To actually do it, in a society that gives us very little guidance, and which often gives us bad guidance – it’s hard.
Here, I will try to make a sketch, contrasting some of my old (and unhelpful) beliefs about food, with some new attitudes that I am trying to develop. But in the end, you’ll have to make your own food culture, or alternatively you can try to emulate some of the traditional food cultures, that are time tested and proven to lead to healthier weight and better health outcomes. These include Mediterranean Diet, French Diet, some Asian Diets, Nordic Diet, etc… (where “diet” simply means “way of eating”, not any kind of weight loss regimen). The tricky part is to find reputable, authentic sources on these ways of eating, and adapting them to your situation (which is often totally different from the environment in which these ways of eating were originally employed).
So here’s my sketch:
As you can see, I am still a bit confused myself, when it comes to developing a food culture, that would naturally lead to both healthier food choices, and lower total caloric intake. It is quite difficult to do, especially if you lack good habits that you should have ideally acquired in your childhood, from having good examples in your family. If your whole family eats in chaotic ways, it’s difficult for you to come up with a more structured, cultured ways of eating.
But still, my main point is that we should try to move away from dietetic and nutritional goals, and towards cultural goals, that is developing an eating culture that will, of course, also happen to be healthy. If I could sum it all up in one sentence, I would give this advice: “Eat in a way that would make you happy if your kids copied you”.
We all want the best to our kids. So if you can eat in a way that sets a good example (and intuitively you will know what that is) then you’re on the right track.
Even if you don’t have kids, it’s good to try to develop such culture and attitudes, because one day, you might have them, and you will want to be a good example, so that your instruction that you give them isn’t just empty words.
Even if you never have kids, developing a food culture is a good thing, not only because it’s a health promoting behavior, but also because of the social contagion phenomenon. Did you know that when one person quits smoking, the likelihood that their friends will do the same increases? The same thing applies to food choices and many other things.
One thing I want to add about food culture: IMO it should be inclusive of ALL food groups and ALL types of food. Even the junk food. Because food culture is not about dividing foods into clean and dirty, good or bad. All the food is good, and perhaps even sacred. Because even the “worst” junk food can save your life if you’re starving.
Food culture is about internalizing certain rules and attitudes, so that without much thinking and effort you eat in approximately optimal ways, that are healthy, and adequate when it comes to quantities. So it’s about knowing when it is time for veggies and when it is time for cake. It’s all about growing up, and eating as a responsible adult person. It’s about becoming more conscientious in one aspect of your life, the one related to food. The more automatic it becomes, the better, because we really should not make food the main focus of our lives. There are so many things in this life, eating should be something we do on autopilot, while we focus on more interesting pursuits. Food culture is all about programming that autopilot in a correct way, so that what you automatically do contributes to your health, and not your disease.
For this reason, people in certain societies, those where prevailing food customs and culture is healthy are really the lucky ones. French people, for example, enjoy their food, they have an excellent naturally developed food culture. They are not food obsessed. They have better things to do in their life. They don’t follow this or that diet. Yet still the very culture that they belong to, has programmed them towards good choices when it comes to food. Their caloric intake from food is usually at a level that leads to a healthy equilibrium weight, and their choices are typically promoting health and longevity.
So in the end, if your parents haven’t thought you some basic rules about food culture, perhaps you need to find a French friend, who will teach you their ways. Or perhaps, you can try to emulate some of your friends you believe have good eating habits, or someone who comes from a family where good eating habits are deeply ingrained, and passed from one generation to the next. Unfortunately such families are not very common these days, but they do exist, and they can serve as good examples.