The Best 4-Week Diet Plan
We tried five diet plans – including high protein, whole foods, no alcohol and the 5:2 diet – for four weeks to work out which is best
If you’re looking to make a change for the better in the short space of a month, there are plenty of diet plans on offer. But while a month is a small amount of time in terms of changing your body, it can seem like an age when dealing with onerous eating rules. To see which change to the diet would prove the most effective and achievable, five writers at Coach’s sister title Men’s Fitness agreed to act as guinea pigs (which of course means the results were skewed by their individual choices – ahem, guy who drank 15 pints a week – so your experience may vary).
The writers tried a high-protein diet, eating nothing but whole foods, consuming nine portions of fruit and veg a day (not the official UK government guidelines, but recommended by many nutrition experts), cutting out alcohol, and the 5:2 intermittent fasting plan.
At the start and end of their 28-day stint, each writer underwent biometric tests at innovative data-based gym Speedflex, measuring weight, body fat, visceral fat, muscle mass, cholesterol and other key health indicators.
Not to spoil the suprise, but by far and away the biggest change was seen in the guy who cut out alcohol – his weight and visceral fat went down, while his body fat plummeted – and the experience seemed to scar him far less than his fellow dieters. He was never irritable from a lack of food or cramming foodstuffs down his gullet to make a daily target. That said, adherents to some of the other plans did see improvements by the end of the four weeks. Apart from the poor soul on the 5:2 diet. He put on weight.
The Diet: 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight a day
Almost every nutritionist we speak to recommends getting at least 2g of protein for every kilo of bodyweight if you’re an active adult. For me, this meant 150g a day, which I thought wouldn’t be too much bother. That was until I realised that even with a generous breakfast of eggs, a lunch of chicken and dinner of beef mince I rarely got above 100g.
I continued to do five training sessions a week (three strength, two cardio), and kept track of my protein intake with the MyFitnessPal app. To keep costs down I bought in bulk from musclefood.com (opens in new tab).
How I found it Even by increasing the amount of meat and shakes I was consuming, I still wasn’t getting enough protein so I had to look for other ways to hit my target. I swapped toast for porridge and biscuits for bananas slathered in peanut butter, and bulked up stews with high-protein pulses. But I was still short and ended up having to down a litre of milk before bed some nights.
After a week, I was so fed up I switched back to two shakes (BSN Syntha-6, which contains 22g of protein per shake) a day. The amount of food I was consuming meant I went to bed every night feeling horribly bloated.
The results In four weeks I gained 1.2kg of body mass, up from 76.3kg to 77.5kg, half of which was muscle. The good fats in the cashews, almonds and brazil nuts improved my HDL (“good”) cholesterol from 1.72mmol/L to 1.79mmol/L while cutting my “bad” LDL from 1.81mmol/L to so low it was unreadable. My body fat rose slightly from 8.6% to 8.8% and bone mineral content also improved. All in all, pretty impressive.
What I learned I’ve always struggled to gain weight regardless of how much I train, and these results clearly show it was my diet rather than my gym efforts that had been letting me down. I don’t want to depend on protein shakes, not least because of the cost, but I’ll certainly include protein-rich foods like nuts, almond butter and pulses on my shopping list from now on.–Sam Rider
The Diet: Nothing but whole foods
When I asked nutritionist Scott Baptie for advice on how to manage a whole foods diet, he recommended I eat foods made of one ingredient only, which meant they couldn’t have been tampered with. He also advised cutting out man-made protein powders (I could take creatine to boost my ability to handle intense workouts) and suggested taking vitamin D, cod liver oil and a multivitamin so I wasn’t left deficient in essential nutrients.
How I found it A royal pain in the arse. I mainly grab food on the go and discovered that pretty much all packaged cooked meats contain sugar, salt and other extras. I ended up eating only at dedicated whole-food cafés or being restricted to greens and raw salmon or crab when buying from supermarkets. Steering clear of booze wasn’t too bad, though, since I had lots of races on.
An average day would involve three eggs and salmon for breakfast, fruit and nuts for a morning snack, mackerel salad for lunch, porridge with peanut butter and banana for an afternoon snack, chicken breast, spinach and broccoli with olive oil for dinner and yoghurt with honey and creatine as a late-night snack. Oh, and five coffees a day with honey.
The results I went from 10.1% to 9.4% body fat and 34cm² to 31cm² visceral fat (the nasty kind around your organs that can cause osteoporosis, colon cancer and diabetes) and increased muscle mass from 44.6kg to 45kg while my overall weight dropped slightly. My HDL cholesterol went up from 0.82mmol/L to 1.46 mmol/L, while my LDL cholesterol remained safely low. The only minor negative was that the mineral content of my bones decreased slightly, possibly because my diet wasn’t varied enough.
What I learned I wasn’t eating nearly as healthily as I thought before I started the diet. My training didn’t change, I got the same amount of sleep and my stress levels stayed consistently high, so it’s clear my diet led to the physical changes. If I want to live a long, active life I should more or less stick to this regime, but to do so I need to plan my diet to guarantee I get all the nutrients I need and don’t get bored.–Nick Hutchings
The Diet: Nine portions of veg and fruit a day
Thanks to the Department of Health’s five-a-day campaign, there’s a common misconception that eating five portions of fruit and veg each day will deliver all the nutrients you need to live a long, healthy life. But Jacqui London of the British Dietetic Association says that’s the bare minimum if you want to stay healthy. “Many studies recommend seven portions for women and nine for men,” she says. “The government went with five because it thought no one would achieve nine.”
Other countries are more ambitious. Advice in France and Canada is to eat ten portions, while the Japanese government recommends 17. I thought I might struggle with that but was pretty sure I could hack nine. Most experts say that at least two-thirds of your daily intake should be from vegetables, with a substantial amount being leafy greens because of their superior heart-protecting, cancer-fighting properties. So that meant six vegetable portions and three pieces of fruit a day.
How I found it After three days of not getting enough fruit and veg during the day and having to gulp down a mountain of the stuff at 11pm, I realised I couldn’t do this unplanned. I needed to have one portion of veg with breakfast, two with lunch, two with dinner and one as a snack every day. Fruit I did in one go for breakfast. But no matter how I tweaked my diet, munching through six lots of vegetables a day wasn’t easy.
The results Mixed. The bad: my weight increased by a kilogram, my body fat went up by one percentage point and I lost almost half a kilo of muscle. The good: my bone mineral level climbed from 4.31 to 4.35, my glucose level fell from 5.22mmol/L to 4.86mmol/L and my HDL cholesterol rose from 0.81mmol/L to 1mmol/L. I didn’t really change my training much, but because of a busy social schedule I was drinking up to 15 pints a week, which probably skewed the results. A lot.
What I learned In order to stick to nine portions a day I’d need to hire a chef and nutritionist, neither of which I can afford. But I can definitely get more green veg in by thinking of it as valid snacking fare – raw broccoli with chilli sauce is delicious.–James Young
The Diet: No alcohol
Booze. It’s one of the biggest killers of man on the planet. According to the Office of National Statistics, it was directly responsible for 8,748 deaths in the UK in 2011. So it’s pretty terrifying that we – and I include myself here – are absolutely reliant on it in so many different situations, from oiling the cogs of romance to making Saturday nights in front of The X Factor a trifle less dreary.
So what could I expect if I cut it out for 28 days? “Your body composition should change substantially,” explained Speedflex physiologist and trainer Luke Copeland. “Alcohol is packed with fattening sugars and decreases testosterone, so by cutting it out you should lose fat and be able to go harder in the gym.” And because it’s a depressant, I should also be happier.
How I found it Being out with a bunch of mates who are all knocking back the pints while you’re on tap water and the occasional Coke is no fun, despite your potential physiological gains. And for four weeks that was the story of my weekends. As a big Welsh rugby fan, it was worst when the national team were playing. Nonetheless, I tapped into deep reserves of willpower I wasn’t sure I had and stayed off the beer – and when not around drinkers I did feel happier, cleaner and stronger.
The strangest thing about the challenge was finishing. I thought I’d immediately want to go to the pub but for a few days I stayed booze-free, worrying that if I got back on it I’d immediately turn into a depressed bloater.
The results My muscle mass increased by almost a kilo, from 34.8kg to 35.7kg, without me changing my training. My weight went down by 300g, my body fat dropped by a whopping six percentage points – from 19.1% to 13% – and visceral fat fell from 58.9cm² to 50.3cm². With less boozy sugar in my system, my glucose also dropped (from 6.72mmol/L to 4.71mmol/L), meaning my risk of diabetes also fell. The only less positive stat was that my HDL cholesterol dropped a bit from 0.82 mmol/L to 0.72 mmol/L, which could have been because I had less oily fish and nuts during the fix. Still, ridiculously good results from a relatively minor lifestyle change.
What I learned If my results were anything to go by, anyone who wants to be healthier should swear off alcohol for good. You might find ditching booze impossible but even cutting back a bit will make you stronger, sharper and manlier. Do it now.–Richard Jordan
The Diet: 5:2 intermittent fasting
Intermittent fasting, or eating lots for certain periods of the day or week, then eating nothing for others, is all the rage. After some research, I decided to try the current darling of the IF dieting world, the 5:2. This meant I could eat what I wanted for five days of the week but had to limit myself to 600 calories on each of the remaining two.
How I found it The first week went OK because I was on holiday and designated the two days I was flying for fasting. All I had on both days was a three-egg omelette with spinach (470 calories), a banana (90 calories) and a white coffee (20 calories). I felt a bit hungry but basically fine.
That changed the moment I got back to work. Suddenly a mere 600 calories seemed like hardly any food at all and left me feeling ravenous and virtually delirious. I had to dramatically change what I was doing on fasting days to cope. I stopped training, stacked up my easiest work tasks, skipped breakfast and snacked on salad throughout the day. This kept some of the pangs at bay and meant I could “reward” myself with a dinner of smoked mackerel and green veg when I got home.
The results At the start of my challenge my body fat was 13.7% and my visceral fat 41.4cm². I assumed they’d fall, but my body fat increased to 14.2% and visceral fat to 44.3cm², while my weight increased by almost 1kg. I think this was because the only way I could get through the fasting days was to reward myself on the normal days with carby treats. The rules of 5:2 say you can eat what you like on non-fasting days, but it’s clearly best not to take this literally.
What I learned The thinking behind intermittent fasting is that it’s easier to incorporate into your everyday life than traditional diets and eating substantially less for two of every seven days will help you lose weight. But it all falls down if you don’t eat sensibly on the days you aren’t fasting. If you’re anything like me, you’re better off improving your existing diet rather than trying something as radical and pitfall-ridden as this.–Max Anderton
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