The Mountain Dog Diet—A Healthier Way to Get Lean/Add Muscle...or Both!
Originally published on July 23, 2010
Several months ago I sat in front of a nurse at my place of work after she received my report on my cholesterol, triglyceride levels and blood pressure. I work at a Bank, and it’s pretty cool that they offer free cholesterol screening and all kinds of other nice benefits. Anyways, she looked very puzzled. She was comparing my results from 2 years prior, to my most recent results. She finally blurted out “what did you do to improve this profile so much.” My answer nearly floored her.
Well Nancy, I started:
- Cooking in virgin coconut oil, and grass-fed butter
- I also switched out all the store bought grain fed beef I was consuming with grass fed beef I procure from a local farmer. I eat 8 ounces every single day.
- I switched out my 99-cent a dozen eggs with true organic free range eggs, and eat 6 of these whole every single day.
- Lastly (and probably most importantly), I reduced refined sugars in my diet and foods that contain excessive levels of Omega 6 Polyunsaturated fats (bye bye Tostitos – dang corn oil), as I believe those things create arterial inflammation resulting in increased cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is an anti-oxidant and repair agent in your body.
I knew what her next question would be, “but isn’t all that saturated fat bad?” I said well you tell me, my cholesterol went from 212 down to 167. My HDL went up 11 points (something I struggled with for years), and my LDL and Triglyceride levels were at the bottom end of the range. Even my blood pressure was a startling 104/70. She finally asked if I had any reading material I recommended, as these concepts were not taught to her in her days of studying health and nutrition.
So why do I mention that story? Well, the diet that I recommend usually freaks people out initially, but it’s rooted in sound science and facts, and not influenced by flawed studies funded by companies with ulterior motives. Most people have always heard and believe in the “Lipid Hypothesis.” This is the outdated theory that saturated fat and cholesterol intake increases cholesterol levels in the blood, which increase your chance of heart disease. This theory is simply not true, as long as the saturates are of a certain type, and the cholesterol is not oxidized. You have to accept that to fully embrace the Mountain Dog Diet.
I have formulated this diet based on a few things.
- Mentorship with Dr Eric Serrano. Eric is revered in the athletic community as a top expert in training, nutrition, rehabilitation and many other things. Eric has been a big influence on me and a great mentor.
- The teachings of the Weston A. Price Foundation. A fantastic resource for correct nutritional information can be found at the Weston A. Price foundation’s website www.westonaprice.org. It’s a not-for-profit organization with no hidden agendas, and one of the most brilliant Lipid Experts in the country, Mary Enig, has written numerous articles we could all benefit from on it. If you go to this website and spend a few hours on it, you will thank me for recommending it. I'll be referencing this site many times over in this article.
- Personal experience. I have competed in 30 bodybuilding contests, that I can remember, won 13 of them, and placed in six of nine pro qualifying national level events. Experience is a great teacher, and you have to know when to make adjustments in diets, and what to do, for the best results. As solid as the Mountain Dog diet is, it can still only take you to a certain point. Only experience can get you past that.
What's so different about this diet compared to standard fat reduction and competitive bodybuilding diets in general? Number one, this diet will improve your health. You may find that your cholesterol levels improve, your joints feel better, your skin looks better, you don’t feel as lethargic, or many many other nice side effects that go along with eating this way. You'll see and become a believer. Will this diet enable you to gain 20 pounds of muscle you otherwise wouldn’t have been able to gain? Clearly no. But the increased focus on fat soluble vitamins will help with gains through better endocrine function. Remember, the theme here is health, and making better choices regardless of whether you're trying to gain muscle or lose fat.
The approach itself is a nutrient driven approach. My number one rule is this:
Focus on MICRONUTRITION NOT MACRONUTRITION.
This diet emphasizes the following key concepts:
- The best food comes from animals that have been fed their natural diet.
- Correct ratio of fats with a special emphasis on saturated fats.
- Fat soluble vitamins and their role in endocrine function.
- Keeping your liver healthy.
- Supplements to manage glucose disposal.
There are actually MANY other key concepts such as carb intake/sources and rotations, veggie and fruit consumption, how to incorporate cardio, what spices and condiments can do for your metabolism, etc. but for the sake of this conversation I'm limiting it to these five.
Many of the foods and practices I recommend are in fact not new. Many years ago they were used by some of the more popular bodybuilders, but in today’s world of bodybuilding, the ideas are long forgotten. I highly recommend a book called “Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors” by Randy Roach. He dives deeply into the diets of some of the legends like Armand Tanny, Vince Gironda, John Grimek and Tony Sansone. You'll see some similarities with what they ate, and what I'm recommending, such as raw milk, liver and copious amounts of whole eggs.
For the purposes of this article, I'm going to cover the approach at a high level, to introduce you to all the concepts, rather than only focusing on a few of them.
- The best food comes from animals that have been fed their natural diet.
Remember the old saying you are what you eat? It’s NOT true! You are what you eat has eaten!!! Here's a sample of a few of the mainstays in this diet and a little about why.
Grass Fed Beef – This type of beef is from cows that have been fed their normal diet consisting of grass. The only exception would be in winter where hay, root vegetables and silage are ok. Cows are termed ruminant animals, and have a really cool chamber in their stomach called a Rumen. Think of it as a big fermentation vat. This chamber is one of four chambers in the stomach that turns grass into high quality protein, and ensures a great Omega 3 to 6 ratio. This is all dependent on the PH of the rumen.
I cannot recommend “normal” store bought grain fed beef as these cows have been fed grain, and grain feeding depletes all of the things in the fat that make it healthy and magical – namely a perfect balance of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fats, and CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid). The unhealthy Omega 3 to 6 ratio that is heavily skewed toward Omega 6 is very inflammatory to your body, and is thought to increase chances of heart disease and overall bodily inflammation. The PH of the rumen is heavily affected by grain, greatly increasing acidity, thus completely throwing off Omega 3, CLA, and other levels.
In case you are wondering what exactly happens to the cow fed their unnatural diet, www.eatwild.com states “when fed an unnatural diet of grain, acidosis can result and lead to a condition called "rumenitis," which is an inflammation of the wall of the rumen. Rumenitis then leads to liver abscesses as the rumen wall becomes ulcerated, bacteria are able to pass through the walls and enter the bloodstream. Ultimately, the bacteria are transported to the liver where they cause abscesses. From 15 to 30 percent of feedlot cattle have liver abscesses, hence the need for antibiotics and such.” Not pretty.
Going back to Omega-3s, they are most abundant in seafood, but they are also found in animals raised on pasture, usually there is anywhere from two-six times more Omega 3’s in grass-fed meats. The reason is simple. Omega-3s are formed in the chloroplasts of green leaves and algae. It’s interesting to me that sixty percent of the fatty acids in grass are actually omega-3s. Some of the more hardcore farmers I've spent time and talked to believe in basically eating nothing but grass fed beef and vegetables due to the fact that you can source all your nutrients from the chloroplast in the leaf. For ultimate longevity, maybe they're right?
I've been asked about cows that have been “finished” on grain. When cattle are taken off omega-3 rich grass and shipped to a feedlot to be fattened on omega-3 poor grain, they begin losing their store of this beneficial fat as one would suspect. Each day that an animal spends in the feedlot, its supply of omega-3 is diminished. There are some great graphical representations and more detailed info on this process on the very informative website www.eatwild.com that I referenced above.
This food is the No. 1 component of the diet, and doesn’t come out at all, even pre-contest.
Free Range Eggs – Chickens that have been free to roam around, and feast on their natural diet of bugs, insects, and grass lay the highest quality eggs. I'm a staunch believer in natural sources of fat soluble vitamins and you will get four to six times more Vitamin D from a free range egg, as the hens get more sunlight. You also get three times more Vitamin E. In addition, free range eggs give you twice the Omega 3’s (although I have seen as much as 20 times more Omega 3), and seven times more beta carotene. This data was a result of the 2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. You can read more about this at www.motherearthnews.com. There are many more benefits to free range eggs, as this is only a few. As with the grass fed beef, whole free range eggs never come out of your diet, even pre-contest for those looking to reach the absolute lowest levels of bodyfat.
Wild Caught Salmon – Perhaps no food is better at supplying healthy Omega 3s than wild caught salmon. These salmon have been fed their natural diet of tiny shrimp-like creatures called Krill, which not only gives them their lovely reddish orange color, it also gives them the big dose of Omega 3 that we all desire. Be careful when you're shopping to not pick up “Farm-Raised” Salmon. These Salmon have been enclosed in pens and fed a very unnatural diet of corn meal, soy and even chicken feces pellets. They aren’t even orange until artificial dyes and colors are added, they are grey.
There are several different types of wild caught Alaskan salmon for you to choose from. Sockeye Salmon, Chinook/King Salmon, and other varieties, plus you can get the Sockeye or Pink Salmon canned. These are all good, as long as they are wild-caught. You will get around 2.5 - 3 grams of Omega 3 per every 7 ounces.
Raw Grass Fed Dairy – The same things that applied to grass fed beef, applies to grass fed dairy. You get more CLA, and Omega 3s. The Journal of Dairy Science did a study in 1999 on CLA in grass fed dairy, and found that it contains 500 percent more CLA than cows fed grain.
Although this selection comes out the final 16 weeks before a contest my only exception is one tablespoon of Grass-Fed butter daily, it’s an absolutely great way to add lean muscle in the off-season. I really don’t like to take it out pre-contest, but I do because experience has taught me dairy does seem to cause most to hold a layer of water under their skin, which isn’t optimal for physique display. The ironic thing is that this is a good result of your skin being healthier! Also notice I said RAW in addition to grass-fed. The nutritional value of milk plummets due to pasteurization, the vitamin A is completely destroyed and the proteins become more difficult to digest often creating strong immune system responses and allergies. The Weston A. Price Foundation has a sister website called www.realmilk.com that is excellent in explaining the benefits of raw milk.
I do want to point out that I don't support the consumption of pasteurized dairy that you'll find in most stores at any time, and also that dairy is not a necessity, or required. You'll get plenty of Omega 3’s from your Salmon, Vitamin D from your eggs and certain fish, Vitamin A from Beef - liver especially, and calcium and minerals from green leafy veggies. I wrestled around with this one for a while, but after having tried raw milk myself for an extended period of time, and seeing what it has done for many others in terms of their well-being, and lean muscle gains,. I think I'd be remiss not adding this. The truth is that I look at raw milk as a very good supplement!
- Correct balance of fats with a special emphasis on Saturated Fats
Most diets in the bodybuilding world, even those that are termed “high-fat,” don't advise the use of saturated fats outside of what normally occurs in the peanutbutter, nuts, avocadoes, etc. that are typically recommended. I think this is a mistake. Saturated fats play an enormous role our in our health and well being. Here are just a few of many reasons to NOT avoid saturated fat:
- Saturated fats make up 50 percent of our cell membranes! They give cells the correct amount of rigidity to allow “messages” in and out.
- Saturates allow the body to use and retain Omega 3’s better!
- They make our immune systems better (see butter and coconut oil!)
- A few specific types of saturates are the best food for the heart. The fat around the heart is highly saturated.
So what are the best sources for saturated fats in the Mountain Dog Diet?
1) Animal fats – Grass fed ground beef contains not only the correct ration of Omega 3 to Omega 6 (1 to 1 or close to it), and CLA, it has the saturated fat you need. Grass fed beef tends to have about half the saturated fat that grain-fed beef has. Leaner cuts like sirloin are ok, but remember, the magic is in the fat. That doesn’t mean you should eat all Ribeyes, just not to fear the fat, and there will be less of it in grass fed. It helps with fat soluble vitamin uptake (which we will get into later in this article). There is a fantastic book called Nutrition and Physical Degeneration written by Dr Weston A. Price that talks in detail about the dietary habits of many non-industrialized tribes/populations. If you read this book, you clearly see what Dr Price’s research showed in terms on health and well-being, and the importance of animal fats. There was also a gentleman named Dr. George Mann who studied a tribe in Africa called the Masai. The tribe had no heart disease of any kind. Their diets consisted of meat, blood, whole milk, and up to 1.5 pounds of butter a day. He is known for a quote that I think is great. He said “the Lipid Hypothesis is the greatest scam in the history of medicine.”
2) Virgin Coconut Oil – Coconut oil does a number of very good things for someone attempting to get lean. Most - 95 percent - of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, and about half is Lauric Acid. The fat is a special type of fat, medium chain triglyceride, that is easily converted to energy by your liver. There are numerous studies out there that corroborate this. Dr. Serrano has been using Coconut Oil for endurance athletes too, mixed with slower burning carbs for immediate and sustained energy. I've also seen some claims that I'm still researching in terms of your body’s increased ability to burn long chain fats, when these MCT’s are taken in. Most of these studies are taking place at McGill University in Canada. If this were true, it would be another reason to add this fat into your diet when bodyfat loss is a primary goal. There is another side of coconut oil too that shouldn’t be forgotten and it relates to general health. It's loaded (more than any other food source) with Lauric acid. This is a fat that is extremely anti-viral and antimicrobial. Lauric acid converts to its active form Monolaurin (much like T-4 converting to active T-3 in your body for those of you who have studied thyroid function). Monolaurin is currently being given to HIV patients and is showing much promise. You can see some of the research at www.lauric.org. It's also found heavily in breast milk, which is a reason why babies who are breast feed seem to have stronger immune systems. The best thing about Lauric acid in food – it’s in a big dose, in my favorite snack food – Jennie’s Macaroons! I love these tasty treats. You can order these on Amazon.com. They come in packs of 6.
3) Grass Fed Butter – The most frustrating thing to me about having conversations regarding butter is the notion that the fat in butter causes heart disease. The reality is that butter IS HEART HEALTHY! It contains a perfect ratio of Omega 3 to 6. The saturated fats are generally short and medium chain for quick and easy digestion and for protection against infection. Lecithin is also a natural component of butter that assists in the proper assimilation and metabolization of cholesterol and other fats. Butter also has this thing called “Wulzen Factor” in it. Researcher Rosalind Wulzen discovered that this substance protects humans and animals from calcification of the joints-degenerative arthritis. I could go on and on about butter, just know that a little everyday is good for you.
What about polyunsaturated fats (Omega 3, 6, Alpha Linolenic Acid)? If you're thinking these are essential, and you have to get them from your diet, you are correct. The amount needed gets overblown sometimes though. You'll get plenty from your diet in the form of Salmon, and also some extra in your beef and dairy due to those sources being grass fed. Mary Enig recommends that your diet contain 1.5 percent of it’s calories in the form of polyunsaturates. Her recommendations are in line with other top lipid experts in the world. This is the same recommendation I use.
If you are taking flax, chia, or other grain type forms of Alpha Linolenic Acid – remember this, your body can only convert a very small amount of it to its usable form in the body of DHA. The DHA/EPA Omega 3 institute estimates that only 12 percent of ALA converts to DHA and presents studies backing up their data in its website www.dhaomega3.org. I do not recommend these grain type Polys due to that fact. You're better off getting it naturally in the foods described above. Under no circumstance would I recommend consuming polys high in Omega 6’s such as corn oil, cottonseed oil, regular safflower oil, etc., due to their inflammatory affect within your body.
How about monounsaturated fats? Are they healthy? Yes they are. Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Macadamia Nut Oil are two great oils to cook with to give you this fat. The polyphenols in them provide a strong anti-oxidant for the body as well. I love using Olive Oil for two things mainly – it helps to raise HDL levels, and it's great to assist in quality weight gain for those trying to put on weight. It is a great choice as a salad dressing mixed with a little Balsamic Vinegar.
Another great choice is Macadamia Nut Oil. It's very stable for cooking (up to around 425 degrees Fahrenheit), and you get a massive dose of healthy monounsaturates. Around 85 percent of the oil is monounsaturated. You get to a point where you don’t want to keep increasing athletes' levels of protein due to general digestive stress, and you don’t want to raise carbs to astronomical levels just due to the pancreatic stress involved. So the remedy? Add some good ol' Olive Oil or Macadamia nut oil. I tried using coconut oil for this purpose, but as I suspected, it burns so fast and easy, it didn’t really help with quality weight gain in the athletes. I'd still use it year round for its antimicrobial and anti-viral properties though, but I steer more toward the monounsaturates in the off-season. It is important to realize that you need to mix things up a bit, and not have the exact same oil all the time.
A couple of other oils you should introduce in your diet are avocado oil and red palm oil. Avocado oil is extremely resistant to oxidation (hold up well up to 500 degrees), and is largely monounsaturated. Also one of recent favorites is red palm oil. The oil is really yellow when you pour it out. That is due to it being loaded with carotenes. This oil is also loaded with Vitamin E, and since it has fat in it, it also helps these fat soluble vitamins absorb as they should.
As far as food sources go, butter actually has a good dose of Palmitoleic acid in it, which is very antimicrobial and a healthy monounsaturate. The fat in butter has more monounsaturated fat then you would think, about 30 percent actually. I include grass fed butter in my diets for this, and other reasons.
There are also many nuts that contain healthy monunsaturated fat such as cashews, macadamia nuts, etc. Over the past few years, I've gotten away from adding nuts to diets, not because of any concerns related to health, but because people can’t practice portion control with them. It is impossible for most to sit down and only eat one-fourth cup (1 serving) of cashews. I'm likely to eat an entire pound in a day if I buy a bag.
All in all – you need some of all of these fats to function optimally, whether your body can make them or not, and I recommend 30 to 35 percent of your calories come from fat. Around 25 percent of that should be from saturated, 1.5 - 3 percent from polys/Omega 3 and 6, and the remaining 7 - 8.5 percent from monos during contest season. As you get into more of an off-season mode, the ratio favors monounsaturates a little more heavily, but does not eliminate saturates or polys, as that would not be wise.
- Fat soluble vitamins and their role in endocrine function
The biggest pet peeve I have with low fat diets is the fact that they don’t take into account the need to properly assimilate fat soluble vitamins. If you don’t think this is important, think again. Fat soluble vitamins include A, D, E and K. I hear people say all the time; well I got shredded eating low-fat. I don't dispute that you can get ripped eating low fat. I've done it to the point that I couldn’t get a reading with a skin fold caliper. I know it can be done. The issue is long-term health. These vitamins are so important to your endocrine systems. Performance enhancing type drugs can cover these deficiencies up short term – but when these athletes don’t have the muscle building, protein sparing effects of these drugs, and their endocrine systems have received no support from their diet…look out. In addition, there are many studies that show low fat and low cholesterol diets long term create more depression, suicidal tendencies, etc. These are well documented in Lancet journals.
Here are some of the things that these vitamins do:
This vitamin is extremely important, so much that your liver can store it for a while. It helps with protein and mineral metabolism. It helps to ensure proper thyroid function, and it helps in the production of sex hormones. Those things are all critically important (or should be) to athletes.
Also it gets depleted from strenuous exercise which a few of us engage in. Grass-fed butter, and egg yolks are my favorite day to day source, with an occasional half-pound of Beef Liver to augment levels. Don’t fall for the vegetarian belief that you can get plenty of Vitamin A in carrots and other veggies. The Vitamin A in those foods are really not Vitamin A, it is a carotene, often referred to as Provitamin A. True vitamin A, or retinol, is found in foods like cod liver oil, butterfat from cows grazing on pasture, liver and fish - especially shellfish. Your body has to convert the carotenes to retinol, and it only does that well in the presence of fat. Fat stimulates bile salts, which help with the conversion. So you better add some butter to your veggies if you even want a prayer of getting enough Vitamin A on a vegan diet. Actually, grass fed butter is the most easily absorbed food source for Vitamin A, hence why I put it in diets...well, one of many reasons.
This vitamin (actually it’s more of Pro-hormone), unlike Vitamin A, can’t be stored in our livers for very long. We need a more continual supply of it. A very compelling reason for a bodybuilder or athlete to ensure a good intake of this vitamin is the fact that it greatly affects healthy insulin function. It also helps maintain a healthy nervous system, which is extremely important if you train hard. Good food sources include whole eggs, sardines, mackerel, herring, shrimp, butter and oysters. It’s hard for me to eat Salmon every single day, so sometimes I opt for a shrimp stir-fry for lunch and throw in some Trueprotein Fish Oil for my DHA. The absolute best source of vitamin D is Fermented Cod Liver Oil. When using this, I usually get the fermented kind sold on www.greenpastures.org. They make a great product also where they combine this with high Vitamin Butter Oil, so you have plenty of options with this vitamin as well. I also recommend you get your Vitamin D levels tested. There are many autoimmune disorders thought to be caused by low Vitamin D levels. I have a good friend who has Crohns disease, and they watch his Vitamin D very closely to keep it in normal range. The test you want to have order is called a 25 (OH) D test.
This vitamin is a very strong antioxidant and good for maintaining cardiovascular health. Good food sources include red palm oil, green leafy veggies, liver, egg yolks, and my favorite – wheat germ. I love sprinkling wheat germ into shakes, on yogurts and in oatmeal. Grass fed beef is also a great source for this vitamin.
This vitamin is important for blood clotting, and is also real important in maintaining proper bone density. Good food sources include leafy green veggies, liver and cabbage type veggies. I like spinach for this. One of my favorite pre-contest meals is a six egg omelet stuffed with spinach!
- Keeping your liver healthy
When I first started visiting Dr Serrano, he used to always palpate my liver, and he was very focused on blood work results - liver enzyme counts being one of the most important. He continually stressed the importance of healthy liver function not only in terms of general health, but in terms of fat burning. Your liver is a very key organ that takes a beating cleansing our systems of toxins, metabolizing proteins, etc. If it's stressed out, you can’t burn fat as efficiently. It can also get to the point rather easily, where it can’t break down aldosterone, which leads to excess water retention. Every single day your liver actually produces a quart of bile that emulsifies and absorbs fats. Your gall bladder (providing you still have one), then stores this until it's needed. Your liver does many other important things as well such as converting glucose, fructose and galactose into glycogen, which it stores. If you're partaking in a lower carb type of diet your liver will convert the stored glycogen into glucose and then release it into your bloodstream, then when out of glycogen, it will convert fat and protein for energy. I don’t like it when someone is converting their protein into glycogen. It’s hard to tell when, usually they start getting more sore, weaker and their muscles have a “flatter” appearance – but I try not to let people get to this level of depletion. I'd much rather see someone get additional energy from Coconut Oil, as it's so easy to turn into energy – doesn’t even require bile salts, or do a carb up day consisting of only lean proteins and carbs – no fats for this. Fats slow the entry of sugar into your bloodstream. Normally that is good, but not in this case.
Anyway, your liver is pretty dang tough, and can even do some regeneration of damaged cells. Despite this, I like to use a few supplements to help (Liv 52, Alpha Lipoic Acid, and Milk Thistle). This combination is rotated to product optimal results. There also food sources that I incorporate into diets to help the liver and gall bladder, such as real lemon juice (not from concentrate – helps with bile formation) real cranberry juice (not from concentrate – helps dilute and expel waste), and Apple Cider Vinegar.
Of course the saturated fats that I recommended above also help. Saturates protect the liver from toxins!
- Supplements to manage glucose disposal
Certainly this isn't a new concept, we've read a bazillion studies touting that glucose disposal agents help to enhance nutrient uptake into cells by increasing the efficiency of insulin. In other words, they help us achieve normal blood sugar levels/readings.
If you have a more stable blood glucose level, this will result in more efficient use of body fat for fuel. High levels of insulin obviously lead to greater fat storage. Compounds like GDAs that help remove glucose from the bloodstream, will lower insulin levels, and help us burn fat and lose weight.
The most popular one is probably Alpha Lipoic Acid (or the rALA version). This is an extremely good supplement you'd be wise to use year-round. It also helps regenerate liver tissue, and recycles antioxidants in your body. Also Chromium is important and is often deficient in our diets, especially if we drink diet sodas with aspartame. They leech this out of our system. Chromium also does a nice job managing glucose.
The other benefit of GDAs is a better cholesterol profile. Many of us believe (and there are many studies to back it up) that increased intake of refined sugars is what is causing cholesterol readings to get out of whack. Cholesterol is a very healthy substance that acts as a repairer in your body, and when it sees the inflammation caused by sugars, the levels increase so that it can fight the inflammation directly. Dr Serrano recommended I try Chromium as an adjunct with my carb meals to help with my profile, and it did improve my readings more so than other popular supplements that tout lowering cholesterol. So you get a double benefit here, you get leaner because glucose is more properly managed, and you get better cholesterol readings, as the GDAs will slow down the inflammation created by sugar.
Well, that’s the high level of the Mountain Dog diet, nothing earth shattering – but very effective. I hope there are some things that got you thinking about your food selections! It's a diet that improves health and well-being, which is very important to me. It is also a great way to get ripped, or gain lean muscle depending on how you manipulate the calories and macronutrients.