When it comes to nutrition, there seems to be a huge grey area on what’s right and wrong.
I suppose that’s due to all of the conflicting information out there on multiple platforms. One podcaster might tell you that vegan is your healthiest choice, but some article you read at lunch will tell you that a ketogenic approach is a much better option. At dinner, you read a blog post telling you that the best form of dieting is the carnivore diet, and you should eat nothing but meat for the rest of your life.
All of this noise makes your brain want to explode and probably leads you right into your pantry looking for the Cocoa Puffs (God, they’re delicious).
I want to weigh in on this discussion and share with you some of my practical experience over the last 14 years of experimenting with different diets with my clients, friends, family members, and me.
First off, let’s briefly go over the make-up of some of the popular diets out there.
Standard American Diet
The average American consumes tons of processed refined sugars, flour and refined carbohydrates, saturated fats, artificial dyes, colorings and sweeteners, low-quality vegetable oils, and proteins such as beef, chicken, and fish.
The standard American diet is the worst of the worst. It’s highly inflammatory due to the sugar and refined carbs and can lead to insulin resistance from the excessive amounts of sugar, which can eventually lead to diabetes.
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This style of eating has also played a major role in the rise in obesity, cancer, and heart disease. Our eating habits as a society have gotten progressively worse and, combined with inactivity, are the driving force in disease and illness.
You may have heard some of the buzz lately about the ketogenic, or keto, diet. This is a diet where your daily caloric intake is made up of a high amount of fat, low to moderate protein, and a very low amount of carbohydrates. The idea here is that since you’ll have a very low amount of glucose (sugar) in the blood from consuming a very low amount of carbohydrates, your body’s primary source of fuel will be fat and you will use up most of your stored body fat.
The keto diet can serve a purpose, if you do it right, that is. Since reaching a state of ketosis will require a high amount of fat, many people will use that as an excuse to throw down foods like bacon, cheese, fast-food burgers without the bun, and pork rinds.
However, a major key component when following a ketogenic diet should still be to focus on the quality of the micronutrients rather than just the macros, meaning you should get your fat from high-quality fats like avocados, coconut oil, nuts, seeds, fish oil, eggs, and grass-fed beef. The nutritional value of these fats far exceeds the nutritional value of foods like bacon and pork rinds, so just be smart about your choices.
I also don’t believe that the ketogenic diet is the best idea for athletes due to the lack of carbohydrate. Carbs are essential for muscular recovery, and if you keep breaking down muscle tissue through rigorous training, it will become very difficult to recover from those workouts without an adequate amount of carbohydrate, which can then lead to a weaker, smaller you.
One of the biggest downsides I see with the ketogenic diet is that you’ll have to avoid many beneficial fruits in order to achieve the state of ketosis. Many fruits are packed with antioxidants and nutrients that are extremely beneficial to our overall health. Neglecting certain fruits and the antioxidants that comes along with them can leave a chink in your armor of health in my opinion.
However, I do believe we should earn our carbs and eat congruently with the physical work we’ve done for the day. The intensity and duration of your days training will determine the number of carbs you should eat that day.
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If you’re someone who doesn’t exercise much and would just like to get healthier and drop some body fat, then keto can be a good start for you. You’ll have less of a spike in insulin throughout the day, which, if you’re severely overweight, can be a good thing.
A ketogenic approach can be a great way of consciously cutting out shitty foods, achieving a caloric deficit to lose body fat and work some healthy fats, proteins, and vegetables into your diet.
Intermittent fasting is pretty popular these days. This is where you’ll fast for a window of about 12 to 16 hours and consume all of your calories in a much smaller feeding window rather than just eating all day.
Intermittent fasting can be a great form of dieting. By fasting for 12 to 16 hours, it gives the digestive system enough time to digest and process the food you’ve eaten that day. It can also be a very efficient way to burn fat due to the reduced blood glucose levels from the fast. Again, this will be dependent on the food you eat, and not just the method of dieting. There’s a very big difference between fasting and eating some eggs and blueberries versus a Frosty from Wendy’s.
But also keep in mind that if you’re training in the morning, you’ll probably lose some muscle mass from neglecting pre- or post-workout nutrition early in the day. If possible, try to get your training in later in the day within your feeding window.
However, if overall health and fat loss is your goal, then this can be a great approach for you. But if you’re someone who loves eating breakfast don’t think that this is a must. Although the fast can be beneficial, if you are someone who feels better from eating a nutritious breakfast, then maybe that’s the route you should go.
A vegan diet is where you’ll cut out all animal products entirely and only consume fruits, vegetables, grains, and plant-based proteins.
Vegetarians will eat some animal products, like eggs and maybe fish, but not meat.
A vegan or vegetarian diet absolutely has benefits. For one, most of the foods eaten (if you’re not eating crap) can be easier on the digestive tract and cause less digestive stress. But we also have to be aware of the deficiencies these kinds of diets can create.
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For example, the lack of animal protein can create a deficiency in your body’s level of iron, B-12, and a decrease in testosterone production. These minerals, vitamins, and hormones also play a major role in our health and well being, so it’s extremely important to have your blood tested regularly (every six months) if you’re following a vegan or vegetarian diet. This way, you can spot the deficiencies and supplement accordingly.
It also becomes difficult to get enough protein in to support the growth or maintenance of lean muscle mass when following a vegan diet. Be sure to keep a close eye on how much protein you’re consuming and shoot for somewhere around one gram per pound of body weight per day.
For years, many bodybuilders have eaten multiple times per day, high amounts of proteins, moderate fat, and a blend of high and low amounts of carbohydrates, depending on the goal of their particular training phase.
This style of eating can have its benefits, but like the rest of the diets I mentioned above, the quality of the foods here will also play a major role.
Some of the downsides are constantly worrying about what to eat, preparation of food, digestive stress from the high protein intake (farts galore), and, if you’re eating high amounts of carbohydrates, that could certainly lead to more frequent spikes of insulin, which could arguably lead to insulin resistance as well.
To touch on the protein issue, there have been plenty of studies done that show you actually don’t need the excessive amounts of daily protein that were once advertised. The supplement and meat industry saw bodybuilding as a way to convince you that you’ll need more protein to grow — even up to two times your body weight in grams of protein per day!
This has been proven to be completely unnecessary and is certainly not good for your health. A protein intake that high will only stress the digestive system and put excess stress on the kidneys. It has also been scientifically proven that you will have the worst smelling car on Planet Earth, and your girlfriend will hate your guts. Literally.
With that said, you’ll only need about 0.75 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day, which will help with the farting issue and give you enough protein to help rebuild damaged muscle tissue from training.
Tying It All Together
As you can see, there are plenty of benefits and downsides to each style of eating. From my experience, the biggest factor is having the discipline to refrain from eating shit foods. I don’t care if you’re vegan, gluten-free, or what title you give yourself, shitty foods (processed foods) will still lead to an unhealthy lifestyle and lead to some issue somewhere along the line. Just to be clear, I’m talking about any foods that are man-made or processed. That goes for sugar, flour, artificial sweeteners, and refined vegetable oils.
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So let’s start with the three most important words of any diet:
EAT. REAL. FOOD.
Regardless of the style of dieting, you want to focus on earth-grown nutrients. They are foods you can kill, catch, or pick from the dirt. So, sources of:
- Protein: fish, chicken breast, turkey breast, grass-fed beef, eggs, and legumes
- Unprocessed carbohydrates: sweet potatoes, white potatoes, rice, quinoa, oats and fruit
- Fats: coconut oil, avocado, nuts, nut butters, seeds and fats from proteins like grass-fed beef and whole eggs
Finally, do not forget to eat a ton of fresh vegetables.
Now, we can split hairs and start to argue about fruit, grains, and white potatoes, and whether they’re good for you or not. This will vary greatly from person to person and is dependent on genetics and other lifestyle variables. But for most people that are still consuming processed foods the majority of the time, legumes and rice are going to be a major upgrade and shouldn’t be a problem. However, that can be determined after their diet has been cleaned up for some time.
Remember that it still comes down to the number of calories consumed versus calories burned, which will vary amongst each individual. For now, just focus on removing any crap from your diet and consume all of the earth-grown foods I talked about. That is THE MOST important step.
Chances are, just by cutting out the calorically dense processed foods and replacing them with nutrient-dense whole foods, you’ll be creating a caloric deficit for yourself.
With that said, some people might not tolerate certain foods as well as other people. Some foods could result in fatigue, bloating, or maybe a runny nose. If that’s the case, simply remove that food from your diet for a while and then try working it back in after six to eight weeks and see if you notice a difference.
I also see a benefit to eating a wide variety of earth-grown foods in your diet. That means not eating the same foods over and over again every day. This will help lower your potential for developing certain food allergies or sensitivities.
Maybe one day you remove dairy entirely from your diet. The next day eat only vegan sources of protein. The next day, work some red meat back in and so on.
Once you get this in check, you will start to feel better and see physical changes to your physique. Then you’ll start to have fewer and fewer cravings for shitty foods because your gut flora will begin to change for the better.
Remember the bacteria in your gut play a major role in our health, immune system, and even cognitive function. Which is why removing low quality, inflammatory foods should be your first priority before you even think about counting your macros. Also work in some fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi to contribute to the health of your gut microbiome.
Instead of arguing which diet is best and which will kill you tomorrow, understand that there are pros and cons to any one way of eating. It’s my opinion that the healthiest diet for most people is the one with the most variety and is not too extreme in one direction or another.
Perhaps using one of the methods I mentioned above as a dietary intervention every once in a while, rather than living a lifetime on it, may help balance out any nutrient deficiencies or GI stress you may be dealing with.
I really hope this article helps clear up some of the confusion out there. Your first step is to cut out the crap and only focus on the real whole foods out there. Whichever method you want to use is up to you.
Thanks for reading.