The Latest Dietary Approach for Lifetime Athletes

I hesitated to say “the latest…and GREATEST” in the title because that’s not quite where my head is at. This missive is really being prompted by some outstanding discussions I’ve recently had with a number of clients.

There are a lot of diets out there. To name just a few there has been High Protein, High Carbohydrate, Low Carbohydrate, Low Fat, Zone, Paleo, Ketogenic, Carnivore, Plant-based, Animal-based, Lectin Avoidance, Autoimmune-specific, and Fasting. I’ve tried all these and more, and even invented a few spinoffs and variations of these models myself. My first task will be to briefly describe these diets.

  • Hi-Pro: Gotta thank the bodybuilders for this one, and it’s certainly been a standard practice for at least a century. While current literature debates what exactly is meant by the term “high,” getting optimal amounts of protein in order to support muscle growth and repair, as well as bone, skin, nails, hair, and organs is well substantiated.
  • Hi-Carb: In some ways this was the original athletic performance diet. Consuming lots of carbs with the goal of maximizing glycogen stores, as well as staving off “the bonk” during training and competition, got really popular in the late 70’s and through most of the 80’s. Still is today to some extent.
  • Lo-Carb: Although this concept was originally popularized by Robert Atkins, MD in the 60’s as a weight-loss tool, a number of thought leaders began to drive it in the 80’s around metabolic health and aerobic endurance. Phil Maffetone, DC was one of the proponents.
  • Lo-Fat: Similar to high carb but with an emphasis on the reduction of mainly saturated fat and cholesterol in an attempt to positively impact cardiovascular health.
  • Zone: Enter the 90’s and Barry Sears, PhD hypothesized that there may be an optimal ratio of macronutrients (carbs, fats, proteins) for overall health, body composition, and performance. Presented in the order of carb-fat-pro the ratio was 40-30-30% of total daily caloric intake.
  • Paleo: Getting into the early 2000’s, Loren Cordain, PhD, Rob Wolf, Mark Sisson, and many others were large proponents of a paleolithic model of dietary consumption. This was based on the theory, and some research, that mimicking what was believed to be an ancestral approach to eating could serve humans best.
  • Keto: As we moved toward the 20-teens, the thinking here was that if low carb was good, almost no carbs just had to be even better. This was based largely on two premises. First, many modern humans may potentially have dysregulated metabolisms from so much processed (and high carb) food consumption. Second, ketogenic states appear to have been a natural cyclical occurrence in many populations, resulting in increased autophagy and “metabolic reset.”
  • Carnivore: Thought leaders such as Shawn Baker, MD and Paul Saladino, MD promoted the exclusive consumption of animal products such as meat, organs, fat, and bone marrow.
  • Plant-based: Vegetarianism and Veganism have been around since the 60’s (in American culture, much longer elsewhere) but more recently the term plant-based has become popular. Many proponents suggest that this is helpful for overall health, longevity, and ecological sustainability.
  • Animal-based: Based largely on the evolution of his own thinking, Paul Saladino MD is credited with popularizing this term. His current version of the animal-based diet includes meat, fat, and organs along with fruit, raw dairy, honey, and maple syrup.
  • Lectin Avoidance: Made popular by Steven Gundry MD and others, these diets make a concerted effort to avoid or denature plant defense chemicals known as lectins found in many popular plant foods.
  • Autoimmune-specific: This is just one term among many to describe diets that emphasize the identification and elimination of foods suspected of leading to various autoimmune disorders such as Celiac’s Disease, diverticulosis, eczema, gout, leaky gut syndrome, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, etc.
  • Fasting: The practice of not eating. This is an ancient tradition that has been modernized with terms like Intermittent Fasting, Time-Restricted Feeding, and others.

OK…that was a decent list. Not all-inclusive, but thorough enough for my purposes. I had to hold back to avoid throwing daggers at every one of those diets. But I plan to do that next. I just figured I’d present each diet in its mainstream interpretation before attacking it. But even before I do that, I’ve got two observations to set the stage and it’s a twofold answer to this question: “What do all these diets have in common?”

  1. They all recommend eating whole, natural foods and eliminate, or significantly limit, the consumption of junk, fast, and overly processed foods. Seems obvious to me that this may be THE biggest rock in nutrition.
  2. They all tend to reach a level of club, community, religion, and cult which is totally f**ked up and absolutely unnecessary. Bias, egos, grant money, and offensive and defensive bulls**t are rampant. It’s at this point that 80% of readers will probably nod their heads in agreement. The other 20% will stop reading immediately in a fog of white-hot rage and piss-off. So be it.

Now, here are my critical comments regarding each of the aforementioned diets.

  • Hi-Pro: I think we need to stop using the word “high” here. We should use “optimal” or “ideal” instead. The literature continues to evolve in a fashion that supports the consumption of more dietary protein than most get. 
  • Hi-Carb: One camp says you can’t perform athletically without it, the other claims you’ll give yourself diabetes and dementia if you keep it up. There should be a broad middle ground here which is taking into consideration overall health, activity level, and genetics.
  • Lo-Carb: There are arguments over the definition of what constitutes low in terms of total daily grams of carbs. Most good studies, meaning the ones that use randomized controlled trials on human subjects which are double-blinded over long time periods – and not associative epidemiological studies based largely on food questionnaires – show good long term outcomes for weight loss, health improvement, and sustainability.
  • Lo-Fat: A lot of this was driven by bad data and the fear of fat. But while we need some fat in the diet, we don’t really need tons of it. It’s mainly the industrial seed oils which are now shown to be relatively toxic to human health.
  • Zone: This method highlighted the value of looking at the overall ratios of the macros, and how they interrelate. But what is lost here is the dynamic nature of human existence. That 40-30-30 might be ideal for you right now, during this time of year, given your activity level. But it makes no sense to think that this wouldn’t change at a different time or context.
  • Paleo: The original cave man idea perhaps, but despite the cool sounding name, it didn’t work for everyone. Pounding nuts and seeds, as one example, is actually not evolutionarily consistent…at least on a regular basis. 
  • Keto: Probably one of the best marketing successes of recent times, the “keto-friendly” phraseology is almost humorous. In the short term, let’s say a month or two, these diets are extremely effective at resetting and jumpstarting metabolic factors. However, over too long a term, they can lead to nutrient deficiencies, physiologic insulin resistance, and electrolyte abnormalities.
  • Carnivore: Mostly satisfying and fulfilling, but it gets a little boring after a while. Animal products are a preferred natural food choice and nutrient-dense, but I occasionally like a little produce on my plate as well. You can’t tell me that any primitive humans, or modern-day hunter-gatherers, would pass up ripe fruit when they found it.
  • Plant-based: I can feel the rage being directed toward me as I type. You are not supposed to attack this sacred ideology. I’m just gonna say that history and biology prove that humans are not exclusive herbivores…we are opportunistic omnivores. When you deeply study the science behind this dietary mindset, you find that many people believe very strongly in opinions, not facts.
  • Animal-based: I’m going to give Dr. Saladino much credit here. He’s indeed a brilliant zealot and one of the few thought leaders who has actually came out and said “I was wrong. I’ve gathered more information and I’ve changed my thinking.” Huge kudos and more people need to do that. The big lesson here is we have to look at age, health, genetics, and activity levels (and how we look, feel, and perform) when considering foods to include and/or exclude. 
  • Lectin Avoidance: I think we need to study the ancient traditions here. Most experts would agree that beans, grains, and tubers are not necessarily the most nutritious foods for humans. They allowed us to survive, but maybe not thrive…to feed a lot of people cheaply. But the ancients always did one thing and still do today…cook the hell out of that stuff. This denatures many of the offending chemicals. And salads are actually a modern “idea” that we’ve totally bought into as “you should eat salads and you won’t be healthy unless you do.” And bouncing back to the vegans, if you want to concentrate lectins, phytates, and oxalates, make a huge-ass green smoothie and slam it. Not tasty, not satisfying, not easy to digest, and actually NOT good for you.
  • Autoimmune-specific: Now this is important. If a food messes you up, don’t eat it. But keep an open mind that some of these things may change over a lifetime…again due to context. As dietary and activity patterns shift, and health status goes up or down, sensitivity may also follow. Getting a human robust and healthy involves more than just what we eat (although no denying this is very important). Exercise, sunlight, sleep, relationships…it all fits together.
  • Fasting: Being able to skip a meal or two from time to time without panicking or passing out is valuable. But starving yourself, and losing lean body mass, isn’t cool. 

I’m equal parts fired up and fatigued after going through all that. But now I have to “boil it all down” so that I can offer up a sound dietary approach for myself, my clients, and our community. We’ve got to start with the following statement: “If you feel awesome, wake up refreshed and invigorated, have good body comp and clear, supple skin, and kick total ass in sports, fitness, and life…don’t change anything you eat.” It’s obviously working for you. Send me a full description of your diet and lifestyle and I’ll embody it as well as share it with others.

But for the other 99% of us, who may notice either a few or a lot of things we’d like to change/improve, diet may be something that we want to adjust. There can be a lot of denial and defensiveness here. It’s just human nature. So take my suggestions with “a grain of salt.”

  • Eat 2-4 meals a day. Learn to at least roughly estimate calories, macronutrient distribution, and micronutrient density. I recommend using any of the tracking apps you like, at least for a month or two. After that, you tend to have all that stuff memorized. If you just can’t stand to do this, just learn to recognize things like lean meat has 7-8 grams of protein per ounce, a banana is about 100 calories of pure carbs, and a pat of butter is about 35 calories, almost all fat. Go from there.
  • If you need to lose weight, reduce portion sizes and total meals per day. Just be a little careful here. Two small meals a day may work for some but for others it may be too calorically restricting (given metabolism and activity) and not sustainable. Use your judgment.
  • If you are just trying to be weight-stable, go with “three squares” and adjust accordingly. See how your performance and recovery are going.
  • For weight gain, increase portion sizes and total meals per day. Growing athletes, and those in bulking/massing phases (whether that’s bodybuilding or recovering from cancer…it’s all bodybuilding actually), need the building blocks that the dining table provides.
  • Eat when the sky is light. Circadian biology is strongly linked to this practice. Our diurnal internal clocks regulate hormones in conjunction with sunlight and food. You’ll have better digestion, sleep, weight loss or gain, and health with this approach.
  • Finish feeding at least 2 hours before bedtime. Even earlier works for most people except the “hard gainers.” 
  • Make every plate have 1 protein source, 1 fat source, and 1-2 carb sources. You can change things up a lot if you like variety or you can stick with the same foods every day.
    • Lean protein looks like chicken breast, sirloin steak, wild game, bison, halibut, etc.
    • Fattier protein is salmon, ribeye steak, chicken thigh, sausage, whole eggs, etc.
    • If you like a little more fat in your diet, go mostly with fattier protein sources. If you do better on the lean scene, choose accordingly. 
    • If the fat doesn’t come bundled with your protein, add a little butter or olive oil. Stay away from the industrial seed oils (corn, canola, cottonseed, sunflower, safflower, soy, blended, rice bran, peanut, grapeseed, sesame, etc.).
    • Get your carbs mostly from fruits and some vegetables, and perhaps white rice. Lay off the other grains for a while. Skip the beans, lentils, and pasta.
  • This is the Earth-based Diet. Instead of thinking about being plant-based or animal-based…let’s use common sense and eat things that look like they come from good old planet Earth.
    • Whole, fresh, natural, seasonal, local, organic…
    • Foods that do not have much in the way of wrappers, labels, and long ingredient lists.
    • Foods that have not gone through a lot of steps to be ready to eat and that will spoil rapidly.
    • Foods your great grandparents would have made, grown, and eaten.

The table below provides two examples of breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

13 eggs, any style, cooked in butter
Melon bowl
Double cheeseburger no bun with avocado, tomato, and pickle,1 cup of grapesSirloin steak, roasted cauliflower, baked yam
2Plain yogurt, 1/2 cup blueberries, 1 TBSP honey, 1 scoop whey proteinChicken or beef vegetable soup,Cottage cheese with ½ peachChicken breast, white rice, steamed broccoli
The choices are nearly infinite!

Explore the seasonings and toppings that work best for you. One of the keys to making any diet sustainable is to have it be delicious and enjoyable. Limit, but maybe don’t completely cut out the occasional alcoholic beverage, dessert, or snack you like. Just don’t make those things a regular habit. Adjust portion sizes based on appetite and goals. Full circle…common sense. It’s really this simple.

Thanks as always for joining me. Let me know what you think…or what you do specifically. I always like learning from you and the members of our community.

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