clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Talking Fitness: Nutrition & Diets

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

I'm loathe to even dive into this discussion as it's so massive and I modify my opinions constantly, but I think a group collaboration should be able to lead us to some good practices. I'll try to touch on a few major points and let the free-for-all ensue.

First, a necessary epidemiological framework for the discussion.

Exclusionary & Inclusionary Principles & Poor Causational Attribution

Reading the literature across different food movements forced me to notice that improvements in health are often achieved through their exclusionary or inclusionary principles rather than the pure philosophical underpinnings of the diet itself.  They also may eliminate useful or benign foods for reasons of ideological consistency.  The diet becomes an indiscriminate tuna net which collects fish but also butchers a fair amount of dolphins and sea turtles.  Most diets are predicated on identifying a few demons which are the cause of all of the troubles of the world and then offering an ideologically pure list of commandments that support the larger movement for reasons that range from scientific and sensible, to practical ("avoid white foods because many are bad"), to incoherent and stupid.  The overly defensive diet adherent of today is often abandoning the plan "that truly changed their lives" six months later, weaker, heavier and thoroughly confused.

Causality can be elusive.

Veganism can offer helpful outcomes as the mass consumption of calorie modest but nutrient rich vegetables & healthy carbohydrates en masse creates a full stomach calorie deficit and may address vitamin deficiencies that restore vital functions lost from power-eating Starburst, Count Chocula and Mountain Dew (foods acceptable to vegans, by the way).  But is improved health mostly attributable to the lack of meat?  That's the important question.

However, the demonization of animal flesh as Man's Original Sin and veganism as our only salvation takes that question from the realm of science to political movement and religion. We're omnivores designed to eat animal flesh who gained higher brain function from hunting and consuming animal protein. Whether or not we choose to do that now is an ethical/economic consideration, different from the question of if it optimizes for a particular genome.  Their scripture obscures that.

The paleo diet, whatever you think of its underlying science, excludes processed foods, excessive simple carbohydrate intake and trans-fats - all positive things to bleach from a diet - while disallowing milk for all rather than just the lactose intolerant (apparently all genetic mutation and adaptation ended 60,000 years ago) and took issue with the nutrient rich potato, legumes, some fruits and white rice for reasons ranging from philosophical purity to an oversimplification of the glycemic index.  I have more in common with Paleo people than not, but you'll know if you can have a useful conversation with one based on this simple question - what would a Paleolithic group of hunter-gatherers do if they came across a giant field full of Doritos?  If they answer that the tribe would probably gorge on those free calories, whatever the effect on their bodies because calories are valuable in their world, then you can have a useful conversation.  If they say they'd eschew it because it's not Paleo, shift the conversation as quickly as possible.**

** this conversation actually happened to me

The Zone Diet reminded us that dietary fat and protein are not evil, introduced the glycemic index to laypeople and attempted to restore "balance" with the 40-30-30 guidelines.  The pure Zone Diet is also hypo-caloric.  1200 calories for women and 1500 for men.  Although this can be modified upwards for our purposes, severe calorie restriction as a built-in premise of any diet is a horrible idea.  An active 205 pound man burning 3500 calories a day would lose around 16 pounds of "fat" adhering to the Zone recommendations in just one month.  Although I suspect a fair amount of that loss would be lean body mass.  This doesn't bode well for when he ups his calories to return back to equilibrium. He's now changed the size of his engine.

Ketogenic diets not only resuscitated protein and fat as necessary and important dietary components, but made them gods.  If you're an ultra-marathoner who can tap easily into dietary fat for energy rather than glycogen and carbs, high five.  Most of us aren't Inuit.

The IIFYM (If It Fits My Macros) or flexible dieting crowd posits that body composition is governed by the laws of thermodynamics.  A calorie is a calorie is a calorie.  It's a sensible response to the notion of "clean eating" or faddish diets as the solution to everything, particularly since clean eating lacks a consensus definition.  Plenty of "clean eating" recommendations can lead to fat gain, performance decrease or muscle atrophy.

The purist IIFYM literalist contends that simply hitting desired macros of protein, fats and carbs each day - whether achieved though eating veggies, game meat and sweet potatoes or five protein shakes, six doughnuts and eight hot dogs - will result in the same net effect on weight and fat accumulation.  Sort of.  If your only goal is short term body composition (and I mean weeks), they're more or less correct.  However, food quality, micronutrients and the complexity of calories-in (hormonal responses to food) and calories-out (our moving target of metabolic processes) makes these physical laws more opaque.  Food quality matters long term. It's also a fairly arrogant perspective as it ignores the bordering science in other fields, like epigenetics, that may have serious consequences for IIFYM literalism.

The clear positive of the smart IIFYM movement is that it creates mathematical inputs that can be adjusted to taste and gives you the most useful flexible framework for creating an individualized eating plan that isn't borne of ideological purity.  In fact, flexible dieting is probably the scaffolding we should all build our diets on.


My conclusion from examining various philosophies is that ideological adherence to any diet for teleological reasons is counterproductive.  Because that's not Paleo is an insufficient answer for explaining why we can't drink milk.  A vegan's ethical contortions around eating eggs, insects and fish are for them to suss out.

My current goal is to find a way to merge a Paleo-ish/Zone combo into the IIFYM construct.  And I'm starting to think genetic testing may be the logical place to start.  Anyone have any specific experiences with DNAFit or other such services?

Now, let's tackle some headline issues:


If you have celiac disease, this is a serious issue.  Celiacs comprise 1% of our population.  Another 5-6% of us may have some degree of non-celiac sensitivity, though this is debated.  The rest of us are fine with it.  In anticipation of the reader comment, If that's true how come when I cut out Gluten I lost 20 pounds, ran a half marathon and my farts smell like angel glitter now, re-read what I wrote above about exclusionary principles.  Gluten is found in a lot of bad stuff. By cutting out gluten, you cut out some empty calories and garbage and then replaced them with something better.  Even knowing what gluten is and acting on it puts you in a subset of people more likely to eat healthily and exercise.  This is why non-epidemiological perspectives in health outcomes are so deceptive.

If you do squats three times a week and follow each workout with a big protein shake and a prayer to Odin, attribute your new leg strength to the proper causation and stop recommending Norse pantheon worship.

Toxins/Alkaline diets

We don't have anonymous environmental toxins in our bodies that are freed by homeopathy, juicing, massage, chiropractic care or yoga, though toxicities exist all around us.  Water is toxic if consumed in sufficient quantities. Massage is good for you without resorting to mysticism.  My massive kale, apple, lemon, parsley, celery shake is good for me because of the nutrients and because it may replace an otherwise unhealthy meal. Chiropractors restore movement. Hot yoga helps build flexible range, chills you out and builds some relative strength. Homeopathy is utter horse shit.

Foods don't meaningfully change the pH of your BLOOD.  If you change the pH of your blood substantially, you will die a horrible, painful death.  Anyone take organic chemistry?  I didn't.  And I still know this.  Changes in acidity are reflected in urine levels. Urine is what we excrete. All over this idea.  What do alkaline diets recommend?  Lots of water, (specific) fruits, nuts, vegetables and no alcohol or processed foods.  Sounds pretty healthy.  Anyone noticing a theme yet?


Avoid.  The evidence is compelling that they, in and of themselves, are bad for you.  They're also present in heavily processed foods which are also not so great for you if eaten in any appreciable volume.  By eliminating trans-fats, we can kill a few vultures with one stone.


I am undecided and unpersuaded by most of the arguments on both sides.  If you react poorly to dairy, stop drinking it. You don't have the mutation that developed a few thousand years ago that allowed post-agrarian and herding peoples to tolerate lactose. If you handle milk pretty well, it has a pretty good nutritional profile.  I'm drinking it again with my whey protein shakes (I get a low sugar, higher protein content 2% variety), but I'm open to any evidence pro or con.  I just bought some almond milk to experiment with as well.


Good food, bad rap.  Eggs are good for you, unless you have a specific issue with eggs, dietary cholesterol, or fear the proliferative effects of same for a specific condition.  Dietary cholesterol is not the same thing as the cholesterol in our bodies.  This is a very important, elementary concept that has seemingly eluded media for four decades.  The science has long been established that eggs are not the culprit for your poor HDL profile (except for a small genetic minority), but media, governmental and nutritionist uptake on this fact has been negligible until very recently.

Number of Meals Per Day, Times of Day For Eating

The common recommendation to eat six small meals throughout the day for optimal body composition and steady blood sugar isn't just impractical, it appears to have no scientific basis.  Studies contrasting 3-6 meal per day regimens with the same number of calories and food quality found no real difference in outcomes.  That said, it may work. Confused yet?  It's a tricky subject as compliance and adherence to certain regimens could lead to better choices that affect outcomes even if the science is persuasive that these things really don't matter when all things are made equal.

Similarly, arbitrary rules about what can be eaten when and at what time also appear to be without any real scientific merit under those same net caloric assumptions.  Only eat fat during breakfast so you have the day to burn it off!  Don't eat at all past 7:07 pm!  No carbs after lunch! None of this matters.  It's about macros.

However, in the real world, someone who would eat six meals a day every 2.5 hours with chicken breasts, sweet potato & asparagus packed in tupperware is likely making healthier choices overall.  Fastidious, regimented behaviors suggest compliance to all sorts of things - including more exercise.  Why do we make our bed? Similarly, if you refuse to eat carbs past noon, that simple imposition of structure may drop your total carb intake from 80% of your diet to 45%, resulting in fewer calories overall, less empty late night carbs etc. The drop in calories and carbs happened because of the rule, not because our bodies only add fat from carbs at night.

Intermittent fasting appears to have some benefits, but I wouldn't do it for lengthy time periods or if seriously training. And divorce the practice from any other advice you get from a holistic wellness psychic aura reader wacko.

If establishing rules around meals creates a structure that forces real world compliance to your macros, do it.  But understand the causality.

Exercise On An Empty Stomach

You burn more immediate body fat in a fasted state than if you eat breakfast during the period of exercise.  So, it's settled, right?  Not so fast.  The larger equation of metabolism seems to play catch-up over the course of the day resulting in the same net effect.  This surprised my bro science reasoning, but I guess it shouldn't. Similar mechanisms explain why a sprinter has lower body fat than a distance runner despite much shorter workouts with less caloric burn overall.

This also applies to pre and post workout meals.  ALL of your meals are pre and post workout.  It's a continuum.  Just as in strength training, people are far too preoccupied with reductivism.

So the most important guiding factor should be doing what allows for the best execution of the exercise itself.  If you feel weak without some carbs to burn, eat first.  If your body feels glorious running fasted, abstain.

Sugar/High Fructose Corn Syrup

Gary Taubes posits that sugar is a carcinogen.  Metabolic poison.  These calories are not just a calorie because they influence larger metabolic processes, satiety, hormonal function and brain chemistry.  Others shrug and respond a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.  Physical laws aren't going to bend for Mr Taubes.

Both camps have a point.  I've read a lot and I'm not smart enough to assess the true threat level, but if we adopt a pure outcomes perspective, avoiding empty sugars results in better outcomes.  The attacks on fructose in fruit itself or milk sugar are less persuasive to me.  I think there's a difference between corn syrup sugar found in a kid's breakfast cereal and a peach in terms of fueling compulsive eating, insulin response and satiety, but, yes indeed, energy is energy.  Eating thirteen peaches is just as caloric as downing three bowls of Cocoa Frosted Flakes. Which scenario happens more frequently?  Why?  Which would a fatty be more likely to do?  On what foods do we gorge?  Probably not chicken breast and cruciferous vegetables.  This is the point for the layperson to consider.

Hardcore anti-sugar folks will still posit that fruit is nothing but a gateway drug while the calorie literalists refuse to give ground that certain foods influence actual behaviors in the real world.  The debate is interesting, but I'm looking for practical takeaways.

1.  Fruit drinks are packed with sugar and calories while offering the suggestion of health.  If you drink them, at least drink the pure forms not from concentrate and be clear about the sugar content.

2.  If you need to down a bag of Skittles, don't eat it unopposed on an empty stomach.  You're more likely to grab something else naughty and spike both insulin and empty calorie intake.

3.  Certain fruits or vegetables (carrots, beets, bananas) with a high glycemic index may need to be paired with denser slower-burn foods.

4.  "Fruit"-based candies, yogurts and drinks advertising 0 fat but with 45 grams of sugar and 58 carbs per serving are being marketed specifically to the anti-fat gullible crowd.


I'm sold on a gram of protein per pound of body weight per day to build muscle and optimize a large number of physiological processes.  Anti-protein crusaders (usually sedentary science and/or vegans) contend you need much less, while strength communities often argue for massive, somewhat silly, intakes.  The good news is that for most of us, protein can be taken in moderate excess with minimal consequence and if you're a few dozen grams shy per day, you're body has compensatory ways to prevent muscle loss and rebuild itself - particularly when you're not running a total caloric deficit.


Extreme lowfat diets result in heartache, some pretty ratty looking people and long term compensatory weight gain. And our government and lettered bodies have been idiots on the subject for a long time.  However, as the science becomes clearer and political bodies are forced to actually admit reality, the pro-fat backlash has gotten excessive.  A backlash often led by Paleo or ketogenic diet purists.  Dietary fat is the easiest calorie to convert to straight body fat - whereas a carb burns up 25% of itself making that conversion - and it's worth 9 calories to a carb's 4.  Once you establish a fat cell in the body - through any mechanism of caloric excess - it lives with you forever more.

Some types of fats aren't good for you and though it may be argued that a pound of bacon is better for you at breakfast than five calorie equivalent powdered doughnuts, neither is optimal.  Restoring fat to its proper place doesn't require overshoot.  I don't know if that's 20% or 30% of our diet, but it's clear to me that 10% or 50% are a bad idea.


The war on carbs, whether the predictable result of evolutionary hunter-gatherers suddenly met with abundance or proof that scientific consensus by governmental committee inevitably results in Lysenkoism, is now also a bit overdone.  Processed carbohydrates and total carbohydrate consumption in combination with sugar and fats (largely not from animal sources) made us fat, but abstaining from carbs altogether or making unsophisticated distinctions between nutritive and garbage carbs isn't helpful.  Dropping them below 30% of your intake strikes me as extreme.

It's 80% Nutrition, You Know

Exercise isn't much needed beyond a 30 minute stroll if you eat flawlessly. I hear this all of the time.  From smart people.  Nutrition is vital, but without the adaptive imperatives of exercise, many of the benefits of good nutrition are squandered.  Whether with respect to body composition, heart, brain and metabolic health, activation of key chemical processes or just getting jacked and tan sustainably over time.  Nutrition is more than 80% of the equation for existing, but just as with impoverished RDA nutrient recommendations, as your goals expand to thriving and flourishing, the type and total of your exercise becomes more and more important.

This can become a reductive chicken or the egg debate rather quickly ("like, without food, you die and stuff!") but I'm comfortable positing that exercise is the straw that stirs the drink if you have aspirations beyond respiration.

Wrap Up

A wise man once said that diet isn't about what you plan to eat, it's what you just ate.  It's really about habits and accountability built around some basically sound practices.  That's it.

Unfortunately, the human animal is irrational.  We lie to ourselves, we make false equations (orange juice has Vitamin C, Vitamin C is healthy, thus drinking five glasses of orange juice is healthy) and false equivalencies (I ate a cupcake so I'm going to spend nine minutes on the treadmill) and we move from fad to fad chasing marketing images, dietary ideological purity and get fit quick schemes.

I'm striving for a diet that's just a general way of eating.  I think the first step is eschewing any notions of ideological purity.  Some of it will be based on the exclusion of a few clear evils, but mostly it should be a way to balance the flexible realism of IIFYM (while still respecting food quality).  Should I track calories?  Should I keep a food diary?  Do I just use common sense to guide me through the day?  Are habits actually more important than nutritional planning?  I know what a good choice looks like.  Why don't I make them all of the time?  That's about changing behavior.

My primary issue is that I exercise my willpower best at the grocery store, but I'm weak-minded when it's in my refrigerator and pantry.  The little lady is exactly the opposite and she is unpersuaded by my supply chain arguments that the grocery store will stock these items for her and they don't need to all be represented in our home at all times. Further, I hate seeing food wasted, so if someone doesn't finish their plate, guess who helps?

So that's where I am.  Where are you at?