Welcome back! Las Vegas was awesome but I’m happy to be back in the grind. So let’s get started!
Critical Thinking Corner
Can we say what diet is best for health? It is not only a completely valid and important question, but also the title of a recently published paper in the Annual Review of Public Health from researchers of Yale University. I’ll say right now that the researcher’s answer to this question is (at least to me) is one of those “no-duh” moments.
But before we get into that, let’s critically think for a moment. What is a “diet”? Seriously, there are so many “diets” out there that people tend to get lost in the details. According to the online dictionary, the term “diet” has about 11 definitions depending on how it is used, but my personal favorite is the foods eaten, as by a particular person or group. Back to the study at hand, the diets analyzed were low-carbohydrate, low-fat, vegan/vegetarian, low-glycemic, Mediterranean, mixed/balanced, and Paleolithic. Clearly these are all diets, although the first two deal with macronutrients or diet quantities, while the remainder deals with food choices and diet quality.
The above adds an overlooked piece of complexity to the puzzle. Namely, a diet is a combination of both the macronutrient distribution and food choices. There are quite literally infinite possibilities of diets and it is almost guaranteed that no one person will be on the same exact diet as another. For instance, many low-carbohydrate diets have various proportions of fat and protein that effectively make them different diets. A 15/80/5 protein/fat/carbohydrate diet is not the same as a 40/55/5 diet. Furthermore, while most individuals on a low-carbohydrate diet only eat fibrous vegetables, it is still completely possible to not eat any and just have a slice of bread daily. Similarly, vegan diets can be both low-fat and low-carb, and Paleolithic diets can undoubtedly be any combination of macronutrients so long as certain food groups are abstained from.
Another factor complicating things is the goals and physiological state of the individual or group in question. The researcher’s question is highly contextual. Keep that in mind, as an athlete at sub-10% body-fat trying to build muscle will not have the same “best diet” as a sedentary obese adult attempting to lose weight. Back to the study at hand, the researcher’s do provide some context for their review. Beating past the professionalism and political correctness, they basically say that the current standard American diet is horrible and leads to disease. Thus, the context of this review is a diet that is best for reversing the ailments of the typical Western world (obesity and metabolic syndrome).
The researchers actually use their critical thinking skills when evaluating the diets listed earlier, and they are quick to point out many flaws and benefits about each. If anything, I recommend reading the article for these nuggets of amusement. For instance, they point out some of the complexities that I mentioned earlier. One such example is quoted below.
A vegetarian diet is not reliably low in fat, nor does it necessarily comprise mostly wholesome plant foods. Similarly, a low-fat diet need not be high in plant foods, and it certainly need not comprise wholesome foods direct from nature. For purposes of this assessment, however, the more idealized versions of “low-fat” and “vegetarian” are intended. Such diets do tend to overlap, and both place a particular emphasis on wholesome, minimally processed, plant-derived foods.
As for the answer to our initial question, the answer is no, plain and simple. The researchers acknowledge this, and anyone who uses their brain should be in agreement. Blanket statements are very self-limiting. There is no “best” diet if we adhere to rigid principles, but if we look at the similarities between diets and allow for more flexibility, then the “best” diet can be defined as
- Comprising preferentially minimally processed foods direct from nature and food made up of such ingredients.
- Based around plants
- The animal foods are themselves the products of pure plant foods (i.e. grass-fed, etc.) because the composition of their flesh and milk is influenced by diet as much as we are.
Hopefully you will see now why I consider this a “no-duh” moment. For us Super Humans, at least, this makes sense, but for the vast majority of people who have been brainwashed by various dietary dogma or simply don’t give a second (or first) thought to their diet and health, this is not so simple. There is no best diet, but the above similarities between many common diets exert favorable influences across a wide spectrum of health conditions. The constant bickering about what diet is best only works to obscure an established body of evidence and stall progress. There needs to be less debate about what diet is best for health and more focus on how to move cultures and societies towards a well-established theme of optimal eating.
Around the Web
For anyone who needs graph paper, Gridzzly is an amazing and simple tool to let you print your own.
Great stuff over at CasePerformance this last week. My good friend and mentor Sean Casey wrote an amusing piece of some of his “face-palm” moments (one of which involved a discussion with me, let’s just say not to talk with Sean past 11pm ;-)
On a similar note, for part I of his monthly newsletter I wrote an article on the often mal-aligned white potato and how this humble spud is quite the powerhouse.
Speaking of diets from the critical thinking corner, vegetarians are associated with “poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.” Meat anyone?
If you still eat fried foods, you may want to rethink that.
SuppVersity Post of the Week
The smile on my face when I read this article huddled over my phone could not have been more pronounced. Some people probably thought I just hit the jackpot at the casino that day since I was honestly walking around with a huge grin and great attitude from dawn to dusk. Given the circumstances, I figure this post deserves a little more discussion space.
I am a huge proponent of “no snacking”, regardless of goals. I don’t care if you are trying to lose fat, gain muscle, or simply adopt better eating habits, snacking is a bad idea and this article is more proof of that. Of course this exists on a spectrum and there is a major grey area about what constitutes a “snack” vs. perhaps a small “meal”, but I digress. Humans are not herbivores (well, maybe the vegans are, but look at them – yah, not very encouraging).
Since the study at hand dealt with individuals in a hypercaloric diet and most the comments are asking about eating patterns when trying to build muscle, let’s stick with this context. To summarize the article in one sentence, snacking reduces resting energy expenditure and when combined with a surplus of calories also leads to excessive fat gain independent of the diet composition. Being in a hypercaloric diet is necessary to build muscle. The unwanted side-effect is the fat-gain that will accompany the muscle. Don’t think you can avoid the fat by doing some weird cyclical diet; the only thing that will accomplish is suboptimal muscle growth (if any) and a bunch of wasted time. What you can do, however, is minimize the fat-gain.
I had a long discussion about timing protein intake to maximize muscle protein synthesis (MPS) in the comments (screen name: Primalkid) to one of Adel’s other articles. Basically, to maximize your gains you want to consume adequate protein – 30-40g minimum of high-quality animal sources – every 3-4 hours. If we combine this with the study at hand, the simple solution when trying to build muscle is to eat a meal every 3-4 hours. If you want a further boost to your health and fat-minimizing efforts, you also want to intermittent fast. The benefits of fasting start to accumulate at about the 10-12 hour mark after your last meal, and we want to allow adequate time to get as much protein synthesis stimuli as possible.
So here is what I do. When trying to build muscle, I like to eat three meals per day. Four is fine if it works for you. I fast for 12 hours daily and train in the mornings. Thus, my first meal is post-workout around the 12 hour mark. I then eat about every 4-5 hours later for my remaining meals. On non-training days, my first meal comes at the same time and I follow the same schedule, just no training to precede it. Oh, and don’t worry about meal size. Each of my meals is usually over 1,000 kcal, and I can say confidently that my gains are pretty lean.