Like the words “religion” and “politics,” the word “diet” has gathered some interesting but unwarranted negative connotations wholly disconnected from its original or even historically consistent meaning. This has reached a point where I now frequently hear people say, “well, I’m not going to ‘diet’; it’s just got to be a way of life.” I hate to break it to you. “Diet” means “a way of life.” Everyone is on a diet. You are always on a diet. You are never off of a diet. But you are either practicing your diet with intention and maturity or you are not. That is, you have either grown up to the point of having premeditated direction in your life, or you have trained your brain to tolerate an undirected series of amorphous chaotic emotional responses as your leader and CEO of your existence. To this point, I think we can all recognize how the popular diet brands which use gimmicks and jargon to help dieters avoid this very intentionality are definitionally and inherently incapable of creating longterm change. Frankly, longterm statistics are bleak (http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Dieting-Does-Not-Work-UCLA-Researchers-7832). The more effective a diet seems at the beginning, the worse it performs thereafter (http://www.elev8wellness.com/wellblog_best_nutrition_training_coaching_experts/why-imposed-extreme-rapid-weight-loss-always-fails-and-what-to-do-about-it).
Let’s say you determine an eating worldview you think is beneficial, like, say, vegetarianism. Is veganism better yet? If so, is raw better? Is a processed macadamia nut butter cheese still raw-whole-food-vegan enough? If not, are you off that diet and onto something else? And then do you still care about macronutrient breakdown or timing? Is there a number of daily meals that is better than another? Does the inability of veganism to provide nutrients (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/82/2/327.abstract; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21139125; http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/3/633S.long; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12816782; https://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/abcs-of-nutrition/vitamin-a-on-trial-does-vitamin-a-cause-osteoporosis/) which are necessary for humans pose a problem? Or does that pose such little downside versus the benefit that it’s a negligible risk? Or is it ok to supplement? How much supplementation is enough, of what, when, from which manufacturer, which third party testers, based upon what evidence, within what research, performed by what team, under what type and level of peer review?
That’s just food. What about water? Does mineral content matter? What about filtration type, alkalinity, electrical charge, ounces, temperature? What about air quality? Nevermind that there’s good evidence sleep duration (go figure - we should manage stress) and quality play a more vital role in fat loss than what you eat, drink or breathe (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25581918).
There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing the best diet, like the effect on gut microbiota (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20955691), energy levels (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/why-you-cant-lose-weight-on-a-diet.html), hormone balance (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3880087/), ethics, sustainability. Is it scientifically-supported, sensible, genotype-specific, phenotype-specific?
We can get as complicated as you like. I have. I do. I will. Every style of eating you can imagine I’ve done; and I’ve met and walked clients through many variants with different degrees of success. But what it really comes down to is two questions:
1.) If I convince you of the absolute perfect way to eat, guarantee it will make you live forever in perfect health and fitness, BUT it’s going to be friggin hard, every day, forever, are you going to be 100% compliant?
No? Then what are we doing here? Like a political debate, facts won’t change minds (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds). Even if they did, I know regimented human cyborg freaks who aren’t 100% compliant with planned behavior all the time. Calorie and nutrient cycling and flexible dieting (which are not new, by the by) try to play a semantics game around this. But the point remains that no one is “strict” always. I call “strictness” the season of intensity. Seasons come and go. There must be a season of moderation. And perhaps there must even be a season of feast and another of fast. This brings us to the most important question.
2.) What WILL you do?
You see, what you WILL do guides all decisions about what methodology and strategy is best. When I first met John Berardi as he was piloting the Precision Nutrition certification, he had this idea of asking people how confident they were on a scale of 1-10 that they could do the next agreed-upon lifestyle changes. I loved that. But it doesn’t go far enough. What WILL you do? I don’t care if you’re a 10 on confidence. We need to know what you WILL do, on the worst of weeks, when there’s no motivation, when the stuff hits the fan. Because guess what: I am a 10 on confidence that your week is not going to go as planned, and that the dream world you thought you’d have for your 10 on confidence never exists. That’s where you start.
Here’s the tricky part. Behavior creates identity and beliefs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-perception_theory). Thus, you cannot change behavior by getting more informed or thinking differently. You just have to act differently, arbitrarily, as a step to change your identity and subsequently beliefs about what you can do. Right now, you are only ever going to do what you are going to do. If your identity is the conscientious eater who abstains from possible harm to animals, you won’t give a rip about how lean or healthy you can get with an animal fat and animal protein-based diet. If your identity is the steak-eating man or woman, you won’t ever care at all how healthy you may feel during avoidance of red meat. Most Americans are programmed to eat processed starch for breakfast. This is an invention of cereal marketeers and demonstrably destroying us (https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/06/how-marketers-invented-the-modern-version-of-breakfast/487130/). Even so, that is the behavior of most Americans; so they reinforce the behavior by believing it is the right thing to do. Skipping breakfast or returning it to something sensible and based on science is too big an alteration for many people. It conflicts with their previous behavior and identity. People have so many layers of cognitive dissonance and reprogramming to wade through and errant Pavlovian conditioning to shake first. Perhaps one day. But let’s start where you are. Don’t try to take on a fight that is best engaged in the future.
The other fact to keep in mind is that a lot of diets are indirectly and peripherally addressing real underlying issues. To be clear, an ostensibly effective diet may only show promise by virtue of avoiding any one of the many pitfalls which are hallmarks of the average American’s habits. If we stack anything up against the average American diet or Standard American Diet, yeah, ANYTHING else is more effective. The SAD is processed, nutrient-poor, genetically-modified, calorie-rich, carb-dominant, protein-devoid, whole-food-averse, quality-fat-absent, contains pesticides, chemical-ridden, volatile from day to day, and boils down to about 7 ingredients: wheat, eggs, dairy, corn, nuts, soy and preservatives. ANYTHING you will do to change this will improve your health. ANYTHING you will do that gets some actual vitamins and minerals and doesn’t take insulin for a rollercoaster ride will work to a certain extent. ANYTHING you can do to reduce volatility will be an improvement. It doesn’t matter what label you slap on that thing. The fundamentals are in place. Then we can refine things. Then we can have the nuanced debates. Then we can talk about complete identity revision.
The best diet is both easy and hard.
It is easy in the sense that it has to be within or right on the edge of your readiness for change. If it appears too foreign, no matter how well-supported by evidence, forget it. Your brain would be sabotaging you every millisecond of attempted compliance. Find something that is different than your clearly-broken pattern, but accessible within your current willpower and beliefs. These minor alterations would be defined as the “preparation” steps of the Transtheoretical Model in behavioral change psychology (http://sphweb.bumc.bu.edu/otlt/MPH-Modules/SB/BehavioralChangeTheories/BehavioralChangeTheories6.html).
The best diet is hard in the sense that anything worthwhile ain’t easy. There is value in doing hard things. Difficulty is the chisel which carves masterpieces. If you want some result other than what you currently have, learn to love the struggle.
I’m not contradicting myself. I’m saying find an obvious and smooth exit ramp. But it should be taking you onto a gravel road with potholes. Down the road, it will eventually get smooth. If you keep driving back and forth on the same stretch, then it’s just going to suck all the time. Too often, when the road gets bumpy, people turn back right before it gets smooth. On the way back, right before they reach that smooth exit ramp, it dawns on them they’re back where they started; and around they turn again. You can see where this is going: nowhere with a whole lot of chassis abuse. Pick a direction and commit. Little by little, bit by bit, always forward, slow and steady, and seldom by leaps and bounds. That will become the best diet.