What is a diet agnostic?

The most common question that I get as a personal trainer is, “How do you feel about _____.” This is often a much more complex question than you would imagine. There are many factors that determine whether a specific diet is right for any given individual and there is certainly not a “one-size-fits-all” approach to eating. We are all uniquely created, complex creatures and the myriad factors that make us who we are, are endless. For this reason, I do not herald any diet as superior to another, yet do not dismiss any dieting strategy as useless. I choose to remain a diet agnostic.

In order to show you what I mean by this, I have decided to take a close look at the 3 dieting strategies that I am most commonly asked about: beachbody, keto, and IIFYM (If It Fits My Macros). Please continue reading for a more in-depth look at these dieting strategies.

To start, all three of these diets have one large flaw and one large benefit: they all raise food awareness, but none of them are ‘one-size-fits-all.’ All three of these diets give individuals a chance to evaluate their food selection and think critically about their choices, but each diet does this in a very different way.

Starting with Keto, this diet claims that cutting carbohydrates to as low as 5% of your calorie intake will allow you to eat without thought of portions, only satiety, and still lose fat.  Also, from my personal experience, it often claims to not only help lose fat but also to build muscle. There may be some merit to the fat loss claims, as both protein and fat are much more effective for satiation which may satisfy hunger signals and allow an individual to eat less over the course of a 24-hour period. Also, studies have shown that it can cause massive reductions in insulin levels and blood sugar. For this reason, carbohydrate reduction may be a  worthwhile endeavored for those that are diabetic or pre-diabetic, although this is not proven in humans and a doctor should always be consulted before starting a new diet for individuals with these conditions. I would not, however, suggest reducing carbohydrates to this extreme for myriad reasons. First off, there are many health benefits claimed by the Keto diet that are not yet substantiated by research beyond correlation, which can be a slippery slope. This may be the biggest reason to be weary of this particular diet, as forced ketosis is not properly researched yet and requires an individual to change the natural processes of their body. Although your liver will resort to producing ketones in place of glucose, it seems very unlikely that glucose can be so drastically reduced and participants won’t see drops in athletic performance. Glucose is essential to life, so restricting it to these extremes may do more harm than good to athletic performance and, possibly, health. The next, and most important, issue is adherence. It is unlikely that most individuals will be able to keep up this type of dieting long term without cravings that lead to inevitable binge eating and weight re-gain. Lastly, fiber and a cascade of other micronutrients are most readily found in carbohydrate rich sources. Limiting carbohydrates may lead to micronutrient deficiencies that may hinder athletic performance and prolonged health. In the end, certain ketogenic tendencies, specifically carbohydrate reduction can be effective for certain individuals (bodybuilders prepping for a competition or those looking to lose weight quickly) for a limited period of time, but I would not recommend it for prolonged periods of time. 

Next, Beachbody is a company with programs such as ’21 Day Fix,’ ‘PiYo,’ and ‘3 Week Yoga Retreat,’ designed around portion control using small containers delivered to your home and short daily workout videos. There are many testimonies to this diet programs effectiveness and superiority to other diet and exercise programs. A perceived benefit often associated with Beachbody is the ability to complete the workouts in the comfort of your own home. One of the most obvious red-flags is apparent upon reading the titles of the programs. ‘Fix’ is a sensitive word when used in the fitness industry as it suggests that there is something wrong with the individual to begin with. This is not a positive or effective starting point for an individual looking for fitness and nutritional guidance. Next, ’21 day’ suggests that 21 days of dieting in this way may act as a cure-all to all nutritional deficiencies. This is a short sited approach that skips the essential task of building sustainable nutritional habits and will inevitably lead to weight regain when the 21 day period ends and individuals go back to eating ‘normally.’ There are also many positives, however, as Beachbody raises food awareness by separating ‘containers’ into ‘fat,’ ‘carbohydrate,’ and ‘protein,’ dense foods respectively. This is an excellent lesson in portion control and helps participants understand macronutrient breakdown.  Also, it makes the diet customizable to athletic and dietary needs, but only if the participant has an advanced knowledge of the role each macronutrient plays in the body. Another pitfall of this nutritional program is that the extreme adherence required leads to all-or-none thinking and may be difficult to jump right into.  If the program is overwhelming, adherence is not likely. Also, this nutritional program promotes Shakeology which boasts many unsubstantiated claims and is very expensive ($99 monthly). The supplement carries many crucial micronutrients, but it is much better to get essential micronutrients via real food, not supplemental ‘shakes.’ In the end, Beachbody teaches several good dieting lessons and may be effective for certain individuals (especially primarily sedentary and extremely busy individuals) but I would recommend taking the lessons learned from Beachbody and applying them to a long-term nutritional plan tailored to their specific needs instead.

Lastly, IIFYM or flexible dieting, which generally includes counting calories, has been a preferred diet of many body builders and athletes for years.  You can see body builders on social media eating massive meals that are perceived to be extremely unhealthy and still maintaining 6-pack abs and sculpted physiques.  It is often claimed that you can “eat whatever you want,” and still make permanent improvements in athletic performance and aesthetics. While this mantra is ‘technically’ true, it does not tell the whole story and is likely to lead to declines in health and fitness instead of progress if this is taken literally. The best feature of this nutritional program is the flexibility, awareness, and customizability that it offers. Flexible dieting can be tailored to fit the athletic needs of any individual with any particular goal. If food and progress are properly tracked it also works significantly well with outcome based goals, as you can see what foods are working for you and make adjustments accordingly.  Also, as there are no ‘restricted’ foods, adherence will tend to be higher with this type of dieting. It is commonly recommended that an 80/20 split of which 80% are ‘healthy’ whole foods, and 20% whatever the participant would like. This is a good perk of this nutritional program as it doesn’t lead to all-or-nothing thinking. It is easy to see already, that the success or failure of this type of eating in large part depends on how strict or meticulous the individual tracking has decided to be.  As food labels are known to be very inaccurate, sometimes as much as 25%, it seems counter productive to be so meticulous about tracking said information. It is not an exact science and tracking calories so meticulously is tedious, time consuming, and difficult, and will inevitably be unsustainable. For this reason, I personally do not recommend that clients count calories unless they are already quite advanced and have a very specific goal that calls for this approach. The most severe issue with this type of dieting is that it is incredibly short sited and doesn’t take into account micronutrients and the complexities of the human body.  An individual may be making strides in their physique while taking extreme hits to their personal health and nutrition.  A cascade of micronutrient deficiencies often accompany this type of dieting, so vitamin and mineral intake must be considered if flexible dieting is to be effective.  In the end, tracking calorie intake is not a long-term solution for peak health and fitness, but could be tailored to help achieve any goal. Special care must be taken that this type of dieting does not become excessively restrictive and lead to disordered eating.

This blog post is not meant to serve as an in-depth scientific analysis of any of these diets or to shame anyone who is currently following one of these dieting approaches but, instead, to highlight the value of a trainer and give you a glimpse into my values as a trainer. Being able to fairly evaluate any given diet is crucial to being able to make proper nutritional recommendations to my clients. Identifying limiting factors and working to build habits that eliminate them is the key to sustainable success. Looking specifically at adherence ability, micro and macronutrient content, and current scientific evidence is absolutely necessary before building a nutritional and fitness program for my clients. For these reasons, I will continue to remain, a diet agnostic. 

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