The title for this post was meant to draw you in; to answer perhaps the most burning question of our generation. The answer might disappoint and enlighten you at the same time. There is too much variation in the human genome and environments; no one knows what exactly it is. I have spent almost every spare moment of the past 5 years scouring the nutritional science research as it relates to both health and performance. I have finally come to a startling conclusion. Nutritional sciences are new, fraught with poor scientific research methodology, and we are still figuring out the optimal diet. If anyone claims to know the perfect diet for all of mankind they are delusional. Also, I think people have made nutrition much more complicated than it needs to be. Yes, even though I consider myself a nutrition nerd and have carved a niche with my knowledge, I think it is our inalienable human right to know how to eat. It really isn’t that difficult. We just exist in an environment so incredibly dichotomous with how we are supposed to eat it is mind numbing. That being said I have found some key principles and actions I think can create the optimal diet for YOU (the term diet will now be referred to as nutritional strategy as I hate the word diet).
Principle 1: Virtually all processed foods should be avoided
From my research and experience I have found that virtually all processed foods are “nutritional deserts” and “energy oases”. Processed foods provide a lot of energy (in calories) without the nutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals) found in the energy equivalent of natural foods. Furthermore, most processing imbues your food with garbage you really don’t want to consume. Yes, some processing is required for food but I am talking about industrial processing.
Action 1: Try to replace your processed food choices with real food choices
This doesn’t need to complicated; keep it simple. You need protein in your diet; swap out pepperoni, bologna and McDonald’s beef patties for chicken, steak, eggs, and fish. You need fat and lots of it; swap out processed seed oils (i.e. grapeseed/canola oil) for olive oil and coconut oil. You do need carbs to fuel high-intensity exercise and frankly they taste good. Opt for sweet potatoes, squash, normal potatoes, and white rice instead of sugar, grains, and processed flours. If you do anything this year to improve your nutrition principle 1 and action 1 will give you incredibly powerful results both metabolically and aesthetically.
Principle 2: There is no universal, magic macronutrient ratio. There is a lot of variation across cultures and even individuals.
The 40/30/30 Zone works. Ketogenic diets work. High-carb low-fat works. Atkins works. They all work to some degree. There is no single magic macronutrient ratio. Due to genetic and environmental differences, each person has their own macronutrient sweet spot. This should not be daunting; it does not mean you need genetic testing and a nutritional wizard to find if you need 23% protein, 32% fat and 45% carbs (I think that adds up to 100). It means this: your body partitions nutrients better than you or I know how to feed it. Use some basic nutritional principles (see principle and action 1), some self experimenting, and find your optimal sweet spot.
Action 2: Eat like an athlete, fuel your body like a high performance machine (because it is).
This is action is simple and straight forward. Consume enough protein to optimize your lean muscle mass, support enzymatic function, and bolster your immune system. This is usually about ~.75-1g/lb of lean muscle mass per day. Eat enough carbs to fuel your high-intensity workouts. There are fancy carb counters out there but really just gauge it on how you feel and recover. My quick easy formula is a baseline of about 75 grams a day and an additional 70-80 for each 30-45 minutes of really high intensity work. Quick, easy, simple. Round out the rest of your diet in health fats. Don’t stress out about macronutrient ratios. Unless you are getting dialed in for a competition you don’t need to know your exact percentages each and everyday. Honestly, it really is not that huge of a deal.
Principle 3: Low-fat is not ideal for optimal health.
As a scientist I will always remain impartial and remove my own bias when looking for an answer. There is indeed a lot of scientific evidence that low-fat diets can be successful tools for weight loss (if you don’t agree I will send you the entire folder of articles on my external hard drive showing they do, but be prepared to read for a long time). Unfortunately, I have also concluded that they are not the best diet for optimal health. Too much evidence exists that higher levels of fat intake (from 30-70% of total calories) result in better metabolic function and promote optimal health.
Action 3: Don’t be afraid of “healthy” fat; consume it often
Each individual processes and partitions nutrients a little differently; some people function better on moderate (~30%) and others higher (70%) fat diets. I would recommend people float somewhere in the middle. Don’t worry about the exact percent. Truthfully, it is probably not a huge deal.
Principle 4: Have a sound, positive mindset about your nutritional habits
I hate diets, so I am guessing you do to. There is an easy solution to that; never go on a diet. Decide you are going to view food both as a source of nourishment and a source of enjoyment. Be positive about the fact you are deciding to be healthy.
Action 4: Find what works, what you like to eat, and be consistent
Find out exactly what works for you: your macronutrient ratio, how often you like to eat, and where supplements fit in. Find your favorite foods that follow principle and action 1. Then be consistent. Eat within these principles the majority of the time. Kick your heels up and eat purely for enjoyment occasionally (have dessert on your birthday and Christmas, it won’t kill you).
Nutrition isn’t all that difficult. Yes, nutrition can be and sometimes is more complicated but eating healthy is different from being perfect in your nutrition. There is a rule/law that 20% of the work gets you 80% of the way. I think that applies to nutrition as well. These 4 principles will give you the greatest return on your investment! Some athletes and diseased people need more in-depth analysis but if you follow these basic principles and actions you will have the lifetime skills to being healthier and a better athlete.
Let us answer the question of “What is the optimal diet” with finality. The optimal diet is what works for you; what provides physical nourishment and optimal physical health, a healthy psychological relationship with food, and allows you to function as a high-level athlete if you are. Food is good; embrace it with a positive mindset.
Brad Deiter is a man of many interests. He is a Strength and Conditioning coach, a sports nutritionist, an aspiring weightlifter, a PhD trained exercise physiologist and molecular biologist, and a biostatistician… he is clearly a confused yet passionate person. He currently is doing a postdoctoral fellowship in biomedical research trying to cure diseases, when he isn’t nerding out in the lab or training to get stronger and faster, he runs a gym and still maintains a large client base for his nutritional consulting. You can find his gym at AsgardStrength.Weebly.com and contact him for more in depth nutrition advice at firstname.lastname@example.org