I don’t hope to convince you that the Paleo diet, the Atkins diet, a Precision Nutrition style model of eating, Primal eating, or vegetarianism is the best diet. In fact, I’d like you to believe that no matter what your current diet is you should change it – at least eventually.
If you’re a fitness enthusiast (and maybe even if you’re not) you will have noticed that trends in diet come and go in cycles. A decade ago, low-fat dieting was all the rage both in mainstream media as well as in bodybuilding circles. It seemed to pass the common-sense sniff test, “if you don’t eat fat, you won’t be fat.” This cycle lasted for many years, until a wide enough swath of bodybuilders realized they were trading major biological functions (mildly important things like, you know, sex drive) in exchange for keeping their fat intake so low.
Then the tide shifted towards predominantly low-carb dieting, with much higher fat intake. Naturally, this worked exceptionally well for a while as people learned that body fat is much more closely linked to carbohydrate intake (and the associated hormone responses) and that dropping carbs very low created rapid fat loss. Most recently, formerly low-carb evangelists have realized that carbs, too, are needed for healthy metabolic function. Having nowhere left to turn, with protein being sacred and realizing that neither fat nor carbs can be injudiciously eliminated from a diet, these folks are turning to more of a “everything in moderation” approach. But they’re still wrong.
A few years ago a couple bright, innovative authors and researchers proposed a very controversial idea. Brad Pilon and Martin Berkhan suggested that maybe, just maybe, you don’t need to eat the widely accepted 6 meals per day. In fact, these guys recommended fasting completely anywhere from 18 to 24 hours per day. People who have implemented this strategy have reported exceptional results, especially in fat loss. Those who came directly from a habit of eating meals every 3-4 hours often observe the most pronounced positive effects.
The shift from carbs to fat, and eating often to taking large breaks from eating has one major thing in common: change.
It’s not, contrary to the flawed understanding of many of the premature evangelists of these ideas, that any one of these macro dietary trends is necessarily better than the other. For example, when you’ve been eating low-carb for a long time and you begin to reintroduce carbs in your diet you will likely experience marked improvements in performance, body composition, and health. Your clone in opposite world will experience the same level of improvement when they reintroduce fat into their low fat diet. The point is that when you let the pendulum swing too far in any one direction, you can expect that a change of direction is going to happen – whether you like it or not. The people who try to maintain stability in the face of impending change are in for a world of pain.
Life, in a very real way, is chaos, change and the response to it. What separates you from a rock is that when a pick splits the rock in half the rock will never be whole again, much less bigger than whole. When you lift weights, your muscle is (figuratively) split in half and then put back together again – not only whole, but better than before. Nassim Taleb wrote what I consider to be one of the most important books of our time on this phenomenon, coining a new term for it: antifragile.
A champagne glass is fragile. A short fall from a low ledge will shatter it to pieces. It can’t handle any disorder.
A pint glass is still fragile, but a bit more robust. A fall from a ledge may not break it, but a fall from a table will create more disorder than it can ever recover from.
Your body is antifragile. If you looked at muscle and blood markers of distress after a workout, you would assume the body had suffered an injury. Some time later, everything would be back to normal and measurably better than before. An antifragile system does not suffer when disorder is introduced — it benefits from it.
Relentlessly sticking to a very specific and stable dietary philosophy is fragile. You will experience disorder and you will not be able to react to it. The disorder will be greater than your body can handle, and you’ll break. A recent and common example, that you can verify with a few minutes on Facebook or reading blogs in the fitness industry, is the extremely high prevalence of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Chronically low carbohydrate intake, as seen with rigid ideological low-carb dieting, often combined with high stress, is associated to serious thyroid dysfunction.
In nature, things move in waves – changing direction when they crest and trough. Biology can be explained by chemistry, chemistry can be explained by physics. An oversimplification to be sure, but it is our current understanding. We know that the very foundation of physics is the movement of matter through space in the form of waves. Waves carry energy. In a very real sense, change or lack of change carries energy. At a certain point it will take more energy to resist the change than it does to move with the change. The longer you resist the change, the bigger the correction will be when the change of direction finally occurs. Anyone who has seen a figure competitor binge after a contest like they just go out of a concentration camp can attest to this.
Perhaps you have experienced this yourself. You may have eaten a certain way for quite a while with either positive changes you wanted to see (such as fat loss) or no change at all if you were happy with your current state. Whatever you were doing, you might say it was working for you. At some point though, it stopped working. You stopped losing fat, maybe even started gaining weight even though you were eating the same way. This gets frustrating, so you increase the compliance with whatever you’re doing. If you’re eating low carb, you cut your carbs even lower. If you’re fasting, you fast even more often. If you’re eating many meals with high protein you eat even smaller meals and up your protein intake. Essentially, you apply more effort (no different than the first topic in this book) but it doesn’t work. It won’t work, because the entire system has changed. You don’t need to go further in the same direction, you need to go in an entirely different direction.
Whatever you are doing right now, whatever “works for you” in this moment, is not going to work forever. You should be prepared to change it, and in fact you have to be prepared to anticipate the change and shift before you’re forced to. The longer a system has been stable, the more unstable it is. Change will happen. Will you be ready to surf the wave, or will you be drowned by it?
Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What are you eating the most of?
- What are you eating the least of? Could you eat more of that?
- How many different things, in different categories, do you eat?
- Are there things you can’t eat at all? Can you find a variation, or something close to what you can’t eat that you CAN eat? [Ex: You can’t drink milk, but you can eat hard cheese. Can you eat softer cheeses?]
- How often do you eat? Can you eat less often? More often?
- Can you eat large meals?
- Can you eat many small meals?
- Can you go 12 hours without food? 18? 24? 36?
- Can you operate at your highest level of performance eating low levels of carbohydrates?
- Can you operate at your highest level of performance eating low levels of fat?
- Can you operate at your highest level of performance eating low levels of protein?