A question I get asked ALL THE TIME is which diet or exercise program is the BEST? That’s a loaded question.
There are several things to consider before even trying to answer that question. First, can there truly be one best program? How can that even be determined? Big clinical trials vs personal experience? Can one plan fit all?
People often ask me what I did to lose weight and get healthy. The idea being that they are planning to try and do exactly what I did, and expecting (unrealistically) to get the same results. Personal stories are inspiring, but not everything works for everyone. On the converse side, just because a large scale research study said that something works it does NOT mean that it will work for all, but probably just for the majority. What many people do not realize is that I’ve tried a lot of things and had a lot of failures. What I’ve done is to drop the things that don’t seem to make a difference and keep the things that do, especially getting rid of the parts of a program that are money, effort, or time consuming.
This is critically important as we don’t have the time, effort, or money to keep trying different programs that lead to minimal or no results. Take diet for instance. There are so many different diet plans, some so extreme (such as the cabbage only diet) that you know that it can’t be sustained for more than a few weeks no matter how good the results are. Furthermore, most diet plans focus on restrictions-vegetarian, vegan, low carb, low fat, etc. Why do they do this? To separate themselves from the other diet plans and, quite frankly, to make money. By featuring what makes them unique as exclusive, they distract you from the potential good in other diets.
This can get so frustrating that often we wish that all these plans could face of against each other in a Hunger Games type battle to the death! I’d pay real money to see militant vegans fight paleo-crossfitters for dietary supremacy!
Seriously there is a better way. We can look to see what are the similarities between the different plans and employ those strategies. When you look at the following diets, paleo, keto, Mediterranean, MIND, DASH, Dean Ornish, vegan, vegetarian, several things cut across all of them:
- Focus on being plant based. Even the keto and paleo diets recommend a foundation of plants (minimal fruits though).
- Limit (or elimination of) meat. Even the paleo people focus on high quality, but low amounts of meat.
- Reduction of carbs, especially bad carbs. This is critically important as most of the standard American diet (S.A.D.) is processed carbs which are loaded with sugar. A lot of people lose weight on the keto diet, not because they become ketogenic (the vast majority don’t even check for ketosis via blood or urine testing), but because they eliminate carbs, especially the ones that are very calorie dense, which are the ones that we grab and go, snack on, and are our comfort foods.
- Limit processed foods, eat whole foods.
- Limit sugar.
- Sleep more.
These few points represent the GUTs of most diet programs and can be what I call the Grand Unified Theory (GUT) for us to start off with and follow.
I’m sure many of you were intrigued by the Frankenstein reference in the title. Before we go into that a little literary history.
You may not remember from high school English class, but Frankenstein was written by Mary Shelley from 1816 to 1818. She was only 18 when she started working on this and published it anonymously. It tells the story of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, a Swiss doctor, who is obsessed with bringing a creature to life to help him deal with the pain of the death of his mother. That creature, Frankenstein’s monster is a golem- creature made by cobbling together parts from other humans and re-animating it. Once he brings it to life he realizes what a mistake he made and we learn of the ripple effect of death and horror caused by his hideous monster.
So how does this have anything to do with health?!?! When we build a health program for ourselves we need to do THREE things that Dr. Frankenstein did.
- We need to cobble together, steal, parts from different programs to build our own personal program.
- We also need to be like scientists and experiment on ourselves to see what works and what doesn’t and adjust the plan on the fly. Remember the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results!
- If something doesn’t work out, like Frankenstein’s monster, we need to kill it (get rid of it).
Here are some concrete examples on how to apply the above 3 principles.
One of the common areas I’m asked about are supplements. Overall the published data does not recommend supplements for general health and neither do I. Supplements are a big industry with little quantifiable results. They cost money, take time buying and organizing and taking, and often do not lead to any changes in your health. In fact the only typical change is that your wallet gets thinner, but you don’t.
Having said that I have 3 guidelines for continuing to take a specific supplement:
- Can you tell a difference? Does your joints feel better? Do you have more energy? Ok then, continue taking it.
- Is it causing any side effects? If so stop it.
- Can you afford it? If not stop it. Debt and stress are unhealthy!
Another rule I use with not only supplements, but even medications is to repeat the experiment at least twice. Often times people will think something is causing a side effect. I often ask them to try it again and if they get the same problems to go ahead and stop it on their own. You can also the same test to a supplement: see how you feel, and then restart it as well. If you can’t tell difference being on or off of it you should probably save your money and stop buying it.
Here is an example from my own personal experience. Juice Plus is a high quality product with published studies that show some impact on inflammatory and infectious markers. I tried it 2 different times and came off in between. First I ran a marathon without taking it. During the next marathon training cycle I took Juice Plus. I also repeat that whole cycle during the next 2 marathons in winter. Over 4 marathon training cycles, 2 in good weather and 2 in cold weather (I live in Ohio) I could not tell a difference in my marathon times, how well I recovered from training or the race itself, or in illnesses before or right after the marathon. So I stopped taking it and saved a lot of time and money. Also during this time I also got Juice Plus for my wife and 2 sons. We did not see a big difference in colds, illnesses, or overall health in any of them during the time we used it. So I stopped their supplements as well and really saved some money!
Another personal example is post-exercise recovery protein drinks. I’ve tried this 3 different ways. For 3 months I took a glass of whey protein mix after working out. No change in muscle growth and I actually felt like it hindered my weight loss (recovery drinks also have a lot of sugar to help replenish your muscles after a work out). For another 3 months I took a vegan protein recovery drink after exercise. Same results… none. Finally, I ate a small re-fuel carb/protein recovery meal after exercise for 3 months and found the same results except this time I think I actually gained a little weight (fat not muscle per my % body fat measurements)!
My experience is totally different from many of my friends who swear by protein drinks and recovery drinks. I can’t argue with them as they have seen tremendous muscle growth and fat loss with their programs. They are bigger and more ripped than me so who am I to tell them to quit. Their program is working for them. It just doesn’t work for me.
Another area that I’ve experimented a lot with is intermittent fasting. I’ve tried 5:2 (eat normally 5 days a week and cut back to about 500 calories a day twice a week) and hated it. Got so “hangry” on the 2 fasting days I couldn’t stand it and I think people couldn’t stand me either. What’s worked for me best is 16:8 (fast for 16 hours a day and feed only during an eight hour period). Lost fat, felt better, and mental clarity was noticeably higher. Ideally 16:8 would consist of breakfast, then a late lunch and then fasting until the next morning. What I do is skip breakfast, no post-recovery re-fuel and break the fast at lunch. I do this for 2 reasons. The less food I have in my belly, the better I think. Also mornings are more creative for me so that helps me. In fact I’m writing this article in the morning during a 16 hour fast! Also it would be hard for me to skip dinner. That’s the one meal (the only one) that the whole family can sit down together and talk without feeling rushed. We often sit together for breakfast, but the mornings are so hectic that it’s not conducive to sharing and communicating. This is my 3rd cycle on 16:8 interrupted by trials of eating breakfast before exercise, taking a post-exercise recovery meal, and a period of just eating whatever I wanted. Even though the majority of data says to eat a big, healthy breakfast, skipping breakfast while fasting for 16 hours works best for me for fat loss and mental productivity.
One thing that may help with all this self-experimentation is to become even more like a scientist and get a journal to record what you do. Things to track are hours of sleep, quality of sleep, energy level, what you did for exercise, work stress (being post-call), and what did you eat. This could all then be correlated to how you feel, what race times you get, your weight loss or better yet, your fat loss.
In summary, don’t keep doing the same old thing and expect different results. Pick and choose things you would like to do and see if they work. Don’t pick things that you know you’ll hate (some people hate running, some hate fruits, some hate to feel hungry) as that’s not sustainable and you will quit it as soon as a reasonable excuse comes up. Just because it worked for someone else, it may not work for you. Just because the latest study said to do something it may not work for you. Experiment with yourself. What works and what doesn’t. Keep the winners and drop the losers. Why put time, money, and effort into things that do not give you the results you want, that do not help you reach your goals. We only have a finite amount of time, energy, and money so we have to maximize it on things that actually work.
Good luck and I hope you turn out better than Frankenstein’s monster!