It's OK If You've Tried a Fad Diet

It's OK If You've Followed a Fad Diet

I’m not afraid to come right out and say that I have tried just about every diet and supplement out there.  If you could take the typical 45 year old woman who has been yo-yo dieting her entire life, joining clubs, buying special foods, drinking tart cherry juice or “fill in the blank bs” and transpose that onto a young guy looking to get swole, it’s me. Different methods, same mindset. 

Until you’ve drunk plain arginine in warm water to dissolve it, you haven’t hit nutritional rock bottom.  I always thought it tasted like raw chicken and burning rubber.

People tend to believe stories that captivate their imagination or offer an easy solution; we also tend to believe stories that fall in line with our own biases.  It took me a long time to step out of that cycle but I know I still have my biases, we all do.  I don’t think it’s inherently bad if you are aware of them and own up to it. Simple stories are easy to latch onto and relatively easy to start implementing.  Don’t eat carbs because insulin. Don’t eat after 7PM because fat storage. Eat organic because pesticides.

Personally, I’ve seen how these simple stories often end up becoming more complicated over time because simplicity doesn’t offer solutions for when things stop working.  We can throw some science in there to explain things but that’s really just trying to fill the holes in their argument after the fact; all those caveats become complicated. If you're in the unique position of having never tried a fad diet, let me give you an example of one (of the many) I spent countless hours and effort on to reap very little besides frustration.  For the rest, you already know where this is headed.

One Diet Out of Many

​​​​​​​The diet in question offered a pretty simple story with some profound results.  Eat the bulk of your calories and carbohydrates at the end of the day, preferably post-training, to maximize calories going to muscle and potentiating fat burning during the day. This was called Carb Back Loading and it was fun, exciting, edgy and dare I say sexy? 

This diet promised the ability to burn fat during the periods of fasting early in the day continued with low-carb meals eaten in the afternoon.  It was recommended to train in the late afternoon, early evening to maximize all of the carb back loading you had planned.  Essentially, if you spent the majority of the day fasting you would be using body fat for energy and becoming more metabolically flexible.  Keep meals small and low-carb in the afternoon allowed for some nutrients to be in the blood stream for training, but the low carbs meant low insulin.  With low insulin, fat cells were free to keep releasing fatty acids into the bloodsteam to be used as energy.  In reality, it doesn't quite work like that but again, simple stories.

The real fun, edgy, exciting, sexy part came with the backloading.  This was the coupe de grace of the program; many people might not like fasting or eating small low-carb meals during the day but would do so if it meant being able to inhale baked goods and ice cream every night.  Delayed gratification, right?

Simple to Complex

Many of the tenets proposed during this diet seemed straightforward on their own, but the layering of each made for a much more complex diet. While I struggled to fit in every caveat to this simple story, I did end up balancing all those spinning plates to get the diet right.  Fasting except for coffee with cream. Small low-carb meals after noon. Special peri-workout drinks. Trying to fit thousands of calories into the last couple hours of my day.

Since I couldn’t commit to eating trashy food at the end of the day, I ended up choosing sweet potatoes and white rice primarily as my carb sources.  I have an intense passion for Japanese and garnet yams so I would stock up a shitload of them each week at the co-op, bake them off and then eat the halves like a slice of bread, often with jelly or honey to ratchet up the carbs. I would eat 2-3 whole sweet potatoes as soon as my training ended and on the way home.  At home I would eat a massive amount of protein followed by more sweet potatoes.  The co-op must’ve loved me.

This led to many interesting nights. 

Interestingly enough, the small intestine has an almost limitless ability to transport glucose into the bloodstream.  Unfortunately for your digestion, this can not be done quickly leading to a huge amount of food sitting in my gut.  On the nights I carb backloaded, I experienced the worse bloating and gas in my life. If you haven't tried fitting in 500+ grams of carbohydrates before bed, you probably have never been concerned that gas might be life threatening.

The second and most frightening experience was waking up to night sweats. Most of us have had the occasional nightmare or fever that we wake up to, sweating through our pillow or t-shirt.  During my carb backloading days, I would wake up to completely soaked shirt, underwear, pillow and sheets.  I would routinely change my clothes and sheets during the night. I read in a forum that this extreme sweating was just “your metabolism going into overdrive” and it meant you were burning so many calories that you created a lot of excess body heat. I now realize it was a massive adrenaline dump into the bloodstream to recover my crashing bloodsugar.

After many cycles of days spent hungry followed by nights spent bloated and stuffed, I abandoned the program.  Many other people I spoke to had similar, terrible results. A simple story with no simple explanations or solutions. No practical applications. In short, a logistical nightmare. While an overall calorie deficit should have elicited fat loss, the carbohydrates required on this program made a deficit very difficult and the lack of direction on what exact macronutrients or calories I should be targeting only furthered this. Many recommendations in the book and forums suggested aiming for 700 grams of carbohydrates per night, with some clients resorting to drinking dextrose in water. When a diet is suggesting optimal body composition alongside drinking what is essentially glucose in water before bed, alarms should be ringing.  In my case, it took months of frustration before I realized that the diet in question was the problem. And, contributing to that was my insistence on trying to force something that wasn't working for me.

Failing, and That's OK

This was one of the biggest turning points for me in realizing that science can be bent to explain anything you want if you make it simple or cloak it in mystery. It also was the impetus for me to spend more time with textbooks and listening to legitimate experts rather than seeking a quick fix. However, I do see the appeal of a simple story. I understand why so many people search for the "one thing" to solve their problem for decades with nothing to show except dollars spent. I grew up fat and uncomfortable.  I also starved myself to 165lbs at 6’4”. The pain of hating yourself makes you desperate. And desperate people are easy to manipulate.

Many coaches don’t know what it’s like to actually be the person their trying to coach. Have you ever been morbidly obese? Have you ever been anorexic?  Those who haven’t and don’t want to understand probably won’t help many people.  As Dr Ben House puts it, eating nutritionally void but calorie dense food is the "right" evolutionary choice.  Seeking and consuming the most calorie -dense and palatable foods is inherently better for survival and energy conservation than planting broccoli.  In modern times we throw societal pressure, expectations at work and home, clothing trends, nutrition trends and more into the mix.  And we expect people to embrace research and ignore Dr Oz. Ain’t gonna happen.

I’ve fallen for many simple stories and not ashamed to admit it. Not many people fall into that rabbit hole and climb back out. In fact, I am grateful for the experience so I can at least say to someone, “I get it”.

One thought to step away with is: for all the diets, fads and trends you have tried, when was the last time you did a true self-assessment?  Sure, many nutrition approaches and supplements don't work but there are plenty of people who don't seek them out.  Why not? For those of us who are willing to throw our wallets at a problem or try the most complex nutrition tactic, ask yourself why that appeals to you. I used to love the promise of a "shortcut". Christian Thibadeau has discussed how many clients like to be seduced.  They want something that seems strange, different and special. A product or approach that implies these adjectives is in effect seducing the client - and it feels good.

If you've fallen for a fad diet, don't feel guilty, ashamed or depressed.  I'd encourage you to ask yourself if it was appealing because it seemed easy or made you feel special. It's a ruse and a damn good one. The truth often makes us uncomfortable and instinct and self-preservation tell us to push those uncomfortable notions away, they're a threat. They are a threat but only to your ignorance or sense of safety. You don't have to open the door all the way, but next time you hear something that challenges you, crack that door just a bit and listen in.  See if it challenges you, makes you think and makes you feel. Then let it rattle around in your head for a few days before coming back for more.  Paradigms and pre-conceived notions take time to change, let yourself be open to new ideas.

Truth won't come in a shaker bottle.