It started with an article called, The Most Dangerous Diets.

“It” was my frustration with the type of content I was creating for big media brands that reached tens of millions of people. In theory, there was nothing wrong with what was written.

The article had a Buzzfeed virality that was one-part education, the other (larger part) entertainment. The post included (real) methods like, “The Tapeworm Diet” (which is exaclty what it sounds like), “The Cookie Diet,” and the always-appetizing “Prolinn Diet” (starvation + slaughterhouse byproducts).

The slideshow was viewed by more than 4 million visitors in its first week.

Part of me felt it was a success. The post was great for cocktail conversations and reactions like, “You eat whaaaat?” but it didn’t do much to help you improve your diet.

It was the beginning of a massive shift. I still wanted to reach 4 million people per week, but I wanted to go about it a different way; create more useful information and less interesting-but-useless content.

And yet, I recently found myself thinking about that slideshow. The idea of these diets fascinated me because while they were crazy, people actually gave them a try.

As much as you know that some of these suggestions are insane, you still try in hopes of capturing some weight loss or muscle building magic.

More importantly, if you’re willing to eat (or more appropriately, not eat) almost anything to lose weight, then some prior experience must have made that extreme scenario appear not as awful or even doable.

The catalyst of these extremes might be the long-held nutritional institution of unfair diets.

What’s an “unfair diet?” Any plan that requires you to eat a limited number of foods that is:

  1. Unenjoyable
  2. Bland and flavorless
  3. So lacking in variety that it’s inevitable you’ll burn out.

While most diet pundits wave their fingers at the juice cleanses and cabbage soup diets of the world (myself included), are these really any worse other “healthy” plans that are so unbearable that you’re bound to lose your mind, binge, and think that a good diet is impossible to maintain?

It’s easy to see how both are a problem, but which really occurs more often—bad fad diets or bad unfair diets?

I ran a test to find out.

The Nutritionist’s Diet Plan

What happens when you ask a nutrition expert put together the perfect human diet? You might be surprised.

Titles like, “The World’s Healthiest Diet” are exactly the type of thing I avoid more frequently, but it was necessary for this experiment.

I reached out to “diet and nutrition coaches” with social media followings (combined) of at least 50,000 people. I wanted their opinions on the type of diet they would create for a client, and I provided some very specific guidelines.

I purposely avoided experts I’ve worked with before. (I’ll share some of the people I did not contact.) After all, I didn’t want any experimenter bias interfering with my selections. [Translation: if I know how someone will respond, what’s the point in asking.]

Why the big social audience? I wanted the opinions of those who have influence. (Yes, I know that you can “buy” fans, but I can’t worry about that. People who buy fans don’t understand the point of social media and are trying too hard to influence the perception of influence.) Remember, the goal was to determine the real reach of unfair diets.

The final tally of contributors included: 3 RDs, 2 people with a master’s in science, 3 “nutrition coaches” with varying levels of certifications, and 2 diet coaches who worked with bodybuilders and physique competitors.

Each person received the following email.

Hey, [insert name here],

I’m writing an article where I’m collecting the thoughts of some influencers in the world of health and fitness.

Here’s the hypothetical scenario I’d like you to troubleshoot: if you could put together your version of healthiest, most sustainable and enjoyable diet, what would you recommend? Your individual answer may or may not be used.

In your response, please highlight the primary goal of the diet. (For instance, it could be for general health, fat loss, muscle gain, sports performance, or any other specified goal.) 

Feel free to be as detailed as you want, and be sure to design for enjoyment but without sacrificing results.

Thanks for your time and consideration

What is the World’s Healthiest Meal Plan?

The email was a home run: 10 out of 10 responses. And all of the contributors chose fat loss as the design, which made it even easier to eliminate potential outlier factors.

I turned each answer into something that could be quantitatively measured and then created percentages of what stuck out. Some of the response results were as follows:

  • 80 percent of the respondents included “chicken and broccoli” in at least 2 meals per day. (Meaning 40% of experts–those that also recommended 3 meals per day–suggested that chicken and broccoli should consist of 66 percent of your meals.)
  • 100 percent of the respondents avoided included bread, dairy, or grains of any type.
  • 100 percent of clients did not include any type of dessert, even a small allowance such as a piece of chocolate or even a non-dessert like a bowl of cereal.
  • 100 percent included protein shakes, meal replacement bars or powders
  • 70 percent did not allow for any condiments or dressings other than olive oil.
  • 50 percent did not mention including any starch, not even those natural to the earth such as potatoes.
  • 0 percent of respondents recommended white rice (a crushing blow to my rice-loving ways)

This very informal survey (yeah, I admit it’s not exactly a peer-reviewed meta analysis) pointed me towards a very simple conclusion:

Most diet plans—and the experts creating them—do not consider the client.

Unfair diet plans are most likely more common that fringe fads, and this approach is arguably much more frustrating than believing that tapeworms are the only way to drop weight.

The growing diet battle isn’t just about helping people identify healthy foods. And that’s where diet disappointment begins.

Most people know what is good for them and what isn’t.

Sure, more education is needed to offset confusing food marketing, but the experts job isn’t to make the simple act of eating seem so difficult to follow and limited in enjoyment.

The perceived lack of variety and palatable foods included in a healthy diet is a big reason why so many people are unable to sustain better eating habits.

Listen, I love chicken. I probably eat it 4 to 5 times per week. But even I wouldn’t consider eating it twice per day.

Undoing Unfair Diets: The Road Ahead

The key point of the test was creating an enjoyable diet. So the question is: Do these nutrition experts think this is enjoyable and sustainable? Or is something else happening?

Part of me believes that many “experts” still don’t understand nutrition and how to eat.

They know the basics to potential help, but not enough to help someone build a plan around foods they could enjoy.

These experts are still stuck in a “clean eating” mindset. Where the idea of good foods versus bad foods dominates the conversation. This was one of the initial flaws with Paleo-type diet plans. It’s not that Paleo is bad; but rather the concept that you can eat as many caveman treats as you want and never become fat.

While I’ll admit any diet should consist of less processed foods, the black-and-white mindset is all that is wrong with most diet plans.

I’ve mentioned similar comments before, but unless you have an issue with gluten, you can eat bread and not get fat. Same with pasta, potatoes, rice—and yes—even dessert.

And yet, too many people still believe these foods are off limits because this is what they are being told by “the experts.” [No, not all of them, but enough that an article like this needs to be written.]

This is why so many people hate dieting. Too many influencers make eating an awful experience.

Other influencers in the field (clearly not surveyed in this group) shift too far to the other end of the spectrum. The new wave of “if it fits your macros” (IIFYM) advocates is great in theory. It shows a better understanding of how our body works—both understanding that calories in vs. calories out has to be part of the equation, meaning that enjoyable options can be part of any meal plan.

But this concept has been corrupted with diets consisting primiarly of Pop-Tarts, ice cream, and pizza.

Is there a place for these foods? Yes, but this is not why IIFYM became popular.

You should be finding a way to fit those foods into your diet, not creating a plan that resolves around them.

Building the “You” Diet

Where does that leave you? Probably in the same place you’ve been all along: frustrated and confused by what works.

This isn’t to say that we lack the leaders who “get it.” From Dr. David Katz, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff and Marion Nestle, to Layne Norton and Alan Aragon, Mike Roussell, John Berardi, and many more, there’s a smart, balanced approach to nutrition.

We just need a way to magnify their voices and let the diet sanity reach the masses.

The healthiest diet is the one that considers both the foods you should be eating for nutritious reasons—proteins (meat/chicken/eggs/fish/plant sources), fats (oils, nuts, dairy sources, avocados, seeds), and carbohydrates (fruits, vegetables, rice, potatoes, grains)—and the foods that you enjoy and need to add for the sake of pleasure and mental sanity.

If your diet only consists of chicken and broccoli, it should be because that’s your choice. Not because you believe bland foods are the only way to a better body and improved health.

Let’s end the debate and stop the nonsense of fearing foods and labeling products as those that will automatically make you fat.

A little less stress and a lot more understanding will go a long way towards not only making your diet more enjoyable—but also something you can follow for the long run.

Simplify Your Eating

Need help with your diet. What to eat, when to eat, and realistic tips to make it easier to snack, enjoy, and still lose weight? Find out how you can have your meal plans (and workouts) personalized with Born Fitness coaching.

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