Updated: Jan 28
One of our subscribers Susanne asked:
“One thing I'm genuinely confused by is the massive amount of conflicting information out there about what the "best" or "right" diet is. I've been reading up on this a lot and every source tells you something different, quoting studies etc. For example I've read that low-carb/keto is bad if you want to build muscle, elsewhere you read that carbs are bad, and then other sources say it makes no difference if you're high-carb, low-carb, or whatever, as long as your calorie management is right and you have enough protein. So, with so much conflicting information and opinion out there, how can people find or decide which diet/nutrition approach is best for their goals?”
Deciding which diet to follow for their goals first requires an understanding of what a diet is.
What Is A Diet?
Most people cannot properly define the word diet. It is often used to describe a restrictive short-term eating period to reverse weight gain. One definition is 'the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats' (1). This is the best definition because it does not imply sacrifice, struggle or a short-term fix, all of which may improve health and fitness temporarily but will not recover or optimise health sustainably. It is also appropriate for any health and fitness goal, as how a person eats can be adjusted to elicit certain changes such as boosting the immune system when ill or to accelerate recovery while remaining a habitual act.
The Problem With Many Studies & Sources
The problem with studies and research is that they are often performed and designed in a biased way. Nobody would invest a large amount of money into research for the conclusion to go against what they are trying to promote.
In addition, many different factors affect ones overall health. Studies - especially those in the fields of nutrition and health - do not take enough of these factors into consideration. Instead, they focus on one small aspect e.g. many discussions over saturated fat and red meat intake do not specify the quality or sources of the dietary red meat the subjects consumed. There is a vast difference between a burger you buy from your local fast food outlet and a fresh grass-fed cut of beef. Both are often classed as “red meat” yet the quality and nutritional content is extremely different.
Another huge problem with nutritional studies is the means by which information is gathered. It is very hard to get a large selection of people and feed them a carefully controlled diet. Instead, retrospective questionnaires are used. One study in 2012 looked at a possible connection between red meat consumption and mortality; the means of dietary information was “… assessed by validated food-frequency questionnaires and updated every four years.” Do you remember what you ate 4 years ago? I don't think so. There is also the issue of “health bias” where people tend to say they ate more healthily than they actually did, creating the same problem mentioned above where people assume all “fatty foods” are equal.
According to John P.A. Ioannidis, the C.F. Rehnborg Chair in Disease Prevention at Stanford University and Professor of Medicine and Director of the Stanford Prevention Research Center at Stanford University School of Medicine who published 'Why Most Published Research Findings Are False' (2), 'the most-downloaded article in the history of Public Library of Science' (3), 80% of non-randomized trials, 20% of randomized trials, and 10% of large randomized trials can be expected to produce false results (4). He also suggested “many otherwise seemingly independent, university-based studies may be conducted for no other reason than to give physicians and researchers qualifications for promotion or tenure. Such non-financial conflicts may also lead to distorted reported results and interpretations. Prestigious investigators may suppress via the peer review process the appearance and dissemination of findings that refute their findings, thus condemning their field to perpetuate false dogma" (5). The large, randomised trials tend to be the most accurate (and less common) so if you are willing enough to look at the science behind the recommendations, read the studies carefully and maintain an element of scepticism; do not believe everything you read.
This makes it clear that depending on studies alone is not the best way to find out which diet is right for you. Being open-minded, intuitive and prepared to test studies from reliable sources e.g. PubMed and ScienceDaily results in an effective combination of scientific research and sensible experimentation to develop valuable experience.
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The Calorie In vs Calorie Out Paradigm
Ah, if only it was this simple! The calorie in vs the calorie out paradigm assumes we are simple machines which only perform the basic function of consuming, storing and using calories. In reality, we are complex organisms in which thousands of biological processes take place simultaneously which all rely on our intake of minerals, vitamins, fibre, probiotics and more. Weight loss will occur by limiting caloric intake to two apples per day but malnourishment and nutrient deficiency will swiftly follow and the body will break down. Whichever health and fitness goal you have, it is critical to pay attention to how your body changes over time. This can be achieved by becoming more aware of everything which influences your life such as how you eat, how you feel, why you are experiencing pain, how are you breathing etc.
The most important thing to do first (before focusing on what your diet should be) is choose a primary goal (and maybe a secondary goal if you are experienced enough to achieve 2 goals at once) and devise a plan to help you achieve it in the short, medium and long-term - check out our article on achieving your goals. It is difficult and almost never as effective for most people to aim for several goals at once.
When deciding what diet is best for you it is important to define what it is that you are trying to achieve. A sedentary, pre-diabetic person weighing 120kg will have different dietary needs from someone who weighs 50kg and is trying to put on muscle. The pre-diabetic individual might respond better to a diet lower in carbohydrates (6), whereas the person trying to build muscle may need to manipulate their intake of macronutrients differently in order to gain lean muscle.
Define your goals first, then look into which diets might be best suited for you and your individual needs, then experiment. There is no need to go crazy with experimentation, simply focus on becoming more knowledgeable by developing a holistic approach to health and fitness; nutrient dense foods will play a huge part in your journey and ALWAYS ensure you are consuming and absorbing enough essential minerals and vitamins.
Science does not represent the truth and nothing but the truth as it cannot be 100% true in every scenario. Studies are selective and sometimes useful at highlighting important aspects of a certain topic but every human is different and requires unique information. Consequently, studies must be taken with a pinch of salt. There are nutrients and combinations which are considerably more powerful than others but believing that one or a few individual foods, drinks or supplements lead to superhuman strength and health for the long-term is unwise. We must become responsible for our own decisions so that over time we learn how to best look after ourselves in every aspect of life.
The best diet is one which you can follow for an entire lifetime without suffering from easily avoidable symptoms such as fatigue, illness, injury, disease and death. It will require continuous experimentation in order to eat in a way that fuels YOUR body in the most efficient manner for YOUR survival and goals. Learn how to strike the balance between enjoying the taste of food or drink and preparing and eating food or drink socially (with friends or family) to meet the requirements for YOUR unique body and goals. Learn about as many diets as possible e.g. keto, paleo, Atkins, vegetarian etc. by researching what rules they have and why. Do this BEFORE you begin adjusting your current diet and then slowly follow the best diet for YOU. The best diet for YOU will almost definitely develop to become a combination of the healthier diets on a regular basis e.g. you may find being keto is best for the first few hours of your day before having a primal breakfast, a vegan lunch and a pescetarian dinner.
Thank you Susanne, you asked a fantastic question and we hope you can use this information to really help you achieve your goals more effectively.
If anyone would like us to answer any health, fitness, food or lifestyle related question, you can submit one from our "your questions answered" page.
Related post: What Should We Be Eating?
Related post: Food Awareness: Think Before You Eat
Related post: 4 Ways To Achieve Your Goals Quickly
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.