Episode 57 Transcript – Thoughts On The Vertical Diet For Strength Athletes

Aidan Muir:

Hello, and welcome to the Ideal Nutrition Podcast. My name is Aidan Muir and I am here with my co-host Leah Higl and this is episode 57, where we’ll be talking about our thoughts on the vertical diet for strength athletes, which is a very niche topic, but something I wanted to have some long form content on. I wrote a blog post on it years ago that was one of the most viewed posts on the blog for a long period of time as well.

Aidan Muir:

There’s a bit of demand for it. I don’t think my Instagram followers care as much, but I think there’s people who do want to hear about it or whatever, or just want to have thoughts on it. And it’s a bit of a space where I don’t think there’s many, I don’t know how to describe it, there’s a lot of people who would either think it’s incredible or there’s a lot of people who’d think it’s terrible, whereas I’m probably in the middle somewhere.

Aidan Muir:

So I think there’s a space for that kind of content. And going through it, what is the vertical diet? It is a diet that was created by Stan Efferding who is a relatively or quite a successful bodybuilder and powerlifter. I think he’s retired now from that, but when he was in his prime, I think he was known as the strongest body builder in the world at one stage.

Leah Higl:

It’s a cool title.

Aidan Muir:

Cool title. Yeah, for sure. So he’s got that credential himself in terms of what he’s personally accomplished. He’s also pretty smart and he’s also pretty charismatic and you hear him talk about it and it makes a lot of sense when he does talk about it. Going through what the actual diet is, the concept, to understand The Vertical Diet, you got to understand, what he terms a horizontal diet. And a horizontal diet is one that proposes a lot of variety basically. And a vertical diet is quite the opposite. It’s based on a limited number of foods chosen by Stan for specific reasons. And there’s two specific foods that make up the foundation of the diet, but it’s quite a limited diet for a few reasons.

Aidan Muir:

And why would anyone follow it? What are the proposed benefits of it? The proposed benefits quite simply, are to optimize gut health, body composition and performance. It’s pretty much that simple. And there’s a lot of testimonials and stuff that in terms of top level strong men, and a lot of top level athletes have used it, general population have lost weight, improved performance, those kind of things. And probably the poster boy for it in his strong man prime was Thor Bjornsson so The Mountain from Game of Thrones. When he won World Strongest Man he was following this diet. I don’t know what he’s done since then, if he’s still following it or whatever, but he followed it for multiple years and it was a game changer for him for a few reasons that we’ll talk through as we go.

Leah Higl:

Yeah. So the foundation of this diet is probably my worst nightmare, and that’s red meat and white rice, the opposite of what I do, but that’s forming the foundation. And the reason why that is, so red meat is chosen because it’s a good quality protein source that is also quite micronutrient rich. So it’s higher in things like iron, B vitamins, zinc, and other bits and pieces. And then white rice is chosen specifically because it is an easy to digest form of carbohydrates. It allows you to have heaps of carbohydrates without making you feel too bloated or too full. So it’s just an easy way to consume those kinds of calories.

Leah Higl:

Secondary to that, we have the horizontal component of the diet, which focuses more on making up micronutrients. So you’re relying on red meat and white rice for most of your calories and macros, but there is a small focus on micronutrients as well. Well, not just a small focus, there is quite an emphasis on it, but it’s just a small handful of foods that you’re actually getting those micronutrients from. So that includes mostly low FODMAP fruits and vegetables and low FODMAP specifically to limit gas build up and limit bloating and fullness. And then there’s other components, so things like dairy, eggs, salmon, poultry and olive oil that are all included once again to meet those micronutrient requirements. So basically the horizontal component is designed specifically for that reason micros, but ideally you just want to consume just enough to meet your requirements and then the rest of your calories coming from red meat and white rice.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. And that angle with the horizontal component makes a lot of sense to me to a certain degree in terms of… Imagine using a strong man as an example, somebody who’s almost 200 kilos with a high training load, how do they get enough food in without resorting to just a bunch of junk food?

Leah Higl:

Yeah, at that point, not everything needs to be super nutrient dense and be fully fruits and veggies and whole grains and stuff.

Aidan Muir:

And I guess we’re going to talk about that a bit, but even just from the carbohydrate amount, they’re often consuming a lot of carbohydrates and that’s why the white rice, I guess, is there because… Not, I guess, that is why it is there, because people aren’t going to feel as full or as bloated or as whatever as if they had other sources of carbohydrate. Particularly if there’s food intolerances involved, which I do think is actually quite a factor there, but we’ll probably talk about it later.

Aidan Muir:

The first thing we’re going to do is go through some criticisms of it, I guess because there’s a few things that stand out to me as to why even though I just talked about some positive aspects of it, why don’t I recommend it to people? Why do I do something differently? So starting at looking at it from that perspective.

Aidan Muir:

The easy criticism, I guess, is the red meat component. I don’t look at it from the same angle that you necessarily look at it, but there’s a few things. My first thought is you can get the exact same results utilizing other protein sources. Let’s be clear, Stan doesn’t say don’t eat other protein sources ever. He’s still like, you can have chicken, you can have fish, you can have all these other protein sources on the diet, but he is very clear, really emphasizing red meat. Whereas I do think you could have far less red meat and still get the same results. Particularly if your total calorie and macro intake was the same.

Aidan Muir:

Using an other example, I heard him on a podcast talking about how when he was in a body building prep, he swapped some red meat for tilapia, the white fish. In America they always talk about that for bodybuilders. And he got weaker and his performance dropped off and his coach was like, “I could tell something was wrong.” And his friend was like, “Stan’s been eating tilapia,” dobbing him in. I don’t know if that’s king anecdotal evidence, but to be fair, if you switch from red meat to whitefish, you would change your macro consumption, you’d have less fat, you’d have less total calories. Anyway, there’s a lot of things that go on there. Assuming calorie and macro intake was the same, I’d assume you’d get very similar results.

Aidan Muir:

The micronutrient aspect of red meat falls apart a little bit when you consider that you’re eating such a large volume of food. That’s like, even though it’s slightly higher in certain micronutrients, iron and B vitamins, magnesium, all those kind of things, if you’re eating that much meat, you’re getting so much of that anyway. And I’ll talk about that more too.

Aidan Muir:

But the other aspect is cost. It’s cheaper to have less red meat. It’s way cheaper. Other protein sources are cheaper. So obviously that’s not a criticism at the elite level if somebody’s investing heaps of money, but for most people that is a factor.

Aidan Muir:

And then the other thing is health and the ethical perspective. From the health perspective, bowel cancer, that’s a factor there’s so many… Red meat is obviously complex because of this concept of healthy user bias, which is people who eat more red meat typically do less exercise, drink more alcohol, they’re more likely to smoke and all of those kind of things. But when you factor all of those things in and try and make all variables even, there still seems to be an increased risk of bowel cancer. There’s still things that are present. And then the ethical thing, that’s a complex thing, something else.

Leah Higl:

Oh, that’s on an individual non-nutrition basis, but I do think about the environmental consequences of too many people following such high intake of red meat diet.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. Yeah. I agree. And using the micronutrient thing as an example, one of the reasons why I get a bit nitpicky about that and being it is weird to focus too much on that is that white rice has almost no micronutrients. It literally has almost no micronutrients. So it’s like a large portion of the diet has almost no micronutrients. The other one has more, but slightly more than the other protein sources. It’s like, why do we focus on that there and then ignore it in another place? And there is explanations for that and everything that, but I’m just making my case as to why I don’t think it matters that much, particularly when you’ve got such a large abundance of food and it’s all relatively micronutrient rich, apart from the white rice.

Aidan Muir:

The other aspect is that the horizontal component is mostly low FODMAP. It’s not all exclusively low FODMAP, but it is mostly low FODMAP to limit that bloating and gas build up, which allows people to eat more total food. That’s why it’s there. But going back to one of the benefits I talked about, was that it’s proposed to help optimize gut health. But we can see from another perspective that being low FODMAP unnecessarily or long term, has implications potentially or most likely for negative gut health overall, in terms of changing the bacterial content or the microbiome in a probably negative fashion.

Aidan Muir:

So if I was looking to optimize gut health, I also wouldn’t necessarily be going low FODMAP long term, particularly if I didn’t need to. If there were certain aspects, things that were clearly causing bloating and stuff that, it’s a completely different topic, but that’s coming back to even taking that aspect out and just the overall general theme is, there are things that could be needlessly restrictive for certain people, as in they wouldn’t necessarily need to follow those specific arbitrary rules or anything like that to get the same results. Which is why you could argue for more individualization in amongst everything else I just talked about.

Leah Higl:

So positive aspects of it?

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. Let’s go through that.

Leah Higl:

Yeah. Because I feel that’s quite a few downsides, but there are reasons why people follow this diet and it does work for some people. So positive aspects would be one, it’s easy to eat lots of calories, specifically from lots of whole foods. So obviously they’re not having a bunch of non-nutritious junk food that’s super highly processed to make up these high calorie diets. So it is a way to be predominantly whole food based and eat a lot of calories in an easy way. That’s a plus.

Leah Higl:

It can also, like we’ve said, reduce bloating. So because you are using low FODMAP veg, you’re not having a ton of high FODMAP grains and legumes and all those things that can cause bloating, there’s going to be likely reduced bloating just generally. But I don’t want anyone to conflate that with gut health like you talked about. Being so restrictive with your diet and eating only low FODMAP foods is not what we would consider optimal for gut health. And just because it’s reducing gut symptoms, does not mean it’s improving your gut health and I think those things can often be confused. But a positive is that it does reduce bloating.

Leah Higl:

And third would be that it is easy to adjust. So like with any very simple diet, you can just go from, if you want to reduce your calorie intake and you’re eating five of the same meals every day, you’re based on rice, red meat, few veggies, you could just take one meal away. So without even calorie counting, without fussing about calories and peanut butter versus other things, you can just decrease or increase quantities. So it’s going to be super simple for you to adjust based on whether you want to gain weight, lose weight, maintain, et cetera.

Leah Higl:

And I mean, it does have a good focus on micronutrients as well, so that’s a plus side. And realistically there are no downsides from just a body composition and performance perspective. If you’re meeting all of your micronutrient needs, you are getting in adequate calories and protein and all of these things and you’re feeling good, there’s no reason why it would get in the way of those things. But obviously there are all those criticisms that you mentioned previously that do weigh on the other side.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. I think that’s the easiest way to balance it in terms of being there is no actual downside for a performance or body composition that I can see. It’s just that there’s a lot of things that you could get the same results in a different way that might be more suitable or whatever. And the other argument is simplicity. It’s easier for some people to follow that. Even just from another perspective, when we talk about FODMAPS with people, it’s pretty confusing. Whereas if somebody’s like, “Oh, Stan’s just given me a list of foods that I can eat.”

Leah Higl:

Yeah. It’s easy.

Aidan Muir:

It’s a lot easier. Anyway, so that’s one thing. I guess we’ll summarize basically. So overall I do think it’s a pretty simple, and it is an effective way to approach nutrition and body composition. I often think about there’s certain people I work with who eat over 5,000 calories and struggle to get there. And I do sometimes think it would actually be easier to utilize an approach like this. And with some of those people, because well, they don’t have food intolerances, they do feel full. They feel bloated. They’ve probably got very low level intolerances that make a bigger difference, because they’re eating so much, but I don’t think I want to go through the complexity of FODMAP and stuff like that.

Aidan Muir:

Sometimes I’m drawn to a simpler approach. I wouldn’t necessarily use this exact one, but there’s things I take away from it as well. Even other little things, like if I’ve got somebody doing a competition, I’ll often give them rice the day before rather than pasta, just on the off chance that they feel less bloated. There’s little things like that I think are particularly useful. But then there’s the other perspective of I wouldn’t necessarily encourage that much red meat. It’s a big thing that I can’t really get past, or necessarily intentionally limiting your variety of plant-based foods to that extent unnecessarily. If there is certain things that do clearly get in the way of eating that many calories without feeling great or whatever it is, I’m like, okay, that makes sense. But if you’re going to feel great with another approach, I wouldn’t unnecessarily limit that as well.

Leah Higl:

Yeah. And even coming off that kind of diet, say you do it for six months and you’re only eating low FODMAP foods, coming off that and wanting to do something else, are you then going to get way worse IBS symptoms coming off a diet like that, because you’ve reduced the health of your gut microbiome? So that’s a potential downside.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. And another thing that I haven’t really touched on too much, but it’s an interesting point that Stan makes. I don’t want to, what’s the word, I don’t want to speak for him and say the wrong thing, but he has talked about this concept of if you eat the same foods over and over, you get better at digesting them. And I’d never heard anyone talk that way, because in the IBS world, we do think about from that perspective. If you don’t have something for ages, when you do introduce it, we struggle to digest it. But he’s just doubled down on that and been like, oh, if you only have the same five foods over and over, for example, you might get even better at that.

Aidan Muir:

And I think he’s, once again I don’t want to misquote him, but I think he’s taken that to even include other non plant based foods like red meat and stuff that. So don’t quote me on that, but that’s one of the concepts that I believe is being referred to here, which is an interesting idea. Hard to fact check him on the red meat thing, but it actually makes sense for the plant based stuff.

Leah Higl:

It is interesting. Yeah.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. It’s just how much of that actually matters as well, but it’s an interesting thought. The final thing once again is, it’s pretty restrictive overall in terms of you actually are quite limited in terms of the foods. It doesn’t give you as much flexibility, but yeah. Those are my thoughts on it. So pros and cons, any other thoughts? Anything else you want to wrap up on?

Leah Higl:

No, I reckon we wrap up. So this has been episode 57 of The Ideal Nutrition Podcast. Thanks for tuning in.