Looking up how to eat a healthy diet online these days is a little bit like opening Pandora's Box. There are so many arguments on the web when it comes to the best way to burn fat, to support a generally healthy body and to build muscle.
On the one hand you have people telling you that 'a calorie is a calorie' and that it doesn't matter what you eat so long as you're burning more calories than you're eating. Then you have other people who say that you should avoid carbs in particular because they spike your blood pressure. Then there are the old guard still following misguided advice and trying to cut fat out of their diet.
Some bodybuilders eat tons of protein, while some nutritionists tell you that you can't absorb that much protein anyway. There are groups of people fasting in all kinds of interesting ways, there's detoxing and then there's the paleo diet that focusses on protein and fat and completely eradicates milk and bread.
Is gluten bad for you or isn't it?
Does milk really cause inflammation, or is it a great source of healthy fats and calcium?
Where on Earth do you even start?
Cutting Through the Nonsense
The problem with all these different viewpoints when it comes to eating the right diet is that they've been taken to extremes. Some are founded on incorrect notions (low fat diets) but others start out well and then just take it all too far (paleo).
Does gluten really cause inflammation if you don't have a gluten intolerance? The research suggests not and that 'FODMAPs' may instead be the issue. But the real point is: even if gluten does cause a little inflammation for your Average Joe, does it really matter?
Trying to avoid every single thing that 'may' cause a little inflammation may well be like trying to avoid every little thing that 'may' cause cancer. The amount of effort that you have to put in to completely avoid all wheat, dairy and grains is huge. Meanwhile, we've been eating these foods for thousands of years and still managed to accomplish great things.
Einstein ate bread, so it can't be that bad for your brain. And Mo Farah eats pasta and rice so it can't be that bad for your energy levels. Usain Bolt reportedly prepared for one of his 100m races by eating a McDonald's for his breakfast. Take from that what you will!
Arnold Schwarzenegger ate bread. So do most athletes today
Point is, there may be some very negligible energy and fitness benefits to going gluten free. Maybe. But seeing as you can get to Einstein-Arnie-Mo-Usain standard by eating 'normally', does it really matter that much?
What Does Work
Let's turn to another group: celebrities. Celebrities have to have great bodies and while some have been known to go on ridiculous juice fasts, a lot of others will eat relatively normal diets.
For guys trying to get into Wolverine or Thor shape though, the diet is almost always lots of chicken and steamed rice. That's a protein and a carb, all very lean with minimal calories.
To build muscle, you need to eat more protein. There's no denying that fact and every strength athlete will attest to it. To burn fat, you need to reduce your caloric intake.
Should you stop eating fat? Hell no. Fat is still very good for you and certainly better than carbohydrates in terms of its effect on your blood sugar and in terms of nutrition. Fats are fantastic for our brains and very good for encouraging testosterone production.
But that doesn't mean you have to reduce your carb intake either. Going too low carb is a surefire way to reduce the amount of blood sugar getting to your brain and that's not great either.
In other words: just use some common sense!
You also need to make sure you're getting your nutrients: vitamins, minerals, fats and amino acids. These perform countless crucial roles in the body from helping us to heal from injuries, to strengthening the immune system, to improving our senses, to burning more fat. Amino acids are critical for building muscle and for creating our neurotransmitters. Essential fatty acids do everything from improving cell membrane permeability, to aiding with the absorption of other nutrients.
This is why cutting anything out of your diet is a big mistake. Most of us are deficient in at least some vitamins and minerals and we would likely feel a million times better if we could correct that imbalance.
The Bottom Line
So here's the magic diet that you don't want to hear:
To lose weight, eat lean and eat less.
To build muscle, increase protein.
To stay healthy, get all your nutrients.
Cake is not good for you.
The body is remarkably adaptable and if you make some mistakes with your diet, you will recover. Sure, we don't eat the same now as we did 100,000 years ago but that's how evolution happens. Our bodies have adapted somewhat to our new diets (our tolerance for milk is reportedly a relatively recent development) and they will continue to do so. As long as you eat 'generally well', you will be fine.
So, it's really not rocket science. If you follow this diet just try to reduce carbs and calories and increase your protein and veg while eating generally smaller portions then you will lose weight and build muscle while everyone else argues about whether you might increase your thermogenesis by .0001% by eating newt's eyes. The best way to get more energy, is to work out more and sleep better. There's no magic bullet and not every new study should change the way you eat.