How to Eat This Year

from January 5th 2015

This book will make you re-think a new year of food and nutrition.

by John Post

With his relatively new book, Diet Cults: The Surprising Fallacy at the Core of Nutrition Fads and a Guide to Healthy Eating for the Rest of Us, noted fitness writer Matt Fitzgerald demonstrates, quite simply, that there’s no single best diet or best way to eat. He has written a volume that matches diet types to various personality types and attitudes, and, in the usual Fitzgerald style, he uses well-researched facts on which to build an unwavering position.

In our current “tell me what you want me to do” society, we find a certain fear-mongering from many of the self-anointed diet gurus. You’re vilified for what’s on your dinner plate. You’re not eating the “One True Way.” Fitzgerald does this while poking a good-natured thumb in the ribs of some of today’s most popular diets: gluten free, Paleo, vegan, the bikini body diet and one I’d never heard of, The New Abs Diet for Women.

We, as a society and as endurance athletes especially, are constantly searching for the ideal way to eat. Fitzgerald points out that not only does it probably not exist, but that we’re all a little different from each other as well. Some of us are athletes, some breastfeeding moms, some desk workers and others manual laborers. It would seem that a one-size-fits-all approach would miss the mark much of the time. We have an intense desire to believe that if we just follow the XXX diet, we’ll lose weight, gain energy, look like we did in college, and get that call from the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders wanting to know if we’re busy on Friday night.

Related: 6 Nutrition Rules for Endurance Athletes

Fitzgerald goes through each diet one at a time. From allowing that most diet plans may provide short-term weight loss early on, Fitzgerald goes on to highlight the effective and ineffective factors of each plan. Fitzgerald would rather have us become what he terms Healthy Agnostic Eaters where no food is off limits. Yes—even chocolate and beer. His mantra? “The secret to losing weight has little to do with what a person eats and everything to do with a person’s mindset.”

To pick on one of the diets in particular, many triathletes try to mimic the hunter-gather diet, or so-called Stone Age or Paleo diet. Their claim is that the human gut was not “designed” for dairy and grains. In addition to weight loss, supporters claim avoiding more processed foods eliminates what they feel are the root causes of heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Fitzgerald is not shy when challenging Paleo champion Loren Cordain, stating that the scientific method should trump reputation.

Fitzgerald ends his tome with a quote: “The mainstream science that I chose to base my education on clearly confirmed that an inclusive, flexible, high-quality diet sufficed to support optimal health.” This is also one of the main tenants of his 2009 book, Racing Weight, known for celebrating the eating patterns of many top endurance athletes. He leaves us with a diet quality hierarchy as we learn to become the Agnostic Healthy Eater. Learning that there is no one true way to eat, we approach eating forbidding nothing. Fitzgerald divides foods into essential (vegetables and fruits) and recommended (dairy, whole grains, etc.) and creates a balance so we can make individual choices according to taste and availability. He even allows for small amounts of fried food and sweets which, as a person born with a sweet tooth, got the nod from me.

One of the more comforting aspects of Fitzgerald’s book is his acknowledgement that anyone, even the cult-diet oriented among us, can achieve their weight control goals through personal motivation. Yet herein lies one of the book’s weaknesses. I believe a more forceful presentation of the Agnostic Healthy Eating approach, with further documentation of what nutritional science is available today, is needed. While I appreciate the multi-page Further Reading list, I suspect most readers would more benefit more from an index, which is absent from the book.

Having previously read both Racing Weight and the Racing Weight Cookbook, I enjoyed this book. Like most who read it, I was able to find some support for my previously held biases as well as something with which to disagree. It’s an excellent review of diet history and how we arrived at “diet 2014.” I learned something, and would recommend Diet Cults to just about anyone.

Besides, any diet that includes chocolate and beer is worthy of your attention. It got mine.

John Post is a six-time IRONMAN World Championship finisher and serves as the medical advisor for Training Bible Coaching.

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