Last weekend, I sat on a rather interesting discussion panel at the Paleo F(x) conference in Austin, TX. As I listened to otherwise rational people, who were making otherwise sound recommendations, emphatically claiming that a “balanced diet” for health required 30 percent carbohydrates—mostly from potatoes—a few things came to mind.
Our idea of a balanced diet—at least if you’re listening to mainstream “experts”—is vague, at best.If you’re the United States government, maintaining a balanced diet means you’d better be eating at least 400 grams of carbohydrates per day—with most of this coming from grains like corn and wheat. If you’re a Zone advocate, then balance entails the iconic 40-30-30: 40 percent fat, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent carbs.
And if you’re Paleo, your notion of balanced means that nothing really matters as long as what you’re eating isn’t a grain, isn’t artificial, and it’s not something you’re either allergic to, think you’re allergic to, or are told you’re allergic to.
As I sat there listening, an important question occurred to me: Who the hell ever decided that usable carbs—starches and sugars—are part of a balanced diet? That’s where the problem lies, and it’s why the term “balanced diet” has pretty much lost all meaning.
All is not lost, though. If we can find a way to be specific with what we mean by “balanced,” there’s a way we can tie everything together so the phrase “balanced diet” is, at the very least, scientifically sound. As a strict definition, a balanced diet is one that’s balanced in nutrients such that it adequately meets the needs of the person in question.
The Zero-Point Balance
The first concept we need to address is the fact that the definition of the term “balanced diet” can’t possibly be universal. Different people have different requirements, and one size decidedly does not fit all. We need, then, to define a “zero-point” diet that sets everything in equilibrium for the average person.
Who’s the average person? Well, he or she isn’t an athlete. Rather, we’re referring, here, to the typical working man or woman who doesn’t exercise—or exercises minimally—and sits for large portions of the day. This person also needs a clear thought process to function properly and remain employed—or married, as the case may be. I think this covers about 80 percent of the modernized world.
For this type of person, the perfect balanced diet is one that keeps the body burning fat for energy. Of the hundreds of thousands of recommendations out there, there are only two rules to which we need to adhere at this point:
1. Keep usable carbs under 30 grams per day.
2. Eat more fat by percentage of energy than protein.
I suppose a corollary to this should be the recommendation to eat fat when you eat protein. The opposite, however, need not be the case. In order to preserve my premise that a zero-point diet should allow the body to always burn fat, I would amend this slightly, allowing for a carb splurge—called, in my programs, a Carb Nite®—once every couple of weeks, at least. This resets many of the hormones necessary for continued fat burning and an accelerated metabolism.
The details of this are covered extensively in The Carb Nite Solution.
If you’re a human being who doesn’t engage in intense exercise, then you’re in physical “balance,” and you should follow the zero-point balanced diet. For the sake of simplicity here, I’m not tacking very many standards or rules onto this diet. I promise you, however, that if you strip all carbs from your diet for 96.5 percent of your week, a huge percentage of your health problems will disappear.
What About Active People?
For the rest of us who exercise, there’s no one right answer when it comes to a so-called “balanced diet,” but we can extend our concept of a balanced life for the average person and take a look at what happens when we throw that life out of balance. In other words, right now I’m only considering physical activity as a force that throws us out of balance.
In today’s world, we’re asking the human body to do more in a day than it was ever meant to. Humans didn’t evolve by running marathons. In fact, we barely ran at all, other than sprinting to avoid danger or to pursue something to eat. And we certainly didn’t spend millions of years bench pressing or doing bicep curls—although, in fairness, we’ve done physical labor since the beginning of time, albeit not always voluntarily. These activities force our equilibrium to become unstable, so we’ve got to compensate.
In diametric opposition to their inherent evil proclivities for sedentary people, carbs give athletes the ability to repair, recover, and excel. The more intense your training is, the more carbs, in general, you’ll need. The explains the evolution of my dietary protocols from The Carb Nite Solution—where I make the bold assertion that exercise isn’t necessary for the diet to work—to Carb Back-Loading, which takes athletic training into account and shows you how to eat carbs optimally to keep your body in “balance.”
What do carbs do when you consume then at appropriate times, and in appropriate amounts? They release insulin, which accelerates tissue growth and healing, and acts as an anti-inflammatory. Glucose, one of the few nutrients that activates the TOR pathway of growth and tissue repair, refills your intramuscular and liver glycogen stores, which helps your body prepare for your next bout of activity. Brain hormones and chemicals adjust to reduce stress, creating a sense of well being and promoting sleep. Carbs deeply suppress ghrelin, our main hunger hormone, and cause an even bigger ghrelin spike a few hours after eating—an effect that can cause an acute rise in growth hormone.
I’ve discussed all of this in previous articles, and in my books. By every account, carbs are the magic bullet when it comes to athletic nutrition. Think about this in automotive terms. When you drive your Toyota Camry to and from work every day, all you need to do is have it inspected every year, replace a tire once in a while, keep it gassed up, and change the oil every 3000 miles. A NASCAR racer, in contrast, requires an entire pit crew to perform more maintenance on the car in just a few hours than your everyday beater would need over a period of multiple years. That’s the contrast between the average person and the athlete—and carbs are your pit crew.
There’s no shortage of research supporting all of this. Just take a look at all the studies that examine carbohydrate intake with regard to performance. Performance always increases. Look at resistance training studies and muscle growth in people who take carbs post-workout, as opposed to people who don’t. Carbs always accelerate results, assuming you ingest some protein, too. If you’re an athlete, or you train like one, you need to add carbs into your diet on some level. The absolute level will depend on your goals, your training modality, and—to no small extent—the amount of body fat you carry.
We Can Only Know What We Actually Know
My goal, then, is to encourage discussion in the scientific community, the fitness industry, and the general public about what a “balanced diet” really is. When you have one person talking about a balanced diet for bodybuilders, another addressing balance for CrossFitters, and a third explaining balance for the sedentary office worker, it makes no sense to argue over who’s right.
My fear, however—and the narcissism that will be the biggest impediment to actually facing the truth about balanced diets—is that people like Dr. Oz, Kim Oddo, and Jillian Michaels, along with the thousands of other fitness gurus out there, will be forced to say, “I don’t know,” and those people don’t do that. They don’t seem to know how.
In reality, very few of us in the fitness community have had extensive success over a full spectrum of clients from morbidly obese 400 pounders to Olympic gold medalists. If someone like that exists, I’d be happy to go work as his or her apprentice. At this point, however, I’m thinking it’s safe to say I’ll never have to do that. Still, it’d make things in this business a lot easier if all of our “experts” would stop making blanket recommendations and admit that the idea of a “balanced diet” is, at very best, a completely subjective and relative term.