The WIRIAM (Will It Rot in A Month?) Diet

This post isn’t about a diet–it’s about an approach to eating. Deep down in my heart, I know there is an objectively best way to eat. About 14 months ago, I decided to go grain-free because of the wealth of clinical studies I’d read that clearly demonstrate [at least to me] the detrimental effects of all grains on human health. We’re not talking about the carbs here–we’re talking about compounds within grains that trigger bizarre immune responses–compounds like phytates, lectins and saponins to name a few. And this doesn’t just affect individuals who might have overt sensitivities to these compounds (like those with Celiac disease to gluten)–from what I have read, it affects everyone. Even a modest immune response can produce symptoms you might never have realized were related to the consumption of grain.

Anyway, I maintained a grain-free diet for more than six months. But the demands of heavy lifting had me craving and needing carbs, so I let oats and white rice back in. Then I let corn back in because I love peanut butter Puffins so much (made with corn and oats). Never mind the fact that I wasn’t thinking so critically and missed the fact that there are plenty of non-grain foods high in carbs. When I went back on oats and [processed] corn [cereal], I absolutely noticed changes in my body, including water retention, less restful sleep, and mild bloating/ gassiness, slight eczema in my elbow creases after sweating (although I think that was mainly the processed corn. I’ve read that oats and rice elicit less of an immune response than other grains.). I began to realize that those physical issues I used to think were normal actually weren’t since I had my grain-free time to compare things to.

I’ve recently decided again to go grain-free because I objectively feel better without them. And along with that, I realized something else: I could eat anything I want as long as the answer to the question, “Will it rot in a month if left unrefrigerated?” is “yes”. This eliminates foods with long shelf lives, including anything in a box, chips, nuts, legumes, and all grains. These foods also happen to have the highest antinutrient content (those compounds I mentioned before). It’s true that many of the deleterious compounds in these foods can be rendered inert or at least less bad through soaking and fermentation, but I’m not into that cause of the prep time it takes (you can Google all this stuff). Anyway, I began asking myself that question and only eating those foods that resulted in a “yes”. Meat? Yes (organic). Dairy? Yes (organic). Vegetables? Fruits? Yes, yes. Let’s look more specifically at foods high in carbs–white potatoes? Yes. Potato chips? No. Sweet potatoes? Yes. Cassava (my favorite ultra-high carb tuber)? Yes. Plantains? Yes, definitely. Taro, spaghetti/ kabocha/ butternut squashes, carrots, parsnips, beets? All yesses. Pasta? No. Bread? No. Cereal? No. Popcorn? No. Peanut butter is a no also. Nuts? No. Wait, what? No nuts or peanut butter? What’s interesting is that the same foods that won’t go bad in a month if left unrefrigerated also tend to have higher concentrations of phytates, lectins, gluten and other stuff that’s likely not so conducive to optimal health. The only exceptions to my rule are coffee, 100% chocolate a.k.a. baking chocolate (fair trade only because child slavery is HUGE in the cocoa bean business), coconut oil and olive oil.

I think this is a really simple, maintainable way of eating that’s easy to remember and that forces your diet to revolve around foods that contribute to ideal health and well being. It also keeps you away from processed sugar.

High Fat, Low Sugar is Best, and Why Pinkberry Isn’t Healthy

15g sugar, 14g fat per 1/2 cup serving. An excellent dessert option.

15g sugar, 14g fat per 1/2 cup serving. An excellent dessert option.

It’s no secret that I’m not afraid of fat. Actually, I’ll qualify that. Trans-fat, yes, afraid. Fried foods, yes, afraid. Oils (except for non-heated extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil), yes, afraid. Naturally occurring saturated fat? Not afraid of it at all. Although I don’t consume them in enormous quantities, organic eggs, butter, milk, cream, cheese, lard and tallow are staples in my diet, and I make sure that around half to two-thirds of the fat I consume is naturally saturated. This works out to 60-80g of saturated fat per day, which is way higher than our government’s recommendation. Clearly, I take the government’s idea of what we should be eating with a grain of salt… or a gram of lard. There are many reasons why I believe saturated fat is not only healthy to consume, but necessary. My opinions have been shaped by a good deal of my own research. I won’t preach about it here any more than I already have, but you should feel free to do some Googling if interested.

Anyway, I do believe that simple sugars (especially fructose) are unnatural (and counterproductive at best, damaging at worst) in concentrations any higher than they might occur in fruit. That aside, I’m an ice cream freak, a condition at odds with my beliefs about sugar since ice cream contains, ummmmmmmm, sugar. What to do?

Read the label

Brilliant idea, right? If you take the time to compare the labels of different ice cream brands and flavors within brands, you’ll see that the sugar content varies massively between them. Calories tell almost none of the story. The difference in sugar content between one flavor in a brand and another can be double, but the calories might still read the same if the one with more sugar has less fat than the one with less sugar. This is very common with flavors that contain lots of mix ins, as well as with frozen yogurts, which are typically marketed as a healthier alternative to ice cream. This can be potentially misleading because they tend to (or at least can) contain more sugar.

Pinkberry–A wolf in sheep’s yogurt

Take this example: I recently found myself in a Pinkberry (frozen yogurt seller) when on a short vacation in California. In my opinion, Pinkberry attempts to market its products as healthy, although they don’t say it outright. Maybe that’s just me reading into it, but I think when most people think of Pinkberry, they think of a food product that’s not bad for them, and with all the hype around the probiotics their products contain, maybe even good for them (there are plenty of better ways to get a dose of probiotics). Anyway, of course I had to download the PDF containing complete nutrition for Pinkberry’s entire line of flavors (it’s literally 44 pages). I discovered that the majority of its offerings contain inexplicably large quantities of sugar. I calculated that across 35 flavors the average sugar content per 100g (or 1/2 cup) is around 22g, yet there’s no fat in most flavors. Without a good dose of fat to buffer that sugar, most of Pinkberry’s products are efficient insulin bombs (although there is the notable exception of Pinkberry’s plain Greek yogurt with only 6g sugar). That’s without any toppings, nearly all of which are unabashed sugar missiles. One serving of, say, the chocolate chip cookie dough topping is 12 grams and contains 5g of sugar. “Ok, 5g isn’t terrible”, you say, but do you have any idea how tiny 12 grams of cookie dough is? That’s less than 1/2 of one ounce. You almost can’t see it when it’s in the cup! Drop a couple of ounces of those on and you can VERY easily hit 60g of sugar in your final product, if not more.

There’s another frozen yogurt company out there called Red Mango that offers true “frozen yogurt” that really tastes like yogurt (tart) and has much less sugar than what we normally think of as frozen yogurt. I have to admit that I’m not fond of the flavor of this “real” frozen yogurt (I prefer to eat regular non-frozen yogurt), but I think that their products (or at least many of them based on what I can see on their website) are actually healthy.

Eat Ice Cream (or at least something with more fat and less sugar)

So in light of my opinions about natural fat (like the fat in a quality ice cream) and sugar, you can understand why I prefer not to eat frozen yogurt unless it contains less fat and less sugar than its ice cream counterpart, which is rare indeed. When I buy ice cream, I look for something with 13-15g of sugar per 1/2 cup serving and anywhere from 10-16g fat. I’m wary of ice creams with lower fat. Some companies create lower fat ice creams mechanically by churning air into their products (which then have to be called frozen desserts because they contain too much air to be legally deemed ice cream). Others add fillers, stabilizers and thickeners like carrageenan, mono and diglycerides, various gums, starches and who knows what else. I’m fine with extra air, but not with fillers. The frozen dessert in the image at the top of this post is awesome for several reasons. First, its base is coconut cream, which is exceptionally nutritious. Second, it contains 15g of sugar per 1/2 cup serving, which is acceptable to me. Third, it has 14 grams of fat, which is very satiating and helps moderate the insulin rush. Fourth, there’s scotch in it, and boy, you can taste it.

Stew Cylinders: How to Accurately Calculate Servings, Calories and Nutritional Content in Recipes

Generally, I have no trouble tracking calories and nutrients I consume thanks to MyFitnessPal, which is a neat little application (Android/ iOS/ web) that basically does everything for you. It’s powered by an absolutely enormous food database. All that’s required of the user is to search for a food, enter the number of servings and submit. The process takes all of two or three seconds once you get into the swing of things. It’s easy enough to track the consumption of discrete food items, like grilled chicken breast or a tablespoon of coconut oil or 200g of sweet potato (so long as you have a food scale or are good at estimating). But things can get tricky when attempting to calculate the number of calories and nutrients in a recipe and even trickier when calculating the portion size of that recipe you might have consumed.

This is the whiteboard cling on the side of my fridge where I track recipe ingredient weights.

This is the whiteboard cling on the side of my fridge where I track recipe ingredient weights.

For example, I might make a huge pot of stew, then eat a bowlful of it, but how do I know how much I’ve consumed? Well, for one, I could measure out a couple of cupfuls of stew into my bowl, but how do I know how many calories and macros are in those two cups? I’d need to know two other things: 1) how many calories and macros the whole pot contained, and 2) how many cups of stew are in the pot. That second part is actually a lot trickier than it sounds, especially when it’s a huge, hot pot of stew that I might not be inclined to measure out cup-by-cup into another pot to determine how many cups I’m starting with. So what to do? Here’s the process I follow; although it might seem complicated on first read, I promise it’s not in practice:

  1. MyFitnessPal includes a function that allows recipes to be created that are comprised of multiple food items. It also requires the user to enter the number of servings the recipe makes. Since I never know this (I make up recipes as I go), I always tell the app that it makes ONE serving. I’ll explain why in a minute. I then weigh out all the items in the recipe and enter them into the app. Once the recipe is created, the app generates a nutrition table for it that lists calories, macros and some vitamins/ minerals. Since I’ve indicated that the whole pot is a single serving, the table might show me something like “5,387 calories per serving.”

    A recipe profile in MyFitnessPal. Note that I have this set as a single serving.

    A recipe profile in MyFitnessPal. Note that I have this set as a single serving.

  2. Now I have to figure out how many cups are in the pot of stew. I could, of course just estimate. If I know my pot holds eight quarts I can come up with a reasonable estimate. But sometimes reasonable isn’t good enough, especially if what I’ve made is very energy dense. If I’m off by a few cups (which is likely), that can significantly throw off my individual serving calculations. To get an accurate answer, I first measure the depth of the food in the pot with a ruler (either on the inside with a plastic ruler I’d only use for this or on the outside of the pot). Say it’s six inches deep. Then I measure the interior diameter of the pot; say that’s nine inches. Since the pot is a cylinder, then so is the stew inside it. So now I know I have a cylinder of stew that six inches high by nine inches in diameter.
  3. Now all I have to do is calculate the volume of the stew cylinder. There are lots of online utilities that can do this, but I use Wolfram Alpha for virtually every mathematical calculation I have to perform in personal and professional life. You can enter what you want calculated in plain English, so I enter “number of cups in a cylinder 5.5 inches tall by 9 inches diameter.” Boom. Done. It tells me there are 6.06 quarts or just over 24 cups in my stew cylinder.
    Wolfram Alpha comes in very handy for stuff like determining the volume of a stew cylinder.

    Wolfram Alpha comes in very handy for stuff like determining the volume of a stew cylinder.

    This is the conversion table generated by Wolfram Alpha.

    This is the conversion table generated by Wolfram Alpha.

  4. Remember how I told MyFitnessPal that the pot of stew was one serving? This step is where it comes in handy. I can now make my serving size whatever I want. So if I want the pot to be 10 servings, I know that’s 2.4 cups (24/10). Now I can scoop 2.4 cups into my bowl and log it in MyFitnessPal by selecting the recipe and entering a fractional serving size, i.e. 0.1 servings since I’m eating a tenth of the pot. All my nutrients are calculated and added right to my daily totals. If I want to only have a cup of the stew, I simply divide 1 by 24 and get ~0.042, so that would be the serving size I enter into the application.

Determining the correct calories could also be accomplished by weighing the empty pot on a food scale, and then weighing it again once full of cooked food and logging the difference. Then you’d weigh the portion you wanted to eat and convert it into a fraction of the whole and enter it into MyFitnessPal as described in #4 above. The problem is that 1) my food scale maxes out at 5.5 lbs. and most of the stuff I cook plus the cookware is much heavier than that, and 2) the hot pot might melt the surface of the scale (mine is plastic).

There’s No Such Thing as Cheating

I see a good number of mentions of the concept of “cheating” during a diet. Many individuals who are cutting plan for what they refer to as “cheat” days or meals, a time during which eating guidelines are loosened. I never cheat because I don’t believe that there’s such thing as cheating when it comes to food. For example, I eat ice cream and chocolate and drink wine several nights a week. But it’s not cheating. How does that make sense?

According to Mirriam-Webster online, cheating is “to break a rule or law usually to gain an advantage at something.” Considering that, I see cheating in relation to whatever activity, whether it’s on an exam, on a spouse, in a sport, on a resume, or whatever else as just plain wrong. So then why would I program cheating into my lifestyle? If cheating provides an unfair advantage, how does eating “bad” or “dirty” food provide an unfair advantage? If anything, foods typically on the “cheat” list are nutrient sparse and sugary or fatty. Wouldn’t eating those things set a person back on the path toward their goals?

Here’s another question: assuming that there was some sort of pill that could make a person ripped overnight, providing a truly significant time advantage over getting ripped via traditional diet and exercise, would taking it constitute cheating? In my opinion, definitely not. Who would that person be cheating? Perhaps if he or she were competing in a “get ripped naturally” competition, then yes, but otherwise, it wouldn’t be cheating. It’s like saying that someone who has their stomach stapled is cheating to lose weight. So even if the logic of a “bad” food being a “cheat” held water (i.e. that it somehow was a hack for losing fat faster) the concept that it is cheating to hack a process that is unique to the individual and affects nobody else is illogical on its own.

All this is to say (if I hadn’t made my opinion clear already) that nothing about the concept of cheating with regard to food makes sense, which is why I don’t schedule cheat meals. They simply don’t exist in my mind. For me, a food is either ok to eat regularly, ok to eat occasionally, or not ok to eat ever. I’m not a proponent of the “If It Fit Your Macros” (IIFYM) paradigm, since I prefer to eat foods with a high nutritional content, but it’s still important to me to have some freedom to eat something less nutritious if I want it. For example, I enjoy having a serving of full fat, sugared ice cream a few times a week or 20-30 grams of 100% dark chocolate (yes, I love baking chocolate) with some red wine, but I would never eat, for example, a soy-based product, margarine, or a product sweetened with agave. I draw an eat/ no eat line and stick to it.

I also think that applying the concept of cheating to food can be detrimental because it puts a negative slant on the act of eating. It means that by eating that thing, you’re doing something bad or wrong. In my opinion, that’s the type of psychology that can provide conditions conducive to the development of an eating disorder.

How I reconcile eating less nutritious foods with my goals

On several pages across, I explain that my philosophy about diet and exercise revolves around sustainability. Physique goes along with this; my interests are not in bulking and cutting cycles, since by definition that practice means that each condition is not sustained. My diet is part of my lifestyle, not something that comes to a halt, so maintaining it had better be as close to effortless as possible. I include less nutritious foods in my lifestyle because they allow relief from periods when I might be too low on calories or not be taking in enough fat or whatever. They provide psychological grease by effectively addressing the natural phenomenon of cravings.

Dietary Periodization

Just as I believe that the most effective lifting programs employ a periodization protocol that cycles the type of lift, load, set volume, rep volume, rep speed and rest interval at multiple scales (intra and inter-day, week and month) — see the RF Strength Method here, eating should be the same. Periodization in the gym is highly beneficial because it can help reduce fatigue, improve recovery, prevent psychological staleness, and reduce plateauing and stagnation. I find periodization as it relates to food consumption to be beneficial for the same reasons. I cannot eat below maintenance for months on end while lifting heavy if I want to slowly drop to 5% body fat. Although I might not adhere to the more strict periodization guidelines I set for my lifting, I might need a day or two each week to eat at my maintenance level to offer my body a break. I might need some good food high in naturally occurring saturated fat and cholesterol, like a few eggs cooked in a couple of tablespoons of lard to allow my hormone levels to reset. I might need an enormous bowl of oats with coconut oil and honey and dark chocolate to replenish glycogen stores sometimes. Ice cream is just something I love, so it’s a great psychological treat. Maybe I’ll have a double serving of red wine one night because I just enjoy the ensuing relaxed state. Does this sound like I’m doing something bad to myself (like a “cheat meal/ day” implies) or am I creating the ideal environment for mental and physical growth and progress? You know what I’d say.