Matt Fitzgerald: Diet Cults and More


Jonathan: Hey everybody, Jonathan Bailor back with another SANE show and with us today is an individual who I am a fan of and I think you will be a fan of too because he has a very no-nonsense, common sense, and rational approach to how we should eat to achieve optimal performance and just live well. He is a bestselling author, acclaimed nutrition writer and quite the athlete himself. His newest book is called Diet Cults. I am a fan of it and I think you will be too. Matt Fitzgerald, welcome to the show brother.

Matt: So great to be with you.

Jonathan: Matt, again, thank you for sharing your time with us and I really wanted to have you on the show and I was pleased to receive a copy of your book because you and I are cut from the same cloth in the sense that it sounds like you must have been fed up with all the ideology, it’s almost like this diet thing has become a religious discussion.

Matt: Yes, exactly. I sort of envisioned this. This is one way to [indiscernible 01:00] why I wrote this book. I wanted to create something that if you have a friend or a colleague or a family member who is just kind of annoying you like judging what you eat and it’s just obviously pretty agro about some diet that they found that they just can’t stop talking about, you could hand them this book and say “Here, read this” and then the idea is that that person will leave you alone afterwards. That’s sort of the type of gift I wanted to offer people.

Jonathan: I can definitely empathize with that Matt and how has your experience been so far because we live in a culture that seems to crave diets, right? Like, tell me the seven foods that I can eat for the next fifteen days and this predictable thing is going to happen versus in your book and my work, you outlined much more like a template and a guideline that you then need to personalize. Has it been hard to communicate that to people because they want this prescriptive ideological approach or what’s been your experience there?

Matt: Yes, that’s a great question and what I am finding is actually rather encouraging. I think the reason all these silly sham diets exist is because we ask for them. So, in a sense we have no one to blame but ourselves, but I think there is, almost everyone out there is capable of being reasonable and you may have to go through some experiences of being burned a few times before you get there, but that’s what I am finding.

I have even had some interesting conversations with some pretty hardcore and jealous Paleo people or vegans and when I keep the tone of the conversation the way it is in the book itself, which is part of what I am trying to do is change the tone, I find that I can bring people who disagree with me around to have reasonable conversation and then they will actually take something out of it, not necessarily I am going to change my diet, but I am going to change how I talk about my diet with other people, which is pretty cool.

Jonathan: That is very cool and Matt I know you do a lot of historical exploration in the book. Do you have any insights or did your research leads you into why do people get so passionate about how they eat? For some people, that is like whatever, I will just eat whatever and then for other people, it literally is almost part of their identity what is it about eating that has [indiscernible 03:36] emotional aspect to it?

Matt: I think that all people look at food through morally tinted lenses and we can’t help it. I think as a species, we developed a morality around food. If you look at other animals, their sort of primitive proto-morality centers around food because it’s the most basic thing, right? You fight over it, you share it, that type of thing.

So, I think humans went through something very similar, especially since we are nature’s ultimate omnivores and in order to get there, we had to as a species try a lot of new foods that sometimes didn’t work out so well. So, we developed this instinct where we want to eat everything, but we are a little scared of eating the wrong thing and you can see how that would give rise to sets of rules about “Hey! Don’t eat that” and I think probably initially all those rules were strictly rational.

It was like “That’s poisonous, don’t eat that,” but I think over time probably different cultures just developed an identity around things they didn’t eat and those things didn’t even necessarily have to be unhealthy anymore. It was just a matter of “Hey! Our kind doesn’t eat that.” You see food taboos, non-rational food taboos in every known culture where there are things that are perfectly healthy to eat that they just don’t eat anyway because it helps define who they are.

Then you get these identity and moral attachments to ways of eating. You fast-forward to the 21st century where there is no longer just one way to eat per culture. You can balance around all over the place. There is this marketplace of diets out there and so you have the same phenomenon at work where we still look through foods with these morally tinted lenses, it’s just in a completely different context and as a result, it was all that you get, diet wars.

Jonathan: Matt, you have a very unique perspective on this because you have been studying this for many, many years. You are also a very highly skilled and experienced endurance athlete, so when people have these diet debates, how much of that is because they have may be different goals in their head? For example, I have many vegans and vegetarians on the show and if their number one goal is to not kill animals, yes it’s hard to argue that vegetarianism is the most effective way to eat to accomplish that goal, but if someone’s goal is to run a marathon, so how much do goals play a role?

Matt: Yes, another great question. I have an expression that you probably heard before “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything else looks like a nail.” So, we do tend to project our unique experience and make it into rules for everyone when it isn’t necessarily that. In the book, I have a lot of experience with endurance athletes. In the book, I use endurance athletes kind of just as a reference cohort, as a group that just stands for super-healthy people.

What I would really like to be done is a study that applies like a battery of different tests of basic health to a large number of people and comes up with sort of a composite overall general health score. So, it would be tests of fasting glucose and body fat percentage and blood lipids, total antioxidant capacity, we can agree on may be ten of these tests and then I would like to once you have identified the healthiest people in the population then look their diets, you are turning the traditional epidemiological nutritional study model on its head.

You just find the healthiest people and then ask what they eat. I can guarantee what you would find. It’s based on the thesis of my book is that there would be no consistency in the diets that they would be all over the place and this will be your ultimate proof that there is no one true way. That study hasn’t been done, but this population of we endurance athletes are kind of a pretty good stand-in because I can guarantee you those people would blow the doors off the battery of health tests. They are as a group super-healthy people and I have studied their diets and guess what? They are all over the map. They practice generally what I call agnostic healthy eating.

Jonathan: When you say agnostic healthy eating, how often do you just kind of do one of these things because this agnostic healthy eating, I come from a bodybuilding background and eating a lot of clean food; since the 50s, way back people kind of understood that they are these clean natural foods and eating in abundance of them is pretty simple way to stay healthy. Why has it gotten so complicated?

Matt: There are vested interests in making it complicated. We don’t need any new diets. As you suggest, were there healthy people 75 years ago? Yes. There were probably healthy diets 75 years ago. We don’t need any new diets, but there are a lot of pressures to create them anyway. Obviously, it can be a path to riches, but even beyond that once something – I hate to make this analogy, but I am going to anyway, hopefully people will understand. You know how we have a lot of these terrible mass shootings that occur and we wonder why. One of the reasons they happen is because they happen.

Once a phenomenon catches a certain amount of momentum, you get the copycat phenomenon. It is like we just do it because it’s done in this environment. Diet making is at a completely different level, is a similar thing, like if you come up with like may be a little bit of a strange and unique way of eating that works for you in this society, chances are you are going to try and turn that into a diet book. Whereas somewhere else you can just be “Hey, I found a diet that worked for me and no one else is ever going to know about it.” So, I think that’s part of we are just a society of diet makers.

Jonathan: Do you see any hope for this more pervasive common sense approach or do you see things just getting more and more polarizing?

Matt: Yes, another great question. I wish I had my crystal ball. I can tell you what I am trying to achieve and that I do think it is achievable. What I saw there was a lot of diet cults trying to convince people that a certain narrowly rule-bound way of eating was the only [indiscernible 10:30] to eat and then there is a nutrition science mainstream that says “No, no, no, no a variety of things can work, humans are adaptable,” but the trouble was there is no real sexiness to that message. All the marketing savvy has been on the side of the diet cults.

So, I wanted to come out there and offer something, basically make my food pyramid or whatever sexy. I wanted to create a visible community of agnostic healthy eaters and say “Guess what? There is an alternative.” If you can’t swallow the doctrine of the Paleo diet or if you just can’t deal with the arbitrary restrictions of some of these sugar-free diets or whatever it is, then hey there is something else for you, you are not just left to kind of figure it out on your own.

So, I am not trying to convert everyone to this way of eating. I just want it to be there because a lot of the diet cults are perfectly fine. They are perfectly healthy or at least they can be if you do it carefully. So, I don’t want to steal every last convert from those diets, I just want something else to be out there for people who can’t necessarily match themselves up with one of the existing restrictive options.

Jonathan: When speaking of diet cults, specifically using the term “cult,” I had a very interesting personal experience. Recently, I was at the PaleoFX Conference and I was on stage on a panel with Mark Sisson and Sean Croxton, other big leaders in that movement and the panel was about always trying to progress rather than to try to be perfect and it was shocking to see how really the influencers in that community were so about like “Look, things found in nature, that’s probably good place to start, don’t go crazy, don’t make yourself crazy,” so I wonder how much of the ideology is caused by the leaders of these movements versus being demanded by the followers because even as a “pseudo-leader” in the health arena, I often get asked to like take polarizing positions and to say this is good and this is bad whereas that’s not really what the science shows.

Matt: I think that there is a certain amount of game-playing going on that we are all in on to a certain level, many things are said with a wink. The example I often offer is in Loren Cordain’s Paleo Diet. In no uncertain terms, he presents his diet as the one true way for everyone to eat and then when he gets through scaring you into adopting that diet, he says “You only need to follow it 80 percent of the time” and I am like “Wait a minute, like if avoiding grains was that important, you just kind of convinced me that there are borderline toxic, why can I then eat them 20 percent of the time?”

So, he was lacking the courage of his own convictions. What he could have done is create a diet that didn’t have all that alarmism about newer foods, but just relegated those foods to a 20 percent part of the diet as a whole. So, it wasn’t you can cheat 20 percent of the time. It’s structured right in there. To me, that would have been a more straightforward approach, a more honest approach, but I think he sold a lot more book, I think he knew exactly what he was doing because people wanted him to take the position that legumes will kill you slowly, but then because he knew that wasn’t really true, you get your two days out of every ten when you can go ahead and eat them.

Jonathan: In some ways I can see the – let’s call it logical consistency of a vegan approach because it is not like eat animals sometimes and not other times, but at the same time, it is probably one of the most cult-like and longstanding. I guess may be one of the ways to tell if a cult is strong in terms of cultness is how long it’s stuck around for, right?

Matt: Yes.

Jonathan: Veganism has been around for some time. It’s on airplane menus. It’s fairly well established. What do you think drives the strength of that movement?

Matt: You just said it that it is ancient and that it does have a different kind of moral/ethical foundation. It’s all about whether it is right to slaughter animals? Basically, you mistreat animals. In my career, as much as I can, I have tried to bracket that question as above my paygrade [indiscernible 15:36] because it’s a hornet nest and I really try to stay focused on eating for health, but that is where you get some of that stridency from, from that camp because it’s like the abortion debate to them. It’s like meat is murder, you have people who mean that absolutely literally and so you can understand if that’s your perspective, you are outraged that just everywhere around you murder is being committed. If they believe it, they are going to be intense about it.

Jonathan: Makes a lot of sense. What is the pattern you have seen because you do outline a – I actually really like your approach because it’s actually very similar to what I advocate where you literally have like servings and try to eat this many servings a day of this as a general template and where you get it from. So, it’s almost like a paint by numbers approach to your diet. Take us through that approach.

Matt: I call it agnostic healthy eating and one [indiscernible 16:41] is that there is no one right way to eat and we actually may never even be able to scientifically pin down a set of rules that you can’t violate because the physiology is so complex, it’s like trying to nail jelly to the ceiling. If you come up with a set of rules, you can find a way to break one of them and you are still healthy.

The best we can do is just do good science and come up with a set of parameters and we also want to base things on things besides just the ultra-rational aspects because we are human, we eat for pleasure. We are natural omnivores. So, we need to consider that as well. So, that’s one of the reasons my agnostic healthy eating game is structured on food types because it keeps it simple, it keeps it grounded in what’s familiar. So, I just create a hierarchy of food types ranked in descending order of quality with vegetables at the very top and then fried foods at the very bottom and the game is as simple as this.

You are going to try to eat the highest quality food more often than any food of lesser quality all the way down the list not meal per meal because it doesn’t work on that scale, but by the end of each week if you are sort of keeping tally that’s what you should see that you have eaten vegetables more often than fruit, fruit more often that nuts, seeds, and healthy oils, right on down the list so that you have eaten fewer fried foods than any food of higher quality.

The idea is not aim or absolute perfection in that, but that should be the general trend and if you are maintaining that general weightedness towards high quality, I can guarantee you are going to be satisfied with your health, but also there is plenty of room within that framework for individual choice. For example, if you just can’t stand or say you are one of these people who just doesn’t do well with grains. I am a grain guy, but not everyone is. You don’t have to eat them. They are not only the fruits and vegetables are essential.

The four other high quality food categories are recommended, but not essential and then the four low quality food categories which are refined grains, sweets, low quality meats and fried foods. None of those are forbidden foods, I classify them as acceptable which means you shouldn’t eat much of them, but they are not going to kill you, let’s be honest.

Jonathan: Matt, you put fruit and vegetables there on the top of the stack and have you seen folks, because I know I have seen this quite often that treat fruit and vegetables as interchangeable meaning that – I don’t know if you will agree, but may be you will agree that eating six bananas is not the same as eating six servings of kale, but sometimes people, especially with children will be like [indiscernible 19:48] vegetables, but I can get them to eat fruit. So, there is almost a complete exclusion of vegetables and a complete replacement with fruit. Have you seen that and do you have concerns with that?

Matt: Yes, I dug into that a little bit because as categories, if you line up their virtues, they are very, very similar. They have got vital nutrients, vitamins, minerals, fiber, water content, so you are like may be they are interchangeable, but little bit of science out there that I dug up indicates that they are actually complementary and synergistic when they are included in the diet together and so I don’t think you can get everything from just one or the other. I certainly have sympathy for parents who think “Hey! At least this is a fruit.” I am not substituting kale with Wonder Bread, but yes it is something to be mindful of that they are not truly fully interchangeable.

Jonathan: Have you seen, without complicating things too much, have you seen that within the customization that can take place, for example if someone eats a diet that would be higher in natural fats like nuts and seeds that for example would a diet that is incredibly high in the natural sugars found in fruits like I eat 20 bananas a day like the guy on YouTube or whatever and that person also eating an abundance of natural fats like if I eat a lot of fruit, I should do this or if I don’t eat fruit, I should do more of this or if I eat more fats, I should do this or do you just say “No, just follow the food groups?”

Matt: Yes, I really like to keep the focus on food versus what’s in them, what’s in foods, nutrients as much as possible sort of if nuts and fruits are very similar in overall quality, don’t worry too much about exactly how you are balancing them because they are both so high up on the continuum that you should be getting plenty of both and exact balance isn’t going to matter all that much. I am just resisted to, unless you really need to look at, open the hood and look at nutrients inside foods, for example, very high training of endurance athletes have to pay attention to carbohydrate, you just do, but unless you are in that crowd, I just don’t think you do. Did that answer your question?

Jonathan: It did and are there any populations – so you have mentioned high endurance athletes. So, for example I have seen some studies that show that diabetic or pre-diabetic patients would likely be better suited picking like preferentially treating vegetables as preferential over higher sugar fruits given their sensitivity to insulin. Do you see any other subgroups of the population that would treat the hierarchy differently?

Matt: Yes, there are plenty. They tend to be marginal. You are going to get the lactose intolerant folks who just have to eliminate dairy or at least non-sour dairy, the celiacs who can’t do drinks. So in allergies, intolerances, things like that, certain people can’t do alcohol and I drink pro-alcohol in moderation. I build that in, like it’s not an indulgence. I view it as part of a good diet for health.

So, may be Native Americans because of certain genetic abnormalities, don’t process alcohol the same way. They need to be very, very careful with it. So, there are little groups like that and so you take care of the universals first because a lot of people don’t even have those in place and then you start to pay attention to your idiosyncrasy which can be not just physical but also psychological. You have to be a happy eater as well.

Jonathan: I love that focus on universals because so often we are just bogged down in the nuance, in the controversy and in the disagreement and all the while we have got people dying and suffering when if they would just get these basics right, they wouldn’t be. So, I salute that effort and Matt, the book is called Diet Cults. What’s next for you and where can people go to learn more about your work?

Matt: The official publication date for this, it’s been slipping out well ahead of it is May 15, so that’s when the Kindle will be available, the audio book. The hub for all things Matt Fitzgerald is MattFitzgerald.org and there you can keep up-to-date on all my doings.

Jonathan: Beautiful, Matt, thank you so much for taking the time to put this together. Certainly, a fun read and helping us to stay focused on the big picture which is really important and that which we share versus that which we disagree on. Again, folks his name is Matt Fitzgerald. The book is called Diet Cults. Check it out and remember, this week and every week after; eat smarter, exercise smarter, and live better. We will chat with you soon.

This week we have the pleasure of hearing from Matt Fitzgerald. In his own words:

“A New Hampshire native, Matt became a runner at the age of eleven, after running the last mile of the 1983 Boston Marathon with his father (who had run the whole thing) and his two brothers. By that time Matt was already a writer (specifically a comedic poet), having declared his intention to make his future career as a writer at the age of nine. He never changed his mind.

Although he never intended to marry his passions for sports, fitness, and writing, that’s how it worked out. Before he’d even graduated from high school Matt was making a little money writing articles about the exploits of his Oyster River High School Bobcats Cross Country Team for a local weekly newspaper.

Matt moved to California for no particular reason in 1995, two years after earning a B.A. in English from Haverford College (a DIII track and cross country “powerhouse” where Matt had intended to run but did not because of burnout). Willing to take the first writing job he could find in San Francisco, Matt received an offer from Bill Katovsky, the original founder of Triathlete, to join the tiny staff of an endurance sports startup magazine based in Sausalito.

This opportunity has led to every subsequent opportunity in Matt’s career, which has included stints at Triathlete, AthletesVillage.com, Active.com, and Competitor Group. Matt’s byline has appeared in a long list of national publications including BicyclingMaximMen’s Fitness,Men’s HealthMen’s JournalOutsideShapeStuff, and Women’s Health. The son of a novelist, Matt has a special passion for writing books. His best-known titles include Racing WeightBrain Training for Runners, andTriathlete Magazine’s Essential Week-by-Week Training Guide.

A certified sports nutritionist, Matt has served as a consultant to numerous sports nutrition companies, including Energy First, Healthy Directions, PacificHealth Labs, and Next Proteins. Having coached for Carmichael Training Systems in the early 2000′s, Matt continues to design readymade training plans for triathletes and runners that are sold through TrainingPeaks.com, as well as customized plans available through this website.

Matt intends to keep racing until he can’t. He’s run a bunch of marathons and countless shorter running events since returning to the sport at age 27. In 1998 he branched out to triathlons, and four years later completed his first (and only) Ironman. Matt lives in Southern California with his wife, Nataki, who is more important to him than running and writing.”