There Is No Perfect Diet: A Few Thoughts On Practical Nutrition

By Connor Young on

As life keeps getting busier, more than ever, we need a simple solution for health. Health gurus claim to have the secret to perfect health—the one diet to rule them all. Most food companies are happy to indulge us with health claims, while the FDA guidelines themselves seem to indicate that we’ve got it all figured out.

But over years of studying nutrition, I’ve realized that the more we know, the clearer it becomes that we’re just beginning to understand how food works in the body.

No surprise, then, that nutrition can be confusing. It’s tough to know where to turn for good advice, and implementing it is even harder.

My own pursuit of optimal diet has been a bit of a roller coaster. I’m a bio nerd. I was a fitness and nutrition coach. Now, I’ve made a food company based on what I’ve learned about nutrition over the last couple years. I’ve ended up with a perspective I’d like to share here, in the hopes that you find it useful on your own journey to health.

Here are six major takeaways I’ve found while looking for the perfect diet for myself and others:

  1. Science is your ally on the road to health
  2. Community leads to lasting change
  3. Dogma is destructive
  4. Owning your health can save your life
  5. There is no one-size-fits-all to nutrition
  6. Be practical, not perfect

1) Science is your ally on the road to health

My interest in health started in high school. Like many males my age, health wasn’t about feeling good or living well. It was about kicking butt in sports, and impressing girls (which, of course, were two sides of the same coin). I was scrawny, as you can see:

That’s me at 17. I started working out to look good and impress the ladies (which didn’t work), but the pursuit of looking good led me to start digging into biology and nutrition in my free time. I realized that if I could understand how humans work, I could make my body stronger.

I dove into physiology, nutrition, and metabolism, and started experimenting more with exercise and diet.

I started from the ground up, studying how muscles work from the inside out. I quickly realized this information was giving me an advantage in the gym. There are so many diet and exercise programs out there; armed with the science basics, it was much easier to discern fact from fiction and figure out what was likely happening in my body.

The importance of knowing the basics is more crucial now than ever. Words like insulin and glucose, saturated fat and microbiome are being thrown around willy-nilly in blogs and marketing copy these days. Most people don’t truly understand the nuances of the scientific concepts behind the words. I know I didn’t! But these words do mean a lot, and knowing the basics about your body gives you the knowledge to pick apart what will help you grow stronger and what won’t.

Key takeaway:

The first step to improving something is learning how it works. Take the time to learn about some simple biological mechanisms in your body so you can differentiate the health marketing mumbo jumbo and the real deal. Ample’s blog is a solid resource. You can also just read a human biology textbook. This one is free and outlines the basics of how our bodies work.

2) Community leads to lasting change

And then I found CrossFit.

Q: How do you know if someone does CrossFit?

A: Don’t worry. They’ll tell you.

When I was a sophomore in college in 2008, CrossFit hadn’t yet grown into the powerhouse it is today, so I quickly took ownership of spreading the gospel every chance I got. I started the CrossFit club at my college and created St. Olaf College’s “OleFit” CrossFit competition. At this point, fitness and health were my life and identity, so it felt natural to turn it into a career. In 2011, I started a CrossFit gym with two college friends.

We cared genuinely about each client, and this care turned into quick business growth. People were getting amazing results and it was thanks to way more than just the workouts. It was the community that empowered them to make lasting, habitual changes.

Key takeaway:

If you’re trying to make change in your life, build or join a community around it. Find likeminded people. Share ideas. Challenge one another and grow together. It’s way more difficult to go it alone.

3) Dogma is destructive

CrossFit led me to the Paleo diet. Paleo focuses on mimicking our ancestors’ eating patterns, based on the idea that our modern health problems are the result of us straying from what we’ve evolved to eat. This diet generally involves eating a diet full of healthy fats, meats, nuts, seeds, and vegetables, but devoid of grains, legumes, dairy, and processed sugar.

Paleo worked really well for me. I had stable energy despite my intense workouts. And yes, I finally did grow muscle! I became a huge advocate and let everyone know it.

It started with my CrossFit clients. I wasn’t a nutritionist, but I had a biology degree and had been reading nutrition journals since I was seventeen, so I felt comfortable giving my two cents.

I was equally passionate about my diet as I was about fitness. And just as I suggested CrossFit for damn near everybody, I suggested Paleo for almost every client. It worked for me, so, therefore, it should be the same for everyone, right? Young, old, men, women, in shape, out of shape – everyone got really similar Paleo-centric food guidelines.

Many tried it, and many made massive strides in their health. I saw people lose 40 pounds in 4 months, and others with significantly better blood lipids. I became a true believer. Sure, some people didn’t see the results they wanted, but I assumed they just weren’t doing it right.

This is about the time I became an asshole. I was convinced that Paleo was the way to eat well, and that if people would just follow it, they’d fix their health problems. I became an evangelist in the most damaging sense of the word.

I remember thoroughly freaking out my mom at a small town diner. She wanted to enjoy her lunch. I wanted to tell her why her entire way of existence was based on a lie. “The breading on that chicken will kill you! Are you really going to eat those fries right now? Do you understand how they cook that? Let me tell you why the government doesn’t know anything, mom. You don’t even know!”

This went on for a couple years. I would talk to people about food, and they either got it, or they didn’t. If they didn’t, we couldn’t be friends (I exaggerate, but not by much). Anytime someone challenged my views or had a different experience, I’d write them off as ignorant, lazy, or cherry-picking science to back their position. Shockingly, this was not the best way to help people.

Key takeaway:

I was convinced that Paleo was the only correct way to eat, but this belief lead to stubbornness that made me blind to the limitations and nuances of the particular view. My “holier than thou” attitude ended up getting in the way of my growth and pushed those I loved away from me.

As tempting as it may be to see nutrition and health through one particular lense, try to resist becoming dogmatic about these beliefs. It’s ok to be excited to share new-found knowledge. But being evangelical about them is the quickest path to stifling your progress, and alienating those you want to help most.

4) Owning your health can save your life

We all know some version of the stats. Heart disease is the number one killer in the Western world. More than 130 million suffer from some serious chronic disease like type 2 diabetes or Alzheimer’s. We spend trillions each year on drugs and surgery for people with preventable illnesses.

And by 2013, I started to see those stats in person.

By this point, I had sold the CrossFit gym and begun selling medical devices to surgeons. Basically, my job was to go into hospitals and train doctors to use these devices during surgery. Over the course of two years, I sat in on over 1,000 surgeries. I saw everything from stomach stapling procedures to knee replacements to open-heart bypasses.

Though I was selling medical devices, my main interest was still diet. I often asked the surgeons I worked with how nutrition could have impacted the people on the tables. In nearly every case, they would bring up diet as a causative factor.

They had long, multi-year relationships with the patients. Why was it that some of these patients got better and never had to go in for surgery, while others ended up under the knife? Their answer: those who took personal ownership of their health were the ones who usually avoided surgery, while those who abdicated their responsibility to the doctor were the ones who got worse.

It’s really common and easy to use modern medicine as a scapegoat for the massive (and growing) preventable disease statistics. But regardless of whose fault it is, the reality is that you are the only person who can truly own your health.

Key takeaway:

Food can be medicine or it can be a poison. Good nutrition can increase your energy and boost your mood, help decrease pain and speed recovery – it can even improve your relationships. Think about how much happier people would be if they felt energetic and has less pain! Good nutrition can also minimize your risk of chronic disease and keep you off that operating table.

I saw first-hand the serious repercussions of what it looks like to leave your health exclusively in the hands of a stranger. You must take full responsibility of your diet because, like it or not, our medical system can only do so much. You have the power and responsibility to figure it out.

5) There is no one-size-fits-all to nutrition

Taking control of my diet improved my workouts, recovery, my mood, and productivity. I watched the same thing happen to clients, friends, and family. This nutrition stuff is powerful!

But remember, I was still convinced that Paleo was the best diet (Nay! The ONLY diet!) out there. As a staunch Paleo evangelist, I read everything I could get my hands on. I also started attending Paleo and ancestral nutrition conferences.

And things got frustrating. Some of the most knowledgeable and credentialed speakers at these conferences were the least confident when they spoke.

And the more I learned, the more I realized that the speakers who were clear and concise, who talked about Paleo with the most certainty, were the ones who knew the least about the actual science. They would make mistakes, or exaggerate claims, or gloss over details to make really sexy, convincing points.

And then I started to notice paradoxes. Why was it that, despite me “knowing” that Paleo was the very best diet, there were people who didn’t seem to do well on it? People who didn’t lose weight or have unlimited energy?

For that matter, why did some people gain weight or have worse blood markers after eating Paleo?

Above all, how were there vegans – VEGANS – who actually seemed healthy? How could the Paleo gods have allowed them to survive, much less thrive? Could it be that we don’t know everything there is to know about nutrition?

This is when I fell off my Paleo high horse.

Key takeaway:

Science doesn’t know it all yet. This shouldn’t be a concern because true understanding proceeds only when we have the humility to admit what we don’t know. Beware of the experts who say they understand it all. Instead, become comfortable with a bit of uncertainty – or at least open-mindedness – as you move forward.

6) Be practical, not perfect

At this point, I knew a couple of things for sure:

  1. I am the only one in charge of my health.
  2. There are limitations in generalizing. Individualized nutrition is the way to go.  

So, still in pursuit of the perfect diet, I coupled heavy research with constant personal testing. Weird supplements, blood panels, genetic sequencing, gut microbiome tests, all of it. After all, this was the only way to understand what works for me.

Some call it quantified self; others call it biohacking. Regardless, I began to track everything.  At first, it was exciting. But this approach took most of my energy. I was spending hundreds of dollars per month on testing and supplements. Self-experimentation alone felt like a full-time job.

All the while, I actually did have a full-time job.

I had moved to San Francisco to launch a physical therapy startup and was living in a big communal house full of 50 entrepreneurs. We all worked around the clock.

My nutrition upkeep alone was exhausting and I was getting marginal returns. Sure, I could understand how my blood ketones were affected by every nutritional change I made, but how actionable was this knowledge, and how necessary was it at this point in my life?

The difference between me and a “normal” person became stark. My housemates recognized they should be eating better and were generally interested in health, yet mostly ignorant of how to tackle it. Meanwhile, as I cooked Brussels sprouts for every meal, their pizza boxes and ramen bowls covered the tables.

There had to be a happy medium. A way that both my friends and I could all get a pretty good diet while living in a world that recognized the realities of a 21st-century life.

By this point, I recognized that there were simple truths about nutrition that could yield 80% of the benefit, and that seemed to be a great start for just about everyone:

  1. Eat mostly whole foods.
  2. Reduce the amount of crappy processed foods.
  3. Find a macronutrient ratio that serves your energy and goals.

We can always debate the details, but if arguing about which diet is better prevents action, that’s a sign we’re getting too in the weeds.

So I started by educating these guys about nutrition. I created a simple lecture series designed to give them the foundations of nutrition, as well as hosting some cooking classes so they could make simple meals.

But for many of them, the problem wasn’t knowledge; it was implementation. In a fast-paced world, where nutrition understandably wasn’t their number 1 priority at certain times of the day.

As a chief technical officer of a growing startup, my friend Zoli’s problem was lunch. He couldn’t make food in the middle of the day, and resorted to cheap packaged foods, which left him with brain fog and gut distress after every meal. Was there another packaged food I recommended that he could turn to? I told him there wasn’t.

After a month of prodding, Zoli convinced me to make a quick nutritious meal solution that he and the rest of my friends could trust. I worked on the formula that eventually became Ample. As good as cooking nutritious food from scratch? Of course not. Better than microwaved ramen? Definitely.

After all, the good diet you can follow is better than the ideal diet you can’t.

Key takeaway:

Perfect is the enemy of great.

These days, many of us aspire to do it all, and feel judged if we’re not perfect. We should be working out, meditating, making our own food, and sleeping enough! We should kick ass at our jobs, have an amazing friend group, family, and passionate romantic relationships! Of course some of these fall by the wayside. And for many of us, our health is the first to go.

You don’t have to be perfect. In fact, you can’t be, at least not in everything. Sometimes, your nutrition should take precedence. Other times, it shouldn’t. Only you know what’s most important, so don’t let anyone else guilt you for how you prioritize your life.

Test a diet that seems interesting, but realize that results matter more than ideology. And if optimizing the last 10% of your diet starts dominating your thoughts and your time, it’s probably not worth the stress.

Some final thoughts

I’ve been on a personal and professional health journey for the last twelve years, but it is far from over. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

Knowing biology is useful for furthering health. Science can inform, but it can also divide if we use it to look like an expert when we’re not. “Out-sciencing” others leads to bigger egos, not more understanding. To truly embrace science means admitting our own limitations.

Communities are essential, but they can also segregate. Find a supportive community, making sure not to lose your individuality, common sense, or judgment in the process. Keep an eye out for an inability to see other points of view – both in yourself and in your community at large.

Optimal is subjective. There may be times where you need to focus 100% on your health. If so, feel free to get in the weeds. But for many of us, over-optimizing our diets leads to overwhelm and robs us of other pursuits. Some of us can barely get 5 minutes alone in a day, let alone make every healthy meal for ourselves. There should be no guilt in doing your best.


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