Book Report: Diet Cults

I started using the treadmill when I was in high school, and since that time, I have always read while in motion, whether on the bike, stair climber, elliptical, or treadmill.  That makes for about an hour of reading a day when I’m not running outside, and for the last three years I’ve averaged a book a week.  I just finished Diet Cults by Matt Fitzgerald, and once again, Fitzgerald doesn’t disappoint.  He is one of my favorite authors on endurance sports.  I love how he uses science to back up his content, and he is an endurance athlete himself, although as a non-elite, I feel like he can relate to the general audience of runners.


This is where I get most of my reading done.

Diet Cults starts by talking about how we associate morality to our chosen diets.  It is so true, right?  Of all of the things that people get passionate about, our choice of food is one of the hottest topics, especially for those who espouse a food lifestyle that requires sacrifices.  One of Fitzgerald’s quotes is: “People don’t choose diets by reason; rather, diets choose people by appealing to identity-based dispositions such as masculine self-image.”  In his book, he outlines all different types of diet cults that different groups of people have adopted.  Below are a few of the diets and some of the interesting points that stood out to me.  This book was full of interesting research and anecdotes for all different lifestyles and eating patterns. You should add this to your reading list.


Raw food diet: Although the raw food diet encourages raw food, cooking foods increases the bioavailability of nutrients in the foods we eat.

Paleo: A Paleo diet discourages the whole food groups of carbohydrates and dairy.  However, a 2010 study at Cardiff University in Wales by Peter Elwood reported that eating more dairy products was associated with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and death by any cause.  A National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study tracked the disease and death rates of half a million men and women for nine years and found that those who ate grains were 22% less likely to die during the study period than those who ate the least amount of grains.  The heaviest consumers of whole grains were 29% less likely to get heart disease.

Superfood: This chapter includes a list of some of the properties of common superfoods like Goji berries, cacao beans, hemp seeds, and aloe vera.  A good summary of the superness of super foods can be represented by this excerpt: “Yet even spirulina does not have everything. has given spirulina a “Completeness Score” of sixty-nine on its 100 point scale of nutritional balance.  Plain old spinach has a Completeness Score of 93.”

Atkins: This is a diet replete of carbohydrates, and it served as a nemesis to the potato industry in the early 2000s.  But, potatoes contain twice as much carbohydrate as a tomato, and they also contain a small amount of high-quality protein with a higher concentration of essential amino acids than whey protein and a higher biological value than soy protein.  Potatoes are also rich in vitamin C, zinc, vitamin B, potassium, fiber, and antioxidants.

Exercise v Food for weight loss: Fitzgerald posits that while eating less can help you lose weight, it is almost impossible to maintain weight loss without exercise.  Exercise cancels out the costs of eating too much fat.  It also neutralizes the effects of eating too much carbohydrate by increasing insulin sensitivity in muscle tissue, which leaves less carbs to be stored as fat.  Research also shows that exercise can make up for not eating enough vitamins.  Exercise is good for brain health and cardiorespiratory fitness.

Wine, Coffee, Chocolate: This is my favorite diet.  A 2012 study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that out of 400,000 men and women, regular coffee drinkers were 10% less likely to die during a thirteen year period.  Caffeine also enhances athletic performance by improving the speed of electrical signals from the brain to the muscles. Chocolate has a high concentration of polyphenols, a class of antioxidant in cacao.  Studies have shown that chocolate significantly reduces the risk of heart disease, and dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve circulation, increase HDL cholesterol, reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke, and increase insulin sensitivity.  Wine has many of the same benefits as chocolate as far as increasing levels of HDL, and it also is shown to slow the aging process through the antioxidant called reservatrol.



Gatorade: Sports drinks have gotten a bad rap for their sugar content, but during exercise, the muscles need fast energy, and this is exactly what Gatorade and other sports drinks provide.  A 2009 study by New Zealand’s Massey University compared a galactose sports drink against a conventional glucose-fructose sports drink in a cycling performance test.  Cyclists drinking the glucose-fructose drink were able to complete their time trial in about 33 minutes, while the cyclists drinking the galactose sports drink took about 38 minutes to complete the trial.

Gluten Free: Gluten has gotten a bad rap lately.  By 2012, sales of gluten free products in the US reached 4.2 billion dollars, but surveys show that a majority of people who buy gluten free items do not even know why they do.  Fitzgerald posits that many of the health related ailments that are blamed on gluten could actually be a result of stress.

Protein: According to the World Health Organization, a person must get 10% of their calories from protein to be healthy.  A typical American diet is 18% protein, and a diet of 30% protein is considered a high-protein diet.  Weightlifting actually teaches the body to retain more protein from the diet, so experienced bodybuilders actually need less protein to maintain their existing muscle mass.

Agnostic Healthy Eating is the approach to eating that Matt Fitzgerald espouses.  In his book Racing Weight, Fitzgerald adopted a method for endurance athletes to monitor a healthy balance of foods (I also recommend this book!).  The agnostic healthy eating approach utilizes ten categories for types of foods and encourages eaters to eat more items out of the top of the list and less from the bottom of the list: vegetables; fruits; nuts, seeds, and healthy oils; high-quality meat and seafood; whole grains; dairy; refined grains; low-quality meat and seafood; sweets; and fried foods.  Notice how this list does not exclude any major food groups, and it allows humans to enjoy a variety of foods to fuel both the endurance athlete and the non-athlete.



Cheers to enjoying what you eat and not obsessing over any one food group!

What way of eating have you adopted that gives you the nutrients you need to support being an athlete?  Any favorite foods?  I just started adding tart cherry to my homemade protein bars because I heard they can help with muscle recovery.

Have you ever slipped into any of the diets listed above?  I know that I want to believe all of the promises, so I have to check myself when the next best supplement or diet comes out.

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