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Fact checked by Andrew Lenau, ISSA CPT & Sports NutritionistFACT CHECKED
July 26, 2022
In the last few years, the Vertical Diet has emerged and taken the fitness world by storm. Developed by Stan Efferding, the Vertical Diet focuses on eating nutrient-dense foods and low FODMAP foods (we'll talk about this below) while limiting the intake of anti-nutrients.
Its main purpose is to improve your digestive health. In turn, this improves your ability to better absorb essential nutrients, which provides superior fuel for performance and muscle growth. Sounds great, but does it work? And just how restrictive is it? We'll break down all you need to know about this diet program and if it's right for you.
This article will cover:
Get ready to seriously up your red meat intake!
The Vertical Diet was created by Stan Efferding, known as the "world's strongest bodybuilder" due to his massive lifts in powerlifting and success as an IFBB pro bodybuilder.
In addition, he also graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in exercise science. In other words, he walks the walk and is smart as hell too.
Originally, Efferding wanted to create a high-performance diet specifically made for athletes. To do this, he attempted to create a diet plan that would allow athletes to increase calorie consumption yet reduce exercise-related gastrointestinal symptoms. It follows the premise of clean bulking but with more food restrictions.
Other desired outcomes Efferding wanted to see from his diet were:
In order for athletes to be able to consume a large number of calories with no gastric issues, Efferding also knew that they would need to eat foods that were easily digestible.
Using his education and experience, Efferding hit the books and designed what we now know as the Vertical Diet.
Since its inception, numerous high-profile athletes have utilized the Vertical Diet with claims that it improved their performance and energy levels. A few of these athletes include:
Similar to the Food Pyramid, the Vertical Diet gets its name due to the illustration used to represent the foods you should be eating.
Instead of a pyramid, the Vertical Diet uses an upside-down "T" to illustrate what foods to eat. The base represents foods that supply your micronutrients (this is where you get essential vitamins for muscle growth and overall health) as you're allowed to consume a wider variety.
The vertical column represents your macronutrients as you have a very small selection to choose from. In fact, you're encouraged to primarily eat red meat and white rice.
In addition, athletes are encouraged to increase their macronutrients the longer they're on the diet. Therefore, their calories climb "vertically".
The name may also, at least partially, be used for marketing because the "beef and rice" diet just doesn't sound as cool.
As one of the primary purposes of the Vertical Diet is to maximize nutrient absorption and provide gut health support, you primarily eat low FODMAP foods. In fact, this is a major foundation of the diet and an important concept for optimally building muscle on it.
FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides, and Polyols. In other words, these are carbohydrates that can cause gastric distress and contribute to poor gut health.
High FODMAP foods can pass through your digestive system yet are poorly digested. As a result, gut bacteria can use them for fuel, creating gas and other gastric problems.
In addition, high FODMAP foods can also cause leaky gut syndrome or diarrhea. All these problems are even bigger issues for athletes, whom the Vertical Diet was originally made for, as they are eating a ton of calories. It's hard to take on an intense powerlifting program when you're struggling with stomach issues.
The Vertical Diet claims they can mitigate this issue by prioritizing low FODMAP foods. These are foods that are digested relatively easily and put little stress on the stomach, which can maximize nutrient absorption, provide gut health support, maintain gut health, and mitigate gastric distress.
The Vertical Diet does have some evidence to support these claims¹. However, this seems to only apply to those with IBS syndrome. In other words, there’s evidence it can help treat gastric issues, but evidence to support benefits beyond this is lacking.
And as for high FODMAP foods that are allowed, Efferding stresses the need to prepare them in a way that decreases their impact. For example, if you're going to have legumes, they need to be soaked and fermented.
This also means the priority is sticking to low FODMAP carbs. Examples of low FODMAP vegetables and common carbohydrates eaten on the Vertical Diet include sweet potatoes, raw baby carrots, and bell peppers.
The FODMAP aspect makes sense for some of the foods, but why can you only eat red meat and white rice? You should be able to chicken and brown rice as they're both low FODMAP foods.
This is where more restrictions come in.
Another group of foods that are limited in the Vertical Diet is known as lectins and phytic acid. Also known as "anti-nutrients", lectins and phytic acid are compounds that bind to various vitamins and minerals and prevent your digestive tract from absorbing nutrients.
As the entire point of the Vertical Diet is to increase the absorption of nutrients, so you have the energy to finally tackle that 7-day workout split, eating a ton of anti-nutrients is counterintuitive. It just so happens that brown rice, along with other grains that have been unrefined, contains a higher amount of these compounds.
There are numerous food groups that seem to fall in a category where you can't eat them just because that's the rule. Eating chicken or other meats is one of them.
To be clear, other meats are allowed but not encouraged. Basically, if Efferding saw you munching on a chicken leg, he wouldn't get mad but would tell you, "You can do better."
There are generally three reasons given for why your diet should primarily consist of eating red meat.
You are allowed, and encouraged, to eat chicken stock, however. In fact, bone broth is a main component in many meals including the famous Monster Mash (more on this in a bit).
As mentioned, at the base of the "T", you will find the foods rich in micronutrients for the Vertical Diet. This includes a variety of foods including:
As you see, the group actually does contain other sources of protein such as salmon and yogurt. But salmon is eaten for its omega-3 content while whole fat dairy provides a plethora of vitamins and minerals as well as probiotics.
And even in these food groups, many foods are off limits because they are high FODMAP vegetables or contain anti-nutrients.
Foods on the Vertical Diet-approved list include:
Going vertically up the upside-down T, you will find the foods that are responsible for your Vertical Diet macronutrients, specifically your protein and carbs. Now when we say food(s) in the plural, don't get excited thinking you have a plethora of food to eat. This is not like getting to choose from one of the many best protein powder supplements.
In fact, you basically have two easily digestible macronutrients to choose from: red meat and white rice. Within the red meat group, your options include bison, venison, and beef. Fortunately, lean red meat makes the list of top high protein low fat foods, so make sure to pick the leaner beef options.
When following the Vertical Diet, Efferding suggests a pretty basic macro counting ratio with high protein to build muscle.
Unfortunately, there's a lot. Examples of foods that you shouldn't eat on the Vertical Diet include:
Just like any diet, there are high-profile figures who have benefited from it as well as plenty of common folks. If you were to ask the strength world what they think about the Vertical Diet, they'd say it's awesome.
Unfortunately, not everybody feels the same way.
Here are some of the more common complaints about the Vertical Diet.
The obvious issue with the Vertical Diet is its extremely high red meat consumption. Numerous studies from leading health organizations have recommended eating 18 to 21 ounces a week².
This is to prevent an array of health issues, like heart disease, that may be caused by the excessive consumption of red meat³. These include:
Besides minimizing gastric issues, the Vertical Diet focuses on easily digestible foods so that they do not fill you up. As a result, you are able to eat more high calorie meals to fuel your needs.
Further, the high caloric content of red meat is one reason so much emphasis is put on it. Just these two aspects of the Vertical Diet you should have a good idea of its intent. Hint: It's not to lose weight. It's to grow following intense workouts like in the 6-day split.
If you're in it for weight loss, a cutting workout and diet is a better option.
Even though the vertical diet is supposed to fix nutritional deficiencies, the vertical diet can actually cause people to be more susceptible. The reason being is the high amount of restrictions on foods.
To be clear, there are no vitamins or minerals that can't be met following this diet. However, a common complaint with restrictive diets is their smaller variety of food choices can make it harder to consume sufficient amounts of all the micronutrients.
Just be mindful of this if you try the Vertical Diet.
Again, the restrictive nature could backfire against one of its primary purposes. Having such a limited array of foods can prevent the consumption of healthy bacteria and prebiotics⁴.
We understand the whole concept of only eating easily digestible foods and staying from things like highly processed vegetable oils. However, it seems that some of the restrictions are just there to be restrictive.
Things like onions, oats, and even coffee are a no-go. You read that correctly: You're not supposed to drink coffee (goodbye, delicious protein coffee). Further, oats are a classic staple of a bodybuilder's diet.
Plus, we're not sure about you, but we're tired of hearing about white rice vs. brown rice.
Don't let the cons dissuade you from potentially trying it out. There are plenty of benefits, too. Here's why Vertical Diet followers love this diet:
While this is strictly personal, we love the idea of not having so many foods to choose from. It makes nutrition easier. On the Vertical Diet, you know exactly what you're going to eat.
Because you're more or less eating the same thing all the time, it's easier to track your calories. If you're not gaining weight or feel fatigued, simply add another scoop of white rice for more calories and see what happens.
Having a smaller variety of food to cook also makes it easier to estimate the total calories in your head. While this can take a bit of time to do, it's much easier to guesstimate calories and macros with fewer foods to remember.
Gut health and digestive disorders have thankfully been thrown into the spotlight in nutrition and health. However, it's a small spotlight, so the fact that the Vertical Diet even addresses this issue is huge.
Red meat is actually one of the best dietary sources for consuming creatine unless you're using a creatine supplement instead. In fact, diet is one of the leading factors that determine how much creatine you can store naturally.
With the high consumption of red meat, we would guess that also results in higher creatine stores.
In today's world, there are far too many diets pushing a low-carb diet. While this can definitely work for the sedentary population, it is not ideal for athletes.
Carbs are necessary for optimal athletic performance. This is the number one reason why the vertical diet includes so much white rice.
The concentration of simple carbs and quality protein makes this a great diet to follow if you're trying to build muscle before a body recomposition or achieve muscle hypertrophy, all while boosting your basal metabolic rate.
Further, the design of the Vertical Diet allows for a greater number of calories, making it easy to get into a calorie surplus.
Monster mash is really easy to make as there is no specific set of directions. It's basically a Smörgåsbord board of classic Vertical Diet high-quality foods that are all thrown into a slow cooker together.
Common ingredients include:
We love the concept of the Vertical Diet. A plan that is simple, concentrates on nutrient-dense foods, and is designed to support muscle growth and improve performance and body composition is a diet we can get behind. And when you're fueling your body correctly, you'll notice even more gains as you work through programs like these best upper body workouts.
But we do feel that it could be executed better. Perhaps by lessening some of the restrictions that don't have to be there. The following tweaks would likely elevate it to a much more optimal level:
That said, if you like meat and white rice, you're gonna love it!
Seriously though, we do like the diet and know a lot of people who have been successful following it. With its emphasis on adequate carb intake and quality protein, it's an ideal program for achieving some serious muscle gain and can be used as a way to maximize workouts.
However, we see it more as a transient diet (something to use to get things back on track) rather than a lifetime commitment.
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