In part three of my investigation of some of the alternative views on how to zero in on an optimal human diet, another doctor who really puts his own body and biochemistry through the ringer in the name of both performance and longevity studies is Dr. Peter Attia. A much more visible character than Dr. Ra, it’s not unlikely that you’ve already seen him on a talk show, podcast, the TED stage, or on his own website. He’s really quite the evangelist.
To set his own system a bit apart from the others, Attia focuses most of his attention on the previously much-maligned macronutrient, dietary fat -- saturated fat in particular. If you start to believe that this is the second coming of Adkins, let me assure you that like the theme of the previous systems discussed, this one leans heavily on plant-based fats: think nuts, avocados, olive and coconut oils, etc. At some point, he was daily taking in excess of 80% dietary fat – without any great prohibition for the saturated type – with exceedingly small amounts of carbohydrates, supplied largely by leafy greens. Additionally, beyond his quest for life extension, Attia wanted to maintain or even improve his cycling and ultra-long distance, open water swimming.
It’s pretty interesting to listen to Attia, particularly in his earlier, more optimistic material. Of late, you might notice he’s gotten a little worn down by promoting scientific investigation of the long-held assumptions about dietary “science” (or scientism, if you prefer), and having to wrangle with so many people’s dogmatic dietary belief systems. This is a little confounding considering he prefaces everything with “this is what works for me,” and supports what he means by “works” with digital reams of self imposed (or self inflicted) measurements beyond mere glycemic and insulin readings or VO2-max. By his own admission, he does some pretty crazy things to himself to collect data.
Attia spent years putting himself through the ringer and appears to have come up with several probabilities, as opposed to maxims. First, at least for him, breakfast probably isn’t the most important meal of the day. In fact, he’s pretty emphatic about the fact that he religiously skips it – this appears to be Attia’s nod to intermittent fasting. Second, lunch should consist of a salad “as big as my head.” If you listen to him often enough, you’ll find this point refrained in more than one talk. In an effort to adopt the habit, I’ve been trying to find out Dr. Attia’s hat size, to no avail. I’ll be sure to let you know if such information becomes available.
So, if I have to look at this body of pointedly non-conventional, experimental science, I’d have to peg the composite set of “rules” as follows:
- Intermittent fasting is probably a good thing (yeah, I know you’re tired of hearing this by now). Dr. Ra recommends fasting 21 to 23 hours per day, ideally taking in all of the day’s calories in the space of just one hour, post-evening workout. I know – that’s nuts, and no, I didn’t even attempt it. Dr. Attia, on the other hand, just skips breakfast which might imply about a 13 to 15 hour fast.
- The greater majority of your food should be plant-based. If you really get down into it, you’ll find there is quite a discrepancy between the two doctors. It seems that while the power-seeking version (Ra) focuses on starches – especially potato and sweet potato – and eschews leafy greens as something that takes up unnecessary space, the endurance-themed version (Attia) appears to take exactly the opposite tack. I’m pretty sure the Adventists think that as long as it grows out of the ground, it’s all good (don’t quote me).
- Fat is your friend! Oh, you say you’ve heard that one, too? Over and over again over the past couple of years. Well, here it is again. Don’t be so scared of saturated fats (it’s the trans-fats you need to avoid like the plague… ‘cause they are). The documentarians no doubt take issue with this position, but careful selection of fats appears to be part of the formula. It’ll be a while before I give up chicken thighs (skinless, of course) and the best animal source is surely fatty fish like salmon, but the smart money is on the healthy oils named earlier, nuts and seeds, avocados, and maybe some full-fat, probiotic-heavy Bulgarian style yogurt.
- You probably don’t need as much protein as you think you do. Don’t look at me like that. I know, you just spent sixty bucks on a five-pound tub of whey protein isolate because your smart-phone trainer app said you need 1.8 grams of protein per kilo of body weight. That’s fine, Mr. Universe – just remember: Ronnie Coleman is about as likely to make it to 120 years old as your average long-haul trucker.
- Sugar’s out. It’s the evil gateway drug that leads to all other forms of human self-degradation including but not limited to masturbation, drinking of human blood, and working for financial institutions. OK, so the last two are redundant – true story though.
In all seriousness, I don’t think there’s necessarily an optimal diet for every homo sapien on planet Earth. I think maybe that’s why I’m drawn to people that take the contrarian view of nutrition based on their own self-experimentation. I think the nexus of government subsidies and regulations with agribusiness and big-pharma make it impossible to know whether government-sponsored nutrition experts have been telling us the truth about what we should be consuming all along. It may be unprovable to suggest that there’s some kind of nutrition conspiracy, but just to look at the outcomes in terms of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease means that we need to look at the subject from a number of angles. We do know that the meat-producing and dairy industries are huge in this country and across the globe and that the "Frankenfood" producers need to unload untold tons of grain every year. We can make a lot of assumptions, but when it's all said and done, we'll probably have to read a lot between the lines to get down to the optimal human diet, and it's almost certainly much more plant-based than many of us might want to believe. It’s up to us to make the changes, report back on what does and does not work for us, and to think of it as a long-term experiment.
Thanks for reading, and please let me know if you have any perspectives on any of what this series has talked about.