Unless you’re a bodybuilder or into strength training, you’ve probably never heard of the Vertical Diet. However, this is starting to change as more well known athletes are beginning to sing its praises (like Hafthor Bjornsson, who plays The Mountain on TV’s Game of Thrones).
And the creator of the The Vertical Diet, Stan Efferding, does an excellent job of spreading the word about all the benefits to health and performance that this diet offers. Since I’m getting more an more questions about the Vertical Diet, especially from athletes and powerlifters, I thought it best to go over some of the potential benefits and drawbacks.
What is The Vertical Diet?
The Vertical Diet is a diet centered around nutrient-rich whole foods. It’ claimed to boost athletic performance and help increase gut-health.
Why vertical and not horizontal? A “horizontal” diet is one that is broad in nature, placing an emphasis on a wide variety of foods. The Vertical Diet, on the other hand, focuses on a limited selection of high-quality, nutrient-rich foods targeted for very specific benefits.
Part of the reasoning behind this is based on the thought that limiting food variety can allow the body to be more efficient at digesting food. In theory, this would lead to better nutrient absorption, and also allow more overall food consumption over the course of the day – the end result being an improvement in muscle growth, recovery, and metabolism.
Vertical Vs. Horizontal
The vertical portion of the diet consists of red meat and white rice. These foods constitute the bulk of a dieter’s daily calories.
Red meat is consumed due to it being a quality source of protein, and having higher amounts of B vitamins, iron, and zinc compared to other options. White rice is used as the primary source of carbohydrate since it’s carb-rich, and quick and easy to digest.
For the horizontal part of the diet, there’s a greater variety of foods designed to meet micronutrient needs. While these foods are nutrient-dense, they are only to be consumed in targeted amounts. Eating any more will not provide greater benefits, so the main focus should be on the vertical part of the diet once the micronutrient needs are met.
The foods selected are also unlikely to lead to gas, bloating, or other gastrointestinal issues.
Foods to Avoid on the Vertical Diet
- Processed Vegetable Oils
- Brown Rice
- High Raffinose Vegetables
- Alkalized Water
- Sugar Alcohols
- Other Sugars
Foods Allowed on the Diet
- White Rice
- Red Meat: Including beef, lamb, bison, and venison.
- Low-FODMAP Vegetables: Such as alfalfa, bell peppers, carrots, celery, cucumbers, eggplant, green beans, kale, lettuce, potatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips, yams, water chestnuts, zucchini, etc.
- Fruits: All fruits are allowed, but focus on oranges and cranberries, and 100% orange and cranberry juice.
- Oils and Fats: Including extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil, butter, avocado oil.
- Fatty fish: Such as salmon, tuna, sardines, etc.
- Poultry: Chicken and turkey.
- Eggs: Including yolks.
- Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, peanuts, macadamia nuts, pine nuts, sesame seeds (not pistachios though, they’re high in FODMAPs.
- Dairy: full-fat yogurt, whole milk, and cheese.
- Sodium: bone broth, chicken stock, iodized salt.
- Oats and Legumes: Only allowed when soaked and fermented.
Benefits of The Vertical Diet
It’s seems pretty clear that the Vertical Diet can be a great way to help fuel athletic performance. Because so many people following this diet are achieving next-level performance, it’s worth taking a look at the benefits.
Allows You to Eat More Food
Because the diet focuses on foods that are easier to digest, you actually end up being able to eat more food. Typically, strength athletes who follow a high-quality, nutrient-rich diet have a tough time getting enough calories to gain, or even maintain, weight. Ultimately, this can be detrimental to strength performance.
The types of food consumed in the Vertical Diet can avoid this problem. The meal plans are strategically designed so that it’s actually easier to consume large amounts of food.
It’s Easy to Adjust in Order to Meet Your Individual Goals
One major appeal to the Vertical Diet is that everything is kept very simple. When eating a large variety of foods, it can be more difficult to consistently consume the right balance of calories and macros for your particular needs, unless you’re actively tracking your intake.
But with this diet, you’ll more or less eat the same 4-5 meals a day, every day. For those who wanted to gain mass but weren’t consuming a surplus of calories, you could instead either make your meals larger or add an extra meal. Likewise, if you wanted to lose weight by calorie restriction, you could do just the opposite.
This makes it easy to tailor your calorie intake based on your goals.
Specifically Targets Performance and Micronutrients
Unlike some diets that can completely minimize the importance of micronutrients, the Vertical Diet makes it a point to ensure that all micronutrient needs are met. This can result in positive side benefits related to performance.
Although having a surplus of these levels may not provide any extra benefits, avoiding any deficiency in this area is important. For example, someone who is iron deficient will feel fatigued and their training would suffer as a consequence.
But performance can also be optimized according to macronutrient intake as well. The diet can be customized to meet individual targets for protein, carbs, and fats, while also providing an even supply of protein throughout the day.
Reduces Gas and Bloating
Because of the focus on low-FODMAP foods and eliminating any foods that aren’t easy to digest, the Vertical Diet can reduce gastrointestinal issues, such as gas, bloating, constipation and diarrhea. This one change can drastically improve the overall quality of life for many people.
Besides detailing the dietary aspects of the diet, there are recommendations that target overall lifestyle. It’s recommended in the book to dedicate time to extra-dietary goals, like getting adequate sleep, going on short walks, and getting regular blood tests.
There’s tons of research showing how getting good quality sleep helps to optimize performance, but it’s something that’s not often stressed enough. Taking brief walks right after a meal can help to decrease blood glucose levels. And having regular comprehensive blood testing can help alert you to any issues that need to be addressed early on, which is oboviously something that can help maintain peak fitness and health.
Drawbacks of the Vertical Diet
While there’s plenty of reasons why you might want to get started on this diet, it’s not all roses. There are a few things you should consider beforehand prior to going on the Vertical Diet.
Red meat costs more than other high protein foods. Although red meat isn’t the only source of protein on the diet, it is the primary source. This is because red meat has more nutrients than chicken or fish, for example.
That said, trading some of the red meat for chicken or fish would be fine. After you’ve reached your micronutrient targets (like iron, B vitamins, and zinc) there’s really no significant benefit to consuming more.
As a matter of fact, with the amount of food you’ll be consuming, it’s highly likely that those minimums would be reached even if white meats were the main protein sources. Just by making this trade-off alone, you can save a lot of money without sacrificing any benefits to performance.
High Amounts of Red Meat May Pose Health Risks
Although there’s recently been a growing belief that reducing red meat consumption for health purposes is not necessary, there are still many nutrition experts who caution against eating in the amounts that the vertical diet suggests. You’ll find that the majority of health and dietary guidelines recommend limiting the amount of red meat in your diet, with one of the main reasons being a direct link to colon cancer.
Even though there’s been a vast amount of research done on the subject, the sheer number of variables involved from one individual to the next make it difficult to form a definitive answer. In the end the, the decision will be up to you, but it’s something that you should keep in mind when considering the diet.
It’s Not the Best Diet for Gut-Health
Although the Vertical Diet isn’t technically a low-FODMAP diet, it’s pretty close. It excludes most foods that cause gas, which often make the list of high-FODMAP foods.
But many high-FODMAP foods are also excellent prebiotics, and staying on a low-FODMAP diet can lead to a decrease in microbial diversity in the gut. It also reduces the numbers of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium , which are associated with overall good health.
And even though the Vertical Diet decreases gastrointestinal issues from the start, the claim that it optimizes gut health is a bit much. Studies suggest that consuming more than 30 plant-based foods per week is associated with greater microbial diversity and a higher number of health-promoting groups of bacteria, compared to eating less than 10 per week.
Gut health is a complicated topic, but eating a variety of foods appears to be beneficial. Limiting yourself to just a limited number of foods like the Vertical Diet suggests could result in detrimental effects to health.
Besides the other drawbacks associated with this type of dietary restriction, there’s really no evidence to support the notion that digestion can be improved by only eating the same foods over and over again. The same beneficial results to health and performance can be achieved without this level of restriction.
Because of the drawbacks I’ve discussed, I wouldn’t recommend the Vertical Diet as something that athletes should be following. It’s got a lot of unnecessary rules that aren’t needed to achieve the same results that a less restrictive diet can provide.
That said, there are no negatives with the diet when it comes to physical performance. It’s very easy to follow once you get in routine with it. For those who like it simple and like not having to keep up with all the choices available, it could be a great alternative compared to other approaches.