To gain lots of muscle and strength, you need to be in a caloric surplus — that is, eating more calories than you burn. But after a while, all that excess food can take a toll on your digestion system, especially if you’re eating the wrong stuff. After all, nobody wants to deadlift on an upset stomach.
World-renowned bodybuilder, powerlifter, and nutrition coach Stan Efferding believes he’s developed a solution to this problem: the Vertical Diet. The system has worked for strength athletes like 2018 World’s Strongest Man and deadlift world-record holder Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson and four-time World’s Strongest Man Brian Shaw, both of whom require massive amounts of calories. (Of course, Björnsson has made a switch to boxing and is eating far less food to lean out.)
Efferding’s approach — which is meant to aid in food digestions and fix micronutrient deficiencies — has also begun to trickle into the mainstream, attracting the likes of everyday Joe’s looking to shed a few pounds and feel better. So, is the Vertical Diet right for you? Keep reading to find out.
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What is the Vertical Diet?
The Vertical Diet gets its name because of how it’s laid out — like an upside-down T. At the bottom, underneath the bottom of the T, you have some starches, dairy, fruits, and veggies that provide key micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) necessary for things like organ health, hormones, and more.
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At the top — the vertical axis — are two foods: red meat and white rice, which will provide you with all your macronutrient needs (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) and most of your calories. The amount you eat changes depending on your strength and physique goals.
Why red meat and white rice? Efferding says those foods are the best way to get as many calories as possible without disrupting the body’s digestion system. And the rest of your foods, the ones at the bottom, help aid in that digestion and other bodily functions.
“In short, the Vertical Diet is about eating nutrient-dense foods that are easily digestible to help you lose or gain weight, maximize workouts, and achieve better nutrient absorption overall,” says Efferding. “The goal is to keep the main focus on micronutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.”
All the foods picked by Efferding have one thing in common: they’re low-FODMAP foods.
What’s a FODMAP Food?
Don’t worry. You won’t be reading an actual map. FODMAP stands for Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides, And Polyols, which refers to short-chain carbohydrates that can create problems in many people, especially those with digestive disorders.
Simply put: these compounds are what create certain “problems” after you eat too many beans. The carbohydrates and fibers from high-FODMAP foods pass through your system undigested, and your gut bacteria use them for fuel, producing hydrogen gas in the process. And when that happens — well, let’s just say people might be socially distancing themselves from you for a bit.
But an excess of these types of food can result in a lot more than just a little gas. For some people, they can draw liquid into the intestines and produce diarrhea. Leaky gut syndrome can also be a consequence of a high-FODMAP diet.
So for people with sensitive stomachs, low-FODMAP diets can be a real help.
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And if you’re a top athlete who needs to eat thousands of calories a day, it can prevent some big problems down the road. This is why the Vertical Diet eliminates high-FODMAP foods to give everyone from strength athletes to the everyday Joe optimal digestion.
“Since the diet is about easily digestible macronutrients, high-FODMAP foods are either limited or prepared in a manner that reduces digestive distress,” says Efferding. “Low-gas vegetables like spinach, cucumber, bell peppers, and potatoes are better than cruciferous vegetables for increasing the positive results from the diet.”
While researchers have concluded that eating low-FODMAP foods can be good for people with conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome, it’s uncertain if it’s a good approach for the general public. Studies have shown that low-FODMAP lifestyles can result in decreased micronutrient intake (because you’re eliminating so many foods) and altered gut bacteria, leading to other gastrointestinal issues. (1) (2)
The good news? One study showed low-FODMAP foods could reduce exercise-related gastrointestinal symptoms (which, again, is great for when you’re straining to finish a strenuous lift). But as to whether it’s a good long-term strategy, that’s a discussion to have with your physician and nutritionist. (3)
Lectins, Phytic Acid, and “Antinutrients”
Before we finally get into what you can and can’t eat on the Vertical Diet, there’s one more thing we need to address — that being “antinutrients,” which are simply compounds that reduce the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients.
Lectins and phytic acid, for example, bind to and impair the digestion of minerals like magnesium, iron, and zinc.
Remember, the point of the Vertical Diet is to eat foods that are chock full of micronutrients, so it makes sense to avoid anything that might get in the way of those vitamins and minerals being absorbed by the body.
Or does it?
The truth about these compounds is a little more complex than people like to admit. Lectin has been linked to lower cancer risks, and phytic acid is an antioxidant that has been associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and kidney stones, which is why some people even take it in supplement form. (4)
Most antinutrient studies also have one major problem: They isolate the compound and study its effect on the body. Meaning, researchers take lectin in its pure form and study how it reacts with certain cells. But that’s not how our body works — lectin is often ingested alongside things like Vitamin C, which can counter the compound’s negative effects. (5)
The Vertical Diet does allow for foods high in these “antinutrients” to be consumed, but only if they’re soaked and fermented, which helps to reduce the potential negative effects of these compounds.
What Can You Eat on the Vertical Diet?
Like most other diets, the Vertical Diet has a list of foods you can and can’t eat. The list of foods you can eat is shorter, though, so we’ll start with those.
As we mentioned before, white rice and red meat will be a staple of your daily diet. White rice is easily digestible and has practically no fiber, fat, or antinutrients — it’s as clean a carb as they come. Brown rice is off the menu because it contains a lot of antinutrients.
Red meat is the protein of choice because Efferding considers it the most nutrient-dense kind of meat, “loaded with heme iron, B-vitamins, zinc, magnesium, creatine, and healthy fats.”
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And therein lies one of the concerns with the Vertical Diet. Dietitians and nutritionists in recent years have called on people to reduce their red meat intake since it’s been linked to increased risks of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Recent guidelines state you should cap your red meat intake at 18 ounces per week, but you’ll blow past that if you’re eating it every day. Again, consult your physician before trying out the Vertical Diet. (6)
Most of your calories will come from those two food sources alone for those who choose to continue on this path. Sources of red meat include:
Stay away from white fish, like sole, and white meat, like chicken; Efferding says these are not as nutrient-dense as red meat.
Beneath the towering pillars of red meat and white rice, you’ll find a wide, flat base of plants: fruit, potatoes, spinach, red peppers, carrots, juice, and some extra animal products like butter, broth, and fatty fish.
What Can’t You Eat on the Vertical Diet?
The list of things you can’t eat on the Vertical Diet is much longer than what you’re allowed to. Again, these are foods that, Efferding argues, will get in the way of your digestion and do little to provide your body with the nutrients you need.
Labeled as a source of phytic acid and gluten, the diet is no fan of pasta, cereal, or bread unless it’s fermented sourdough bread. Some dietitians balk at this advice since whole grains have many essential micronutrients. Harvard Medical School also notes whole grains are linked to a lower risk of colon cancer and cardiovascular disease.
These are usually bodybuilding staples, but their concentration of antinutrients makes them a no-go for Vertical Diet followers. Like other grains, the consumption of oats can reduce the risk of certain diseases.
Legumes include things like beans, soybeans, lentils, and chickpeas. These are considered a source of lectins, and as we noted before, they can result in some gas buildup. They’re permitted under the Vertical Diet if they’re soaked and fermented, though.
Legumes have been linked to the prevention of numerous diseases. They are a staple in the popular Mediterranean diet for their high fiber concentration, which is also linked to the prevention of things like diabetes.
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Processed Vegetable Oils
These are super high in Omega-6 fatty acids, too many of which have been pretty strongly linked to inflammation, heart disease, and obesity. Nutritional experts have been urging people to cut back on processed oils, so you should cut these out even if you don’t follow the Vertical Diet. (7)
Efferding claims that coffee causes dehydration and impairs digestion. There is research to back up those claims. (8)
“I don’t eat foods I like. I eat foods that like me,” he says. “Getting your gut health and digestion in top shape might make you feel better than these everyday comfort staples.”
Coffee has some compounds, like polyphenols, which can reduce the risk of cancer, but those can also be found in herbal teas.
These are natural sweeteners like erythritol and xylitol, which are pretty popular in protein bars and diet-friendly ice cream. Like grains and legumes, they’re known to cause indigestion in some folks, though it’s not that widespread a phenomenon. There are no cons to cutting your sugar alcohol intake, so there’s no controversy here.
High Raffinose Vegetables
Perhaps the most controversial exclusion, these include cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and asparagus. Why cut these out? The culprit is raffinose, a sugar found in some veggies, grains, and legumes resistant to digestion and can sometimes cause gas.
While this is true, it’s undeniable that these foods are some of the most nutrient-dense on the planet, and are linked to reduced inflammation, cell damage, and cancer risk. (9)
Garlic and Onions
The foundation of the tastiest, savory meals? Not for you — they’re high FODMAP foods. While your food might lack some flavor, there’s no health risk in cutting out these aromatics.
Fennel, celery, bell peppers, and carrots—all low-FODMAP foods — can all be used in their place.
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Vertical Diet Macronutrients
The Vertical Diet is generally a low-fat eating regimen and can be tailored to a high- or low-carb plan by adjusting the amount of food you eat.
The total calories you’ll eat per day depend on your basal metabolic rate and your workload, but the basic macronutrient profile looks something like this:
- Protein: one gram per pound of bodyweight
- Fat: 0.3 grams per pound of bodyweight
- Carbohydrates: The rest of your calories
To figure out your daily caloric needs, you’ll first have to figure out your basal metabolic rate — that’s the number of calories you burn just to live or maintain your weight. This can be figured out in a lab, but that’s expensive and time-consuming.
Related: You can use our calorie calculator to figure out your daily nutrition goals.
If you’re looking to lose weight, you’ll subtract 300-500 calories per day and add that much if you’re looking to gain muscle at a sustainable rate.
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Efferding’s system, surely, speaks for itself when you look at the people who utilize it. That said, these are people who are under constant supervision by some of the greatest minds in the sports nutrition world.
When it comes to its application for everyday people, the Vertical Diet is a little less clear.
We ran down most of the concerns already, but here’s a quick rundown.
- Excessive red meat intake has been linked to increased cancer and heart disease risk.
- It excludes foods like legumes, which are rich and vital sources of nutrients.
- A Low-FODMAP diet can result in altered gut microbiomes.
But when looking at a diet that’s so focused on helping food digest as efficiently as possible, it’s not hard to see why its biggest followers are strongmen and powerlifters who consume up to 12,000 calories per day.
With that kind of volume, high-FODMAP, high-fiber, and high-fat foods — all off the table for Vertical Diet adherents — could potentially make it harder to get in the amount of food you require to keep performing at your best.
There’s no denying that most of the foods you’re instructed to limit on this diet have more benefits than drawbacks. That said, the Vertical Diet does include a wide variety of fruit, vegetables, leafy greens, meat, and sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, all of which means nutritional deficiencies are probably unlikely so long as you properly plan your eating regimen. (And there’s no rule against supplements to shore up any shortcomings.)
- Nanayakkara WS, Skidmore PM, O’Brien L, Wilkinson TJ, Gearry RB. Efficacy of the low FODMAP diet for treating irritable bowel syndrome: the evidence to date. Clin Exp Gastroenterol. 2016;9:131-142. Published 2016 Jun 17. doi:10.2147/CEG.S86798
- Hill P, Muir JG, Gibson PR. Controversies and Recent Developments of the Low-FODMAP Diet. Gastroenterol Hepatol (N Y). 2017;13(1):36-45.
- Sloan TJ, Jalanka J, Major GAD, Krishnasamy S, Pritchard S, Abdelrazig S, Korpela K, Singh G, Mulvenna C, Hoad CL, Marciani L, Barrett DA, Lomer MCE, de Vos WM, Gowland PA, Spiller RC. A low FODMAP diet is associated with changes in the microbiota and reduction in breath hydrogen but not colonic volume in healthy subjects. PLoS One. 2018 Jul 26;13(7):e0201410. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0201410. PMID: 30048547; PMCID: PMC6062106.
- Jiang QL, Zhang S, Tian M, Zhang SY, Xie T, Chen DY, Chen YJ, He J, Liu J, Ouyang L, Jiang X. Plant lectins, from ancient sugar-binding proteins to emerging anti-cancer drugs in apoptosis and autophagy. Cell Prolif. 2015 Feb;48(1):17-28. doi: 10.1111/cpr.12155. Epub 2014 Dec 9. PMID: 25488051; PMCID: PMC6496769.
- Petroski W, Minich DM. Is There Such a Thing as “Anti-Nutrients”? A Narrative Review of Perceived Problematic Plant Compounds. Nutrients. 2020;12(10):2929. Published 2020 Sep 24. doi:10.3390/nu12102929
- Johnston, B. C., Zeraatkar, D., Han, M. A., Vernooij, R. W. M., Valli, C., El Dib, R., Marshall, C., Stover, P. J., Fairweather-Taitt, S., Wójcik, G., Bhatia, F., de Souza, R., Brotons, C., Meerpohl, J. J., Patel, C. J., Djulbegovic, B., Alonso-Coello, P., Bala, M. M., & Guyatt, G. H. (2019). Unprocessed Red Meat and Processed Meat Consumption: Dietary Guideline Recommendations From the Nutritional Recommendations (NutriRECS) Consortium. Annals of Internal Medicine, 171(10), 756. https://doi.org/10.7326/m19-1621
- Simopoulos AP. An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity. Nutrients. 2016 Mar 2;8(3):128. doi: 10.3390/nu8030128. PMID: 26950145; PMCID: PMC4808858.
- Boekema PJ, Samsom M, van Berge Henegouwen GP, Smout AJ. Coffee and gastrointestinal function: facts and fiction. A review. Scand J Gastroenterol Suppl. 1999;230:35-9. doi: 10.1080/003655299750025525. PMID: 10499460.
- Higdon JV, Delage B, Williams DE, Dashwood RH. Cruciferous vegetables and human cancer risk: epidemiologic evidence and mechanistic basis. Pharmacol Res. 2007;55(3):224-236. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2007.01.009
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