My Experience With Extreme Diets And Why They Don’t Work Long Term

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.

From as far back as I can remember I always ate bad. Plenty of processed foods from a box, casseroles with noodles, cookies, soda, cereal and the like.

By 20 I was diagnosed pre-diabetic.

Shortly after my sons were born I started experiencing head to toe hives, chronic sinus infections and painful swelling all over my body.

I also had a receding hairline and an expanding waistline.

I was embracing the Dadbod and embarrassed I had let myself slip so far. I knew it was time for a change.

The problem was I didn’t know what to do. So I got started researching and – over the course of 15 years – ended up trying almost every diet out there.

Some of them were helpful and allowed me to form the foundation of how I eat today.

Other’s were extreme. Sometimes that can help in the short term. But in every case the longer I tried an extreme diet the worse things got.

And yes, that includes The Ketogenic Diet and Vegetarianism.

Modified Fruit Fast

My chronic hives and swelling was driving me crazy. I was missing work and it was affecting my home life.

I had already been to an allergy specialist twice. I got rounds of testing and blood samples. Their conclusion? “We can’t find anything wrong. Try some Benadryl.”

I’m a pharmacist. I can’t take Benadryl and function. Since the medical establishment had backed me into a corner I decided to figure things out on my own.

I have no idea where I got the idea for a modified fruit fast but I was reading a lot of different nutrition information and didn’t really know what worked and what didn’t. But a lot of it made sense and I was willing to try anything at that point.

The basics of the Modified Fruit Fast (MFF) was only fruit for the first two meals of the day. The third meal could include veggies and meats. But nothing processed.

Within a few days I immediately started feeling better.

Within a week the hives were gone, my skin was clearer, I was sleeping better, losing weight and feeling pretty darn good.

This was really the point where I became convinced processed foods – in any form – simply are NOT a good thing.

But there were some problems as well.

  • I was ravenously hungry the first part of the day – probably driven by the lack of fat and protein.
  • I wanted more variety. I love fruit still, but even I have my limits.

At this point the limiting nature of the diet meant that if I was hungry I could only eat more fruit the first part of the day. My gut was telling me that – while I had taken a good first step – it was time to change.

Weston A. Price

I started reading more on fats and proteins and eventually stumbled across the work of Weston A. Price.

Price was a dentist who wrote about the tribes he came into contact with in the early part of the 20th century and noted how they ate.

Many (not all) ate a higher protein and higher fat diet. But there was also plenty of vegetables being consumed. For the most part these tribes were extremely healthy. Only when they left the tribe to embrace the eating style of white men did their health and dentition start to go downhill.

My third meal on the modified fruit fast was very close to what Price recommended – so I simply replicated it for my other two meals.

I also introduced more fat into my diet in the form of full fat dairy and butter.

Price’s website seems OK grains in certain circumstances. But I stayed away from them.

My results with this modified diet were even better than the MFF.

  • The constant hunger was gone – probably because I was including more fats and protein.
  • Energy levels were up a bit
  • Still had the added benefits of the MFF above.

Vegetarian

Fast forward a few years. I’m feeling great, sleeping better, at a healthy weight and enjoying my eating style.

Which means I should change things and start a radical diet (that’s sarcasm).

A good buddy told me he read a study that said eating red meat was causing cancer and that he was concerned about my consumption of red meat.

He also said the article mentioned how healthy being a vegetarian was.

Like I said, he was a friend so I respected him. I also made the mistake of following his advice without really doing any research of my own.

“Besides”, I thought “plenty of people are vegetarians. They seem to enjoy it. I bet it will be a fun experiment!”

So I decided to try it for 30 days.

If I could describe my experience in one word in would be: miserable.

I was constantly hungry, agitated and extremely low on energy.

I wanted to quit after the first meal. Thirty days may as well been thirty years. I ended up cutting the experiment short a few days short.

I was going to kill someone if I had the energy.

My wife was going to kill me if I kept going.

I lost more weight – which I didn’t really want or need. I got more than one comment during that time about how ‘gaunt’ I looked.

No doubt, there’s plenty of people in this world who seem to enjoy eating vegetarian.

However, most of the true vegetarians I encounter have the same characteristics: they appear gaunt and somewhat emaciated.

But they also tell me they are very happy they are eating that way. Some of their happiness stems from their moral objections to killing animals for food.

Whatever floats your boat.

I’m glad I tried it and I’m even happier I stopped it.

Paleo/Primal

After the failed vegetarian experiment I decided to go back to what worked – but with a twist.

The difference between the Weston Price diet I used above and the Paleo/Primal (PP) movement can probably be boiled down to the fact that PP encourages you to eat – as closely as possible – to what early man ate. Meaning, no processed foods, grains and dairy.

Pretty much meat, veggies, some fruits and nuts.

Bottom line: Paleo/Primal is a very good way to eat. The problem? It was getting dogmatic and cultish. People were (and still are, I’m sure) always arguing about carbs and what’s acceptable. I was one of them.

VLCD And Keto Diet

As you can see I was already pretty low carb in my journey to this point. So I figured if lowering my carbs helped this much maybe lowering them even more would be even better.

So the VLCD (Very Low Carbohydrate Diet) and Ketogenic (Keto) Diet made a ton of sense at the time.

The VLCD and Keto are just different degrees of low-carbism. I was VLCD for a few months and then just said ‘screw it’ and went full on Keto.

In case you’ve been living in a lead cave and haven’t heard of the Keto Diet here’s the basics.

Your body is designed to use glucose as it’s primary energy source. When glucose is is not available your body will start to break down fatty acids to produce ketones which can then be used as an energy source.

In the Ketogenic Diet (KD) you eat so low carb that you – in essence – train your body that glucose is not available and to start using ketones as it’s primary energy source.

The KD was originally developed to help kids with seizure disorders – and was pretty successful in that regard. But it can also be very helpful as a fat loss diet.

The problem with the KD is that you need to stay in the ultra-low carb range for your body to turn your fatty acids into ketones. I consider that range at 30 grams or under (there’s debate on what the magic number is). When you consider that a piece of fruit can give you that many carbs (or close to it) it can not only be difficult to follow – it may not be entirely healthy long term.

It’s also a technically high fat diet (not high protein) and extremely low carb. So again, you’re cutting out or limiting two of the 3 macronutrients.

There are some definite upsides to the KD and it works great for some people. But I found it a bit too restricting and was concerned with the ultra high fat content possibly causing more inflammation in my body – which is one of the hallmark things I’m trying to avoid.

There are other downsides to these diets that people fail to mention but I found out personally:

Physiologic Insulin Resistance (PIR): My experience lowering my carbs over the years helped me kick my pre-diabetes diagnosis. I figured eating essentially no carbs on the Keto diet would protect me even more.

I was shocked when I had my labs drawn and it showed that my Hemoglobin A1C and fasting blood sugars were in the diabetic range! My physician wanted to put me on the diabetes drug metformin.

So how could my body show I’m diabetic when I’m eating virtually zero carbs?

It turns out that your body is really smart. I already knew that when I was in Keto my body was using fat as a fuel source because glucose is essentially not available.

But glucose is the primary fuel source of the brain.

Sure, you’re body can use ketones during periods of starvation. So your body causes your peripheral muscles and organs to become resistant to insulin as a way to shunt any available glucose to your brain to keep you functioning.

So it’s not that you are diabetic per-se – but that your body is simply trying to respond, adapt and ultimately – protect you.

It’s easy to GAIN weight.

Yes, you read that right.

Everyone tells you how easy it is to lose weight on the keto diet – but here I was seeing the pounds slowly creeping up.

Which would be fine if it was accompanied by muscle – but it wasn’t.

I was a skinny fat type and despite my best efforts I was just getting … well … skinnier and fatter.

The culprit? Because the keto diet is so high in fat I was consuming way more calories that my body needed because fat has 9 calories per gram versus 4 calories per gram in carbs and protein.

Looking back I was easily consuming 3,000+ calories a day. My maintenance is probably around 2,600. Over the course of a month I was probably eating eating thousands of extra calories. Which meant a slow and frustrating weight gain.

Despite working out my body composition just got fatter.

Considering I was already suffering from PIR this makes sense. With little protein and carbohydrates to shuttle the protein into my already resistant cells I wasn’t making much in the way of gains.

The Keto Diet is all the rage right now. But just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for your health.

The Best Way to Eat: The Natural Diet

I’m glad that I experimented with my diet. It’s taught me one undeniable truth: extremes – on a long term basis – are neither helpful – nor healthy.

Personally – and I think this extends to you as well – a well balanced, completely natural diet that promotes high nutrient intake will help you minimize inflammation and risk of cancer and chronic diseases.

What does that look like? Here’s two basic guidelines to follow that will get you 80% farther than any fad diet:

You need ALL macros: protein, fat and carbs. Think of them like your kids: one isn’t better than the other. They are just better at certain things.

Try to prepare meals at home and use color and texture as your guide. Avoid ‘brown plates’ (i.e., cheeseburgers and fries). A colorful plate means plenty of nutrients.

Now For Some Finer Points

My base is usually grass fed meats. While I don’t hunt like I used to venison is a great option as well.

Vegetables are good – although I find it easier to make smoothies than eat raw veggies all the time.

Fruits are good – although I tend to stick with apples, kiwi’s and berries.

Nuts and seeds are good in moderation: my personal favorites are pumpkin seeds (high in zinc), almonds and walnuts.

Drink water based off thirst.

Don’t be afraid of fats but don’t buy into the hype about throwing sticks of butter in your coffee.

And those nasty carbs? You need ’em.

While fat gets all the credit for healthy hormone levels, carbohydrates may be even more critical.

I get most of my carbs from natural sources: fruit, sweet potato and red potatoes. I’ll eat rice if it’s in front of me or the dish ‘requires’ it (Chinese). I’m trying to move away from russet potatoes as they tend to have more chemicals thrown on them.

Avoid grains or anything processed or found in a box. That includes ‘energy bars’ and the like.

Dairy? On occasion I’ll have a bit of skyr or full fat dairy with some fruit as a snack. But outside of that I’m pretty low on dairy. Humans are the only mammals to consume milk beyond weaning.

I drink alcohol. I tend to have spirits over beer. Wine more in the winter.

If You Don’t Enjoy It – You Won’t Stick With It

If you really want to get healthier this has to be something that’s sustainable long term. Which means it has to be enjoyable long term. Which means extreme diets don’t fit the bill.

I still count calories every third or fourth day just to make sure I’m on track. If I’m looking to lose some fat (but not muscle) I’ll eat at maintenance on training days and about 500 calories under on rest days.

If I want to add some muscle I’ll eat at a surplus on training days and about maintenance on my off days.

I also tend to ‘cycle’ carbs and fat.

For example, I’ll eat a bit more carbs on training days (particularly after a workout). Nothing crazy but I may make a small fruit smoothie with some spinach and eat it with my protein source. Or, if I’m pressed for time, throw in some protein powder.

On non-training days I’ll eat higher fat and lower carb.

My macronutrient ratios are fairly balanced.

I also use intermittent fasting and have for years. I’m a big fan.

Does This Natural Diet Work?
It Appears To.

My last body scan came in at 12.4% body fat at 41 years of age. That’s down from around 20-25% a few years ago (not measured – my estimates from pictures and asking people) and even better than I was at age 19 when I had it formally measured last.

41 year old man 12.4% body fat
Stop accepting the Dadbod. As a busy 41-year old dad and husband, avoiding extremes and following a natural diet has gotten me my best results to date and a body fat percentage of 12.4% (better than college)

My lifts went up for a long time although they have plateaued a bit recently – which I expected because I was cutting.

At the time of this writing I’ve stopped worrying about dropping body fat and am focused more on gaining some muscle.

While my short term goals may vary my long term goals with my diet are:

  1. To look good naked.
  2. To carry a high proportion of my body weight as muscle mass. I’m not going for the bodybuilding look. I want a lean, muscled appearance that is functional on a number of different levels.
  3. Healthy hormone profiles.
  4. To function well as I get older and avoid many of the ‘common’ diseases of old age. Muscle may be the best anti-aging medicine we have.
  5. Simplify my life – not make it more complicated.

I’m not where I want to be but my current diet is far more effective at supporting those goals than my experience with extreme diets.