The controversial eating plan involves a whole lotta steak.

By Macaela Mackenzie
Photo: 4kodiak/Getty Images

Fueling better performance at the gym has inspired some interesting eating habits-some backed by science (like beet juice shots) and some, well, not so much. Falling in the latter category is the Vertical Diet-a eating plan favored among CrossFitters that's causing major controversy. (Haven't jumped on the Crossfit train? Read this before you add CrossFit to your workout routine.)

The Vertical Diet says it's all about building muscle and fueling athletic performance, according to the diet's body-builder founder, Stan Efferding. Sounds great for your gym game so far, right? But the actual eating plan raises some major objections from registered dietitians.

First, What Is the Vertical Diet?

The diet gets its name from its version of the food pyramid-an upside down "T". On the bottom, representing small portions of the daily diet, the Vertical Diet emphasizes "a solid foundation of highly bioavailable micronutrients." Think vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants found in fruits and veggies. But the majority of your foods-the vertical part of the upside down "T"- are supposed to be predominantly red meat and white rice. No lean poultry or omega-rich fish. No fiber-rich whole grains. No pulses or legumes.

Is the Vertical Diet Even Healthy?

Proponents of the diet claim that the protein and carb-packed eating plan will optimize gut health, correct nutrient deficiencies, and boost "energy, stamina, endurance, and recovery," according to the diet's website.

Aside from the fact that heavy red meat consumption has been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, nutrition experts are straight-up skeptical about the Vertical Diet's health claims.

First up, gut health. "Fiber is one of the most important food components required to improve digestion-since the Vertical Diet is very low in fiber, this process would be hindered and can eventually cause constipation, bloating, and gas," says Alissa Rumsey, R.D., C.S.C.S. "The Vertical Diet also eliminates foods like oats and onions, which are sources of prebiotics, the foods that gut bacteria need to flourish," she says. Fiber is also important to your body's ability to absorb nutrients from food-"it slows down the time it takes for food to move through our digestive system, which means more nutrients are absorbed," along the way, says Rumsey.

Plus, despite the supposed focus on getting more micronutrients, the Vertical Diet seriously restricts or limits a lot of nutrient-dense foods, such as beans and whole grains, says Keri Gans, R.D. "I don't know why anyone would want to limit their number of nutrient-dense foods-we recommend to seek out nutrient-dense foods," she says. (Related: Magnesium Is the Micronutrient You Should Pay More Attention To)

But Does the Vertical Diet Help with Fitness Gains?

Aside from its wide nutritional gaps, the Vertical Diet still claims to help you build muscle and boost endurance and recovery. Is the bogus, too? Potentially-but it's probably not the healthiest way to reach the same results. "It's old school to think that only red meat provides protein," says Gans. "While you do need to replenish your protein stores to build muscle mass and repair muscle, protein comes in many sources including nuts, seeds and plant sources like soy." Most people are already getting plenty of protein in their diet without having to go crazy on the steak, adds Rumsey. (See: Easy 4-Ingredient Recipes for Post-Workout Muscle Recovery)

The Verdict On the Vertical Diet

The experts we spoke to object to the overall premise of the Vertical Diet. "We know that restrictive diets like this that cut out certain foods or food groups never work in the long run-they are not sustainable," says Rumsey. "When you start to restrict types and amounts of food your body switches into survival mode, which can mean uncontrollable cravings, overeating, and binges." (Related: What It's Really Like to Be On an Elimination Diet.)

"This is just another restrictive diet plan," says Gans. Instead of "going vertical," try a healthier "horizontal" way of eating-meaning, filling your plate with foods from various food groups. "Your body will get the macronutrients (carbohydrates, fat, protein) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) it needs when you eat a varied diet," says Rumsey. "Eating different fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts, and seeds will ensure that your body is getting enough of what it needs."

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December 20, 2018
Couldn't agree more on how poorly written this articles is. It is clear very little research went into this beyond a quick google search and a glance at the diagram of the diet. What is ever worse is that it is clear that all the RD's and "experts" interviewed for this did not do any research either. If anyone had actually read the diet they would see that all the things the author is making claims to is actually addressed in the eating plan.
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August 23, 2018
Very disappointed that such a low quality article is at the top of googles first page in regards to the vertical diet. Clearly the author only thought that it was a steak and rice only diet. If you did literally 5 minutes of research you would have found that the vertical diet covers all the essential macro and micro nutrients.
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August 3, 2018
It's very clear to me that the author of this article didn't do ANY research outside of the main bullet points of the diet (more red meat). First off, let's be clear that the diet IS NOT a crossfit diet, it is an athlete diet, primarily strength sports. The inclusion of crossfit in the article seems to be more a dig at crossfit as a whole rather than the diet, which is a whole other topic. Second off, yes - red meat is the foundation of the diet but it is not the only choice of protein. Chicken, salmon, whole fat dairy, and lamb are also parts of this diet - a note that you conveniently didn't include in your article. In fact, Stan Efferding recommends that at least one Salmon meal be included per week, despite your claim that there are no Omega rich foods in the diet. Third, as I said before - whole fat dairy is included. It's recommended that there be whole fat greek yogurt included on a daily basis - that's a probiotic despite your claim that there is no probiotics in the diet. Fourth, there are fruits included in the diet - once again not sure where you got your research from. Oranges and not from concentrate cranberry juice are staples of the diet. Also, other fruits are included in the diet. Fifth, there are micronutrient foods included in this besides fruit. Veggies such as peppers, spinach, carrots, and kale are included. The only veggies that are not recommended are gas causing veggies like broccoli and legumes. Oh, and this also takes care of fiber - despite your claim that there is no fiber in the diet. Sixth, on the topic of fiber and probiotics one more time - you stated that there is no oatmeal in the diet. False. There is no processed oatmeal in the diet. It is recommended if you go the oatmeal route that you go with fermented oats as opposed to processed oats. Seventh, the fact that one of your dietitians recommends SOY as a protein source automatically makes me question the qualifications and validity of their opinion. I could continue to go on and dissect the inconsistencies and flat out mistruths in your article but honestly I do not have that much time on my hands so I will cut it at seven. I'm incredibly disappointed in the quality of this article and the misrepresentation that is being given to the vertical diet - and I'm not even a proponent of the diet - I've simply done my research - unlike someone. This is a terrible look by Shape magazine as a lot of female's interested in health & fitness are being fed false information that is going to lead them away from different modalities. I hope in the future that more research and oversight is given to articles published on this site so that blatantly false, misinformation is not spread. James Mooney, CSCS, USAW1
July 23, 2018
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July 18, 2018
The writer clearly needed an article to publish with ZERO research done. I’m very familiar with the vertical diet and everything you said in this article is incorrect. Everything. It’s sad you can publish this with zero research.
July 17, 2018
I think the author would be better served letting readers know who the Vertical Diet is aimed toward. If you go to the Vertical Diet site and look at the list of the ATHLETES who use it, they are mostly professional lifters and others who are SERIOUS in their pursuit of STRENGTH and SIZE. The article above would be similar to a bodybuilder bashing Atkins Diet on his site. Yea, for a body builder or strength athlete, Atkins isn't going to get you to your goals. But for others, with much different goals, it could work wonderfully. The Vertical Diet, while it could work for the average gym-goer, doesn't appear to be aimed at that demographic. And as far as the comments on red meat being linked to cancers and whatnot, there are studies that refute that as well. A simple Google search shows that. And for the very VERY last time, carbs are not evil, so long as you aren't sedentary.
July 16, 2018
Did the person writing this article even read the diet? The vertical diet is a simple diet based in the FODMAP, which is used for people with IBS, there are MANY food choices and you're allowed To eat however many veggies or fiber rich foods you want as well as any carbohydrate choice on the FODMAP, including any potato, fruit, etc. Stan advocates fruit consumption. The rice,- heavy part of the diet is purely for an easy way to ADD CALORIES To a hypercaloric diet. Stan emphasizes beef over chicken for protein source, but you're allowed many choices... Lamb, steak, salmon, whey iolate, full fat dairy, some chicken... I can't see how the diet is restrictive at all besides telling you to use carbs that could cause digestive upset sparingly. Do some research.