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What is the vertical diet?

31st July 19 - 9 minute read

Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

Our expert:

James Hudson, Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport. James played Premiership Rugby for Gloucester, as well as lining up for London Irish, Newcastle Falcons and England Saxons. He has a degree and masters in biochemistry from the University of Bath and has completed the International Olympic Committee’s Diploma in Sports Nutrition. He is currently working towards a PhD at Liverpool John Moores University.

What’s in this article:

  • What is the vertical diet?
  • Who is it for?
  • Foods for the vertical diet
  • Does it actually work?

What is the vertical diet and does it really work?

The vertical diet is one of the latest diet fads that claims to help fitness fanatics meet their nutritional needs while boosting health and fitness. Designed by professional bodybuilder Stan Efferding, the vertical diet places a strong focus on protein and carbohydrates.

However, there are still a few questions surrounding the vertical diet. Healthy diets involve a variety of foods, ensuring you get the recommended daily amount of all essential nutrients¹ to help you maintain good health, the right weight and feel your best – but does the vertical diet achieve this? We asked James Hudson, Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport, for his advice.


At a glance:

  • The diet’s based around white rice and red meat
  • Aimed at CrossFitters, bodybuilders and powerlifters
  • Questions around the lack of variety


What is the vertical diet?

The vertical diet focusses on eating a small level of micronutrient rich foods, while getting most your energy from red meat and white rice² to reduce bloating and stomach complaints that can be common in high performance athletes. 

Micronutrients (such as vitamins and minerals) form the horizontal aspect of the diet, with macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein and fat) the vertical part.

The idea is that these foods are easily digestible and can help increase your performance at the gym. Horizontal – base - foods include sweet potatoes, salmon, eggs, certain fruits and vegetables (carrots, oranges).

Then in the vertical section of the diet the main foods are white rice and red meat, as sources of carbohydrates and protein. These include steak, ground beef and venison.

James say: “Normally, we talk about diets horizontally - to refer to the breadth of choice you have in foods. I’d always advocate having a wide variety of foods in your diet as it won’t lead to boredom or limiting food and nutrition sources.

“This diet adopts a view that you can get enough of your micronutrients from a reasonably narrow group of foods like oranges, peppers, spinach, sweet potatoes, plus some dairy products.

“So it’s not like some fad diets where they cut out entire food groups - but it is asking for people to use a limited variety of foods.”

Need to know: This diet focuses on small levels of micronutrient rich foods and high levels of energy rich red meat and rice.


How does the vertical diet work?

To improve physical performance, the vertical diet focuses on calorie quality rather than quantity.

Not all calories are used by your body when consumed - some pass through and go to waste. Vertical diet foods are those that your body is most efficient at processing.

The idea of going vertical is that you slowly increase how many calories you consume – through the red meat and rice - each day as your training demands grow. This is because according to Stan Efferding³, you can only gain so much benefit from protein and fat – carbohydrate fuels greater improvements in muscle and performance.

“The vertical diet chooses foods that are high in micronutrients but low in FODMAPs,” says James.

“FODMAPs are forms of sugars that ferment and can cause bloating, gas and discomfort in the gut. Many athletes who suffer from these symptoms during exercise might look at systematically reducing or excluding FODMAPs, before reintroducing them to identify those that are aggravating the gut.”

Need to know: By switching to easily digestible foods you get more energy from your diet without the side effects of stomach discomfort.


Why is it called the vertical diet?

It comes from the upside down T-shape that represents the food plan. Micronutrients cover the (horizontal) base, while the sources of calories (white rice and mainly red meat) make up the vertical section of the T that represents macronutrients.

Another possible reason could be that gradually increasing the number of calories you consume is sometimes referred to as ‘going vertical’. The more your training demands increase, the more energy you need – and so a higher calorie intake is required.

Need to know: The spread of foods used form a T shape with the key meals being the vertical axis.


Who is this diet for?

As the vertical diet was created by a professional bodybuilder, it makes sense that it is mainly aimed at those wanting to improve their performance, mainly:

  • Bodybuilders
  • CrossFitters
  • Powerlifters
  • MMA fighters

There are claims that regular gym goers could benefit from the diet, as the diet claims to help followers lose fat while retaining muscle mass.

Though James says: “It’s really aimed at strongman types – CrossFit, body builders etc. It’s not aimed at those who are just trying to lose weight. It’s for people who are looking to gain muscle or who are training at quite a high level.”

Due to the large focus on red meat, the vertical diet isn’t appropriate for vegetarians or vegans. Currently there isn’t a suggested alternative. It’s also worth checking a vertical diet food list (below), as any intolerances or allergies can eliminate it as a viable option too.

Need to know: Designed by a professional bodybuilder, the vertical diet is mainly aimed at those looking to improve their physical performance.


Foods for the vertical diet

Vertical diet foods are those that are easily digestible, help to optimise gut health and correct hormone and nutrient deficiencies. This aims to improve energy, stamina, endurance and recovery, and have a positive effect on physical performance.


Micronutrients make up the horizontal base and provide a lot of what’s needed as part of a balanced diet. However, some vegetables are avoided as they aren’t easily digested and can cause gas. The vertical diet food list below contains the main foods allowed.

  • Bell peppers
  • Carrots
  • Chicken stock
  • Cranberries
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Salmon
  • Spinach
  • Sweet potato
  • Yogurt


White rice and red meat are the main macronutrients.

“These meats are high in iron, which is very important, high in protein and a natural source of creatine. But they are also high in saturated fat – this is a concern,” adds James.

High-starch carbohydrates like wheat, beans, oats and brown rice also avoided here.

  • Bison
  • Filet mignon
  • Lamb
  • Lean ground beef
  • New York strip
  • Top sirloin
  • Venison
  • White rice

Suggested vertical diet meal plans

Given the fairly limited amount of vertical diet foods, creating a meal plan with variety can be challenging.

Simple combinations of yogurt and fruits can make a good breakfast or snack, while for lunch and dinner the different meats, vegetables and white rice or sweet potatoes can be used creatively.

Need to know: Vertical diet foods are easily digestible and, while limited, can be used to create a variety of dishes.


Does the vertical diet actually work?

As the vertical diet is a relatively new development, there is still a lot of debate around whether it is effective and healthy. A few positives include:

  • Recommending a high carbohydrate intake
  • Focusing on easily digestible foods (especially carbohydrates) before a workout
  • Based around whole foods
  • No major food groups are eliminated

It’s a diet that boosts energy, not one that causes starvation, which is why it’s most popular with athletes and bodybuilders rather than people looking to lose weight. The 2018 World’s Strongest Man Hafthor Bjornson and four-time champion Brian Shaw both claim to follow the vertical diet.

“It does have a lot of valid points – like including high levels of carbs in rice to fuel your workout,” James continues. “But the limited food selection is a concern.”

Drawbacks of the vertical diet

The main concern with the vertical diet is that it lacks variety – especially in terms of carbohydrates and protein – and is low in fibre.

Some of the healthiest carbohydrates are those high in fibre (such as quinoa and oats – both of which the vertical diet eliminates). Switching out more nutrient-dense carbohydrates completely for just white rice can lead to a lack of fibre in your diet.

“It’s not like some fad diets where they cut out entire food groups, but it is asking for people to use a limited variety of foods,” James adds.

Eating a diet full of red meat is also problematic. The UK government advises no more than 70g a day of red or processed meat should be consumed[7].

Some micronutrients can also be lacking on the vertical diet. It attempts to ensure all nutrient needs are met with the selection of foods included at the horizontal level. Yet many vegetables are restricted, with other nutrient-dense foods like beans and grains also restricted.

“We wouldn’t suggest cutting out these micronutrients without consulting a doctor first or if you don’t have any issues with stomach discomfort,” says James.

Need to know: For athletes and serious bodybuilders the vertical diet can hold various benefits, but it does lack certain important nutrients and variety.

In summary:

Like many diets, it restricts the types of food you can eat, which many nutritionists might warn against. It does have some positives in that it focuses on easily digestible foods. But unless you’re a high performance athlete we’d suggest staying away from this diet.









Headshot of James Hudson

Performance Nutritionist at Nutrition in Sport

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