If you’re a powerlifter or avid fan of the sport of powerlifting, you know good and well who Stan “Rhino” Efferding is. And for those of you who don’t know this mountain of a man, he’s one of the few men in the world who has squatted over 800 pounds and deadlifted over 800 pounds in the same competition.
FYI, he also benched 600+ pounds in the same meet too.
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You may have also seen him on a little TV show called Shark Tank pitching “The Kooler,” a portable storage unit that keeps all of your pre, intra, and post-workout drinks separated inside one ice-cold container.
He’s also recently worked with a number of high-level athletes, most notably Hafthor Bjornsson, you might know him as “The Mountain” on HBO’s Game of Thrones television series.
We’re not here to recant Stan’s accolades or even talk about his fancy portable ice chest. The reason we’re discussing Stan Efferding in the first place is due to a new nutritional protocol he’s selling.
It’s called the Vertical Diet, and it’s being hyped by Stan and his clients as the way to eat if you’re serious about powerlifting, bodybuilding, or even overall sports performance.
Let’s take a deeper look at the Vertical Diet and see if its methods hold any water or are it just another in a very long line of fad diets.
What is The Vertical Diet?
In Stan’s own words, the Vertical diet is: 
“Performance-based nutritional framework that starts with a solid foundation of highly bioavailable micronutrients which supports a structure of easily digestible macronutrients that can be adjusted specifically to meet your body’s demands.”
Before we go any further, we need to make this point crystal clear. The Vertical Diet is a nutritional philosophy designed for high-performance athletes looking to get bigger, stronger and faster. It's not for the overweight, sedentary couch potato. The aim of “going vertical” is to improve digestive efficiency so the body maximizes its utilization of those nutrients, and it’s going to involve carbs... A LOT of carbs.
Now, that that is out of the way…
Explaining the Vertical Diet
First and foremost, the Vertical Diet focuses on quality of calories, as Stan believes not all calories are created equal, and secondly, consume those calories that the body is efficient at processing. Your body doesn’t use all of the calories you eat, some pass through and go to waste due to the fact that your body can’t assimilate them.
The manner in which your body utilizes the nutrients from the foods you eat in known as nutrient partitioning, and this is what the main goal of going vertical is all about - maximize nutrient partitioning so that you perform better and recover faster for greater gains.
With all this talk of vertical, you’re probably wondering what it means to eat a horizontal diet, and how it differs from a vertical diet.
Vertical vs Horizontal Dieting
A “horizontal” diet is a standard diet that most of us eat everyday. We try to eat mostly whole foods from a wide range of sources and colors. So, you might have eggs and oatmeal for breakfast, a sandwich with a side salad for lunch, and maybe steak, veggies, and potatoes for dinner, followed by some ice cream because it’s so tasty and it fits into your macros for the day.
The Vertical Diet was birthed from the knowledge Stan Efferding gained while training with Flex Wheeler several years ago. Essentially, the Vertical Diet bases your daily diet on a limited number of foods that are micronutrient dense, highly bioavailable, and, most importantly, easily digestible.
“Going vertical” refers to slowly increasing the total number of calories you consume from these foods each day. The greater your training demands, the more vertical (higher calorie) you go. According to Stan, your body can only get so much benefit from protein and fat, and carbohydrate is what really fuels you to greater heights in muscle and performance. So, be prepared for massive carbohydrate consumption on the Vertical Diet.
Here’s a graphic summarizing the main points of the Vertical Diet which we’ll explain in more detail ahead:
Two key foods in Stan’s approach to eating are steak and rice. Stan stresses the fact that consuming ground meat (“hamburger”) is not the same as a steak. Beef labeled as “ground meat” is usually assembled from all the odds and ends of the cows and scraps left over from portioning out steaks and roasts. Don’t confuse “ground meat” with “ground sirloin” or “ground round.” The latter two are from a single cut of meat, not multiple ones as is the case with ground meat.
Essentially, steak versus ground hamburger boils down to this -- they’re two different qualities of beef and since you should only be focusing on the “best” kind of calories, ground meat (even though it is beef) is not an acceptable substitute for steak.
For the most part, that’s it for your protein and carbs.
Stan then fills in the gaps with some additional easily digestible foods to address micronutrient needs. Among these “other foods” are:
- Oranges or orange juice
- Cooked veggies (low-gas veggies)
Note: The Vertical Diet recommends consuming LOW GAS vegetables (butternut squash, carrots, celery, parsley, zucchini, cucumber, bell pepper, eggplant, spinach, small steamed potato) instead. But not so much that you’re building your diet on these foods, just enough to fulfill your micronutrient requirements.
Here’s what you’re weekly grocery haul would look like when shopping at the store:
If you are a high-performing athlete that consumes a lot of carbs, this can lead to a lot of bloating in Stan’s eyes, which slows you down and limits performance. Due to this, he is against the consumption of very starchy, slow-digesting carbs that are hard to digest, including:
- Wheat (pasta, pizza, bread, etc.)
- Brown rice (phytic acid)
- Beans (lectins)
- High raffinose vegetables (broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower)
Check out this graphic below, courtesy of the official Instagram account of the Vertical Diet:
Example of The Vertical Diet used by Hafthor
So, you would start eating just enough steak and rice to hit your protein and carbohydrate needs for the day, which for most elite level athletes is probably four or five portions consisting of 6oz steak and one cup rice in the Vertical Diet. 
After a week or so of this, Stan’s clients said they began to get hungry within an hour of eating a meal, and at this point, he tells them to add in another meal of steak and rice. Another seven to ten days later, and the same thing happens - you get hungry immediately after eating. At this point, athletes would add about 2oz of steak and ½ cup of rice to each meal.
Remember, these are high-performance athletes, some of whom are training multiple hours several times per day. They need A LOT of food.
This process continues to repeat over time, and so you’re gradually eating more and more food (more “vertical”), which supports increased training volume and frequency as well as recovery resulting in epic gains.
So, why are the athletes getting hungry immediately after eating?
According to the logic of the Vertical Diet, your body has become incredibly efficient are digesting the steak and rice you’re feeding it, meaning nothing you consume is going to waste. Any and all food you do eat is purely towards repairing and building muscle.
Ultimately, the Vertical Diet has you constantly upping food intake (primarily from fast-digesting carbs) all in the pursuit of the ability to train harder for longer in the gym and recover faster afterward, thereby leading to more frequent training, and ultimately bigger, better gains in size and strength.
Continue to increase carbs (“get vertical”) and you will continue to build size and strength.
Vertical Diet Post Workout Hacks
Following a really, really intense training session (leg day for instance) Stan has his clients do a carbohydrate reload along with lots of water and sodium, so as to take advantage of the enhanced insulin sensitivity and accelerated replenishment of glycogen, thereby vastly improving recovery. You’ll also perform better on your subsequent workouts.
Stan gives credit to UFC Nutrition Coach George Lockhart for this “Supercompensation post-workout beverage”, which consists of: 
- 50g fructose (for liver glycogen)
- 50g dextrose (goes to muscle glycogen)
- 600-1000mg sodium (depending on workout or athlete)
- 100mg caffeine (accelerates uptake of all the other nutrients)
What about protein post workout?
While protein is stressed as the macronutrient to consume immediately following training, especially for bodybuilding, the timing of your protein intake isn’t as important in terms of subsequent performance. Protein can help restore glycogen in the absence of sufficient carbohydrate, and is essential for muscle repair, but not for glycogen replenishment, carbohydrates are. 
The faster you get carbs into your body following training, the more rapidly glycogen is replenished, which not only accelerates recovery, but limits soreness and enhances subsequent performance.
If you’re only training one time per day, rapid glycogen filling isn’t a priority, but remember, the Vertical Diet is for high-performance athletes training multiple times per day. For these individuals, nutrient timing is crucial and does have a significant impact on future training sessions. If you’re only lifting 3-4 times per week, nutrient timing is mostly irrelevant.
Analyzing the Vertical Diet
Stan touts the superiority of red meat over chicken or fish, saying it’s more nutrient dense due to its higher content of iron, B vitamins, zinc, and cholesterol, which is important for the production of muscle-building hormones like testosterone. FYI, Stan is a HUGE advocate of optimizing hormone production in the body, as its critical to performance and muscle growth.
So, let’s take a look at just how chicken measures up to steak. We’ll start with some of the bigger nutrients like protein, cholesterol, iron. 
As you can see, chicken isn’t all that different from beef in the protein or cholesterol category. The area where it really falls behind is in saturated fat. Now, let’s look at some of the vitamins and mineral differences:
Let’s compare 100 gram serving each of chicken thigh and beef sirloin. Values for each micronutrient:
- Baked beans
- Bananas, ripe
- Beetroot, fresh
- Black bean
- Sweet potato
- Chicken broth
- Red Bell Pepper
Overall, it does seem that beef, at least this comparison, surpasses chicken in a number of areas, those differences are minimal, to say the least.
Now, Stan is patently against chicken (or turkey), but they’re just “OK”, and since you’re a high-performance athlete, you should be trying to only use the “best” foods.
Maximizing Digestive Efficiency
According to Stan’s reasoning, limiting the variety of foods you consume increases your body’s ability to digest those select foods, making it more efficient. There is some animal research showing that digestive efficiency is correlated to gut microbiota composition, so, in theory, the Vertical Diet may not be complete hogwash. Coupled with the fact that nutrient absorption directly affects cell maintenance, growth, signaling, and reproduction, and you can start to see where Stan’s reasoning might make sense. 
Consuming foods that cause less stress on your digestive system may decrease the likelihood of inflammation in the gut, aiding digestion, decreasing bloating, and enhancing nutrient absorption, but there’s a problem with this.
A number of the foods Stan is suggesting you eliminate (broccoli, cabbage, etc.) contain important prebiotics, which are the “food” for your gut bacteria. No single food provides all the prebiotics your body needs, meaning you should be eating a wide variety of foods, so as to provide the raw materials your gut bacteria need to survive and thrive. Limiting your food selection ultimately limits the micronutrients your gut bacteria need, which sort of counteracts the whole purpose of The Vertical Diet in the first place.
What About Omega 3s?
Omega 3 fatty acids are an important class of essential fatty acids that most of us simply aren’t getting enough of in the diet, most often due to a combination of not eating enough fish and consuming too many vegetable oils which are high in omega 6 fatty acids.
Stan’s solution to this is to eat wild Alaskan salmon a couple times per week rather than supplement with omega 3 fish oil supplements. The reason is that most of the fish oil supplements have been exposed to light and have oxidized, meaning you’re not really getting the benefits of the omega 3 fats at all. 
Vertical Diet vs Clean Eating
A lot of the vertical diet (focus on whole foods, no “bad foods”, etc.) sounds similar to clean eating, but it is not the same thing. When following the clean eating nutritional philosophy, you can eat any and all veggies, whole grains, lean meats, and healthy fats you desire. The Vertical Diet is limited to a select number of whole foods to fuel performance and satisfy micronutrient needs.
The distinction may seem small, but it is there nonetheless.
The Vertical Diet can be viewed as a form of a low-FODMAP diet. FODMAP stands for fermentable oligo-, di-, and monosaccharide and polyol. High FODMAP foods include:
The list goes on, but essentially low-FODMAP diets are used to combat irritable bowel syndrome and other disorders of the digestive system through avoidance of high FODMAP foods, which contain difficult to digest carbohydrates.
If you’re not suffering from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or some other digestive disorder, allergy, or intolerance, there is no conclusive scientific logic for avoiding these foods. They’re are chock full of valuable vitamins, minerals, and other micronutrients. Plus, they’re high in fiber and water, which helps keep things moving along your digestive system.
Listen to enough of Stan’s talks about the Vertical diet, and you’ll hear time and again that he promotes the idea of a narrow “horizontal”, that is only consuming a limited number of other foods outside of steak and rice to satisfy micronutrient needs. Remember from the graphic up top, this includes:
Once you’ve gotten “enough” of these to satisfy micronutrient needs, everything else from your diet (“going vertical”) comes from increasing portions of steak and rice. The thinking is that rice is easy to eat in great quantities without filling you up too much.
But, here’s the problem… Rice is incredibly nutrient poor. The Vertical Diet is supposed to be about maximizing quality of food in an effort to fuel training. Yes, rice is a cheap, easy-digesting carbohydrate, but so are any number of other foods out there.
Stan has even said that “calories are not created equal”, so why be such a staunch advocate of a relatively nutrient-void food if you’re not interested in it solely for the sake of getting in those necessary calories.
You can start to see the paradox here.
On one hand, he’s espousing the importance of eating nutrient-dense foods, while on the other he’s advocating athletes to eat a micronutrient-poor food in ever increasing amounts.
It just doesn’t make sense.
So, what’s the verdict on Stan Efferding’s Vertical Diet?
Well, it’s a whole lot of broscience. There are some valuable nuggets buried within the diet, such as focusing on whole foods rich in micronutrients, but there is no substantial scientific evidence backing his reasoning for limiting food selection.
By only selecting a few base foods for micronutrients (“the horizontal” part of the diet), you’re ultimately limiting your vitamin, mineral, and prebiotic intake. Plus, it can get really, really boring eating nothing but steak all day every day, even for the beef lovers out there. There’s also some of the more outlandish bits of advice he suggests from time to time, such as sprinkling dextrose (sugar) on rice to stimulate saliva production, making it easier to eat even more white rice, all in the effort of consuming more and more calories.
But if the whole point of the vertical diet is to get bigger, stronger, and faster by improving digestion by through eating high-quality foods, sprinkling sugar on rice isn’t at the top of any diet’s “healthy food list.”
In the end, the Vertical Diet is a bad mix of broscience, clean eating, and clever marketing. The ultimate point of the diet is to get you stronger by eating more, but there are countless other ways that are more sustainable and don’t require you to shell out $100 than the Vertical Diet.