Optimal Versus Sustainable: Why Different Approaches Should Be Considered

Over the weekend, I was watching as Joe Rogan interviewed Dr. Layne Norton and Dr. Dom D’Agostino. Both Norton and D’Agostino have their Ph.D. in nutrition, though they advocate for very different lifestyles.

D’Agostino is a ketogenic diet proponent while Norton is, like me, a fan of flexible dieting.

As Norton was discussing diets, one thing he kept harping on was that a diet had to be sustainable over the long term.

Rogan, who is known primarily as a comedian but actually has a background in martial arts first and foremost, began asking if the need for a “sustainable” diet was really just an issue of discipline. I get why Rogan asks that, too. As a lifelong fighter, Rogan is nothing, if not disciplined. He trained and competed for years before ever pursuing comedy. He’s disciplined, so he doesn’t get how someone can have difficulty with someone if they’re disciplined.

However, that got me to thinking about how I would address this argument. You see because I happen to agree that the sustainability of a diet or exercise program is the most important variable.

First, let’s take a look at the difference between “optimal” and “sustainable.”


If either diet or training is optimal, it means it is the hands-down best option for helping you achieve your goals. There is nothing better out there and you need to do it to make the most out of your efforts.

An optimal diet will help you lose fat if that’s your goal. It’ll help you gain muscle and size if that’s your goal. More than that, though, it’ll help you lose the most weight or gain the most muscle in the shortest period of time with a minimum of metabolic adaptation.

An optimal training program would work the same way. It’ll make the most of your training to help you achieve those goals and maximize the effectiveness of the hours you put into training.

It’s worth noting that what is “optimal” varies depending on numerous factors. In fact, it’s also possible that we still don’t necessarily understand what is really optimal for any of these things.


Sustainable is a buzzword in certain circles, but its application here is that you can simply continue with the protocol for a long period of time. Indefinitely, if needed.

If you have a sustainable diet, it means you can do it indefinitely. It might make achieving your goals slower, but it’s something you can continue to do for the rest of your life without great difficulty.

Why Sustainable Is Better Than Optimal

Now, going back to Rogan, I do understand where he’s coming from. Based on his history, I suspect he’s an incredibly disciplined individual. That’s not something you expect from a comedian, to be sure, but Rogan really strikes me as a fighter who took up comedy, not a comedian who also learned how to fight.

But the truth of the matter is, most people aren’t that disciplined.

You see, studies have shown that willpower is a finite resource. In other words, you can only go to that willpower well only so many times before you run out.

Someone like Rogan probably has a pretty deep well.

A lot of people don’t, though. They need to stack the deck in their favor as much as possible.

Further, some people have lifestyles that really screw with them. They don’t know how to adapt their training goals and that lifestyle.

Years ago, I dropped around 40 lbs. I went from very obese to feeling much better about myself. I used caloric restriction plus I ate what many would consider “clean” foods. I went paleo during that time, in part because the diet made a lot of sense based on my understanding of nutrition.

But then again, I was the only one in the house genuinely interested in weight loss at the time.

When money got tight, eating clean became pretty tricky. Eventually, the whole thing fell apart and I stopped even trying to bother tracking my macros. As a result, I ended up putting on 125 percent of the weight I’d lost.

Not good.

Yet this time, despite being more stable financially than I was back then, I knew I didn’t want a repeat. The thing is, I was yet again the only person really interested in weight loss.

So what could I do?

Well, I went with flexible dieting because it didn’t worry about it. I was confident that I could weigh out my food easily enough, but flexible dieting only really cares about the quantity of the food. Not what some would call “quality” of it.

That meant no matter what kind of food we ate, I could try and make it fit my overall goals, rather than trying to make the world fit me.

Oh, I can’t eat anything I want, any time I want. I have to make things fit my macros and such. Plus, eating out is kind of a pain in the butt, mostly because restaurant meals have so many calories that some of the meals would hit my calorie count for a couple of days, almost.

But I can eat the instant mashed potatoes my family likes if I account for it. It means I can eat most of the stuff I love, just so long as I account for it.

That means I don’t need to go to the well of willpower just to handle my diet most of the time. I can save that for other things, like training when I don’t feel like it or any number of other things.

In my case, that well is more of a puddle, so I need all the help I can get.

Can’t You Just Develop More Discipline?

Sure. In fact, each and every one of us probably should. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to structure your entire training around something like that.

Your efforts to develop more discipline may or may not be successful. At least, not at first. Do you want your health and safety to be hinged on your success with something else first?

Well, not if you don’t have to.

Balancing ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Optimal’

If someone could run some kind of a test and tell you exactly which kind of training is optimal, it would be awesome. Those who want can get the test done, find out what diet and exercise program will work best, then get to work.

But what if the test comes back and tells you the best way to lose fat for your body is swimming four times per week, but you’re hydrophobic?

Well, here, optimal is pointless because you won’t do it.

On the other hand, however, what if you want to compete in strongman competitions and only want to train using Nautilus machines?

You’re going to have a rough time there, Hoss, let me tell ya.

In the first case, swimming may be optimal, but it’s not remotely sustainable. In the second, machines may well be sustainable, but it’s not remotely optimal.

What you need is a balance of what can you reasonably do for an indefinite period that will actually help you achieve your goals.

The same is true with diet.

The average American diet is very sustainable. You can eat that way for the rest of your life, or until it kills you. Yet it’s not remotely optimal.

The optimal diet is still a much-debated topic, but most nutritionists agree that the average American diet ain’t it.

What matters is that you set your goals and start working toward it in a way that can reasonably assist you in achieving your goals. If that’s keto, great. If it’s paleo, that’s fine too. If it’s vegan, well, I suppose that’s fine too, just don’t be an ass about it.

Honestly, there’s no one true path to most anything, but there’s probably an ideal path. But that one path won’t work for everyone, so why not take the path that will?

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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