My Paleo Eating Journal

Why Diets Work

Posted on: July 13, 2011

My mother is a fan of the the Cabbage Soup Diet. Every now and then she does a week-long trial of this in order to shed a few pounds. It’s bad enough that my mother buys into the idea that this is a healthy thing to do, but to top it off she is blessed with a perfect figure and probably couldn’t be overweight if she tried. She was an absolute knockout when she was younger and, at age 75, she is still one hot lady (sadly, being adopted, I was not graced with her perfect-body genes). Anyways, she’s considering another bout of this diet (she does it when she feels she has been overindulging in rich foods, usually after travelling, even though if she has gained weight you’d need a microscope to see it) and it motivated me to write this post.

There are a zillion of these diets out there. They tend to have two things in common, a strict eating regimen that often focuses on one or two limited foods (cabbage soup, anyone?), and the fact that they are meant to be followed for a limited time only (usually 1 to 2 weeks).

I have a real problem with these rapid weight loss plans. If you can only follow a diet for one or two weeks that tells me it does not contain all the necessary ingredients for optimal nutrition. Otherwise why not adopt such a diet permanently? Which makes it then pretty obvious that the only reason you are losing weight is because you are entering into an acute stage of caloric deprivation. Anybody can drop 10 pounds in a week or two if they cut their food intake enough. Isn’t that what we refer to as “starvation”? My mother argues that she isn’t starving on this diet. She can eat all the fruits she wants, and (on certain days) can even indulge in all the vegetables she wants. I think that pretty much confirms what I was saying. Just because you can eat something ad libitum doesn’t mean you’ve given your body enough calories (celery sticks, anyone?).

But wait, doesn’t Gary Taubes (and the Paleo folks) argue that “calories in, calories out” is not a sufficient formula for weight loss? Well yes, but they are not talking starvation levels of calorie restriction. Nobody can deny that, with enough calorie cutting, you are going to cause weight loss. Diets like the Cabbage Diet, which are only meant for a short time and promote rapid weight loss, are almost always significantly calorie-reduced. Just because you can eat all the carrot sticks (or cabbage soup) you want doesn’t make it anything less than a starvation diet. Which is the main reason these diets are of limited duration (that, plus their nutritional deficiencies).

But even with these diets it can be argued that carbohydrate restriction is a key factor in their success. In fact, the closer you look at all the various diets out there, short-term or long-term, the more you realize that a variable many people aren’t considering as a contributing factor to weight loss is carbohydrate restriction. One glance at the Cabbage Soup 7 Day Plan confirms that it is, among other things, very low in carbs.

This argument can even be applied to most long-term diets that are based on lowering fat intake. Consider that fat contains more calories per gram than either protein or carbs (9 vs. 4, respectively). So it’s possible to replace each gram of fat with twice the grams of carbs and/or protein and still come out with less caloric intake than you were eating before. Add to that the inclusion of lowered protein (plant sources contain less protein per gram than animal sources, which are vilified in some low-fat diets) and you’ve reduced calories further. To finalize, top it all off with a concomitant increase in physical activity (the whole “Eat Less, Move More” campaign says it all) and your net calories are reduced by even more. It could be argued then, that a low-fat diet is really a low-calorie diet and that’s why it works.

Still, are these then starvation diets? No. I just wanted to make the point that cutting out fat often means cutting calories, which sheds doubt on fat being the critical variable in the diet. But according to Taubes’ followers the calorie-reduction inherent in such diets is a non-issue. What matters is that virtually all low-fat diets also cut carbs, and to a greater extent than they cut fat. This was Taubes’ main point in his article Why Diets Work.

Consider the typical North American diet: heavy on the sugars and refined carbs. Unless you started out on a normal, healthy diet that didn’t include these culprits (and if you ate that way it’s doubtful you would have significant weight or health problems), chances are just by cutting out those two ingredients you will experience weight loss regardless of what diet you choose to follow. Also consider that many fatty foods also contain sugar (donuts, anyone?), so going low-fat when it comes to processed foods and baked goods will also necessarily reduce carb consumption. So when your average North American starts a diet, he/she is adding another variable into the weight-loss equation from the get-go: a reduction in sugar and refined carbohydrates. It could be that this is more important than the diet itself.

But let’s take this further. Taubes argues that any diet which restricts or reduces caloric intake will preferentially reduce carbohydrate intake relative to that of protein and fat because it tends to dominate the diet in the first place (i.e. 20% of a big number is larger than 20% of a smaller number). In fact, in his article Taubes points out a number of studies that compared low-fat diets to low-carb diets which concluded there was no significant difference in weight loss, but the authors failed to emphasize the fact that those on the low-carb diets had no caloric restrictions whereas those on the low-fat diets did (from that information alone which would you choose?). So the low-fat diets, due to calorie restriction, also included a reduction in carbohydrates too. Finally, consider that the carbs doing the replacing of fat in low-fat diets are usually unrefined, such as grains and potatoes, with a lower glycemic index. Compare this to what the person was likely eating before the diet and, even with the allowed carbs, they are better off than when they started.

To summarize this post, what is being argued by Taubes and others is that diets work in only one of two ways. Either you lose weight due to acute starvation (i.e. significant caloric reduction, which is not the same thing as restricting food intake – consider the all-you-can-eat non-starchy veggie allowances). Or you lower carbohydrate intake (or, at the very least, switch from refined carbs to low glycemic-index carbs). This has all gotten me very interested in analyzing the different diets out there and figuring out if anybody is on a low-fat diet and losing weight without cutting their carbohydrate consumption in the process (or drastically reducing their net calorie consumption).



1 Response to "Why Diets Work"

It’s an interesting topic, isn’t it? I’ve always thought that so many diets work (particularly ones like South Beach, etc, not so much the pure calorie-counting diets that say eat whatever you want within the restriction) is exactly because they get people off junk food. It just doesn’t seem to me to POSSIBLE to eat an unnatural number or calories, salt, and sugar if you’re not eating processed foods. But there are so many reasons why people gain weight that there are limits sometimes to how much weight people will lose just making that switch. As you were experiencing, sometimes it’s those last 10lbs that require some extra strategy!

Congrats on reaching your goal weight!

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The Basics

My way of eating is based on a Paleo/Primal diet and is comprised mainly of saturated animal fat (grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, butter), nuts and seeds (almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts, coconut, pumpkin seeds) and their oils (coconut oil, avocado oil) and lots of vegetables and fruit. I eat virtually no sugar (other than that contained naturally in fruit), potatoes or sweet potatoes, beans or legumes, and no grains or grain products.

Weight Loss Tracker

Start date: May 13, 2011
Total weight loss (updated every Sunday): 19.5 lbs

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