WIDLM: Fad Diets

This WIDLM was sparked by this post on BoingBoing. If you didn’t click the link, it is basically an ad for a book some guy wrote that can be summed up as, “Wheat is killing you!” It caught my attention partly because I’m the son of a wheat farmer, so wheat is always more interesting to me than most people, and because it’s not exactly the typical affair on BoingBoing. I went to the post soon after it showed up in my RSS feed and found 20 comments, 19 of which were negative toward the book, or the advertising nature of the post, so they really beat me to everything I had to say. So I’ll say it here.

I’ll broaden the focus here to include all the fad diets. Paleo diet, Atkin’s Diet, Low Carb diet, No Carb diet, No Fat diet, probably a bajillion I’ve never heard. They all fall into this category of not entirely crap, but mostly crap, that makes me uncomfortable. I can’t just say, “Crap!” and leave it at that. I have to qualify everything. So here it goes.

So, everyone knows these diets I’ve listed. Why? Because they were popular? Why? Well, it’s not because they work, or we wouldn’t have needed the 5th one. I think it’s because they each work well enough to create enough compelling anecdotes. You can’t have a diet book without a lot of anecdotes. That’s a must. So, for every popular fad diet out ┬áthere are probably dozens of others out there that didn’t even work well enough to break the threshold of minimum anecdotes.

“Well,” you say, “these ones worked better than the others, so there must be something to them”. “Yes,” I respond with numerous qualifications. If you think about this a little bit, the diets I’ve listed are not very different from each other. They all have you remove a huge portion of foods from your diet, most recently this has usually be carbs, before it was fat. My contention is that the people that lose weight on these diets do so because when they cut out those huge pieces of their diet out, they don’t replace it with as much other stuff. I mean, say you can’t eat carbs. That means whenever you want to eat you have to eat a salad, or a steak, or something harder to get a hold of than a cookie or toast. You’re just not as likely to over eat if you have the discipline to not eat carbs.

“Great,” you say, “you just proved that fad diets work.” No, I didn’t. I “proved” that eating less calories and burning the same amount causes you to lose weight. These diets don’t work because carbs/wheat/processed food/food combinations are bad for you, they work because they make it more difficult for you to over indulge in food in general.

I’ve got a new diet. It turns out that low altitude is the problem. Storing food at the same altitude as you live is bad for acid balance and your chi. Humans evolved from monkeys, who have to climb trees to reach their food, that is the natural order. What you need to do in this modern age is store your refrigerator, and all your other food, in a shed at least half a mile vertically above your house. You can eat whatever you want! If you get a craving for some pie, that’s fine, just put on your boots and hike to the food shed. The only rule is that you cannot eat in the food shed, cause that’s bad karma. You have to bring the food back down to your dining room table to enjoy it slowly like nature intended. And you can only bring back one meals worth, since if you have leftovers then you’d be storing it at your own altitude, and that would ruin all your hard work. I guarantee if you follow my system you will watch the pounds fall away. And here’s some anecdotes to tickle your emotion centers…

If you’re following along with me you might be thinking, “Well, fine, so the diets don’t really work because of the way people think they work, but so what? You’re still basically saying they work.” No, I’m not. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Defeating the animalistic desire to pack on as much weight as possible is a harder problem than that, and we’re not going to be able to beat it without understanding what we’re doing. Not eating carbs, is not something most people can do, and it’s not something most people want to do. As a result, people don’t keep up with these diets. That’s why they invent a new one every 6 months, it’s to catch all the people that started gaining weight since they quit the last one. People are kicking themselves over every crumb of bread they eat because they are convinced that those carbs are going to make them fat forever. It’s not that crumb that makes you fat, it’s the 10,000th crumb right after dinner. Avoiding the 10,000th crumb is a lot easier than all┬áthe crumbs.

What people really need to do is just eat less and/or exercise more over a long period of time. The fad diets are a way to trick yourself into eating less for a little while, but they rarely work over the long term, because they’re extreme. People like extreme in a book. It sounds new, it sounds convincing, it sounds like it’s worth a shot. But extreme is not what people want when it comes to diets. At least not the majority of people. If most people wanted it, it wouldn’t be extreme.

All these diets do is trick you into eating less and convince you that whatever machinations they made you use to eat less were the key. I say, even though it’s not easy, we should at least keep in mind that eating less is what we’re actually trying to achieve, and not pretend and obscure it.

I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to give some suggestions of what would actually be better than these fad diets. Here are some ideas if you are trying to eat healthier and lose weight.

First, factor a food’s healthfulness into your equation of whether to eat it. I know, sounds simple, but I think a lot of people just eat whatever’s handy when they’re hungry, so long as it tastes good. I’m not saying never eat dessert, I’m saying that you have to really like that dessert, or be really really hungry in order to eat it. If you like pie more than cake, then maybe don’t eat cake. Or if you kinda like Doritos, but you know they’re really bad for you, maybe it’s not worth it. The worse a food is for you, the more you have to like it in order to eat it.

Second, substitute for the healthiest option you can stand. White or wheat? Wheat. 2% or skim? Skim. butter or margarine. Margarine. Always try the thing with the fewest calories. Maybe it’ll be terrible and you won’t eat it, then go back, but just try less. Maybe you’ve been slathering butter on your toast for so many years you don’t even know why you do it any more. Could be that if you had less you wouldn’t even be able to tell the difference. Constantly choose the smallest end of what you think will be acceptable. And keep decreasing these amounts. You know you don’t really need more than you’re using now. Slowly you’ll get used to the new norms, and many small changes will add up over time. This follows the formula from my first tip. Maybe you like whipped cream. Do you need whipped cream on all the things you put whipped cream on? If you had less would it taste worse? Do those sprinkles actually make the cookies taste better?

Third, exercise in your normal life. Park far away and walk. Take the stairs. When you’re carrying things, do curls. Stand on one leg in line. Anything you can think of to add a little bit of exercise into your day. Additionally, you’ll have to do actual exercise, but every little bit helps, and stuff like those examples are basically free. You should also try to go on walks and figure out a basic fitness routine. I recommend slowly building it up so you find an amount of exercise that fits into your schedule and won’t drive you crazy. As you get stronger you can up the amount of effort expended, but keep the time constant. This way you don’t end up skipping exercise entirely because you “don’t have time”.

Fourth, and I know there’s a theme here, but if you find that these smaller things aren’t working for you, and you are thinking of trying harder, more strict controls on yourself, do some slowly. Don’t all of a sudden eat half as much as you normally do, or go jogging for an hour a day. If you aren’t happy with your health as it is do some small things and maintain them for a while. You won’t know how big an impact they have right away, and you also won’t know if you can sustain that level of discipline and effort. Take things slowly, determine what sacrifices are worth the benefits, and soon you’ll have a life not tortured by constant pain from deprivation, or discontent from ill health.

I know some people do not believe this calories in calories out argument I ascribe to. Partly this is because of the fad diets are doing such a wonderful job arguing against it. Partly it’s because people don’t want to believe it. Partly it’s because it seems somewhat old style. Partly it seems too simple. I admit that it is an over simplification, and I don’t contend that there are not other factors to consider. I’m sure that if you exercise more, you will get hungrier and maybe eat more as well. I’m sure if you eat less you body reacts by more efficiently extracting calories from what you do eat. These complications, and many more, are why you have to take things slow and give all the complex systems involved in human nutrition time to stabilize and the effects to accumulate before you make an assessment of its value. Ultimately calories in calories out wins for one simple reason… physics. We, in the end, are subject to the same fundamental laws that govern everything else in the universe. Energy can be neither created nor destroyed, only moved and transformed. The first law of thermodynamics says if you eat less energy than you expend, eventually, you will lose weight, and I’ll trust it over any nutritionist peddling a book every time.


Diets that say one thing is making you fat/unhealthy are wrong, unless that one thing is eating too much and moving too little. If you want to make changes in your life, do them incrementally, and slowly, instead of all at once.