How many ways are there to eat potatoes? I mean, you’ve got to look past just chipping, mashing, and baking. Go further, get creative. Croquettes? Gratin? Scalloped potatoes anyone? Despite their versatility, eating potatoes alone for 60 days could get old pretty quick, but that’s exactly what Chris Voigt did. As Washington State Potatoes Commission’s Executive Director, Voigt felt it was his duty to remind people that potatoes were actually a nutritious and healthy food source. After the 60 days, his fasting glucose and cholesterol had improved dramatically, but there was another, less expected outcome.
Despite the fact that several low carb authorities had warned of imminent weight gain on a diet with such high carbs, 3 weeks into the diet, he had lost 12 pounds despite attempting to maintain his weight. After the 60 days were over, he had shed a total of 21 pounds.
What was going on? Is there something special about potatoes? What is their amazing weight loss inducing mechanism? Questions like these, which can be spun into a million different clever sounding soundbites are a fad diet marketers dream. While Voigt himself is quoted as saying “I didn’t realise that potatoes would give me such a high sense of fullness after each meal”, eating fewer Calories than you burn doesn’t cut it as an explanation: it’s just not sexy. For a fad diet that doesn’t involve counting Calories to really catch on, it needs something else, a hook. However, a look at the evidence for popular fad diets points to a distinct lack of magic, and to something far simpler.
Right at the top of the list of fad diets is the daddy of them all; keto. Ketogenic diets aren’t just about weight loss, or even only a lifestyle, they’re a religion. Thinking about the number of books, websites, and cultish Facebook groups dedicated to banishing carbs in the name of a leaner body literally makes me feel dizzy.
What it is
A ketogenic diet restricts carbohydrates to less than 50g per day, which puts the body into a state called nutritional ketosis. The rest of the diet is formed of moderate protein, with the bulk of the energy (up 60-80%) coming from fat. Keto is often promised to result in increased energy expenditure, increased fat burning, and loss of body fat despite the number of Calories consumed.
Why people think it works
The idea of a ketogenic diet is that if you eat carbs, insulin will be released, which will make you store fat and leave you doomed to never lose it. By reducing carbs, keto theory says, you’ll reduce insulin leading to an effortless loss of body fat without having to count any Calories or reduce what you eat. If eating a metric tonne of cheese and bacon every day while getting a six pack sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is.
Why it really works
If you’ve ever gone from eating your usual dinner of pasta, or some kind of yummy rice dish, or perhaps a pizza, you might have found that you were stumped on what to have instead. This is when people usually race for the steak, chicken, or fish, and in doing so, the real reason keto works is revealed.
- Keto is often touted as having special appetite suppressing effects, but in a review on the subject by Gibson et al. the authors suggested that it was not possible to tell if a ketogenic diet itself suppressed appetite, or if the lack of hunger was due to an increased protein intake.
- Time and time again, protein has been shown to be the most satiating food in our diets. Meaning eat more protein, feel more full.
- In a study by Weigle et al, when people who were not tracking Calories increased their protein intake from 15% to 30% of total daily energy, they ate 441kcal fewer than normal without realising. After 12 weeks of higher protein, they had lost an average of 4.9kg.
- In fact, when looking at low carb diets, it’s the amount of protein that predicts weight loss rather than the absence of carbohydrates.
- When people actually track Calories and eat the same amount of protein, there is no difference in weight loss between ketogenic and higher carb diets.
While appetite might certainly be suppressed with a higher protein intake when you’re not tracking anything, when Calories are controlled, however, there ends up being no difference in the amount of fat loss between keto and high-carb, despite insulin being raised too much greater levels in a higher carb diet. When energy is matched, keto seems to obey the laws of Calories in vs Calories out after all.
Despite what the legions of ketards tell you, insulin is not the cause of obesity, and carbs don’t make you fat. This has been shown conclusively in the scientific literature, and anyone who argues it at this point is either a deluded zealot, or they’re so deep in the keto dogma that they can’t see the wood for the trees.
Eating a very low carb diet usually results in eating more protein, less junk, and a decent amount of leafy vegetables. Eating foods like these tend to make you feel full, leading to naturally consuming fewer Calories. If you don’t believe me, leave MyFitnessPal alone for a minute and give it a go. Where weight loss is concerned, swapping a doughnut for some fish and broccoli will result in good things, but it’s no more simple than that. Consume fewer Calories, lose weight. Carbs or no carbs.
I once decided to attend a functional movement course, which basically meant learning how to jump off stuff, carry people on your shoulders, and climb ropes. That was fine. What wasn’t cool was that everyone there except for me was a total devotee of the Paleo diet. In a nutshell, the Paleo diet suggests that if a caveman didn’t eat it, neither should you. When lunch rolled around and I busted out my peanut butter sandwich, I honestly thought I might be lynched.
What it is
The Paleo diet states that last 10,000 years represent less than 1% of human evolution, and during the time of agricultural revolution and increased use of grain foods, the population has become increasingly obese. By ditching modern, agricultural and intensively farmed foods, the Paleo diet encourages eating like our Paleolithic ancestors for leaner and healthier physiques. By ditching modern foods, it is speculated that you will become leaner, and free of modern diseases. Despite these claims, leaving certain foods out of your diet might not play as big of a part in weight loss as your overall energy balance.
Why people think it works
Paleo thinking goes like this:
- Cavemen were lean, healthy, jacked, and strong.
- Modern man is fat, weak, and sick.
- Human genes stopped evolving 10,000 years ago and modern man is not adapted to eating a diet heavily reliant on modern agriculture.
- By eating like our ancient ancestors, we can reverse disease, live better, and look shredded all without tracking a single Calorie.
Grains are enemy number one. If containing modern toxins such as gluten and lectins wasn’t enough, modern, agricultural, foods like wheat are said to turn into fat in the body if eaten to excess. Along with grains, say goodbye to the caveman no-nos dairy, legumes, refined sugar, processed foods, vegetable oils, and potatoes.
Why it really works
Similar to what we saw with the ketogenic diet, cutting the crap, and eating more protein and plants usually results in feeling fuller and automatically eating fewer Calories.
- In a study by Johnson et al. the Paleo diet was seen to be more satiating than a Mediterranean diet. Although the people in the study were not counting Calories, it was estimated that the paleo group consumed 434 fewer kcal than the Mediterranean group. Protein for the win again.
As far as I know, cavemen and women couldn’t order from deliveroo while watching Netflix and drinking beer, but when compared to other “modern” weight loss diets, Paleo seems to be lacking.
- A study by Lindeberg et al compared 12 weeks of either Paleo or Mediterranean diets. At the end of the study, both groups had lost the same amount of weight.
- In a study by Mellberg et al, 70 women around 60 years of age were given either a Paleo or Nordic Nutritional Recommendations diet. After 6 months, the people on the Paleo diet had lost more fat than the NNR diet. After 24 months, the results had evened out and were the same.
Eating like a caveman is not the key to getting lean, consuming fewer Calories than you burn is. If you eat crap, eating less crap will equal consuming fewer Calories which will result in weight loss. It doesn’t matter whether the food is pre or post-agricultural revolution, it matters how much overall energy you consume.
People don’t lose weight on the Paleo diet because they avoided gluten, modern toxins, or dairy; they lose weight because they ate less.
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Although some people think about detoxing often, the nation as a whole start considering chugging down foul tasting green liquids or drinking lime flavoured water around January 1st. The barrage of adverts on the internet and magazines are a constant reminder that you’ve overdone it at Christmas. While you might want to shed a few pounds at the start of the year, other than a straightforward Calorie deficit, detoxing is touted as having a special benefit weight loss and health.
What is it
A detoxification or “detox” diet is designed to facilitate weight loss by eliminating toxins from the body. Detox diets are short-term in nature and often use diuretics, vitamins, laxatives, and “cleansing foods” as a means to “detoxify” the liver, brain, and fat cells. How the detoxification process, or indeed what the toxins actually are, remains unclear and is yet to be tested within the scientific literature.
Why people think it works
Detox mantra seems to vary, but the general gist is this:
- When you eat a meal, nutritional and toxic fats get transferred to the stomach and small intestine.
- If the liver or lymphatic system are overwhelmed, the toxic fats will be stored.
- A controlled detoxification addresses balances within your digestion and liver.
- Toxins are pulled out of fat cells where they re-enter the bloodstream and are reabsorbed by the intestines before entering the liver where they are converted to good fats and excreted through urine, sweat, and your breath.
The detoxes themselves are usually short term, 3 to 21 day, liquid-based diets, often including lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and various vitamins. Although energy balance isn’t mentioned as being a factor in the proposed weight loss, most short-term detoxes provide very little energy.
Why it really works
There are several detox diets on the market. 4 of the more well-known diets are described below.
- The master cleanser/lemon detox diet. This diet consists of 6 to 12 glasses of water a day with a squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of cayenne pepper, and maple syrup. You take a laxative before bed and start the morning with salt water.
- Fat Flush, is a two-week program allowing hot water with lemon, dilute cranberry juice, supplements, and occasional small meals
- Martha’s Vineyard Detox includes 21 days of vegetable soup, herbal tea, and digestive enzymes.
- The Clean Cleanse involves breakfast and dinner of ‘cleanse shakes’, ‘cleanse supplements’ and probiotic capsules, with a solid meal for lunch excluding dairy, gluten, processed sugar, soy, corn, beef, pork and some fruits and vegetables.
A quick look at these diets tells us one thing; they are all super low in Calories. A few glasses of water with a drop of maple syrup here and there isn’t going to net you more than around 300kcal. Most of the detox diets range from around that, to about 1,000kcal in total. The BluePrintCleanse, which works out to 860 Calories per day has a warning that their detox might contribute to fatigue, headaches, nausea, insomnia, anxiety and shakiness. I’m certainly not against low-energy diets, but for anyone who’s cut on low Calories before, symptoms like this won’t come as much of a shock. The BluePrintCleanse website, however, claims that the symptoms result from ‘bad stuff leaving the body’ rather than a sizeable energy deficit.
Other than common sense that consuming way fewer Calories than you burn will result in rapid weight loss, there is hardly anything in the scientific literature to back up the claims made by detox companies and naturopaths.
- The only real detox programme to have been evaluated clinically is the Hubbard Purification Rundown
- This diet was invented by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology (I’m not kidding)
- The detox uses niacin supplements and sitting in a sauna as a means to rid stored toxins from fat tissue
- In an absolute sham of a study featuring no placebo, a lack of randomisation, and fudged results, the Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education of the Church of Scientology found their detox to show statistically significant improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and psychological test scores
- Other than the fact that the test scores were highly dubious, weight loss, regardless of the diet has been shown to improve cholesterol and blood pressure time and time again.
Weight loss via detoxes have zero to do with removing toxins from fat cells or the special properties of “cleansing” foods or supplements, and everything to do with the fact that your lime flavoured water and cayenne pepper drinks come to 500kcal a day. That’ll certainly lose you a lot of weight, but so will giving yourself dysentery.
Consuming less than a quarter of your Calorie needs a day will result in rapid weight loss, and if that’s what you want then fine, but just find a better way to do it that drinking a single glass of goji berry juice while hiding yourself in the face with seaweed. Energy balance still wins the day, and detoxing is dumb.
Alkaline diet, keto diet, Paleo diet; are you spotting the theme? You put the name diet at the end of it, and people intuitively know what it is. South Beach diet, Mormon diet, Cambridge diet anyone? Regardless of how utterly pointless the name is, once you’ve got diet on the end, marketers are good to go. Clean eating, on the other hand, is less easily defined. Even the fashionable clean eating wallies the Hemsley sisters don’t seem so sure, stating
When we first heard it, we thought it meant without pesticides, or foods without junk in it, no preservatives. That’s all it means to us.
We never talk about weight, diets, calorie-counting. I mean, what does ‘clean eating’ mean’? It’s not a defined term. No one really knows what it means.
Although clean eating these days is usually preached by 20 somethings with a bazillion Instagram followers, it goes back way further than you think and has changed due to what is en vogue at the time. In the 1980’s it was all about avoiding fat, in the 1990’s fat was still the bad guy, but specifically, foods with high cholesterol or saturated fats were avoided. Into the noughties, and carbs were seen as the devil and dropped in favour of a higher fat intake. Despite the changes, not tracking Calories or worrying about energy balance has always been central to clean eating dogma.
What is it
Eating clean is thought to aid fat loss by avoiding junk, or potentially “dirty” foods. Clean eating focuses on consuming whole foods, with strict avoidance of certain foods or food groups.
Why people think it works
Tosca Reno is the author of several hugely popular books on eating clean. She states that in order to lose fat you must avoid sugar and refined products that cause “damage deep within your cells”. Despite any claims made about health, for a diet that results in weight loss, clean eaters avoid the following:
- Processed food
- Junk food
- Refined grains
- Saturated Fats
- (in bodybuilding culture) dairy and fruit
While avoiding foods, each meal must combine protein, fat, and complex carbs, and you should never skip breakfast.
Ditching these foods, eating breakfast, and keeping the diet “clean”, is said to result in fat loss. A diet containing junk or “dirty” foods from the list above will mean not losing weight, despite the bigger picture of energy balance.
Why it really works
The idea that processed, or refined food acts differently in the body than pesticide free, organically produced food is deeply rooted in the clean eating culture. Again, what might make intuitive sense doesn’t pan out in the literature.
- A study by Bray et al questioned whether there were any differences in metabolic responses between fast food and “clean” meals.
- Three meals were eaten on different days, a fast food meal of a burger, French fries and root beer, a turkey sandwich, granola bar, and orange juice, and an organic beef meal.
- The composition of each meal, in terms of the Calories, protein, carbs, and fat were the same.
- 6 hours after eating, the lab coats measured the hormonal responses to each meal.
- There were no differences in glucose, insulin, free fatty acids; hormones such as ghrelin and leptin, and cholesterol.
If there’s no difference in how the body responds to junk food or organic food, how junk food affects weight loss is an obvious next question.
- A study by Surwit et al compared 6 weeks on a diet with either 43% of the Calories coming from table sugar or a diet where table sugar comprises just 4% of the total energy.
- At the end of the 6 weeks, there were no differences between weight loss between the high or low table sugar groups
- The clean eating idea that sugar causes “damage deep within your cells” was called into question during the study too. By the end of the 6 weeks, there were no differences in cholesterol or metabolism regardless of the diet.
Not only does sugar or junk food not seem to slow down weight loss, a diet comprised solely of junk food doesn’t stop you losing fat either.
- Professor Mark Haub examined what a fat loss diet featuring only junk food would do to his body composition.
- For 10 weeks, he ate a Twinkie every 3 hours.
- The diet was occasionally supplemented with Doritos, cereals, and Oreos.
- He consumed around 1,800kcal per day.
- By the end of the 10 weeks, he had lost 27 pounds.
- Not only that, but his “bad cholesterol” had reduced by 20%, while his “good cholesterol” had increased by 20%.
Lastly, bodybuilders who’ve been bitten by the clean eating bug have a history of shunning dairy and fruit. The logic behind this alludes me. Increased dairy intake as part of a diet results in greater body fat loss and better muscle retention, while increased fruit intake is associated with weight loss. Perhaps getting shredded is less about food choices and more about Calories after all?
The whole premise behind clean eating, that “dirty” foods halt fat loss, is completely flawed. This seemingly un-obvious fact has been proven in the scientific literature. Diets made with 40% sugar or constructed totally from twinkies will work just fine as long as energy in vs energy out is on point.
So-called “dirty” foods don’t stop you losing fat. As always, not eating fewer Calories than you burn does, regardless of where those Calories come from.
Fad diets work, but despite the money-drenched marketing campaigns and fake news, there is only one way to lose weight, and that’s to consume fewer Calories than you burn.
If a popular book or weight loss program works for you then have at it, just don’t believe the hype.
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