The Twinkie Diet

February 7th, 2012 By Steven Knope, MD

For those of you who have read my book, Concierge Medicine, you will recall that I talk about health as an asset. To be more precise, your health should be viewed as your most precious asset – something that needs constant attention, just like your financial portfolio.

In performing “health valuations,” I focus on two critical areas; a person’s body weight (or body composition) and their level of fitness. These two metrics tell me a lot about how your body is able to perform and how it will serve you in your retirement. In this newsletter, I’m going to focus on your body fat and how you can reduce it if you are overweight.

The Twinkie Diet

Body Fat: As people enter the New Year, they often resolve to “lose weight.” Since fat is the problem, they should be focused on losing body fat. The diet industry bases its entire financial survival on the myth that there is some magical combination of foods that if eaten properly, will cause you to lose weight. Calories are divided up into “good” and “bad” foods. Depending on which fad diet you read, you will notice that fats, carbohydrates or sugars are vilified as the true cause of body fat. As an example, the late Dr. Atkins claimed that his high-protein, high-fat diet was so effective that you would lose more weight on his diet than you would if you fasted – throwing out all of the laws of thermodynamics.

So is there any truth to the idea that eating a specific combination of foods will cause you to lose more weight than merely reducing calories? Are carbs really evil? Is it the simple sugars that cause you to increase your waist size? Does a high-fat diet translate into a high-fat body? Does following the Zone Diet, where you are supposed to eat a 40:30:30 combination of carbs, proteins and fats accelerate fat loss? Or is it calories that matter? Could you really eat a sugar and fat diet, low in calories and nutrition, and still lose body fat?

The Twinkie Diet: In an illustrative study of one, Mark Haub a professor of nutrition at Kansas State University, demonstrated to his students that he could lose 27 pounds in just 10 weeks by eating a high-sugar, high-fat, low calorie diet. Professor Haub ate Twinkies, Little Debbie snacks and other sugary fare every three hours, instead of eating meals. To add variety to his dessert regimen, he also chowed-down on Doritos, sugary cereals and Oreos. Despite eating mostly junk food, (plus one protein shake per day), he limited his intake to 1800 calories per day, about 800 calories less than necessary to maintain the body weight of a man his size.

Interestingly, his body fat and cholesterol dropped after this diet, despite eating tons of fat and sugar. In other words, eating sugar and fat does not raise your cholesterol, provided that you are on a low-calorie diet and that you drop body fat. We see similar findings in people who lose weight on the Atkins’ Diet. Their cholesterol levels improve, even though they eat a diet very high in animal fat. This is because being overweight raises cholesterol.

Not surprisingly, Haub showed what all doctors and scientists already know: Weight loss really is about the number of calories that you consume, not the composition of those calories.

The new JAMA Study: For those of you who would like to see more data than a study of one, I recommend that you take a look at a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, which demonstrated the same principles found in Dr. Haub’s little experiment. These authors showed again that it is the total calories that matter when it comes to weight gain and weight loss, not the types of calories you eat. To quote the Wall Street Journal: “The findings suggest that it matters little whether a diet is high or low in fat, carbohydrates or protein, it’s calories that build body fat.”

Nutrition vs. Weight Loss: One can certainly argue that it is more nutritionally sound to eat a low-calorie, balanced diet – such as a Weight Watcher’s Diet – than it is to eat a Twinkie Diet or an Atkins’ Diet. I am not advocating that you try to lose weight by going on a Twinkie Diet. However, if we are talking about losing body fat, the important lesson from both of these studies is that you should not be seduced by the idea that some specific combination of foods, or avoiding one food group of food, will cause you to lose body fat. Any low-calorie diet will cause you to lose weight.

Keeping it Simple: If you want to lose body fat, here are my recommendations:

  1. Accept Being a Little Hungry.
    To lose weight, you have to limit your calories. You have to eat fewer calories than you burn. The cold hard truth is that to lose weight, you have to be a little bit hungry all the time. Sorry, but this is why losing weight is so hard. If you are not hungry, you are not in a negative calorie balance. If you are looking for a diet that allows you to lose weight without being uncomfortable, you are wasting your time. This is because your body uses hunger as a warning signal when you are not eating enough to maintain your weight. Hunger was once a protective mechanism that allowed us to survive when food was less plentiful. It warned us when our reserve tank of calories was getting low. In our current culture-of-plenty, where food is always available in large quantities, our hunger mechanism has become a liability. To lose weight, you have to ignore that internal signal of hunger.
  2. Move, move, move.
    Second, you should do lots of exercise to aid in creating a negative calorie balance, even if it is just lots of walking. Even conservative governmental health organizations recommend that adults accumulate 90 minutes of aerobic activity every day if they want to lose weight. For fitness, they recommend 30 minutes per day, but for weight loss you need to triple that amount. Wow! Why so much? If you were to walk 90 minutes per day, you would burn about 500 calories. If you did this 7 days per week, you would create a weekly calorie deficit of 3500 calories, which is the amount of energy contained within one pound of fat!

If you want help with a healthy, low calorie diet, feel free to talk with me about seeing our registered dietician, Pam. Pam will make recommendations that are a little healthier than the Twinkie Diet, but she will still put you on a low-calorie diet. If you keep it simple and honest, you can lose body fat.


2 responses to “The Twinkie Diet”

  1. Ren writes:

    It’s a great example of two variables of Weight Loss that provide a result, but it isn’t a sustainable long term solution to a healthy body unless this professor bacteria is able to transmute twinkies into the the nutrients needed for longevity!! Actually the image of a walking, talking batch of kombucha comes to mind!!!

  2. Lacey writes:

    The twinkie diet proves a point, that weight loss is achieved by reducing the number of calories consumed but of course this is not healthy or maintainable. Just because someone is skinny and exercises doesn’t mean they are healthy. I wonder how constipated that professor must have been, or if he had depression or mood swings, jitters, high blood sugar… or if he kept at it, would develop arthritis, colon cancer, diabetes etc. But of course he could just take some fiber supplements and there’s plenty of prescription drugs to treat arthritis and depression now days and they can just cut out his colon… its really long and he probably doesn’t need it all anyways.

    Although you say you don’t advocate a twinkie diet you do say that if you want to lose body fat you need to reduce calories and exercise.. well this in a no brainer… what’s the difference between this and what most people try to do every day? And why do people fail time after time with this simple method? Because it’s not just about losing body fat. It’s about fueling your body with whole, real, healthy & nutritious foods – That is simple and honest!

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