The Twinkie Diet

Making rounds on the internet today is an article about how a professor lost 27 pounds by eating nothing but food available at a 7-11. Not only was the food pre-packaged and processed, but it’s all food that are diet no-nos: Doritos, Twinkies, and Little Debbie bars. But, by limiting his intake to 1800 calories per day and supplementing his nutrient-barren diet with protein shakes and vitamin pills, he was able to keep the weight off.

In a vacuum, this is a revelation of painful common sense: If you take in less fuel than you burn, you won’t store as much of that fuel as embarrassing fat. By riding this rocket-sled of a diet, he, in theory, isolated one variable (calorie content) to show that weight and calories are directly correlated. A fool would say “See, I can eat whatever I want and be thin, happy, and healthy!”

But, like everything else labeled “science”, the truth doesn’t exist in a vacuum (fun aside: I originally typed “in the bathroom”, which is an implicit vote for prohibition, as one should not kneel before a porcelain god.)

First, there is the notion that weight loss is the golden ticket to health. While there are many health risks associated with obesity (as well as the general inconvenience of limited mobility), this ignores some common sense. It’s not the norm, but it’s possible to be skinny and diabetic; per the CDC, roughly 15% of diabetes patients are not defined as overweight. Diabetic patients are resistant to insulin, and this resistance (as best as I understand it) can be developed by the overconsumption of fats & sugars. There are tons of other complicating factors, but even though this guy lost a significant amount of weight, he increased the risk of other health problems.

This guy could have linked calories to weight loss through any combination of food. He could have eaten nothing but apples, pears, and potatoes, but “AREA MAN LOSES WEIGHT BY EATING HEALTHY FOODS” lacks the front-page oomph of Twinkies.

And while his “health numbers” all improved, that ignores the notion that he’s ingesting tons of salts and preservatives whose effects on the body are unknown on a long-term basis. I think it’s a very corporate idea to imply that health can be measured in terms of numbers and values, all of which can be improved and “should” be within a certain range.

The notion of weight loss as self-control is a bigger issue than the scope of this article, but it bothers me nonetheless. This article implies “It’s just calories, dummy”, which further implies that you too could be skinny if only you ate less. But if you have a slow metabolism, high appetite, or are on medication, you’re more prone to weight gain. Modern media implies that we won’t be happy until we are impossibly thin and fit, thus you are unhappy as a common fatso. And if mitigating circumstances make it hard for you to lose weight, it’s entirely likely you feel shame for not meeting TV’s ideal for how you should look, which can erode your self-esteem, create a negative body image, or otherwise send you scurrying for the next quick-fix for your diet.

This is a long way of saying that this article feeds the loop that weight is the most important variable for health, and that it’s one entirely dependent on your self control. I think that creates all kinds of complexes, but that’s what happens when you try to simplify a complicated world.

The results of the study are conflicting, even to the doctor in question; he knows that his is a bad diet, but is unwilling to say so definitively. He says “It is unhealthy, but the data doesn’t say that.” He is correct, but only to a point: The immediate data doesn’t say he is unhealthy. But what about the increased risk of his future development of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.?

I just think it’s foolish to think of health as something that exists in a vacuum and is anything other than a complicated interaction of genetics, nutrients, preservatives, environment, and luck.

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About zachatollah

I have ideas to extrovert, mostly about science, history, explosions, cooking, and the intersection of said topics.
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2 Responses to The Twinkie Diet

  1. famfilly says:

    I see you just started blogging- like me! Mine is much more boring….but your item is hilarious!! Check evolution, kiddo. Humans are higher mammals designed to process any kind of calories from anywhere to stoke their main evolutionary advantages which are a larger ( some say faster, but hey Ive made my own observations) brain and warm blooded system. When bears are rifling thru dustbins and garbage dumps do you think they are thinking ‘ no, I wont eat that, its not high quality enough’ or do you think they are thinking ‘ must eat to survive’ and as long as Im nice and fat for winter, no worries, man. We are driven by the same fundamental principles, and our system is capable of processing all sorts quite comfortably, but anything of any origin that is in excess of daily needs gets converted to fat, so to get thin, eat less- doesnt matter what you eat.

    • zachatollah says:

      Yes, I agree with and understand the calorie hypothesis; if you take in too much, it gets stored as fat.

      However, I take issue with the notion that skinny = healthy. There’s a greater correlation with health and low weight, but you can still mess up your blood sugar or put yourself at risk for cancer if you eat nothing but, say, salami, Mars Bars, Diet Coke, and multivitamins. I don’t think that the human body and nutrition can be simplified to a series of target numbers, because all these numbers (e.g. cholesterol, BMI) are part of complex interactions within the body, and cannot be isolated to say “If you are healthy, your cholesterol is X”.

      I admit that I lack expertise in this field, and that I’m parroting Michael Pollan’s party line, but I think we get in trouble when we try to simplify human biology.

      As a second point, I agree with the evolutionary principle of overeating, especially because we have so many highly-processed foods. These processed foods are easier to digest, and provide us with a shot of highly-concentrated sugars (energy) and salt (a relative rarity in nature), both of which are essential for survival and thus provide a neurochemical reward upon consumption. The book Catching Fire talks about how our cooking and processing of food has made it easier to digest and thus a greater shot of energy. On the one hand, this allowed us to develop a gigantic brain and worry about something other than eating, but on the other, our foods today are so processed that we can’t handle the excess energy, which creates health problems.

      So, yeah, we have evolved to take in energy whenever possible, but our need for energy has reduced with a sedentary lifestyle, and our food provides more energy/requires less expenditure of energy, which creates unforeseen problems on a society-wide level.

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