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.