Nutritionists to America: For the Love of God, Don't Try the Twinkie Diet

By Jennifer Welsh | November 12, 2010 11:12 am

junk-foodIt’s been making headlines all week (“Twinkie diet helps man lose weight” and “Trying To Lose Weight… Try The Junk Food Diet” might be some of the worst health-related headlines I’ve seen in awhile) as the Ding-Dong Diet or the Twinkie Diet, but let’s just call it the worst diet ever for short.

The newsplosion came from an experiment by Mark Haub, an associate professor in the department of human nutrition at Kansas State University. In an effort to prove to his class the importance of calories in weight gain and loss, he decided to drastically change his eating habits.

He embarked from the shores of a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat (totaling about 2,600 calories per day) to a junk food diet consisting of Twinkies, Hostess and Little Debbie snack cakes, and Doritos–with sides of vitamin pills, protein shakes, and small portions of vegetables. He lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks. Why? Because he restricted his new diet to a total of 1,800 calories per day.

He expected to lose weight, but was unsure about the other health outcomes of the diet. Ten weeks later his blood tests showed that both his lipid levels and glucose had lowered, a fact that would put him in a healthier heart state, according to the American Heart Association‘s guidelines. According to ABC News, Haub even felt better:

The thing is, he began to feel healthier. He had more energy, stopped snoring, and not only did he lose enough weight to drive down his overall cholesterol and body mass index (BMI), his good HDL cholesterol crept up two points and his blood glucose — despite all that cream filling — dropped 17 percent.

Discoblog was skeptical about the hype over Haub’s junk food binge, so we asked some nutritionists and doctors what they thought of it. We came back with several different takes, but one general message. In a loud and clear voice, these nutritionists are telling America that this diet is a bad idea, and pleading with people not to try it.

The experts did agree that the diet had one important lesson: It really showed just how much weight loss can improve your health. It also demonstrated that just cutting the number of calories you take in is enough to make you lose weight. But James Hill, the director of human nutrition at the University of Colorado, Denver told Discoblog that health-conscious people shouldn’t emulate Haub:

“This is not the diet you should be eating. The goal is to find a way you can eat forever and this isn’t a way to eat forever. This is a stunt, the stunt illustrates it doesn’t matter what you eat, if you take in less than you expend you will lose weight, but nobody should be promoting this as a way of eating.Mark-Haub

Our nutritionists all agreed: This kind of diet isn’t sustainable in the long run. “Health is not measured in your habits of days and weeks,” said Miriam Pappo, director of clinical nutrition at Montefiore Medical Center.

After the weight loss benefits from the caloric restriction kick in, the dangerous combination of fat and sugar in these processed foods will start to take their toll. Also, Haub’s diet is lacking in a variety of basic nutrients that will risk his health in the long run, according to Pappo:

“The effects of what he did showed the importance of weight loss and how immediately weight loss can effect our well being and our lab results. However, long term, his diet was one that was void of antioxidants, phytonutrients, and fiber, all of which have been associated with longevity, with cancer prevention, diabetes control, and mental acuity, among other things. So, he would probably not fare well in the long term.”

And while the weight loss benefits are showing in Haub’s blood tests now, it’s not certain that once he reaches his goal weight these benefits will be sustainable on a diet with such a high fat and sugar content. Hill doesn’t believe the he will be able to keep the weight off in the long run:

“Weight loss isn’t any long term benefit unless you keep it off. If you lose weight and regain it, you are right back where you started. And most diets, that’s what happens. And I’m sure it’s going to happen to this guy.”

“Man has the unique ability to take a very healthy food substance and to chemically alter it into something that is not healthy, ” said Pappo, who also made the point that even some foods labeled low-fat or low-sugar can have negative health consequences. Walter Willet, from the department of nutrition at Harvard University, agrees:

“Much confusion exists about the definition of junk vs healthy food. Many people still believe that a bagel with jelly is a healthy food because it is low in fat, but in reality almost nothing could be worse than this large dose of refined starch and sugar. In contrast, Doritos and most other chip are now trans fat free and made with unsaturated fats that reduce blood cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Thus, they will be healthier than most of the foods consumed by Americans, which is not to say that a Dorito diet is recommended.”

My takeaway from this this little nutrition experiment is strikingly similar to author Michael Pollan’s thesis in much of his writing on nutrition:

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

That, more or less, is the short answer to the supposedly incredibly complicated and confusing question of what we humans should eat in order to be maximally healthy.

Related content:
Discoblog: Lawsuit Claims Jenny Craig’s Diet Isn’t Backed by “Serious Lab Geeks”
80beats: Low-Calorie Diet Staves off Aging & Death in Monkeys
80beats: A Victory for the Atkins Diet? Not So Fast.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: You are what you eat – how your diet defines you in trillions of ways

Image: Flickr/franckdetheir and Prof Haub’s Diet Experiment Facebook Page

  • Jason

    It’s this sort of thing that makes me leery about national health care. Listen, I’m all for taking care of people when they get sick or hurt, but a vast majority of our medical costs are stemming from entirely preventable heart troubles and conditions stemming from our diet. You could argue the national heatlh care system works in other nations, but a majority of those nations don’t have the same battle with obesity that we have, at least to the degree of Americans that are overweight.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    That seems like a non-sequitur, Jason. Are you assuming that national health care would provide a financial incentive towards obesity? Or are you morally opposed to the idea that you might be paying for someone else’s poor choices, as opposed to, say an entirely preventable car accident or skiing accident?

    If the latter, than almost any health issue could be chalked up to “Bad choices” and “Personal responsibility”. If the former, I would have to ask why people in nations with socialized healthcare, like France, do not have such levels of obesity as exists in the US?

    Ultimately, I think there are structural reasons for obesity in the US that have little to do with whether or not people can receive coverage for obesity-related illnesses. Many people in the US rely on cheap, pre-packaged meals, which are not healthy. Quantity is favoured over quality. Part of that is cultural, part of it is the economic incentives which forces most workers into longer hours for less relative pay.

  • Chris

    The majority of Americans live an unhealthy lifestyle because we have ready access to low cost fast and processed foods. It doesn’t have much to do with working long hours because there’s plenty of places that offer healthy fast food or take-out as well (most Americans work 8 to 10 hour jobs as well, not a very long day). Americans are just more prone to making unhealthy choices because the unhealthy food generally tastes better and it’s everywhere, for cheap. Those in Europe are not inundated as much with processed and fast foods because food is an integral part of their culture. The American culture is very much reliant on fast food because so many choose to live a lifestyle as such. If fast food didn’t sell well here, it wouldn’t be so widely available, that’s the nature of free market capitalism.

    The beauty of America is having the freedom of choice, however that also gives people the freedom to make poor choices. It would unethical and unconstitutional to force upon people how and what to eat because there’s plenty of healthy people that enjoy the unhealthy food as well, only in moderation, and remain healthy. It wouldn’t be fair to prevent people from making their own food choices, the bottom line: it’s about personal responsibility. The same premise goes for smoking, drinking, unprotected sex, drug abuse, etc.

    This also corresponds to some issues with stupidity in abusing our legal system. For example, a woman once sued McDonald’s because she got fat, thankfully she lost. Another man in NY state is suing a supermarket and manufacturer of canned tuna because he got mercury poisoning after eating about 3 cans of tuna a day for over a year. He will very likely lose that case as well, but it reveals the mentality of some Americans (lacking personal responsibility and blaming others for their own poor choices for which they believe is deserving of inordinate amounts of money).

  • JMW

    However, here in Canada, there has been in the past couple of years some talk about the health costs of tobacco smoking. I recall hearing one estimate which put the annual cost to our health services at $14 billion dollars (if memory serves). Since everything in Canada is about 1/10 the size of America, a corresponding cost would be $140 billion (since the Cdn $ is about at par with the US $).

    Consequently, there was some talk about Canadian provincial governments (who are responsible for health care) suing tobacco companies to recover the costs.

    There has also been some talk, though nowhere near as much, of suing companies like MacDonalds for making high-fat food which contributes to the cost of caring for heart-disease patients. I don’t see that going anywhere, as it is harder to tie a heart patient’s disease to any particular thing he/she has eaten during his/her lifetime. But it is pretty easy to make a link between smoking and lung cance, which makes the tobacco companies easier targets.

  • Jon

    You are missing something here: When an uninsured person gets sick, they don’t see a doctor. They wait until they are almost dead, then go to the emergency room. We pay for the emergency room.

    If they had insurance, they would be paying for their obesity or whatever, not us. That is why requiring health insurance, just like requiring automobile insurance, saves money for the rest of us.

  • Chris

    “You are missing something here: When an uninsured person gets sick, they don’t see a doctor. They wait until they are almost dead, then go to the emergency room. We pay for the emergency room. ”

    That’s not entirely correct. The taxpayer generally only pays for those who are homeless or on Medicare/Medicaid. If a middle class person without insurance goes to the emergency room, they’ll receive the bill in the mail and could lose their house trying to pay it off because they lacked the common sense to get basic health insurance (it’s generally cheaper to buy insurance than pay in full for medical work). During their stay in the ER, costs are covered by the hospitals (for and non-profits), not the government, although local governments often contribute subsidies to hospitals as a special interest. Generally, the government only reimburses hospitals for work covered under insurance (Medicare/Medicaid/Cobra), which is why many hospitals refuse to do certain procedures on non-insured patients (as well as the liability). That’s also why many non-profit agencies have free or low cost clinics as well.

    If the government were to establish a national health care plan in the US, it would certainly result in a net loss over making incremental changes to our existing private system. The government would need to establish departments, employees, benefits plans, pensions, costs of running those offices, etc. It’s also been studied that government insurance plans would be no less costly than private plans and would likely result in the government running a budget deficit on health costs if they offered premiums significantly lower than the private sector (just as Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid are already in the red). It’s also been noted that the quality of care would likely decline due to red tape and rationing to keep government costs down. In the end everyone will be covered and be able to see a doctor, sure, but you’ll end up waiting months for a procedure like people do in Canada and England, whereas it can be done ASAP under a private plan. A private plan also allows one to make their own decisions, rather than wait for bureaucratic approval. Talk about waiting until you’re almost dead for coverage…

    Furthermore, government run entitlements are essentially ponzi schemes that often result in deficits and constant borrowing to cover the costs. Running a government in that manner is highly detrimental over the long term and unsustainable without very high taxes in the US.

  • stompsfrogs

    @JMW:
    If you look at when most money is spent on health care (old age) and you look at the primary effect of smoking (shorter life span) then how do you get an increased cost? If you add up all the lung-cancer treatments you’d better remember to deduct all that money you would have spent treating Alzheimer’s and whatnot that the patient didn’t survive to rack up.
    All the studies I’ve seen on this topic say either tobacco smoking either saves money in health care costs or breaks even, depending on how much the smoker paid in taxes on their death sticks.

  • Mike J

    I’m so sick of the nutrition and weight loss industry over complicating the issue.

    This twinkie experiment proved that calories in/calories out are all that matter for weight loss. The resounding message to all overweight people is it doesn’t matter what you eat; just eat fewer calories. Don’t waste time and energy on confusing, faddy, diets like low carb, paleolithic, cabbage, vegetarian, etc. None of that stuff matters. Just eat fewer calories.

    Of course, if the truth ever spread that weight loss could be boiled down to one sentence, that would put out of business a billion dollar industry of nutrition and dieting, so we’ll continue to over-complicate things.

    Thanks for doing your part to add to the confusion, Discover.

    Every single diet and nutrition advice other than “eat fewer calories” should come with the warning — ONLY WORRY ABOUT THIS STUFF ONCE YOU’VE GOTTEN SKINNY. Until then, get skinny by eating fewer calories, period.

  • http://www.twitter.com/iklinkenberg Ian K.

    @MikeJ said “Just eat fewer calories”. Easier said than done. That’s why the diet industry is so huge. As far as eating junk food goes, I use hard candies ( only 20 calories ) when I get hungry between small, healthy meals.

  • Chris

    Harvard released a “breakthrough” study on this last year…their findings: eating less calories yields weight loss…brilliant! Thanks Harvard.

  • badnicolez

    @Mike J – Hear, hear!

    Re the health care discussion, so-called “preventive” care doesn’t eliminate expensive major medical care and procedures, it simply delays them (everyone needs end-of-life care eventually), thus adding to the cost (on top of the cost of the preventive care). It does, however, add to quality of life for most people with chronic illness. That being said, most chronic illnesses today can be prevented or reversed with proper exercise and nutrition, which itself adds to quality of life.

    Why should those who make intelligent choices when it comes to diet and health be forced to subsidize those who don’t? Is it a question of morality? If so, is it moral for someone who makes bad choices to force someone who doesn’t to work more to pay for their medical care?

  • http://www.facebook.com/heather.d.hawkins.1 Heather D Culpepper

    Bullshit. Complete and utter bullshit.

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