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Friday Five: Hiding the diet

April 3, 2009

People who write diet books and push diet products love to hide the basic truth of any and all diets: Calorie restriction.

The simple fact is that you must take in less energy than you use in order to lose weight. The complex interactions of physiology, psychology and environment can make this very difficult to do successfully, yes. But the principle itself, the basic idea is simple: make your body use fat stores for energy by taking in less energy than your body needs to maintain its current weight.

But most popular diet book authors know that there isn’t a lot of money to be made in being open about this. Restriction sounds boring and hard. People would rather be convinced there is some magical formula or trick that can make weight loss quick, easy and permanent. So diet pushers have become adept at hiding restriction from their customers. Next time you pick up a diet book, look for one of the following tricks and I bet you’ll find it.

1. Focusing on a particular kind of exercise and sneaking the diet in as an afterthought.

– The latest book I’ve seen along these lines is “The Cardio-Free Diet.” Oh, resistance training is so much better than stupid cardio! No need to be bored on the treadmill for an hour a day! And btw, you should go ahead and eat 1200 calories/day for several weeks and eventually work up to 1400 calories/day until you lose all the weight you want to! What? Eating 1200 calories/day is a pretty big drop for most people and honestly, if you’re restricting that much, the kind of exercise you do isn’t what’s moving the scale.

2. Singling out a particular macronutrient as the devil.

– Low Fat, low carb. It’s all the same. Cutting way down on any macronutrient is a sure way to lower total caloric intake. The only studies contradicting this all come from people self-reporting their intake. People are very bad at this.

3. Portion tricks.

– I’m all for watching portion size, but, again, it’s all about calories. Making sure veggies take up half of your plate will make your meal lower calorie than if that same portion of the plate was covered in bread or starches. That’s all.

4. Having you count something else.

– *cough*Weight Watchers*cough* In theory there’s nothing wrong with this and it works better than counting actual calories for some people, but it is just calorie counting.

5. Focusing on percentages instead of calories.

– The zone is the most popular of these kind of diets, but a lot of trainers use similar methods. Again, nothing wrong with it so long as you’re honest that the diets are still set up for calorie restriction – regardless of the ratios of protein/fat/carb you’re eating. Not magic. Just numbers.

My point isn’t that there is anything wrong with any of these approaches. Over the past year, I’ve mellowed to the point that I honestly don’t care whether or not people want to lose weight or how they decide to approach it. So long as you’re not hurting yourself, good luck to you. What I do mind is the purposeful exploitation of general ignorance by people looking to make a buck. I can’t tell you how many people in the weight room have told me that you cannot gain fat if you don’t eat carbs. Or women who still count the fat grams on labels because they still believe that dietary fat is fattening in a way that tons of sugar isn’t.

And as I’m working on this post, I’m reading about Star Jones over at BFD and I can’t help but think that if people understood the first thing about how weight loss works, there’s no way they could ever believe that kind of quick and radical transformation was happening through ‘pilates and portion control.’

And I feel like I should be clear that saying ‘weight loss is the result of this basic process of making up for an energy restriction’ is not the same as saying ‘it’s totally easy and fun and everyone should do it.’ Nor does my contention that a calorie-deficit is the only way to weight loss imply some sort of failure on the part of those who have tried diets without success. The concept is simple, the execution is complicated by a number of factors.

Some further reading for those interested:
All diets work: The importance of calories
Calories: Obsession, denial and reality
Mayo clinic article on counting calories
Mayo clinic: How you burn calories

8 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2009 9:10 am

    Hey, thanks for the comments about my book, “The Cardio-Free Diet.” It really works and presents a compelling reason to NEVER get on a treadmill, elliptical trainer, bike or stair stepper again.

    • April 3, 2009 9:16 am

      I have no doubt that the diet works, but the main reason it works is because of the caloric-restriction. If someone is eating 1200 calories/day, whether they’re doing cardio or weight training, they’re going to lose weight.

      I happen to be a fan of resistance/weight training and encourage people (women, especially) to include it in their fitness routines so on that we can definitely agree.

  2. Sylvia Romero permalink
    April 4, 2009 1:47 am

    To help with losing weight, a friend of mine is suggesting I use Flavor Magic Portion Control Sheets, which she describes as basically a portioning guide that also seasons the food. Kind of like the “palm of hand” rule, but more accurate. Does anyone have input on this one? She claims it is working for her with home cooking. I want to give it a shot but it looks like it is only available online.

    • April 5, 2009 2:41 am

      I can sell you a pamphlet on portion control and some salt, probably much cheaper. You tell me what you’re going to pay for Flavor Magic, I’ll charge you 1/3 as much. How ’bout?

  3. wriggles permalink
    April 5, 2009 3:52 am

    I don’t think you ran the list in the above post, through your Mayo clinic linked article on counting calories.

    I can’t make much sense of their article on metabolism either.

    It seems to contradict itself.

    • April 5, 2009 3:57 am

      I’m not sure what you mean. I don’t see anything in the calorie counting article that contradicts what I’ve said. Nor do I see how the metabolism article contradicts itself.

      I’ll go read the again, though.

  4. April 5, 2009 6:20 am

    As they say in AA about their “plan:” it’s simple, but it’s not easy. If you suck it up and admit that reducing foods is tough, though, you don’t kid yourself and make it tougher.

  5. April 6, 2009 4:48 pm

    I have a friend who thinks alcohol isn’t fattening, because it’s not “carbs”. No, it’s even worse. Whatever, I can’t spin my wheels trying to get people to understand basic science. But I want to make a comment on Leigh’s article, I’ve been caught in that trap of eating healthy, but not losing weight. At some point I had to admit to myself that I was just eating too much. This is another one of these maddening myths that’s just as bad as the “put down chips and get off couch” crap, otherwise known as “if you exercise, you can eat as much as you want and you won’t have to worry about your weight”. Wrong. When people ask how I’m losing weight, I say exercise, eating better, and eating less.

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