Let’s be clear: you can absolutely positively lose weight with a crank diet. If you’ve lost weight on a diet with no fat, or carbs, or gluten, or plants, or meat, or sugar, you’re not alone. But the dirty little secret is that if you’ve already lost weight, it’s because you’ve found a way to eat fewer calories than you expend. Eliminating food categories is one way to do that. A good way, for many people, at least for a while.
We should eat more plants. Here’s which one is best for the planet.
Okay, so now you might be thinking, if those diets work, why write an entire column about their awkwardness?
Truth, justice and the American way, of course. But maybe also empowerment. Because people need to know when they are sold a BOM.
Let’s look at some fun examples of diets that fit the crank model:
- The grain-free dieta la “Wheat Belly,” states that the digestion of wheat yields polypeptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain, making wheat an appetite stimulant.
- The carnivore diet claims to reduce hormonal fluctuations because the insulin spikes associated with carbohydrates create a “cascade of other imbalances” of hormones associated with hunger and fat storage.
- Intermittent fasting believes that limiting intake for an extended period of time leaves your body with no choice but to tap into fat stores so you lose more than if your body had continuous access to blood sugar.
- The blood type diet says your blood type tells your ancestry, and we thrive on the foods our ancestors ate. And there are plenty of other ancestral diets that double down on this idea.
- And of course low carb / ketomeaning that because insulin is key to fat storage, if you don’t eat carbs, you don’t release insulin and you store less fat.
To be fair, there are a few diets that will flat out tell you that they are essentially a strategy to eat less. A primary rationale of the low-fat diet is that 1 gram of fat contains 9 calories and 1 gram of carbohydrate or protein contains 4, so if you consume more low-calorie macronutrients, you consume fewer calories overall. And the Volumetrics diet states that if you eat foods that are lower in calories, you’ll end up consuming fewer calories.
While some diet tips are pretty silly, not all of them are wrong. Insulin, for example, really causes fat storage. But there’s one nutrition fact that trumps all others, and it’s really the only thing you need to know about nutrition and health: what we know is absolutely nothing compared to what we don’t know.
The simple diet swap to help you lose weight and reduce health risks
Remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant? Six blind men got to “see” an elephant by feeling a part of it, and they all came away with completely different ideas about what an elephant was. The man holding the tusk thought it was a spear; the man with the trunk thought it was just like a snake. You get the idea. They got away with imprecise ideas because they couldn’t feel everything.
That’s what’s the matter with diets. No one can see the whole elephant. Science hasn’t painted it (yet). So every diet guru clings to a piece of human metabolism and decides it’s the key to health and weight loss — but really, it’s just the toenail. Sure, digesting wheat yields polypeptides! But there’s so much more going on in the human body that it’s very hard to know how that plays out.
There is of course one way to find out: real tests. And – surprise, surprise – the ones we have (and we have a lot) show that no diet works for weight loss in the long run. The trajectory – subjects lose weight for a while, even up to two years, and then come back – is the same for everyone.
But let’s get back to that part where people actually lose weight on diets. Why is that? Because after we let go of the scientific stuff, there are usually pretty good strategies for doing that thing that’s at the heart of weight loss: eating less.
So how about this: Ignore the science and go straight to the strategies. Sure, intermittent fasting doesn’t outperform other diets, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea to close the kitchen after eating. In fact, it’s a damn good idea.
Then take a look at low carbohydrate. No, insulin doesn’t correlate well with subsequent eating and weight gain, but that doesn’t mean cutting out sugar and refined grains is a bad idea. In fact, it’s a damn good idea.
You don’t need to understand the core of human metabolism to lose weight; diet is none know issue. You just need to come up with workable strategies to eat less; diet is one doing issue. So think of the onslaught of unhealthy diets as a mixed bag of strategies, and choose the strategies that fit your lifestyle.
I used to be overweight, but I’m not now, and I’ve used ideas from different diets to keep it that way. I don’t do intermittent fasting, but I close the kitchen after dinner and put off breakfast until I’m quite hungry. I do not follow a low-fat diet, but limit added fats in the dishes I make. I’m not low carb, but I don’t eat a lot of refined grains. I fill dishes with vegetables (Volumetrics). I eat almost no ultra-processed foods (every diet known to man). I don’t have easy-to-eat foods in the house that appeal to me (common sense), and if we need to buy Boy Scout cookies for neighborhood harmony, I’ll have my husband stash them somewhere (okay, no one recommends that, but it works for me because Thin Mints call my name).
What I hate most about diets is that they prey on people who, often desperately, want to change something. The metabolic rationale offers a lifeline – I just need to do this one thing! – and then the ultimate failure feels your failure. But anyone who has ever tried it knows that losing weight is hard. There isn’t one thing. And alone you know where your diet derails, what foods are your undo, how changes may or may not fit your life.
My hat is off to the people who are comfortable with whatever weight they are and focus on other aspects of their health. Unfortunately I’m not one of them; being fat made me unhappy. And maybe that’s why I’m going crazy with the false hopes that diet traffic generates. But I also think that weight loss is not only possible, but completely easy – at least in principle.
It’s not a knowledge problem, so forget the polypeptides. It’s a DIY problem, and only you know what to do.