Junk diet makes Twinkies tempting

December 2, 2010

As I am constantly reminding family and friends not to overdose on chips, biscuits and snacks, a few of them were rather keen to see my reaction to the weight loss success of Mark Haub, the U.S. human nutrition professor who lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks on a high junk food diet. His widely reported story presents a scenario we nutritionists loathe, as it goes against nearly all the behaviors we encourage our clients to adopt. However, I imagine that those of you who try with difficulty to manage your weight with a so-called healthy diet may feel cheated on hearing Haub’s story; so let’s look at the facts.

For 10 weeks, Haub ate a “convenience store” diet in which two-thirds of the calories he consumed came from junk food such as chips, cakes, sugary cereals, nut bars and Twinkies. Surprisingly, he lost 27 pounds, reduced his body mass index from an overweight 28.8 to a normal 24.9, reduced his body fat by 8.5 percent and improved his cholesterol levels. However, before you throw out the fruit and veg and rekindle your relationship with the vending machine, consider the following.

Haub followed a reduced-calorie diet by consuming 25 percent fewer calories than his size dictated, whereas usually those who consume a high percentage of junk food end up eating far more calories than they need. By reducing his calorie intake, Haub was using up all the calories he consumed, meaning there was no excess sugar or fat to be stored. In fact, as he had an energy deficit, his body needed to release energy from fat stores, resulting in a moderate average weight loss of 2.7 pounds per week. The corresponding improvement in body and blood fat levels is a logical consequence of this lower calorie intake.

He ate regularly and did not overeat at “meal” times. Eating at regular times allows the body to understand that it is not in starvation mode, which helps to keep metabolism at a normal rate. Haub also took a multivitamin and protein shake every day, which helped prevent nutrient deficiencies from his diet of generally nutrient-empty foods. In addition, he ate some vegetables daily, albeit fewer than the recommended five servings a day.

Although the headline is appealing and may make the idea of living on processed foods tempting, remember that this was a short-term experiment. While cardiovascular disease markers did improve for Haub, other health indicators such as insulin efficiency (linked to diabetes), cancer risk and effect on immunity were not assessed. Supplements played a role in this diet, but they are limited in value. Fruits and vegetables contain a far wider range of substances that benefit health, not all of which are available in pill form.

We do not recommend adopting this junk food-supplement combination as a weight loss strategy, because the long-term effects on overall health are unknown. We do suggest, however, that you internalize the message of moderation. You may not have to entirely dump the junk, but you should keep consumption under control.

Julie Godfrey is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT). For more information, see www.foreverhealthyco.com.

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