Monday, January 19, 2015

News from the diet industry

A few years ago, I decided to read as many diet books as I could get through and distill their wisdom into one blog post.  Lately I have felt the urge to do it again.  Last time, I included some old school diet books.  This time, the oldest book I read was published in 2006 and the others, no earlier than 2011.  Let's see what the latest research into weight loss has brought us.  I have to confess, it took me a year to read all these books and write this post.

Ultrametabolism: The Simple Plan for Automatic Weight Loss by Mark Hyman, M.D. (2006)

Concept: Refined starches, high fructose corn syrup, and hydrogenated oils cause inflammation, interfere with the liver's ability to detoxify the body, cause our cells to "rust" and our mitochondria to shrivel, all of which makes us sick and fat.

The Diet: Phase one (detox) lasts three weeks, in which you may not have dairy, eggs, sugar, flour, alcohol, caffeine or gluten.  You're encouraged to drink "Dr. Hyman's Detox Broth," (vegetables cooked in water) which he insists is a "wonderful, filling snack."  In phase two (maintenance), eggs and dairy are reintroduced and you can have alcohol again.  Sugar is still forbidden, but you can have honey and agave nectar.  You get one week's worth of menus for each phase. Exercise is encouraged, mainly in the form of interval training and he gives instructions for beginner and advanced-level interval workouts. I tried the detox phase for one week and didn't lose any weight.  The recipes are OK--the apple-walnut amaranth isn't likely to appear on any brunch menus, but you can eat it without gagging.  Bonus upper arm workout for scrubbing the burned amaranth out of the bottom of the pan. A lot of edible but boring chicken-on-greens, beans-on-greens, etc.

Analysis:  Note that this diet does not ban carbs or grains, just flour.  Fruit, whole grains, and starches like amaranth, quinoa, brown rice, and dried beans are allowed, even in phase one.  I know you can get quick results by eliminating all carbs except for vegetables, but I think it would be difficult to stick to a no-grain diet for the long term. I do think it's unrealistic to expect people never to eat anything with flour.  You are allowed bread made from "sprouted grain" (i.e. Ezekiel Bread). Hyman is one of those tiresome people who wants you to give up caffeine, and while I think his diet is fairly sensible, he discredits himself by making outrageous claims about all the people whose health problems--even conditions like rheumatoid arthritis-- magically disappeared after they started his diet.

Hyman is also a bit condescending.  Right from the start he tells us that he has never had to struggle with his weight.  To illustrate the body's "fight or flight" nervous response, he tells the story of the time he was charged by a rhinoceros while on safari in Africa.  Way to be relatable, asshole. And, typical of someone who is unaware of his privilege, he wants you to eat very expensive food.  Amaranth and wild-caught salmon and ground flax seed and organic chicken are not cheap.

I did try the detox phase of this diet for one week, but I can tell this is not for me.  If you are really overweight and currently eat a diet of mostly processed foods, and you have enough disposable income to eat all organic, you would probably do well on this diet, but if, like me, you already eat a mostly whole food diet and you're not overweight and just want to look better in clothes, it's not going to do much for you.

Takeaway: Fear flour, not grains.

The Daniel Plan: 40 Days to a Healthier Life (2013) by Rick Warren D. Min, Daniel Amen, MD, Mark Hyman, MD.

Concept: Improve your health and lose weight with a holistic focus on the spiritual, social, and physical aspects of your life.

The Diet: 10 day "detox" + another 10 days worth of menus for the "core plan."  Typical diet meals: whole grains, vegetables, protein powder.  Too much stevia for my taste.  Small amounts of dark chocolate allowed. I did not try this diet, but some of the recipes look like they might be good, particularly the no-bake power bites and the crunchy chick peas.  Exercise is referred to as PLAY, you know, skiing, snowboarding, gymnastics--all the things a habitual couch potato has been dying to try.

Analysis: Assumes you literally have been living on cheez doodles and hamburger helper your entire life, and that preparing real food for yourself is a revolutionary concept.  Strong emphasis on community and spirituality-- protestant Christian spirituality, specifically. I'm on board with the holistic concept, but the tone of this book is a little grating.  On their list of events that cause stress is "having a bestselling book."

I'll take your best-selling book and you can sit in my death cube.

Takeaway: Have emergency food packs (salmon or turkey jerky, nut butter, dates) in your pantry, car, and office for those times you didn't have time to prepare a healthy meal.  Also, some good tidbits about the health dangers of being sedentary for more than three hours at a time.

Jumpstart to Skinny: The Simple 3-Week Plan for Supercharged Weight Loss (2013) by Bob Harper.

Concept:  This is a boot camp, not a long term solution. You are expected to switch to the more relaxed "skinny rules" (see below) at the end of the three weeks.  Let's overlook the fact that "jumpstart" is actually two words.

The Diet:  800 calories a day; grains allowed only at breakfast; lean protein + vegetables in mind-boggling quantities. (SEVEN cups of greens in a single-serving salad.)  NO sugar or alcohol and no fruit during week three.  Coffee, specifically espresso, is encouraged. Daily low-intensity aerobics is required, plus five days a week of strength training. 

Analysis:  People will squawk at 800 calories a day. (Harper says, "Don't worry Grandma!")  For three weeks, I think it's fine.  Harper says he's a "self-proclaimed fashion expert" and what the actual fuck does that even mean and how is it relevant?  The strength training routines are HARD.  "Burpee"= torture, and the "band of death" routine looks oh-so easy in the photographs, but it nearly killed me. I actually tried this diet and lost five pounds in the first week, but had difficulty sticking to the plan after that.  The lunches and dinners had such huge volumes of vegetables that sometimes I stopped eating before the meal was finished because I was tired of chewing.  You become obsessed with food, especially breakfast, because you get to eat 1/2 a slice of Ezekiel bread or 1/3 cup of quinoa.

Takeaway: Following this meal plan helps you to learn how to create the correct proportions of carbs, fats, and protein in a meal.  All this time, I thought one boneless chicken breast was a "serving."  Actually, it's half that.

The Skinny Rules: The Simple, Non-negotioable Principles for getting to THIN (2012) by Bob Harper.

Concept: Follow these twenty basic rules to lose weight and stay thin.

The Diet: I probably can't copy the rules for you without violating the copywrite, but you can find them easily on Pinterest.  The core concept is to avoid carbs in the evening and to make dinner your smallest meal of the day.  (Rule #18: "Go to bed hungry.")

Analysis: I spotted these rules on Pinterest and they attracted me because back when I was really thin, I was more or less living by these rules.  (Especially the go to bed hungry rule.)  I think it is sound practice to eat very little in the evenings, but many of the rules are common to all diets (avoid fried foods, drink water, eat vegetables) and others seem arbitrary (eat an apple every. single. day.)  I tried to follow all the skinny rules at the beginning of 2013, to get rid of the Christmas bloat, and I lost about eight pounds, but then we went to Lisbon, where it's no fun to be on a diet.

Takeaway:  Make it your practice to eat a hearty lunch and a light dinner.

The Dukan Diet: The Real Reason the French Stay Thin (2011) by Pierre Dukan

Concept: Carbophobia

The Diet: Four phases: A short (3-5 day) "attack phase" in which you eat ONLY protein.  The "cruise phase" in which you eat ONLY protein every other day, alternating with days on which vegetables and protein are allowed. You stay in this phase until you have reached your goal weight.  The "consolidation phase" is supposed to prevent rebound weight gain.  In this phase, small amounts of fruit, cheese, grains, and starch are re-introduced.  Last is the "permanent stabilization" phase.  I don't think anyone ever reaches this stage.  You must eat two tablespoons of oat bran every day during the attack and cruise phases, presumably to prevent ileus.  Some of the recipes are ridiculous: a "beef stew" that contains only beef (but you can add AN ENTIRE LEEK if you are in the consolidation phase), Dukan's famous "Oat Bran Galette"--a sort of pancake made of oat bran and egg whites.

Analysis: This diet got a lot of attention because the Middletons were rumored to have followed it before the royal wedding.  I bought this book that very summer at the Dulles airport in a shame spasm after eating a Five Guys burger and fries. I followed the diet for about three months and lost eight pounds (never got out of the cruise phase) but I became so bored with protein and vegetables and oat bran stirred into unsweetened siggi's yogurt.  I think that any diet that eliminates entire food groups is not a good idea.  Carbs are all around us and if you want to have a normal life you will need to figure out how to deal with them.  Also, I do NOT believe that this is how the French stay thin.  According to our friend who lives in Paris, French women are thin because they smoke cigarettes and snack on a single almond at a time.

Takeaway: 1930 called.  They want their beriberi back.

The Fast Diet: Lose Weight, Stay Healthy, and Live Longer with the Simple Secret of Intermittent Fasting (2013) by Dr. Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer

Concept: Intermittent fasting is the key to health and weight loss

The Diet:  Pick two days each week on which you will eat only 500 calories.  You should stick to low-glycemic foods on your fast days. The rest of the week, eat what you want.

Analysis: Why buy the book, when it can be summarized in two sentences?  The authors go into a lot of detail about how fasting will lengthen your life, prevent illness, and stave off dementia.  Most of the evidence for this is either anecdotal or has only been studied in animals, but it is interesting.  I tried this diet last spring and I did lose weight, but oh-so slowly--about six pounds in two months. My fast days were Monday and Wednesday and these soon loomed over me terribly on every Sunday and Tuesday. Your weight tends to fluctuate a lot on this diet between fasting and non-fasting days, although the authors say this is normal.  I like this diet because no foods are banned, and it is refreshingly free of tedious phases or stages.  You don't need to buy any special expensive foods and you don't feel deprived.

Takeaway: Limit food, not food groups.

Your Personal Paleo Code: The 3-Step Plan to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, and Stay Fit and Healthy for Life (2013) by Chris Kresser.

Concept: Agriculture bad. Wild foods good.

The Diet: To eat like a cave man means to eschew the sorts of foods that are produced in a typical agricultural society (grains) and instead eat foods that hunter-gatherers would have eaten: meat, seasonal and locally available fruits, vegetables, and tubers.  Like so many other diets, this one starts out with a thirty-day "reset" in which you may not eat any dairy, grains, legumes, sweeteners, chocolate, alcohol, or processed foods.  Once you've survived the reset, you may slowly re-introduce certain "gray area" foods like dairy, caffeine, and alcohol. The reset diet is gluten-free, and while you may add gluten back after the reset, you're encouraged to limit gluten consumption indefinitely.

Analysis:  How is this different from a low carb diet?  Starchy plants such as sweet potatoes, squash, even white potatoes, are encouraged.  It seems to me that the Paleo diet is pretty healthy.  I do think that allowing starchy plants like sweet potatoes might help control cravings for grain-based carbs and sugar. I have incorporated some Paleo principles into my own diet, but I could never do this full-time because I love baking and eating bread too much.  I would really like to know how Kresser, a "licensed clinician" is so sure that people who lived over a million years ago did not have high blood pressure or cancer.

There's a really good chapter on the sedentary life, why it's bad for you, and how to combat it if you work at a desk all day.  Kresser encourages a standing desk or a treadmill desk, but he offers alternatives, such as sitting on a fitness disk or yoga ball, or setting an alarm to remind yourself to stand up throughout the day.  Last year, I made a ghetto standing desk by boosting my monitors, keyboard, and mousepad onto piles of phone books.  I could not get the mouse adjusted to a height that didn't cause pain to my wrist and within a few hours, I wanted to simultaneously burst into tears and punch someone in the face.  After three days, I took it all down.

Takeaway:  Satisfy yourself with sweet potatoes.

The End of Dieting: How to Live for Life (2014) by Joel Fuhrman, MD.

Concept: This is not a diet, it's "nutritional excellence."

The Diet:  Mainly vegan-- tiny portions of meat allowed if you insist.  Low fat, although nuts, seeds, and avocado are allowed.  Sugar and white flour are not allowed, ever.  You know what else isn't allowed? Joy.  A typical day on this diet starts with oatmeal, fruit, and chia seeds.  You are supposed to eat a "huge salad" every day. A typical dinner is a bean burger with more vegetables.

Recipes include tempting offers like "apple surprise"--a mix of raisins, apples, walnuts, ground flaxseed and cinnamon.  WHICH ONE IS THE SURPRISE?  Also, "vanilla coconut nice cream" and "fudgy black bean brownies" made from canned black beans, dates, and cocoa.

Analysis:  Fuhrman starts out fighting, attacking the "SAD" (standard American diet) by saying that if you eat the SAD and you're NOT overweight, you have cancer, only you don't know it yet.  NICE. The SAD is so bad, it's literally impossible to be healthy and eat it and not be overweight.  But then he never really defines the SAD, other than to say it is based on flour, sugar, and dairy.  He describes a typical SAD lunch as two fast food cheeseburgers.

Fuhrman uses considerable ink analyzing and attacking some of today's popular diets.  He insists that the Paleo diet is all about stuffing yourself with as much meat as possible, which is disingenuous to say the least.  The Mediterranean diet is dangerous because it deludes you into thinking you can guzzle olive oil and eat tons of pasta.  Low fat diets are bad because they don't allow nuts or seeds, which are healthy fats.  He seems to think his diet is the only one that includes enough plant foods, but with the exception of Dukan, I have never encountered a diet book that didn't encourage you to eat lots of vegetables.

Takeaway: Don't believe the title, this is the most restrictive diet of all.

There are more diet books coming.  My sister has been talking about The Adrenal Diet, which she is keen to read and I saw the brand new Swift Diet on the library shelf, but I had to stop.  Every diet author out there says essentially the same thing:  "Hey Fatty, want to know why you're so fat?  Because you're following someone else's diet when you should be following MY diet."  And taking into account minor variations, all of these diets are essentially the same: eat fruits and vegetables and limit sugar and flour.


  1. I know someone who has had great success with Joel Fuhrman's diet, but he stopped doing it because the endless vegetable preparation was exhausting. But I've never heard anyone rave about craving kale the way he did when eating this way.

    The 5:2 diet (fast diet) sounds appealing if I don't have to work. I don't want to fast on a work day and I don't want to fast on the weekends, so I guess I'm full of excuses AND fat until I'm unemployed. I once lost 25 pounds in 4 months but I wasn't working.

    Going to bed hungry actually curbs my hunger in the morning. I don't eat after dinner, and I eat dinner pretty early compared to most of the civilized world ( 6 p.m.).

    1. I agree that the PIA vegetable prep is what causes a lot of people to eat fewer vegetables than they should.
      I'm the opposite of you: it's easier for me to fast when I'm at work because I can cut off my access to food. Work in itself causes me so much suffering, I hardly notice that I'm hungry.

  2. Fascinating. I've never stuck to a diet past lunchtime and reading those diet books make me slightly ragey. I read one that recommended I give up my morning oatmeal and that's when I slammed it shut. If my morning oatmeal is bad, then I don't want to be right. Or thin apparently.

    1. Wow, I wonder which diet bans oatmeal? Oatmeal seems to be the darling of a lot of diets.

  3. What a wonderfully snarky review!

    But overall I agree with Becky --diets are both enraging and silly. Plus, from all the photos I've seen of you, you already look great in your clothes!

    I think this TED talk is much better than any diet book:

    1. Thanks! I will definitely check out that TED talk.

  4. My husband and MIL are big fans of Fuhrman, while I think he goes way too far, prioritizing physical health (yes, I'm sure his recommendation would put your body near it's peak possible health) over joy and emotional and mental health. It's not ok to spend that much energy on *always* eating the "best" foods!

    1. Yes, Fuhrman just seems so rigid and unfun. Even some of the sillier diets acknowledge that sometimes you have to allow yourself to have a treat. However, his book did make me rethink my attitude toward meat.

  5. I have never been on a diet yet found your reviews interesting. I eat "everything" in moderation, it just makes sense to me. Some of those diet books give kooky advice, I can see from your reviews.

    1. It was fun to read these and see each author's level of kookiness.

  6. Ha ha on me! By "everything" I mean healthy things, like fruit and veg, Siggis yogurt, nuts, etc. Not truly "everything".

  7. You. Slay. Me.
    And I have a friend who swears by that middle one where you cycle through food groups. She also loves her supplements. I privately think she's a freak, but I like her for other reasons.
    Diet, schmiet.

  8. This was super helpful, thanks! Came here from a link on Suburban Correspondent, love it - I'll be back!

  9. This was super helpful, thanks! Came here from a link on Suburban Correspondent, love it - I'll be back!

  10. The goal here is to get his body moving and his blood pumping. Daniel