Junk food diet reviled! I mean, revealed!

by Denis Faye | November 10, 2010

A few, select members of the Nerd Herd have asked me to comment on Kansas State University Professor of human nutrition Mark Haub’s junk food diet. From CNN:

The premise held up: On his “convenience store diet,” he shed 27 pounds in two months.

For a class project, Haub limited himself to less than 1,800 calories a day. A man of Haub’s pre-dieting size usually consumes about 2,600 calories daily. So he followed a basic principle of weight loss: He consumed significantly fewer calories than he burned.

His body mass index went from 28.8, considered overweight, to 24.9, which is normal. He now weighs 174 pounds.

But you might expect other indicators of health would have suffered. Not so.

Haub’s “bad” cholesterol, or LDL, dropped 20 percent and his “good” cholesterol, or HDL, increased by 20 percent. He reduced the level of triglycerides, which are a form of fat, by 39 percent.

I’m not all that surprised. If you eat less, you’ll lose weight. As for the cholesterol, let’s do the math. He is eating a 1800 calorie diet. 2/3 of that was junk food, or 1200 calories. The other 1/3 is made up of veggies and protein shakes, which have almost no fat. The junk is primarily “Hostess and Little Debbie snacks Doritos chips, sugary cereals and Oreos,” all of which have far more sugar than fat. Even Oreos, with that creamy, white middle, only derive 1/3 of their calories from fat. So, being conservative, let’s say 1/4 of the calories from the junk food are from fat. That means that, out of 1800 calories, 300 came from fat, which is 16%. Believe it or not, Taub appears to have been on a low-fat diet for the last two months. It stands to reason that his cholesterol would go down. Further testament to this is the fact that when he started eating meat again, his cholestrol started climbing.

And there are a ton of questions left unanswered here. Taub isn’t a serious exerciser. What would happen if a jogger or a weightlifter tried this plan? Also, as the CNN points out, what about the risks of cancer and diabetes? Two months isn’t much time to really grasp an experiment like this.

Truth be told, even with all the sweets, Prof. Taub was probably eating healthier diet than most Americans. He had a calorie deficit. He ate veggies daily. He wasn’t eating high-fat fast food. (If you’re curious about an all fast food diet, check out the documentary Super Size Me. Very different results.) And he wasn’t porking out. A moderate amount of junk food isn’t society’s problem right now; It’s a massive amount of junk food. As David Kessler points out in his brilliant manifesto The End of Overeating, junk food today has been engineered to make us want to eat more and more and more. Most people will blow through 1800 calories of junk in a single meal, let alone a day. If you want to eat an Oreo, eat a damn Oreo. God knows I’ve been picking at my daughter’s Halloween candy for the last two weeks – but I eat a Tootsie Roll a day. If I’m feeling naughty, maybe I’ll throw a bite-sized Snickers in the mix. That’s not going to kill me or make me fat or mess with my cholesterol.

I just don’t understand the mystery of this experiment. The lessons within seem obvious. Sometimes, I think more Americans understand Klingon then they understand moderation.


7 thoughts on “Junk food diet reviled! I mean, revealed!

  1. Andrew R.

    Totally agree with what you say, Denis. The key to this whole thing is that he counted his calories and limited his intake. Losing weight is really quite simple math when you get down to it.

    Where he was smart was to include the Twinkie gimmick so people like us would actually talk about it. The story, “Man Eats Less, Loses Weight” wouldn’t have the same media legs.

  2. Anonymous

    My issue is the sheer nastiness of his intake. Yes, I admit that is my personal opinion. I’m sure there are those whose stomach’s would turn at the mere though of how many fruits and veggies I eat in a day . . . not to mention my love affair with fish.


  3. Anonymous

    Indeed he wasn’t on a low-fat diet.

    An interesting perspective will be gained by analyzing his sample diet which is on his facebook page. There he states an intake of 1589 calories, 222g carbohydrate, 59g fat, and 44g protein. Since he had a 1200 calorie daily deficit calculated above, his total caloric expenditure (food intake plus fat burned from body) was about 2789 and he was severely restricting calories by 45% (i.e. consuming only 55% of required calories). Very few people can sustain this level of caloric restriction long enough to achieve desired body composition or health outcomes.

    Of that 2789 total calories burned each day, 1200 calories came from body fat and 59×9=531 calories came from food fat, so he metabolized a total of 1731 calories from fat every day, which means on that day 1731รท2789=0.62 or 62% of his calories came from fat, while only 32% of his calories came from carbohydrate and a mere 6% from protein. In other words, metabolically he is actually on a high-fat, carbohydrate-restricted, low-protein diet.

  4. D Faye

    You can’t count body fat in factoring whether a diet is high or low fat! That would make all low-calorie diets high fat. Processing body fat and dietary fat are two entirely different things. Furthermore, your math doesn’t account for catabolism.

    Nice try though. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    That sample day puts his fat intake at 30%, which isn’t low-fat (I’ll stand corrected there), but it’s in what’s considered healthy ranges. And his carbs are through the roof, percentage wise.

  5. screwdestiny

    Canned green beans, a protein shake, and those nasty snack cakes? Gag me. You couldn’t pay me to go on a diet like that whether I was going to lose weight or not. And the part where he said that it’s unrealistic to expect people to completely rid their diet of that crap he was eating? Uh, no it’s not. I can’t remember the last time I ate the stuff he said he consumed every day because it’s GROSS. Not appealing at all!

    This article just bothered me because everybody knows you can lose weight by eating fewer calories. But losing weight should not be our only goal. It should be about getting healthier by providing the body with the fuel it needs, not setting it up for a variety of diseases later in life.

  6. Steve Edwards

    I think the point is well made that you can’t make any significant claims with this diet because it’s so short. All those same stats almost assuredly fall on concentration and refugee camp victims, too, but it doesn’t mean much if your diet doesn’t perk up over the long haul.

    If you really want to surprise me try surviving on this diet for a couple of years.


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