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A Twinkie diet? It comes down to calories

Kansas State University professor Mark Haub's junk-food weight-loss experiment diet depends on counting calories.

December 06, 2010|By James S. Fell, Special to the Los Angeles Times

When I tell people I'm on a high-carbohydrate diet, they give me a highly skeptical look, as if I just told them the moon landing was faked.

From a pure weight-loss perspective, I could eat nothing but bacon-wrapped sticks of butter topped with chocolate-covered Froot Loops, and as long as I maintained a caloric deficit I would lose weight. This concept has been proved time and again, most recently by the Twinkie Guy.

Twinkie Guy — also known as Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University — is the genius who lost 27 pounds in 10 weeks subsisting almost exclusively on Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos and other treats by ensuring that he consumed fewer calories than he burned.

Stop the presses.

Many express surprise that you can lose weight eating junk food, which is why Haub's story made international headlines. This air of mystery is partly due to diet "gurus" who claim weight loss involves something other than calories in versus calories out.

But it doesn't. The first law of thermodynamics (FLoT) proves that caloric deficits are all that matter for weight loss. FLoT is an expression of the conservation of energy, stating that it can neither be created nor destroyed. A calorie is just a unit of energy.

Note that FLoT is not a hypothesis or a theory, but a physical law, like gravity. It can't be disputed any more than the fact that if you jump out of an airplane without a parachute, gravity will not be your friend.

So weight loss is simple math — why is this big news? According to Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity specialist at the Bariatric Medical Institute in Ottawa, Canada, Haub's diet made headlines the world over "because it hammers home one incredibly unfortunate fact — the world doesn't understand calories."

I think Freedhoff has a higher opinion of humanity than I do, because I don't expect the average person to understand calories, so I wasn't surprised by the amazement at Haub's results. We live in a world where millions of people spend billions of dollars on "miracle" weight-loss cures. Lots of people also believe that aliens are responsible for crop circles and that Nickelback is an awesome band. Believing calories don't matter is almost sane by comparison.

Haub isn't the first to conduct such an experiment. Clinical weight-loss studies have proved the same thing.

Researchers with the Laboratory of Human Behavior and Metabolism at New York's Rockefeller University conducted a carefully controlled study that kept 16 people on diets with just enough calories to maintain their current weight but that varied the ratios of fat, protein and carbohydrates. After 33 days, those assigned to a no-fat diet were still at their pre-study weight. So were those who got 70% of their calories from fat. Percentages of carbs and protein didn't matter either. The results were published in 1992 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

What amazes me about Haub's experiment is not that it was possible to lose weight on a junk-food diet, but that he had the willpower to sustain a significant caloric deficit eating such sugary, high-fat junk for 10 weeks. Such "food" does little to quell appetite. He must have felt as though he was starving the entire time.

As I mentioned, I'm on a high-carbohydrate diet, but I eat unprocessed carbs, not Oreos and Twinkies. I eat lots of whole grains and fruits and vegetables because the fiber is satiating and delivers a large volume of food for a small number of calories, making me feel fuller.

To drive this point home: An entire pound of fresh spinach has the same number of calories as a single Oreo cookie. Which do you think satisfies the appetite more (not to mention being more healthful)?

Another reason I like unprocessed carbohydrates is because I'm big into exercise. When it comes to my running, cycling and weightlifting, these carbs are my personal rocket fuel.

Researchers at the Universal College of Learning in New Zealand back me up on this. They compared endurance athletes on high-carb versus low-carb diets and found that, for the latter, "performance was significantly impaired," according to a 2006 paper in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.

Don't get me wrong — protein is important for muscle building and appetite control, and I do like meat, but I don't need to eat a steak the size of my head every day to grow my pecs, or even just to feel full.

On the subject of satisfying appetite, I consulted Raylene Reimer, a registered dietitian and associate professor of nutrition and metabolism at the University of Calgary. "Protein has the highest satiety factor of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates come second, and fat is hardly satiating at all," she said.

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