If Low Carb Makes So Much Sense, Why Do Other Diets Work?

As I’m in bed this morning waiting for the precise perfect moment to roll out, I happened to dwell on the several ads that I’ve been glancing at in magazines and the newspaper recently.  I say recently, but they’re always there, just more so in the beginning of the year, it seems.  You’ve seen the ads, I’m sure: Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, the hypnosis ads, the food plan ads, all the health clubs, and plenty of before-and-after photos and testimonials to go with them.  When you’re at the supermarket checkout line, count the number of magazines that have a sure-fire diet plan on the cover.  (Even Dr. Atkins’ diet was the darling of the Vogue readership for years before he published his New Diet Revolution in 1973.)

I’m to the point in Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories that I firmly believe that the only effective way to lose weight is to cut out carbohydrates and make dietary fat a good percentage of your daily diet.  Exercise is not necessary and can actually work against you if you’re trying to drop pounds.  I’m in the middle of an experiment right now, so I can’t really carp for the time being that I haven’t lost any weight doing just this for the last seven weeks.

But come on… other people lose weight doing other things.  Even I have.  One year, I lost over 20 pounds by simply eating a bag of raw vegetables for lunch every day.  Boring as all get-out, but I got into a routine, stopped thinking about it, and the pounds came off.  (Yes, after I stopped that routine, they went back on.)  My first wife and I paid a lot of money to a chain called “Weight Loss Clinic” where we had to go every day to be weighed by a nurse and report what we were eating on a very low calorie diet.  We both lost over 50 pounds each and we both regained most of the loss within six months.  Around that time, we started getting postcards from the business asking if it wasn’t time to come back in if we needed to.  Perpetual customers, what a concept, but hardly original:  the obsolescense factor is a well-known marketing tool.

So why do all these other approaches work at all?

Maybe the key word is “effective,” as I used earlier to describe low carb.  Do you know anyone who lost weight through exercise who gained it back when (if) they stopped their routine?  How about eating low calorie?  I know plenty of people who’ve tried this, and for them it’s a continuous battle with hunger; all they ever seem to talk about is food and how much they want it and how many things they are tempted with.  I personally don’t know anyone who’s lost weight by being hypnotized, but my wife tried it once to quit smoking many years ago and she sat through one session and came back with the report that it was a bunch of nonsense.  (To this day she will occasionally cluck like a chicken, but she doesn’t realize it and I don’t say anything.)

If you’re overweight and you want and need to lose a significant number of pounds, isn’t keeping those pounds off the real issue?  Look at how many studies of subjects on various diets end with those people losing either an insignificant amount of weight or not being able to stay on the eating plan long enough to make a difference.  How many subjects maintain a significant loss for a year or more, a factor considered essential in rating the effectiveness of an eating plan?

I’m not saying low carb is going to work for everyone.  Not because the science is at fault, but because we’re human beings.  There’s a psychological element to dieting to lose weight, and even if we’re losing, we’re leaving something behind that we enjoyed.  Maybe some kind of special food or drink, maybe the camaraderie of joining friends eating things that we now know are very bad with regard to overall health.  Working out takes time away from other things we’d perhaps rather be doing.  Some people get bored doing anything for too long, especially if it takes effort and discipline.  Even some of the women in the Atkins group in the recent Stanford University study of popular diets strayed toward the end, although this group did better than any of the other groups in both weight loss and “sticktuitiveness.”

John Galt knows, I don’t consider myself a poster boy for low carb.  I’m just as guilty of regaining a lot of the weight I lost in 2003.  Almost all of it was because I returned to eating high carb foods, and it started immediately after I started eating carbs.  It was not difficult to eat a low carb diet month after month, year after year.  I never had a problem turning down celebratory cake slices at birthday parties, or dessert when eating out.  I haven’t felt a desire to patronize the snack machine at work except for an occasional bag of peanuts. 

When I read that eating carbs begets an urge to eat more carbs, I believe it because I’ve been through it and I see it all around me every day.  There’s little satiety in carbohydrates.  Conventional nutritional wisdom tells people to fill up on fiber to make them “feel full” and therefore fend off their appetite.  I’m amazed when I think about how infrequently I feel any hunger at all, in fact, I probably eat when I do because it’s “time” to eat more than for any other reason.

I’m still looking forward to correcting the results of my backsliding, and maybe, just maybe, this time I’ve learned my lesson for good.  Anything’s possible.

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5 thoughts on “If Low Carb Makes So Much Sense, Why Do Other Diets Work?

  1. I suspect any weight-reduction plan that works does so because of its effects on insulin, as well as the amount of glucose available to build triglycerides. Take the “standard” American diet, something like 2400 Cal/day, of which about 1200 Cal is carbohydrate (300g carbs). Reduce to 1800 Cal/day across the board, and the carbs go down to 200g/day, probably with an attendant reduction in insulin. So there’s less insulin holding in the stored fat, making it more available to burn; also less glucose available to store fat as triglycerides. Same thing probably applies to your vegetable diet. Low-carb diets are “easier”, I think, because you control insulin without having to starve.

  2. Probably just as true is the plain simple truth that most people treat a diet as just that, a DIET, not a real change in their long-term patterns of consumption. Every “diet” I ever went on was with the intention from the get-go that it was until I lost the weight I wanted to, and then it was back to business as usual, as if the weight I’d gained was just from overeating and not being active enough. Instead of calling it “yo-yo” dieting, they should call it “no-know.” I just didn’t have a clue.

  3. Dave – 200g of carbs/day is way too much. People who aren’t bodybuilders shouldn’t be consuming more then 100g/day.

  4. I must comment as I have a lot of experience in “other diets”. Other diets, namely the low-fat, relatively high-carb diets such as weight watchers, Jenny Craig, or of your own making succeed simply by starvation. When I first went on Jenny Craig many, many moons ago the diet consisted of 1000 calories a day and nearly no fat. In recent moons it consisted of 1200 calories a day since they probably got sued so many times over the 1000 calorie variety. I know weight watchers advocates about 1200 calories a day for a woman trying to lose weight. Both and others advocate lots of excercize. It doesn’t take a starving woman to realize that this just isn’t enough to be healthy.

    Every time I have done these diets or a starvation diet of my own making I was FREEZING even in 80 or so degree rooms, I was STARVING and could think of nothing but food and how to prepare it and when I could have the next cheat. And I was EXHAUSTED. At some point I also became lightheaded, dizzy and even more exhausted.

    I know now why I was freezing, starving and exhausted. I was literally starving my body of everything it really needed, particularly the building blocks of the human body, protien and fat. At another point I was excersizing so much and eating so little I would lose 5 pounds a week near my goal weight. Soon, my mother was commenting on how I was skin and bones. I wasn’t anorexic but I was acting like it and beginning to look it. Who knows if permanent brain dammage was sustained? Some say, “Yes!”

    No wonder I couldn’t keep it up!! What man or woman who truly loves food and fat could keep that up for very long after losing the weight and thus, the motivation?

    Needless to say, I eventually gained it all back and then some. And that is why I CAN stay on low-carb for for life. I am hardly ever really hungry. I don’t fantasize about food like a Chippendale Dancer. I’m no longer freezing to death in the heat or the cold. And my brain isn’t foggy and I have mental energy instead of trying to keep my eyes open in the afternoon. I don’t excersize like a fiend but like a person who just likes to get up and move and go have some fun.

    And I seriously doubt if I am depriving myself of any essential nutrient. It’s all good.

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