Let’s be clear: you absolutely can lose weight on a crank diet. If you’ve lost weight on a diet eliminating fats, carbs, gluten, plants, meat or sugar, you’re not alone. But the dirty little secret is that you’ve lost weight because you’ve found a way to eat fewer calories than you burn. Eliminating food categories is one way to do this. A good way, for many people, at least for a while.
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Alright, so now maybe you’re thinking, if these diets work, why write an entire column about how quirky they are?
Truth, justice and the American way, of course. But also perhaps empowerment. Because people should know when they are being sold a bill of goods.
Let’s look at some fun examples of revs that fit the crank model:
- The grain-free dietà la “Wheat Belly,” argues that digesting wheat produces polypeptides that bind to opioid receptors in the brain, making wheat an appetite stimulant.
- The carnivore diet claims to decrease hormone fluctuations because insulin spikes associated with carbs create a “cascade of other imbalances” of hormones associated with hunger and fat storage.
- Intermittent fasting argues that restricting intake for an extended period gives your body no choice but to tap into fat stores, so you lose more than if your body had continuous access to blood sugar.
- The blood group diet says your blood type tells you your ancestry, and we thrive on the food our ancestors ate. And there are many other ancestral diets that double down on this idea.
- And of course low carb/ketowho argues that because insulin is the key to fat storage, if you don’t eat carbs, you don’t release insulin and you store less fat.
To be fair, there are a few diets that outright tell you that they are essentially a strategy for eating less. One of the main reasons for the low-fat diet is that 1 gram of fat has 9 calories and 1 gram of carbs or protein has 4, so if you eat more low-calorie macronutrients, you consume fewer calories overall. And the Volumetric Diet posits that if you eat lower calorie foods, you end up consuming fewer calories.
While some food justifications are pretty silly, not all of them are wrong. Insulin, for example, really facilitates fat storage. But there’s one nutritional fact that trumps all the others, and it’s really the only thing you need to know about diet and health: what we know is absolutely overshadowed by what we don’t know. .
The simple diet swap to help you lose weight and reduce health risks
Do you remember the parable of the blind men and the elephant? Six blind men were able to “see” an elephant by feeling part of it, and they all came away with very different ideas of what an elephant was. The guy holding the tusk thought it was like a spear; the guy with the trunk thought it was like a snake. You had the idea. They came away with inaccurate ideas because they couldn’t feel everything.
This is what happens with diets. No one can see the whole elephant. Science hasn’t painted it (yet). So every food guru latches onto some element of human metabolism and decides it’s the key to health and weight loss – but really, it’s just the toenail. Of course, the digestion of wheat gives polypeptides! But there’s so much else going on in the human body that it’s very hard to know how it happens.
There is of course a way to find out: the actual tests. And — surprise, surprise — the ones we have (and we have plenty) show that, in the long run, no diet works for weight loss. The trajectory – subjects lose weight for a period of time, even up to two years, then gain it back – is similar for all.
But back to that part where people lose weight with crank diets. Why is that? Because, after you peel the scientific stuff, there are usually pretty decent strategies for doing that one thing that’s at the heart of weight loss – eating less.
So how about this: skip the science and go straight to the strategies. Sure, intermittent fasting doesn’t outperform other diets, but that doesn’t mean closing the kitchen after dinner is a bad idea. In fact, that’s a damn good idea.
Next, look at low carb. No, insulin is not directly correlated with later eating and weight gain, but that doesn’t mean cutting out sugar and refined grains is a bad idea. In fact, that’s a damn good idea.
To lose weight, you don’t need to understand the finer details of human metabolism; the diet is not a awareness problem. You just have to find viable strategies to eat less; the diet is a To do problem. So think of the onslaught of crank diets as an assortment of strategies, and pick the ones that suit your lifestyle.
I used to be overweight, but I’m not now, and I’ve used ideas from different diets to keep it that way. I don’t do intermittent fasting, but I close the kitchen after dinner and postpone breakfast until I’m hungry enough. I am not on a low fat diet but I limit added fats in the dishes I prepare. I’m not low carb, but I don’t eat a lot of refined grains. I inflate the dishes with vegetables (Volumetrics). I eat almost no ultra-processed foods (every diet known to man). I don’t save the easy-to-eat foods that call me home (common sense), and when we have to buy Girl Scout cookies for neighborhood harmony, I make sure my husband stashes them somewhere (d okay, no one recommends it, but it works for me because Thin Mints is calling my name).
What I hate most about crank diets is that they prey on people who want, often desperately, to change things. Metabolic rationales offer a lifeline – all I have to do is do this one thing! – and then the ultimate failure looks like your failure. But anyone who’s ever tried it knows that losing weight is tough. There isn’t just one thing. And only you know where your the diet goes off the rails, what foods are your undo, how the changes do or do not fit into your life.
I tip my hat to people who are comfortable regardless of weight and focusing on other aspects of their health. Unfortunately, I’m not one of them; being fat made me unhappy. And maybe that’s why the false hope generated by crank diets drives me crazy. But I also think that losing weight is not only possible, but quite simple – at least in principle.
It’s not a problem to know, so forget the polypeptides. It’s a problem to do, and only you know what to do.