Many of you have probably now heard about the Twinkie diet study conducted by Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University. For ten weeks, the 41 year old university lecturer lost 27 pounds while having two-thirds of his diet consist of junk food. His junk food of choice was primarily those sweet little yellowish cream-filled cakes – Twinkies; giving this experiment the now-viral moniker “The Twinkie Diet.” Yes, he supplemented with a multi-vitamin along the way. And yes, he imbibed a daily dose of protein. But his carbohydrate of choice while losing a substantial number of pounds was multiple daily feedings of those spongy little cakes of enriched bleach flour. What are we to make of this?
- Is ‘losing weight with Twinkies’ a viable way to shed fat?
- Does the ‘losing weight with Twinkies’ experiment prove wrong that long-time saying “It’s not how much you eat – it’s what you eat?”
- Should those wanting to lose fat keep their convenience store-gotten goodies in the pantry as part of a regular staple of fat-loss foods?
- Does the ‘losing weight with Twinkies diet’ prove that “calories are all that matter” when it comes to weight loss?
Are we really so stupid as to need to ask these questions? Any time we witness the horrifying pictures of starved concentration camp victims, we know both intuitively and intellectually of how calorie deprivation removes weight from our bodies. Yes… that’s extreme: So what about images of simply underfed POWs? I can’t imagine why we need even a rudimentary one-man study to prove that calorie deficit, regardless of dietary practices, results in “weight loss.” Yet this ‘losing weight with Twinkies’ experiment is being treated by some as a sort of “Aha moment” for all of us; proof we need to simply count our calories while consuming whatever our personal addictions dictate in order to shed unwanted pounds.
‘Losing Weight with Twinkies’: ‘Lean body mass’ and long-term health
Notice I used the words “weight loss” and not “fat loss”; ‘weight loss’ connotes the loss of tissue (including the solid, healthy type) – ‘fat loss’ means… well…obviously, the loss of body fat. A true reading of what the Twinkie Diet did to the good professor’s body would include body composition ratios; measurements comparing lean body mass (muscle) to body fat. It would at least include measuring body fat to monitor the exact drop of that specific tissue during the diet. Why does this matter? Because his ease at keeping body fat off in the future depends, in part, by how much muscle he was able to retain. If professor Haub lost substantial muscle tissue then the Twinkie Diet, in my opinion, is hardly worth its mention. But this easily measurable ratio was never part of the experiment.
Of noteworthy mention: Mr. Haub drank a daily protein shake while on his Twinkie diet. Not surprising for a nutrition professor, but a foresight for sparing muscle and retaining tissue of which an average junk-food junkie typically isn’t aware.
Professor Haub claims he went from eating around 2,600 daily calories down to about 1,800 daily calories to lose the 27 pounds – a daily caloric deficit of 800 calories. Since each pound of body fat is composed of around 3,500 calories, this deficit within the ten-week diet should have shed around 16 pounds of fat (70 x 800/3,500 = 16).
How do we account for the remaining ten pounds?
There are 2.7 grams of water attached to every gram of carbohydrate. Additionally, there’s usually a drop in bodily sodium that occurs with reductions in food consumption. So a simple drop in carbohydrate intake (regardless of carb source) can cause a big drop in water weight. I’ve seen this phenomenon account for five to seven pounds of weight loss right out of the gate when calorie-cutting is undertaken.
What about the other 6 or 7 pounds he lost? Was it youth-gotten muscle he’d retained into his forties? If so, now it’s gone unless he builds it back; an unseen misfortune to the extent that it accelerates sarcopenia. Consequently, his next foray into 2,600 daily calories could have him acquiring even more of the Pillsbury Doughboy shape than he ever had previously. No problem if he doesn’t mind it.
But regardless of dietary tactics, I think cutting 2.7 pounds of weight each week is too fast for retaining valuable muscle – something that can come back to bite us on the glutes (what’s left of them) later on.
‘Losing Weight with Twinkies’: Not likely healthy
Professor Haub reported a lower blood pressure after his ‘Twinkie Diet’: a typical positive benefit of lower body fat and lower sodium/water retention. No surprise here – and hardly an indication of long-term health benefits unless he manages to keep those fat pounds off.
Haub claims to be “scratching his head” over some of the findings – namely, that his LDL cholesterol readings (“bad” cholesterol) were down by 20% due to the diet and his HDL (“good” cholesterol) was up. I can’t say I understand the mystery here; it can easily be explained by a concomitant reduction in saturated fat that likely accompanied the replacement of typical animal protein intake with daily “protein shakes.” More generally, one would simply need to know professor Haub’s dietary habits prior to “losing weight with Twinkies” to account for his reduction in triglycerides that occurred with the diet.
But we all know there’s more to long-term health than getting body fat under control. Haub concedes that he would not recommend his ‘Twinkie diet’ to anyone. He’ll admit the jury’s still out on risks of diseases like cancer and diabetes due to high consumption of junk food at the expense of consuming a nutritious diet.
“The Twinkie Diet”: Yes, it’s the calories… but…
Do professor Haub’s ‘Twinkie Diet’ findings relegate the recommendations of healthy dieting to the realm of the negligible? Has he made void certain concepts that have been bandied about for the past decades with his ‘losing weight with Twinkies’ strategy? What does this one-man experiment say about dietary specifics such as:
- The value of the glycemic index as a fat loss tool?
- The value of the thermal effect of food as a fat loss tool?
- The value of macro-nutrient partitioning for losing fat?
- The value of building muscle and retaining it for long-term acquisition and sustenance of a lean body?
… And maybe a dozen more methods that make the getting and keeping of a lean body easier.
Answer: It doesn’t negate them and even reinforces them. Yes… it’s the calorie-count that’s the foundation of fat loss. Yet every other “trick” to losing body fat can be linked to calorie reduction and making adherence to that reduction an easier ordeal over the long-term. Low glycemic foods are typically lower in calories than high glycemic foods. If I eat raw carrots until I’m satiated, I’ll likely have consumed fewer calories than if I eat Twinkies until I’m satiated. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t eat so much healthy food as to get or maintain body fat by doing so. I could (if anyone could – it’d be me). But I’m healthier, less likely to eat excess calories, and less likely to have blood sugar swings that create cravings for excess carbohydrate at successive meals if I choose the raw carrots.
Bottom Line: ‘Losing weight with Twinkies’, or any junk-food diet for “weight loss”, is a great way to get national publicity. But it doesn’t likely set a good example of what to do for the millions of overly-plump people who are trying to wean themselves off an addiction to that junk.