What’s the Point of the Twinkie Diet?

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flickr.com/precipice

This story has been every where, so I’m sure you already know about the so-called Twinkie Diet.

Kansas State University nutrition professor Dr. Mark Haub has made international headlines for putting himself on an 1,800 calorie diet that represents what you might find in a convenience store:  Twinkies, Little Debbies, powdered donuts and other snack cakes.

He did it to make a point to his students — that it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you’re reducing calories.  In otherwords: it’s the calories, stupid.


Haub has been chronicling his weight loss journey on his Facebook page  Prof. Haub’s Diet Experiments, and has been busy with media interviews now that his little class project is over.  4915303816_246605de19

After 2 months,  Haub lost 27 pounds, dropped his LDL or “bad” cholesterol by 20%, increased his HDL or “good cholesterol by 20% and reduced his triglycerides or blood fats by 39%.  He’s been talking about his diet success every where from Good Morning America to  CNN Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds.

Here’s a clip of  Haub discussing the experiment in his nutrition lab at Kansas State, which is my alma mater.  It’s kinda strange for me to see him talking about the Twinkie Diet in Justin Hall — where I spent 6 years as an undergraduate and graduate student studying nutrition.

Countless studies have demonstrated that the  composition of the diet — or the various combinations of  carbs, protein and fat — seems to matter less than the total number of calories for losing weight.  Even so, sometimes it takes a stunt like this to hammer home a message.   But is this Twinkie Diet sending the wrong message — even if the intentions were good?

supersize meCertainly it’s not the first time someone has used their own body to illustrate a point.  Who can forget  Morgan Spurlock who lived on McDonald’s for a month and documented his story in the movie Super Size Me.

In reality, no one is really going to eat only McDonald’s for a month, and no one is really going to try the Twinkie Diet.  Or will they?

Unfortunately, some of the media coverage is making this sound like the latest diet craze.  Some stories may leave you thinking that this is not such a bad idea. It works, why not try it?  Hey, that’s not why the good professor did this.

Yes, he lost weight –  but let’s don’t make this regimen sound appealing and worth trying.

Here’s one example from the New York Daily News Lose weight by eating junk food

Want to lose weight without giving up junk food?

It may sound too good to be true, but nutrition professor Mark Haub proved you can have your cake and eat it too – by putting himself on a “Snack Cake Diet” and losing 27 pounds in 2 months.

And here’s the segment from CBS  News Twinkie diet for weight loss, Is professor Haub on to something?

What should you eat to lose weight? Lettuce? Bean sprouts? How about a Twinkie with a soda pop chaser?

On Good Morning America, co-anchor Juju Chang makes it sound like there are some distinct advantages of the Twinkie Diet over eating healthy food.

It’s all about calorie restrictions. If you eat healthy food you’re tempted to eat more of it because it’s healthy.

Come on.  Let’s don’t make the Twinkie Diet the next Cabbage Soup Diet or Master Cleanse.

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There are some positive takeaways from this little experiment:

  • Total calories count – not low carb, low fat, the Zone percentages or some magical formula of carbs, protein and fat
  • Losing weight can improve cholesterol levels and other health markers, such as blood pressure and blood sugar levels
  • Demonized “junk food” can  be included in a weight loss diet — so you can still enjoy some of your favorite foods and lose weight (keeping in mind portion size and moderation)

Yet, there are some messages that I hope aren’t reinforced.  Here’s what I hope people will keep in mind:

  • The quality of calories still matter.
  • Skinny doesn’t equal healthy.
  • A supplement doesn’t make up for a nutrient-poor diet.
  • A successful diet is sustainable , not a quick fix.

This experiment also raised the issue of food deserts — or the problem of accessibility of healthy, nutritious foods. It’s true that some people live in areas with few grocery stores and farmers markets.  So perhaps this “convenience store, junk food diet” is how some people truly eat.  Let’s don’t give them a reason to think it’s OK.

Take a look at what others have had to say:

WebMD
Livin La Vida Low-Carb
Food Navigator (podcast)
Diet Blog
Examiner.com
U.S. News & World Report

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10 Comments

  • Michelle Dudash, RD

    Well said, Janet. Maybe this will make the low-carbers realize that, yes, they can eat carbs and lose weight. Granted the Twinkie Diet doesn’t offer the healthy carbs, but carbs nonetheless.

  • IMHO, the strongest response to “The Twinkie Challenge” are references to controlled experiments (not stunts) that demonstrate sustainable solutions for weight control.

    Here is one such study.

    Mediterranean Diet and Weight Loss

  • Although find it quite amusing to read about these silly diets, I cannot imagine doing something like that to my body! I don’t understand why you would want to!

  • Couple questions: 1. With next to no fiber, did he get constipated? 2. Did he increase his exercise? 3. What about energy levels and sugar crashes, how did he feel?

  • Couple questions: 1. With next to no fiber, did he get constipated? 2. Did he increase his exercise? 3. What about energy levels and sugar crashes, how did he feel?

  • Couple questions: 1. With next to no fiber, did he get constipated? 2. Did he increase his exercise? 3. What about energy levels and sugar crashes, how did he feel?

  • Pingback: Nutritional Moralization « Pythagorean Crank()

  • Especially like your “positive takeaways” and “messages I hope aren’t reinforced”. What I don’t think people understand is that this fellow did this for a short period of time. I wonder what the headlines would be if he’d followed the nutrition of the Twinkie diet for 30 years?

  • Mark Haub

    Sorry to get in on this soooo late.

    Brenna — No, no constipation, no increase in exercise (~90 min/wk, not optimal but I didn’t want exercise to be the scapegoat), no crashes — maybe because cakes are low GI (so are sugar coated corn flakes). The low carb individuals illustrate that fiber is only helpful for constipation with a higher carb diet. I’ve followed Atkins and didn’t experience constipation with that diet either — I personally think dietary fat helps, too.

    Michelle — It’s interesting that the low carbohydrate ‘folks’ were not supportive given dietitians and others opposed their lifestyle just a few years ago.

    Carrie — There are some who eat this way daily (they personally contacted me). While that way of eating is not how I prefer to eat/live, one aspect was to show the there can be other ways that many may not support to change their health outcomes. I don’t see how someone can eat vegan, but I support their choice if they are mentally/physically/emotionally/spiritually healthy.

    Michael — while a “stunt”, case reports are evidence. Regarding RCTs, which I do in our lab at K-State, they have yet to determine whether a specific food is “bad” or should be avoided. A point of this was to demonstrate that net energy controls metabolic health outcomes and body composition. The stunt did help disspell several misconceptions — lean mass would be the primary body composition component ‘lost’, trans-fat foods cause increased LDL and total cholesterol, “sugary” foods lead to increased glucose (my BG decreased >20%). The health outcomes of my weight loss lifestyle were actually in line with nearly all clinical weight loss trials.

    Richard — The duration aspect is interesting, as I used to be hesitant to recommend “phase” diet approaches as occurs with Atkins/South Beach. Since reaching the target BMI of ‘normal’, I altered my eating and simply have been eating smaller portions to maintain weight. Thus, the short duration to get me back on track worked — no stunt as it was a real outcome that has personally affected me. Phases, or short term changes, may not be for everyone but might work for some. The key is that they need to realize that they will likely not be able to eat they way they used to (unless they increase energy expenditure enough).

    Thanks for all of your questions and I enjoyed speaking “meeting” Janet a few months ago. Best wishes for healthy enjoyable living to all — Mark

  • Janet

    Thanks Mark for offering your comments.
    It’s interesting to see everyone’s take on your experiment.
    My article about calories, including the Twinkie diet, is in this month’s Cooking Light magazine.
    So thank you Mark for your help with this.
    You have certainly got people talking!

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