Junkfood Science: November Diet Wackiness

November 30, 2006

November Diet Wackiness

This month, we’ve heard about the:

* Doggie Diet, where dogs and their owners lose weight together with a “fitness unleashed” program

* Cookie Diet creator promoting another extreme Calorie Restriction diet of 800 calories a day

* Mini Liquid Diet, that includes a liter of water a day and eliminates liquids — such as juices, low-fat milk, tea and coffee — claimed to “drive you to eat more”

* Water Diet, also called the Before, During and After diet because it advocates drinking three 8 ounces of water with each meal

* Not Dieting Diet whose author claims to have lost 235 pounds by eating all of the “good carbs, fats and proteins” he wanted

* Dr. Oz’ Diet as seen on Oprah that promises effortless weight loss to last a lifetime by just cutting 100 calories a day, eliminating “bad” fats and white ingredients (sugar, flour), eating the same few breakfast and lunch foods every day (and having regular sex helps)

* Among what I call the “It’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle” diets, the Healthy Weight Journal Challenge and another Non-Diet Diet both promised weight loss simply by making “better eating” choices and developing “healthy lifestyles”

* And so many more!

The diet industry thrives on selling false hope and the belief that we can all be slim, but two diets took mind over matter to new heights: the Ear Staple Diet and the False Memory Diet!

Ear stapling for weight loss has been getting serious buzz on weight loss blogs. Many have received flyers about the magic of biomagnetics, seen it on television or heard about it from friends. By stapling titanium points into ears, proponents convince people that toxins are being removed from their cells — with the help of 10 glasses of water a day and using a special formula on their bodies — resulting in weight loss.

Biomagnetics claims have been around for years, accompanied by numerous products which have received disciplinary actions by the FDA, FTC and state Attorney Generals for fraud. A critical review by Quackwatch examined the scientific evidence surrounding biometrics.

Incredibly, the False Memory Diet was actually discussed on Yale University’s Rudd Center blog as an interesting, novel approach with promise. Professor Elizabeth Loftus, known for her work on false memories, spoke at Rutgers about a recent study where she and colleagues were able to convince 40% of the volunteer subjects that they had gotten sick as a child while eating strawberry ice cream. The subjects really believed that it had happened and as a result their preferences for ice cream dropped on a later questionnaire. She said it didn’t work with chocolate chips and potato chips, perhaps because people eat them more often and like them too much, and were less likely to believe the foods once made them sick. The overall idea is that people could be led to avoid “fattening” foods by suggesting a false memory. Sort of mental aversion therapy.

While it hasn’t been tested with real food, the news reported that Dr. Loftus suggested that parents try it with their own children. That’s right, try to implant false memories into innocent children to make them believe certain foods make them sick!

False memory claims have been around for years, too. Cases have surged so dramatically that it’s been called the “mental health crisis of the 1990s,” said Stephen Barrett, M.D. of Quackwatch. The False Memory Syndrome Foundation was formed in 1992 to help victims and their families and offers more information, if you’re curious.

What these diets have in common, with so many ideas surrounding our food, is that their promoters understand, more than most of us, just how incredibly powerful our beliefs are and how easily we can all be taken in. Faith is how we become convinced that one diet has something special — over every other weight loss diet that hasn’t worked — and offers “hope.” Many see diets as a way of taking charge over something (body weight) they feel they can control and that society tells us must and can fit a certain measure. “If we eat this and avoid that, then we all can have a thin figure.”

When it comes to losing or gaining weight, we can place our beliefs in almost anything, as most gimmicks will work for the short term, but in time our bodies will stubbornly return themselves to the general size we were genetically meant to be. Nature has better tricks. :)

Clinical studies have demonstrated for decades that we have limited long-term control over our naturally-diverse body weights beyond about ten pounds (excluding rare health conditions). Even extreme, unhealthful measures cannot be maintained unless we have no choice, such as famines or bariatric surgery-imposed anorexia. As Jeffrey M. Friedman, head of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at Rockefeller University in New York, has said: “The heritability of obesity is equivalent to that of height and greater than that of almost every other condition that has been studied.” Despite all of the dieting and exercise, or pigging out and sloth, over the long-term, “people can exert a level of control over their weight within a 10-, perhaps a 15-pound range,” he said. That’s never going to be enough to healthfully change our body types.

Although diets don’t work, we continue to flock to them and believe they are life-saving. And when each diet fails, we believe it is us who failed, not the diet. These sentiments share a surprising similarity to what professor Jonathan Waxman, professor of oncology at Imperial College in London, wrote this week in the British Medical Journal. It is worthy of its own post, which follows.

Musing:No healthful weight loss or weight control method over the past century has been shown to result in long-term, sustained weight loss for virtually anyone who tries them. How much scientific evidence will it take before everyone makes peace with their bodies and their food, and enjoys the full variety of both to the fullest?

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