The world would have you believe that losing weight is easy, but the truth is, in many cases, you’re being fed a generous helping of falsehoods and misguided dieting advice.
The media, celebrities, weight-loss gurus, and the Internet bombard society with recommendations about how to shed unwanted pounds: Count calories, cut carbs, exercise more, skip meals, drink more water, pop a pill. Yet as more people try diligently to follow this advice, waistlines continue to expand.
In Supersized Lies, Robert J. Davis, PhD, aka The Healthy Skeptic, shows you why this inability to lose weight isn’t your fault as he reveals how hype, half-truths, and unproven solutions have steered you into fruitless quests that inflict emotional and physical harm.
In this health and wellness book, the award-winning health journalist, whose work has appeared on CNN, WebMD, and in The Wall Street Journal, reveals:
– Which weight-loss measures are most – and least – likely to be effective.
– How conventional wisdom about weight loss is often wrong.
– How to spot misleading weight-loss advice, and avoid being duped into wasting time, money, and effort.
– How, contrary to what we often hear, effective weight control doesn’t require following complicated, restrictive rules.
– The interesting history behind flawed weight-loss advice, and the forces that currently perpetuate and benefit from it.
In addition to uncovering how and why we’re being led astray, Supersized Lies lays out weight-control strategies that research shows actually work, and it tells the inspiring stories of people who, after falling victim to the falsehoods of conventional guidance, have achieved success by forging their own paths.
Written in a lively, easy-to-understand style, this myth-shattering book sheds surprising new light on old assumptions and offers an inspiring way forward to those caught in the cacophony of weight-loss advice.
Targeted Age Group:: 25 – 55
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I have a personal interest in health and wellness, and many people I know struggle with their weight. There is so much confusing and conflicting information about weight loss, which makes weight control even harder. So drawing on my background in public health, I evaluate the claims and help people figure out what's believable and what's not so they can make more informed decisions.
Chapter 1: Pick Your Villain
Husky. Full-seated. Spare tire. They’re words I vividly remember clothing store clerks and family friends using to describe my physique when I was a child. Though intended to be polite, the observations still stung because even at age 8, I knew exactly what they meant: I was fat.
In an effort to help me slim down, my mother instructed me to forgo bread. The advice reflected what she’d learned growing up, that starchy foods are the main culprit when it comes to weight. I complied with her directive (at least in her presence) even at my favorite restaurant and reluctantly removed the buns from my McDonald’s hamburgers.
When I got to college in the 1980s and became interested in nutrition, I laughed as I recalled Mom’s weight-loss prescription. According to what I was now learning, she’d had it backwards. The main cause of weight gain was fat, not starches. So she should have told me to skip the burger, not the bun.
Had I been an overweight child today, my mother—who keeps up with the latest nutrition thinking—might well have fingered a different culprit and put the kibosh instead on the sugary soda that I typically ordered with my hamburgers.
Luckily for me, I became thinner as I grew. But our society has not outgrown our insatiable desire to find a dietary villain that we can blame for our expanding waistlines. We lurch from one to another, from fat to carbs to gluten to soda. Or, depending on which diet you follow, the enemy might be animal products, legumes, cooked foods, acidic foods, or foods that our ancestors didn’t eat.
It’s human nature to gravitate toward good-versus-evil explanations for complex problems. We see the same phenomenon in other areas of life, including politics. While having a clearly defined enemy may satisfy our primal need for a simple narrative to make sense of things, it can do harm if it distracts us from what really matters.
That’s what’s happened in our battle with weight. We’ve been led down one dead end after another chasing elusive bad guys that keep changing. A variety of forces have cheered us on in this chase, including diet peddlers, the news media, and food manufacturers that are more than delighted to sell us all the fat-free, carb-free, or other enemy-free foods we can eat.
Nutrition researchers, obesity experts, and government agencies also bear responsibility for leading us astray by overstating the certainty of the science when it comes to culprits. What research does show is that weight-loss diets that demonize whole categories of foods may work in the short term, but in the long run, they’re rarely sustainable. And they can make matters worse. As Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, author of The Diet Fix, puts it: “The notion that there’s one causal food, or category of food, that is leading society to gain weight is a dangerous one.”
The concept of off-limits foods has been around since the beginning of recorded history. After all, in the Bible it was forbidden fruit that led to the suffering of Adam and Eve and, according to the story, all of humanity. But few edible bogeymen have engendered such widespread fear and loathing as dietary fat.
The case against fat began in the 1950s, when scientist Ancel Keys launched the landmark Seven Countries Study and found that nations with higher intakes of saturated fat had higher rates of heart disease. Though anti-carb crusaders have posthumously accused Keys of rigging his research to prove what he wanted—as I said earlier, every narrative needs a villain—a white paper reviewing the facts reveals that charge to be false.
Keys’ research along with other studies prompted a landmark report in 1977 by the US Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Health Needs, which urged Americans to eat less fat and more complex carbohydrates. Named the “McGovern Report” after the committee’s chairman, Senator George McGovern, it put a giant bull’s-eye on the backs of high-fat foods like beef, eggs, whole milk, cheese, nuts, and butter.
While the focus was mainly on preventing heart disease, proponents of a low-fat diet pushed it as a way to control weight as well. The rationale was that, per gram, fat has more than twice as many calories as carbohydrates or protein. Also, the body converts excess dietary fat into stored fat relatively easily and uses less energy to process fat than carbs or protein, which means we absorb more of the calories from fat.
Support also came from studies in animals showing that when fed high-fat diets, they gain body fat and become obese. But the evidence for this in people was inconclusive. Nevertheless, the message fed to the public was unambiguous: Eating fat makes you fat. Promoted by nutritionists, news reports, and diet books, the mantra became a familiar refrain of the 1980s and ’90s.
Among those leading the charge against fat has been Dr. Dean Ornish, whose best-selling books include Eat More, Weigh Less, published in 1993. When it was first introduced, the Ornish diet eliminated not only meat, chicken, and fish, but also nuts, seeds, avocados, vegetable oils, and even low-fat dairy products. (Today, Ornish permits small amounts of nuts and seeds.)
Among the foods allowed in the original version of the Ornish diet were tortilla chips, pretzels, crackers, and other packaged foods, as long as they were fat-free. The federal government gave a thumbs-up to such products as well. In its Healthy People 2000 goals, released in 1990, the US Department of Health and Human Services called for the food industry to offer at least 5,000 reduced-fat processed foods by the end of the ’90s. The industry exceeded that target, flooding the market with low- and no-fat items like salad dressings, chips, ice cream, and of course cookies; SnackWell’s became an emblem of the era. These low-fat foods, promoted on the pages of women’s and lifestyle magazines as healthy and weight-friendly alternatives to their high-fat counterparts, often had added sugar to compensate for the reduction in fat and contained the same or even more calories.
We all know what happened during this period: While the percentage of calories from fat went down, obesity rates went up, along with the incidence of diabetes. Experts continue to debate the reasons. Some argue that we didn’t reduce our fat intake enough. Others say we ate the wrong (i.e., processed) kind of low-fat foods. There’s also the fact that calorie intake overall continued to climb.
Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Our society’s fat-focused strategy to fight obesity was a big failure and arguably made the problem worse.
Dr. Robert Atkins offered a different explanation for this outcome: We’d pursued the wrong suspect. Fat was innocent, he argued, and the real perpetrators were the pasta, potatoes, and other carbohydrates we were being urged to eat.
The notion that carbs promote weight gain wasn’t new. More than a century earlier, William Banting had described his own low-carb weight-loss plan in Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. In this best-selling pamphlet, first published in 1863, the previously obese English undertaker revealed that he had shed 46 pounds by following his doctor’s advice to avoid sugar, starch, and “saccharine matter.” The first international diet book sensation, it was so popular that bant became a verb meaning “to diet.”
A 1950s incarnation of the carb-restricted regimen was Dr. Alfred Pennington’s DuPont diet, so named because Pennington had prescribed it to overweight employees at the DuPont company. In a 1953 New England Journal of Medicine article, Pennington reported that limiting carbohydrates to 1 or 2 percent of calories had “worked out very well” for weight loss because it caused the body to draw on fat stores—a claim familiar to anyone today who follows the keto diet.
The 1960s brought the publication of several low-carb diets, including the best seller Calories Don’t Count, by Dr. Herman Taller, who was convicted of mail fraud and conspiracy for using the book to promote safflower oil capsules; The Drinking Man’s Diet, by cosmetics executive Robert Cameron, which allowed all the meat and booze you wanted but no bread or pasta; and Martinis & Whipped Cream—how’s that for an enticing title?—which included the chapter “Villain Carbohydrates Unmasked.”
Atkins, a cardiologist, jumped on the anti-carb bandwagon in the 1960s, and in 1972 published his first book, Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution. Given the 100-year history of carb-shunning, Atkins’ prescription for weight loss was hardly revolutionary. But as historian Hillel Schwartz observed, “Each time the diet has reappeared, it has been impervious to its past.”
The Atkins diet appeared once again in the 1990s when he released Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution. Capitalizing on people’s dissatisfaction with low-fat diets, Atkins’ message that steak and bacon were okay and that bread was bad helped make his book a best seller. Other low-carb diets followed, such as the Zone and South Beach diets. While the diets’ regimens differed, all singled out carbohydrates as a contributor to weight gain and restricted them to varying degrees.
Manufacturers of everything from energy bars to ice cream rushed to push out thousands of reformulated products, this time with fewer carbs and more fat. Among those peddling such foods was Atkins himself through his company Atkins Nutritionals. Though Atkins died in 2003, his success at making carbohydrates a dirty word for millions of people continues to this day. He “cast a very long shadow,” in the words of Diet Cults author Matt Fitzgerald, who asks rhetorically: “Would the gluten-free diet trend or the Paleo Diet have caught fire . . . if Atkins had not first changed the average eater’s view of grains?”
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