Weird Science

According to a recent article from CNN, Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University lost 27 pounds over 10 weeks by living on what CNN is calling a “Twinkie diet.” Haub would eat a sugary snack cake like a Twinkie, or a Little Debby cake every three hours, instead of meals. He threw in Doritos, sugary cereal and Oreos into the mix, too. The point of the experiment was to explore Haub’s thesis that what matters most in weight loss is not the nutritional value of food, but the calories of what you eat.

I have a bunch of problems with this. First, allow me to attack the experiment itself, the results of which Haub has dutifully been reporting on a Facebook page dedicated to it. Over the course of the experiment, Haub limited himself to 1,800 calories a day, two thirds of which came from junk food. The remainder tended to come from things like a little whole milk and some baby carrots. He would also take a multi-vitamin. Haub reportedly engaged in moderate exercise during this time, but the article did not specify. All of this stacks up against the 2,600 calories a day a man of Haub’s pre-dieting size is said to take in.

Now, this is a no-brainer. Anybody familiar with weight loss, let alone a nutrition professor, knows that 1,800 calories a day paired with moderate activity (which I’ll assume for the purposes of this project is anything more than sitting on the couch, just to give Haub the benefit of the doubt)will result in weight loss. Hell, if Haub had eaten junk food exclusively at that calorie level he still would have lost weight. My point is…so what?

Somebody somewhere wants you to think this is diet food.

Considering that our national obesity level has not just gotten sky-high but reached cruising altitude, Haub’s experiment does more harm than good. Weight loss should be a nationwide concern, but the problem with our national obesity isn’t just a matter of excess weight. It is that as we eat the high-starch, high-sugar, high-fat foods that make us as big as we are, we take in a pitiful amount of the colorful, nutritious foods (i.e., fruits and vegetables) that fill us with the vitamins we need to stay healthy. Weight loss should only ever be a means to an end, that end being optimum health.

This is not to say that there is any merit to the ridiculous “health at any size” movement that is trying to legitimize obesity. If you’re overweight, you are not as healthy as you could be, case closed. But if you are losing weight, it is just as important to maintain one’s level of nutrition also. For anyone to address excess weight through Haub’s “convenience store diet” does little good, as it does not address the unhealthy eating and exercise habits that led to one’s excessive weight in the first place.

Normally, I would chalk off this story as the kind of pablum CNN has resorted to in recent years to gain viewers. (Oh, CNN. I remember when you were a respectable news outlet. Before you tried to go toe to toe with circus acts like FOX and MSNBC. Tragic.) However, the story was linked by a Facebook friend of mine, and on Haub’s own page, I found comments like this:

I hit on this a few mos ago bc I was spending so much on food. who knew a candy bar or donut for breakfast has less sugar and calories than the average fiber rich cereal recommended by the average rd? THANK YOU Professor for injecting common sense back into your profession. No one is listening to RDs anymore they give us strange food phobias and make ppl afraid to eat.

I started eating junk food daily b/c I realized that my maintenence plan was low in calories. I had to have the trade off of liking what little food I could have. If you have done the pyramid over and over w/o success, I recommend the junk food route. I look forward to eating now–no more egg white omlettes! R U with me?

Wow. This person is seeing legitimacy in Haub’s diet, which Haub himself says he would not necessarily recommend to anyone because while it made him healthier, it did not make him healthy. No kidding, Sherlock. Haub is not a bad person for this project, but he strikes me as a little irresponsible. As a nutrition professor, his job is to advance the science of nutrition (which the convenience store diet doesn’t really do), not to set eating policy for America. But come on. When you publicize your diet on Facebook and get CNN to cover it, you know the book deal is maybe six months out. And as obesity levels  show no signs of going down any time soon, it’s clear that our countrymen are more interested in finding reasons to maintaining their unhealthy lifestyles than they are in doing the hard work of getting healthy and staying healthy. The first step is admitting there is a problem. The second is learning how to be healthy again. This junk food diet nonsense does neither.

"Hi! I got this way eating Twinkies every day." Riiiight.

A bit of personal disclosure: Six months ago, I was categorically obese. I am 5’7” and I weighed 206.4 lbs. The funny thing is, by today’s standards, one would have looked at me and thought overweight, sure, but obese? Naw. But I was. The rest of my family was in a similar situation, so collectively, we adopted a vegan diet (we had been ovo-lacto vegetarians before, but we still ate way too many pizzas and French fries) and we began taking martial arts classes at a terrific local dojo. (Note: Our dojo is very familiy oriented, which made it about a million times easier for us to all get fit; taking your health seriously is best done as a group effort.) At the time of this writing, I am down to 171.1, and my wife and kids have shown similar results. I have lost only a little more weight than Haub, but I’ll put myself up against him for fitness and overall health any day of the week, because we sought a nutrition-rich diet and an exercise-heavy regimen to get healthy. I didn’t do it to look good; I did it because I watched my father fight cancer for the fourth time, and dammit, I’m not going to go down that same route. Right now, I’m healthier at 40 than I was at 20. And it wasn’t Twinkies that got me here.

The point of this story is that good health is not easy to come by in a modern society of sedentary white-collar work, a food industry dedicated to producing high-salt, high-fat, low-nutrition food, and a news media willing to publish stories about schlock-science diets that give people permission to continue pursuing their own worst eating habits.

“These foods are consumed by lots of people,” Haub said to CNN about junk food. “It may be an issue of portion size and moderation rather than total removal. I just think it’s unrealistic to expect people to totally drop these foods for fruits and vegetables. It may be healthy, but not realistic.” And this is coming from a nutrition professor. I reject Haub’s logic, and so should the rest of the life & health insurance industry. After all, it’s this very industry that is paying up front for the health cost of obesity (namely heart disease and Type II diabetes) as well as for lower margins on life insurance thanks to early departures (thanks again to heart disease and obesity-related health problems). The life and health industry has a clear and compelling reason to get America healthy, and yet we don’t see any efforts that really make waves. Why not?

This guy won't seem so flaky when he's celebrating his 100th birthday.

The CNNs of the world are dying to publish jokers like Haub and his ridiculous diet because Doritos-munching readers can’t wait to click on those stories with their dusty, orange fingers. But shame on both Haub and CNN; in an age where our national obesity rate has become an honest-to-God health crisis, the experiment and the coverage it’s gotten are more than a waste of time. They are irresponsible, for they both endorse in their own weird way, the self-destructive food that we have become addicted to as a people.

It’s hard to get people to want to learn about getting healthy with the same passion as they have for researching the merits of junk food, but the life & health industry needs to take up the challenge. It needs to do it with a unified voice, and with all of the resources it can muster. Readers of this blog have chided me on a number of occasions over the supremacy of the free market to address our largest concerns, rather than waiting for the government to get involved. I agree. And here is a golden opportunity for the market to stand and deliver.

While I cannot imagine healthcare reform gives insurers much room to maneuver when it comes to underwriting obese policyholders appropriately, insurers can provide stronger and more visible incentives for getting and staying healthy. Insurers keep some incredible records on claims and underwriting data; what if the 10 healthiest policyholders each year got a new car? Or what if the biggest weight loss earned a free trip around the world? These things are expensive, but so is an angioplasty. Come on, guys. Do the math and weigh in on this. Your policyholders need it, even if they don’t realize it.

This is your L&H profit getting sucked up, one bite at a time.