Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mindless weight-loss advice, courtesy US government

Below is a post I made on the lowcarbfriends.com forum this morning. Here's a link to that thhttp://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gifread, where you'll find responses to my post:


I wrote in response to the following USA Today article which someone had posted there.


Brian Wansink, one of the nation's top experts on eating behaviors and the author of Mindless Eating:Why We Eat More Than We Think, hopes that in his new federal job he can take a stab at reversing the obesity epidemic.

Wansink, who last week was named executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, wants to encourage people to "bump up their activity level." And he would like to work with registered dietitians and schoolteachers to help them teach others to use the government's nutrition tools, including the Food Pyramid (www.mypyramid.gov).

He'll also be forming an advisory committee to create the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These would be a science-based update of the 2005 federal guidelines, which are considered the gold standard of nutrition advice.

Wansink says it took about 30 years for obesity to get where it is today, and "it's going to take some time to reverse it."

He is taking a leave of absence from his job as director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab.

During the past 20 years, Wansink has conducted more than 200 studies of environmental factors that push Americans, sometimes unconsciously, to overeat. He believes that people are constantly "trapped" by their surroundings into consuming 100 to 200 calories more than they need or want.

He says Americans can trim a couple of hundred calories a day and lose 10 to 20 pounds a year by doing things such as avoiding open food dishes at the office, using smaller serving bowls and spoons, and leaving serving dishes on the stove instead of on the table.

His research includes the McSubway Project, a series of studies that examine the habits of fast-food customers. Much of the research compares foods at McDonald's and Subway, which advertises that it has more healthful options.

Wansink found that there's a "health halo" around a lot of the foods at restaurants such as Subway in which customers feel virtuous about their choice of meals. So, his research shows, they overeat in side dishes and grossly underestimate the number of calories they consume.

Thanks for the post.

Wansink is obviously well meaning. Too bad his ideas are totally off-base. What we've been doing for the past 30 years is:

  • Cut down our intake of dietary fat
  • Increase our intake of carbs
  • Include the liver-pummeling, belly-fattening high-fructose corn syrup that's now listed on practically every food product on the shelf.

The myth that shaving 100-200 calories a day from our diets will translate to fat loss over the course of time is exactly that: a myth. It's never been documented or demonstrated. On the contrary, what science shows is the the body simply adjusts to maintain its state.

The activity myth is also just that. People today are less active than they were 100 years ago, but more active than 30 years ago, when it was considered eccentric, rather than virtuous, to go for a daily run or belong to a gym. Is Wansink unaware of the studies in which obese individuals trained and completed marathons without losing pounds? For those individuals, his advice to "bump up their activity level" is clearly off-target.

The target Wansink misses is carbohydrate, whether simple or complex. That's what drives fat accumulation. To borrow a phrase from Dr. Michael Eades, it's a "one-way street" -- the pathway from sugar and starch into the fat cells via insulin. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) is even worse. It's doesn't cause insulin production, but goes straight to the liver, from which it is stored as fat, mainly in the tissues surrounding the organs.

The Food Pyramid concept on which Wansink pins his hopes for America's slimming was introduced about 30 years ago -- just around the time that the obesity epidemic began. The rate of overweight had been more or less stable for decades before that. Before "lowfat" was declared the universal dietary standard for everyone age 2 and over. Back when the common wisdom held that pasta, bread and lollipops are fattening.

Wansink wants to reverse a 30-year trend, but he wants to do it by intensifying the very approach that 30 years of experimentation have proven wrong.

How many more bodies and lives must be sacrificed to obesity and chronic diseases before authorities look at what the science shows, and call an end to this devastating experiment in public health?


  1. I hope it's not gauche to comment on a post that's more than 3 weeks old, but I just have to say, "Right on, sister." It's inconceivable to me that one can acquire a PhD in nutrition (which Wansink has) and not understand how insulin works. So, when he says the Atkins diet works because it's "boring," is he truly ignorant of the facts of carbohydrate metabolism? Or is he ignoring them because they don't fit into his agenda?

    Dianne aka Migraineur

  2. Dianne,

    Not gauche at all! I love your blog and I'm thrilled that you came to visit mine. This inspires me to make a page element that invites folks to comment on any post, no matter how old.

    It blows my mind, also, how out of step with reality mainstream nutrition and dietetics are. Sadly, it no longer surprises me.

    Ignorant or ignoring? Good question. I think it's the latter. It's gotta be the latter.

    Taubes (in GCBC and his UC Berkeley lecture) talks about his experiences interviewing brilliant researchers who can't, won't, can't bring themselves to, connect the dots between their analysis of insulin and metabolism and carbohydrate on the one hand, and fat accumulation on the other. It is astounding.