It is not very hard to find studies supporting one diet or another. Gardner and colleagues, for example, conducted a study in which the Atkins diet came out on top when compared with the Zone, Ornish, and LEARN diets (). In Dansinger and colleagues’ study (), on the other hand, following the Atkins diet led to relatively poor results compared with the Ornish, Weight Watchers, and Zone diets.
Often the diets compared have different macronutrient ratios, which end up becoming the focus of the comparison. Many consider Sacks and colleagues’ conclusion, based on yet another diet comparison study (), to be the most consistent with the body of evidence as a whole: “Reduced-calorie diets result in clinically meaningful weight loss regardless of which macronutrients they emphasize”.
I think there is a different conclusion that is even more consistent with the body of evidence out there. This conclusion is highlighted by the findings of almost all diet studies where participants were followed for more than 1 year. But the relevant findings are typically buried in the papers that summarize the studies, and are almost never mentioned in the abstracts. Take for example the study by Toubro and Astrup (); Figure 3 below is used by the authors to highlight the study’s main reported finding: “Ad lib, low fat, high carbohydrate diet was superior to fixed energy intake for maintaining weight after a major weight loss”.
But what does the figure above really tell us? It tells us, quite simply, that both diets succeeded at first, and then eventually failed. One failed slightly less miserably than the other, in this study. The percentage of subjects that maintained a weight loss above 25 kg (about 55 lbs) approached zero after 12 months, in both diets. This leads us to the conclusion below, which is always missing in diet studies even when the evidence is staring back at us. This is arguably the conclusion that is the most consistent with the body of evidence out there.
All diets succeed at first, and eventually fail.
In using the terms “succeed” and “fail” I am referring to the diets’ effects on the majority of the participants. This is in fact better demonstrated by the figure below, from the same study by Toubro and Astrup; it is labeled as Figure 2 there. Most of the participants at a certain weight, lose a lot of weight within a period of 1 year or so, and after 2 years (see the two points at the far right) are at the same original weight again. What is the average time to regain back the weight? From what I’ve seen in the literature, all the weight and some tends to be regained after 2-3 years.
The regained weight is not at all lean body mass. It is primarily, if not entirely, body fat. In fact, many studies suggest that those who diet tend to have a higher percentage of body fat when they regain their original weight; proportionally to how fast they regain the weight lost. Since the extra body fat tends to cause additional problems, which are compounded by the dieting process’ toll on the body, those dieters would have been slightly better off not having dieted in the first place.
Guyenet and Schwartz have recently authored an article that summarizes quite nicely what tends to happen with both obese and lean dieters (). Take a look at Figure 2 of the article below. The obese need to lose body fat to improve health markers, and avoid a number of downstream complications, such as type 2 diabetes and cancer (). Yet, with very few exceptions, the obese (and even the overweight) remain obese (or overweight) after dieting; regardless of the diet.
So what about those exceptions, what do they do to lose significant amounts of body fat and keep it off? Well, I rarely use myself as an example for anything in this blog, but this is something with which I unfortunately/fortunately have personal experience. I was obese, lost about 60 lbs of weight, and kept it off for quite a while already (). Like most of the formerly obese, I can very easily gain body fat back.
But I don’t seem to be gaining back the formerly lost body fat, and the reason is consistent with some of the studies based on data from the National Weight Control Registry, which stores information about adults who lost 30 lbs or more of weight and kept it off for at least 1 year (). I systematically measure my weight, body fat percentage, and a number of other variables; probably even more than the average National Weight Control Registry member. Based on those measurements, I try to understand how my body responds in the short and long term to stimuli such as different exercise, types of food, calorie restriction, sleep patterns etc.
And I act accordingly to keep any body fat gain from happening; by, for example, varying calorie intake, increasing exercise intensity, varying the types of food I eat etc. With a few exceptions (e.g., avoiding industrial seed oils), there is no generic formula. Customization based on individual responses and cyclical patterns seems to be a must.
Looking back, it was relatively easy for me to lose all that fat. This is consistent with the studies summarized in this post; all diets that rely on caloric reduction work marvelously at first for most people. The really difficult part is to keep the body fat off. I believe that this is especially true as the initial years go by, and becomes easier after that. This has something to do with initial inertia, which I will discuss soon in a post on metabolic rates and their relationship with overall body mass.
For people living in the wild, I can see one thing working in their favor. And that is not regular starvation; sapiens is too smart for that. It is laziness. Hunger has to reach a certain threshold for people to want to do some work to get their food; this acts as a natural body composition regulator, something that I intend to discuss in one of my next posts. It seems that people almost never become obese in the wild, without access to industrial foods.
As for living in the wild, in spite of the romantic portrayals of it, the experience is not as appealing after you really try it. The book Yanomamo: The Fierce People () is a solid, if not somewhat shocking, reminder of that. I had the opportunity to meet and talk at length with its author, the great anthropologist Nap Chagnon, at one of the Human Behavior and Evolution Society conferences. The man is a real-life Indiana Jones ().
In the formerly obese, the body seems to resort to “guerrilla warfare”, employing all kinds of physiological and psychological mechanisms, some more subtle than others, to make sure that the lost fat is recovered. Why? I have some ideas, which I have discussed indirectly in posts throughout this blog, but I still need to understand the whole process a bit better. My ideas build on the notion of compensatory adaptation ().
You might have heard some very smart people say that you do not need to measure anything to lose body fat and keep it off. Many of those people have never been obese. Those who have been obese often had not cleared the 2-3 year “danger zone” by the time they made those statements.
There are many obese or overweight public figures (TV show hosts, actors, even health bloggers) who embark on a diet and lose a dramatic amount of body fat. They talk and/or write for a year or so about their success, and then either “disappear” or start complaining about health issues. Those health issues are often part of the “guerrilla warfare” I mentioned above.
A few persistent public figures will gain the fat back, in part or fully, and do the process all over again. It makes for interesting drama, and at least keeps those folks in the limelight.