Mark Haub made national news five years ago for going on a diet of Twinkies, Ho Hos and junk food. He lost 27 pounds.
Haub, the head of the Department of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University, then decided to get healthy. He started eating salad and a balanced diet. He gained 17 pounds.
Not only did he gain weight, his cholesterol level increased.
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Haub’s experience adds confusion in a world already filled with conflicting research and fad diets.
If junk food and sugar are bad, why was he healthier eating Twinkies?
Consumers are bombarded with conflicting information when it comes to nutrition: Eat full fat; eat nonfat. Go gluten-free; carbs are good for you. Go Paleo and eat protein; go vegan and eat plant-based foods.
Haub said people often buy into one food theory.
“We tend to encamp ourselves in our bias,” he said. “Whether we’re pro-vegan, pro-Paleo, pro-intermittent fasting.”
Plant-based diets, for example, have gained momentum in recent years, and documentaries like “Forks Over Knives” exemplify the movement’s popularity.
The diet conforms to a vegan lifestyle but with minimal, if any, sugar and processed foods.
Supporters of certain diets often argue that “humans don’t need sugar” and “humans don’t need meat.” Haub said he likes to argue the opposite position – humans don’t need spinach, humans don’t need peaches.
In other words, humans don’t need any one specific food or type of food.
He said the reason fad diets become popular lies in the lack of nutritional education in school.
“We are food and nutrition illiterate,” he said.
When it comes time for people to make nutritional choices, they don’t have the foundational knowledge about nutrition and instead turn to documentaries, blogs and talk shows for dieting advice.
“Most people who are providing information are wealthy,” he said about health messages. “They can afford farmers market food, whereas many consumers are looking at ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches every day.
“When you hear ‘Eat more kale, eat more quinoa,’ they can’t afford that,” he said.
Junk food diet
While on the 10-week junk food diet, Haub limited himself to 1,800 calories a day. He filled most of those calories with sweet packaged snacks, sugared cereal and whole milk.
He ate a can of green beans, a couple of celery sticks or a tomato each day, along with a multivitamin, multimineral supplement and a protein shake. That’s the extent of any healthy aspects he included in his diet.
“If you look at my nutritional intake, it looked good,” he said about the supplement.
He uses the junk food experiment in teaching his undergraduate class “Energy Balance,” which also focuses on obesity and eating disorders.
One of his class slides reads: “If weight loss was not so coveted this project would have gone unnoticed.”
He started the junk food diet when the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion released its 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
Haub wanted to challenge the notion that certain foods caused obesity. His premise for the diet, he said, was that he shouldn’t be able to lose weight if junk foods were obesogenic.
While walking through the health section of a grocery store recently, he picked up a box of frosted wheat cereal and looked at the label.
“I’m not anti-sugar,” he said. “Clearly I wouldn’t have done what I did if I was anti-sugar.”
He said he doesn’t buy into the idea of a sugar addiction.
“I come to restaurants a lot, and I don’t see people stealing sugar,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the sugar that’s addicting per se. For me, it’s doughnuts and pastries – I’m not a big chocolate fan or candy fan. If sugar were addicting, it wouldn’t matter the source.”
Texture and flavor contribute to why someone likes a certain food or drink, not just sugar.
For the last few weeks of the diet, he said, he ate dinners with his family, which upped his calorie limit from 1,800 to 2,000. He said he logged his calorie intake on Livestrong.com, though people can also use smartphone apps like MyFitnessPal and Lose It.
Even though he ate sugary, processed sweets all day, he said he felt more alert and energized while on the junk food diet than usual.
He compared the feeling to an animal hunting. Animals, he said, become more alert and energetic when they search for food. While on the diet, Haub ate very little – just two mint cream Oreos used 140 calories of his 1,800 limit.
He said he sometimes caught himself in anorexic thoughts during the junk food diet. For instance, he said, if he consumed 1,200 calories by the evening, he contemplated not eating the rest of the day to speed up weight loss.
Haub’s current diet
Huab describes his current diet as varied and says he tries to eat a rainbow of different-colored food.
He shops mostly based on prices rather than organic, non-GMO or brand name.
He sometimes looks at nutritional labels, but not often. And he isn’t all that concerned about processed foods.
He likes white bread for grilled cheese, eats Ritz crackers with cheese on top and indulges in mint-filled Oreos and Nutty Bars – his favorite in the junk food aisle.
He doesn’t make a point to shop in the health section unless something is on sale.
“I try to be on the pro-science,” he said. “But I find myself heading the devil’s advocate side. Obviously what I did was on the devil’s advocate side.”
Haub looks healthy and is by no means overweight. If anything, he’s slender.
When out to lunch recently at a restaurant in Manhattan called Coco Bolos, he ordered two shrimp tacos with black beans and coconut rice.
He ate slowly and left almost a whole taco on his plate along with some of the beans and rice.
He said he usually gets to-go boxes and that he, his wife and their two kids often share three meals, with leftovers to take home.
He said he doesn’t count calories anymore but estimates he eats around 2,600 to 2,800 a day.
He said he’s happier eating a variety of foods rather than eating packaged snacks all day. On the junk food diet, he got tired of eating food at room temperature and missed hot meals.
People need to strike a balance between being satisfied with what they eat and eating food that is good for them. He said he thinks that being happy is a component of being healthy.
“Psychology is why most people go off diets,” he said.
A simple secret
In the end, the secret to Haub’s weight loss on the Twinkie diet was simple: He ate less.
But it’s not easy.
Because Haub limited his calories and lost weight, his cholesterol improved. When he ate more calories on the healthy diet, he gained weight – and with the weight gain came higher cholesterol.
Georges Elhomsy, an endocrinologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Wichita, said most people underestimate calories based on the physical size of food.
Just because the cake slice is small doesn’t mean it’s not calorie dense.
Elhomsy said he’s wary of the long-term effects from a junk food diet, and Haub agrees. Elhomsy, who eats a diet high in fruits and vegetables and limits himself to one fast-food meal a month, said the chemical buildup from junk food could cause cancer down the road.
Haub said he doesn’t suggest people go on the junk food diet or do short-term calorie-restricted diets like his.
In those fad diets, he said, supporters tend to restrict a certain kind of food or restrict what time they eat.
“You’re either cutting out carbohydrates, cutting out fat, cutting out meat or cutting out when you eat,” he said.
But nonetheless, he’s a skeptic even of his own advice to avoid fad diets. After all, he now weighs 10 pounds less than when he started the Twinkie diet.
“People say, ‘Don’t do fad diets because they’re short term,’ ” he said. “Well, mine was short term, but it helped me – it helped me understand my portion sizes were too big.”
Formula to lose a pound a week
(Weight x 10) – 500 = number of calories to eat per day
▪ The formula varies with age, metabolism and exercise
▪ Don’t eat below 1,200 calories without medical supervision
▪ Don’t continually lower calories with each pound lost
Source: Georges Elhomsy, endocrinologist at University of Kansas Wichita Medical Center