Is this the dumbest nutrition ‘experiment’ ever performed?

Earlier this week my eye was drawn to this report. It concerns the attempts of a professor of human nutrition at the Kansas State university in US to prove that weight management is down to caloric balance and nothing else. The experiment appears to counter the idea that low-carbohydrate diets have merit over those richer in carbohydrate. Here’s the ‘experiment’ in a nutshell:

Professor Mark Haub ate several hundred calories less a day than the amount estimated to be necessary to maintain his weight. He ate mainly sugary, carb-rich junk food each day. After 10 weeks, his weight had dropped 27 lbs and he’d lost significant body fat too. The conclusion: it doesn’t matter what you eat if weight loss is the goal, it’s only calories that count.

While I do not buy into the ‘it’s only calories that count’ school of thinking, I do believe that inducing a caloric deficit of several hundred calories each day is likely to being about weight loss. I don’t know anyone, in or out of the ‘low-carb community’ who would dispute this (though I accept some people may hold this view). The point is Professor Haub has demonstrated through personal, anecdotal experience that the vast majority of people would not dispute. He has, in effect, demonstrated what most people would be regarded as something entirely predictable. Nice work Professor Haub.

If Professor Haub was in any way genuinely interested in exploring the relative merits of different types of diets he might at least have put himself on a different diet at a different time, but at the same time keeping calorie intake the same as the junk-fuelled diet.

Whether he found a difference in effect or not would still not tell us much, however. After all, truly scientific experiments tend to need to use more than one subject to have enough power to discern any difference in the effect of two approaches.

There is at least some evidence that the ratio of ‘macronutrients’ (fat, carb, protein) may have some bearing on weight loss in a way that goes beyond mere calories. Whether this is the case or not is not yet well established, in my opinion, but the point is we have certainly got no further to the truth as the results of Professor Haub’s ‘experiment’.

Leaving this issue aside, some argue that low-carb diets have benefits for those seeking to lose weight because they tend to be more satisfying. That means individuals are more likely to find such an approach sustainable in the long term. I’ve certainly had a lot of personal experience here, and the science supports this too: individuals who cut carbs do tend to eat less quite automatically and without undue hunger. Many of the individuals who have read and acted on my last book (Waist Disposal) have found they have lost weight eating a diet that they enjoy and leaves them satisfied. See here for reader reviews regarding this.

In this book, I review the evidence pitting low-carb against low-fat diets. Putting the relevant studies together I found that low-carb diets, overall, bring about twice as much weight loss as low-fat ones.

But good health is not only about healthy weight, it’s also about other things including wellbeing and health. And here, again, the studies show that overall low-carb diets trump low-fat ones in terms of disease markers including blood sugar and blood fat levels.

Professor Haub’s ‘experiment’ has had a lot of attention, but needs to be seen for what it is (a piece of non-science that tells us nothing we did not know already). Worse than that, it’s being used to propagate the idea that it’s only calories that count.  Methinks ‘Professor’ Haub needs to hit the books again and remind himself of what true science is.

21 Responses to Is this the dumbest nutrition ‘experiment’ ever performed?

  1. Bill 10 November 2010 at 8:46 pm #

    Is this not how stomach stapling works?
    Forced calorie restriction.
    So we know it works.
    However, I’ve read how long term calorie restricted diets fail because of the amount of will-power required. Also, isn’t their a tendency for the metabolism to slow if calories are reduced too much?

  2. julianne 11 November 2010 at 9:24 am #

    Reminds me of the time I went on a chocolate diet – no kidding – I was about 19 at the time and counted calories, ate nothing but a block of chocolate each day. Did I lose weight? – yep.

  3. Harry 12 November 2010 at 12:35 am #

    Two things:

    1) There are MANY people who still maintain that energy balance does not arbitrate weight loss (e.g. low carb advocates claiming a metabolic advantage). In this context, Prof Haub’s experiment has continuing relevance;

    2) The interesting thing to come out of the experiment was not the predictable weight loss, but rather, was the marked improvement in health markers. This suggests the powerful independant role that calorie balance plays in human health, irrespective of the various macro and micro-nutrient foci that tend to obsess nutrition folk. Prof Haub’s experiment suggests that we might be missing the forest for the trees…and at the very least, this generates a hypothesis worth exploring in more controlled trials.

  4. John Shead 12 November 2010 at 1:53 pm #

    Having been on the ‘Waist Disposal’ diet for two weeks and having lost 4lbs, I would rather stick to your ‘Waist Disposal’ diet which I enjoy and find that I am not hungry. My wife has just started a ‘Slimming World’ diet and I am working on ways of trying to keep to my Waist Disposal diet alongside her way without too many problems. I have found that several of her ‘meals’ do not conflict with ‘Waist Disposal’ ways. But to diet on sugary rich junk food fills me with horror. Waist disposal makes sense and I intend to keep to it

  5. Pete Grist 12 November 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    It would have been more interesting if he had eaten the amount of calories estimated to keep his weight constant….

  6. audrey wickham 12 November 2010 at 3:14 pm #

    I like to experiment so when I am told I can eat Protein and fat but not carbohydates I went back to wholemeal bread and marmalade with butter for breakfast instead of bacon and eggs – no bread. I have eaten mostly protein for the other meals but have included potatoes.

    I put on weight, was always hungry but I was not constipated.

    I am back on my very pleasant protein diet plus vegetables but not pots. I have taken off a bit of weight, am never hungry but I am constipated. I will stay on this regime until Dr. Briffa’s “Waist Disposal” book comes and then see if that has any effect on my constipation. It might be that my homebaked wholemeal bread plus a protein diet will take care of that condition. I was surprised that vegetables which I consider roughage didn’t work on my internal system.

  7. David Manovitch 12 November 2010 at 4:49 pm #

    A study published I think in the BMJ a few years ago, compared two groups of overweight school children on equi-calorific diets, but one of junky food and the other more wholesome. Those on the wholesome diet lost weight whilst those on the junk did not.

    Yes it is true that as weight loss proceeds with calorie restriction, the metabolism slows and the rate of loss diminishes, unless one is suffering Anorexia Nervosa, then eventually activity diminishes too, thus further conserving one’s flesh. Initially hunger produces an arousal of the nervous system and the organism thus hunts/searches food down more vigorously, but eventually body mass has to be conserved by a reduction of activity, and waiting for food to turn up. Low calorie diets produce an increase in mental alertness and longer duration of life.

  8. Mike Norton 12 November 2010 at 6:09 pm #

    It is now my second Month on the WD diet and I have found the diet to be excellent and it does exactly as the book says. I have lost 3 inchs of my gut and a stone in weight. I love it!!

  9. Greg Carlow 12 November 2010 at 7:04 pm #

    This is madness

    Calorific values are obtained by burning a substance in pure oxygen and counting the heat given off. What is left after such burning are minute residues. My digestive system does not burn food, yet alone with pure oxygen; I am also not elininating minute residues!!!!

    The probability that a digestive system obtains energy from different food types in the exact same ratio as burning them in pure oxygen is rediculous surely to the point of stupidity. An example? Nuts, we are all familiar with nuts “passing through” so they could not possibly have given up energy in proportion to their calorific value.

    Or is that too simple for “experts”, the world needs proper measurements

  10. Richard Feinman 12 November 2010 at 7:44 pm #

    Taken in by the headline, thinking that you can’t throw the term “dumbest nutrition experiment” around lightly but I think you’re right. Of course, the worst was the guy who showed that the carrot cake with more saturated caused some vascular effect and did not notice that carrot cake is high in carbs but, yeh, this is the dumbest.

    Of course, the real test of his idea would be to go without food altogether and see if he disappeared.

  11. Richard Feinman 12 November 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    Harry: people like me who think metabolic advantage offers some opportunities don’t say that calories don’t count, only that they are not linear with weight loss. So, we know that protein has higher thermic effect of feeding than other macronutrients so it must contribute more to weight loss. Is it significant? Well, people opposed to metabolic advantage say accumulated calorie deficit adds up to weight loss. So, however small the TEF is, over time, it must help. Of course, the payoff is large and it might be smart to try to maximize the effect. If you want to understand the theory, be sure you can answer this question: what does the caloric value of food actually mean? What does it measure?

  12. John Bowman 12 November 2010 at 9:03 pm #

    Haub’s piece was a work of non-science…

    Is that not perhaps his point. Is not all the “research” into diet and health, non-science, gimme-a-grant-for-further-research, pedalled as evidence based scientific fact?

    I have lived long enough to know that what “research” tells us is bad/good to eat/drink/do, a few years later, “research” says the opposite.

    Once upon a time research was to discover new drugs, new technologies, better ways of doing things, now it seems mostly limited to finding problems with just about every aspect of life, so politicians and other busybodies can intrude into our private lives and tell us how to live them.

    The truth is, if you eat less, and don’t sit down all day you will lose some weight.

  13. Misty 12 November 2010 at 11:37 pm #

    Haven’t we already proven that carbohydrate restriction does in fact result in calorie reduction?

    I agree, this was a dumb experiment.

  14. Kate 13 November 2010 at 8:24 pm #

    I always lose weight when I cut out carbs. The problem with it is that I also get extremely bored after a few days of eating only protein and fat and a few paltry ‘legal, low-glycemic index’ carbs. I want to actually live a life where I can enjoy many things at the table – and be allowed to do that. It works when I do that in moderation. The difficult thing is to do that in moderation!There are plenty of diet plans out there that give you help to enjoy everything that you are confronted with at home, in restaurants, while traveling, etc. Low-carb diets are not good at that – basically, you’re restricting yourself every step of the way by facing ‘forbidden foods’ like pasta and struggling to cast them out of your life like demons! It’s as bad as cutting fat or cutting calories – as a long term strategy to take the weight off and keep the weight off, it’s as hard as any other diet. If you do choose it, get used to chewing on meat or eating eggs a lot. Cheese will be your biggest problem: you will have to learn which cheeses have more carbs.

  15. Vince Edghill 13 November 2010 at 11:16 pm #

    Thought provoking but in truth,not at all scientific and so the Professor Haub anecdote is not going to take us very far in this complex and vital area.Staring at the serious obesity epidemic with it’s dreadful spin-offs of diabetes and pre diabetes leading to such a burden to all societies world over now.But over-simplification of the nutritional science so that everyone can understand it can have some bad downside.Everything should be made as simple as possible.But no simpler(I am apparently plagiarizing Einstein there).I am a pracitsing Doctor in country New South Wales and a Type 2 diabetic and of course a committed low carb guy. Here is a little anecdote for you,if you think you understand the science.Last year I attended the first Pacific conference on the Metabolic Syndrome.Held in Melbourne.It was overall rather disappointing with a great deal of emphasis on pretty involved science with lots of biochemistry and stuff that was rather boring and way above my head.But two things stuck out.One was the comments from an eminent(in Australia) diabetic Professor from Sydney who virtuallly scoffed at the whole idea of a Metabolic Syndrome and implied that the whole conference was just an excuse for a nice visit to Melbourne.He then muttered a few(more)inanities and left.He is well known in Oz as a promulgator of the concept that the best diet for diabetes is a high carbohydrate diet…The other notable memory(apart from brilliant Melbourne)was a presentation by a very slick Australian Surgeon ( also a Professor) who specialises in Gastro-intestinal procedures aimed at the obese. He began by saying that he had no idea how the surgery worked.Which made me sit up, since like one of your writers I thought it was straight forward and pretty obvious.He went on to say that many Gastrointestinal bypass procedures worked.Not just Gastric banding etc.A technique that was also highly effective was to remove a segment of small bowel from low down in the small intestine and tack it on higher up.Simply replacing one bit with another bit in effect.And that worked just as well but no one had a clue as to why.Nothing to do with stomach size or calories etc.So work that one out.This whole nutrition area is a very complex one and you only have to work through Gary Taubes rather monumental reference work to get an idea.It should be requried reading for all doctors not to mention diabetic educators and a swag of nutritionist experts ( using the term loosely).But we low-carbers will forever struggle because carbs are so nice and the food idustry so clever at never ending ways of getting us hooked up.And fat.

  16. Harry 14 November 2010 at 3:21 am #

    Richard,

    The metabolic advantage controversy is not all that interesting to me, given that the numbers involved (< 350cals/day) are trifling, relative to the over-eating that mediates the journey from lean to obese (i.e. 1000s of calories/day). At a theoretical level, yes, the TEF plays some role in total energy expenditure, and thus influences the energy balance equation. At a practical level, metabolic ward studies (and 'scientific exhibitions' like Prof Haubs') show that energy balance determines mass, irresepctive of macro or micronutrient manipulations.

    I will concede that ad libitum eating will favour certain macro-nutrient ratios over others, for some people (most people respond well to the satiety provided by proteins, and insulin resistant folk generally respond well to low carbohydrate eating). But this is a highly variable thing, and will be influenced by emotional, cultural, psychological drivers of eating behaviours, as well as physiological factors.

    As for your comments regarding calories, I surmise that you're implying that calories are merely a surrogate measure of metabolisable energy. On this I agree, at a theoretical level.

    At a practical level, metabolic ward studies, and years of anecdotal evidence, confirm that, TEF and metabolic adaptations notwithstanding, calorie intake serves as an excellent proxy for metabolisable energy, and thus serves perfectly well as the appropriate input into the 'energy in' side of the energy balance equation. Do you have a different measure in mind?

    Cheers
    Harry

  17. Nigeepoo 14 November 2010 at 8:45 pm #

    Harry said:
    “2) The interesting thing to come out of the experiment was not the predictable weight loss, but rather, was the marked improvement in health markers.”

    Considering the amount of weight Haub lost (27lb), the improvements in his health markers were small. See The Prof. Mark Haub Nonsense

    I also suspect that he was hungry between meals on that diet but he was trying to prove a point so he put up with it. Joe/Josephine public will not put up with it.

  18. Vicki 15 November 2010 at 9:25 pm #

    I took this in a positive way….to me it showed how most people go on a diet to lose weight, but don’t care about how bad the food is or how much it lacks in nutrients. Their goal is just to lose weight…no matter what it does to their bodies. Then they erroneously think they are healthy since they lost the lbs. (Just goes to show how uninformed people are, even from Dr’s advice to lose weight but not teaching them how to do it healthdully…they don’t know either.)

    My goal to lose weight is to do it in a heathy manner, with healthy foods, by eating slower and less. It works.

  19. Vicki 15 November 2010 at 9:29 pm #

    to Nigeepoo..He couldn’t have been hungry bwtween meals. He ate every two hours.

  20. Vicki 15 November 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    Audrey…I have found that drinking diatomaceous earth (DE) keeps me regular. I mix it in water and drink it. It is about as cheap a product as you can find and it does not taste bad. It has so many other great benefits also. I will always have it around to drink.

  21. Nigeepoo 19 November 2010 at 1:15 am #

    @Vicki: Hungry all of the time, then. ;-)

Leave a Reply