This week, we took a deep dive into the world of diet books authored by doctors. The main premise of the piece: Most of these books purport to hold the one true secret to weight loss — high protein, low carb, 5:2, "Wheat Belly," you name it. But these books contain a central falsehood: Not only is obesity an extremely complex problem unlikely to have a silver bullet, but what works when it comes to weight loss for any individual is unlikely to work for everybody else.
Unfortunately, more and more respected doctors, despite their good intentions, are complicit with the publishing industry in confusing science and obscuring hard truths about obesity to sell diet books. It's one thing when actress Gwyneth Paltrow tells people to avoid "nightshade vegetables" on an elimination diet, and quite another when a highly trained and credentialed physician sells a weight loss lie.
So I asked readers to share their experiences with diet books, and they kindly obliged. Here are some of the letters we've received so far, edited for length and clarity. As you'll note, people's struggles with weight loss and diet are extremely varied, as are the weight loss strategies that have helped. If you have a story you'd like to share, email me here.
Jennie's story: The Bulletproof diet failed me
I followed The Bulletproof Diet fairly religiously for the better part of 18 months.
The first three were torturous. I have a sweet tooth to the point of it being a personal failing. Cutting nearly all carbs was excruciating. I kidded myself into thinking I felt better. I invented a sense of purity in that I was eating better than everyone, so I was actually a better person than everyone. That incredibly egotistic thought is the only thing that got me through those cravings for chips, soda, cake, ice cream, and everything wonderful. I had prismatic dreams of Cheetos and mac and cheese — two foods I ate hardly at all before dieting but suddenly craved with a passion.
Those months passed, and I almost became acclimated to the suffering. Mostly, it was because the pounds started dropping off. When I started my diet, I was brushing the underside of 200 pounds. I'm a short woman, and I didn't carry that weight well. I had effectively sized myself out of "normal" clothing, and it severely impacted my self-esteem.
Eighteen months later, I got down to about 155 pounds. It was some perverse triumph to recross the line between obese and overweight in reverse. All my accomplishments in life paled.
Then I started fainting. All the time. I fainted in Las Vegas on vacation. I fainted on a whiskey distillery tour when the temperature inside the building was over 90 F. I got woozy grocery shopping on the weekends. I felt nauseous when talking a quick mile walk. I stopped working out, because raising my heart rate even a little made me feel like I was going to throw up.
So I kept things with sugar in my purse to eat when I got faint. It worked. Before long, it reopened that door to all the sugary things I loved. The more I returned to my old eating patterns, the better I felt. And the more weight I put on.
It took me 18 months to lose 50 pounds, and six to put them all back on again. My pants don't fit again. I'm about 190 pounds and climbing. I feel awful about myself and my failed diet.
I want to know what it is that I need to stop feeling this way. Maybe I'll be fat forever. I guess that's okay, if only I could stop feeling so terrible about myself. It's weird, but I can't seem to figure out who to blame. Myself, for failing to diet properly? The diet books and diet advice forums, for not being realistic? The diet itself, for making me so ill? Society, for teaching me that a woman's worth is inversely proportional to her pants size?
I just want to stop feeling this way.
Christine's story: Paleo made me "kinda terrible to be around"
I am actually part of the "5 percent" [who diet and keep the weight off].
I have kept off 80-plus pounds for 22 years (even lost the 35 pounds I gained while pregnant) I am actually 20 pounds lighter now, five years later, than I was when I got pregnant.
I was 19 when I changed my bad habits of overeating junk and not moving. Once I started moving and reducing the amount of junk I ate, the pounds came off. Through the years, though, I have consistently evolved my "diet."
I think our bodies are so different that what works for me may not work for someone else, and therein lies the problem with diet books. Also, I move a lot. I live in Brooklyn and have to walk everywhere. I have also gone to the gym two to three times a week for more than 15 years.
Yes, there have been a few weeks here and there that I can’t go, but consistency is key, as is building muscle.
My point is that every body is different and through trial and error you have to find what works best for your body. I went Paleo for a year and lost weight/gained muscle, but after eight months I was kinda terrible to be around because I was mostly in ketosis and you need carbs to feel normal. I think it’s great to "cut" sometimes and "eat clean," but it’s more important to eat healthy and not deprive yourself of a plate of pasta or cake every so often.
Catherine's story: "Always Hungry" worked for me
I am 52 years old. All my life I have consumed massive quantities of sugar and refined carbs. David Ludwig's "Always Hungry" has freed me from that addiction. It's improving the lives of many people. But the people who have been discouraged by your article will continue to suffer.
Jane's story: I lost 25 pounds by intermittent fasting and kept it off
In college, I was 180 pounds. I'm 5-foot-8. So I stopped eating dinner. I'd stop eating around 3, but if I was really hungry I'd have soup and/or an apple. But nothing after 6. I lost 25 pounds in a month. (Yes, a 19-year-old metabolism helps). And I started watching what I was eating about halfway through. I have lived this most of my life.
I'm now 57, and I weigh 145 to 150. The book The 8-Hour Diet came out a couple of years ago and it best describes my plan. It really works (but I think it is best to eliminate dinner). I eat what I want. I don't count calories. I usually eat between 9-5 or 10-6. Weekends I'm off the diet, so I can go out to eat with my husband. I'm not uber-thin but my clothes fit just fine. I think for 57 I look just fine.
Michael's story: I studied nutrition and learned the Whole30 is bunk
My diet story is about the ever-popular Whole30. A few years back, I decided to make a career change and return to school to study nutritional science at George Mason University. At the same time, I also undertook a Whole30 challenge through my CrossFit gym. Upon completion of the challenge, I thought the Whole30 was a drastic approach but believed people may be able to use it as a jumping-off point to kick-start lifelong healthy eating habits.
Fast forward two years. At this point, I'm deep into my nutritional science studies. I had begun to notice some less-than-scientific posts on the Whole30 Facebook page. One day, I happened to pick up the Whole30 book, It Starts With Food, off my bookshelf. Upon skimming through the book, I was mortified to find how much junk science was packed into its pages — amazing what a few years of formal science education does for your critical thinking. This was a book that I had once recommended to friends and family members, so you can imagine my horror at discovering that I had played a part in propagating dietary misinformation.
As a way to help combat the pseudoscience being disseminated by the Whole30 folks, I decided to undertake a chapter-by-chapter review of their book. Since they provided 450-plus citations, I simply pulled each of the papers to see if the science matched up with the claims being made. Surprisingly, (or unsurprisingly) the vast majority of their claims were either misleading or outright falsehoods.
My hope is that these reviews serve to help dissuade people from viewing the Whole30 as an evidence-based diet and seek out healthier alternatives. I've had a lot of fun doing them and have learned quite a bit in the process of reading through all the scientific papers. I imagine it will take me years to complete the entire book, but I'm going to keep plugging away at it!
Jason's story: We should publish promising diets even if the science hasn't caught up
I'm actually currently using Ludwig's book [Always Hungry], not letter for letter, but as guidance on how to lose weight. I don't have the time to follow his food program exactly, but I have been trying to cut out refined carbohydrates and follow the general guidelines. I've been at it about 2.5 months, and it's been reasonably successful so far (12 pounds down, ~2 inches). About eight years ago I lost about 50 pounds, mostly by calorie restriction and increased exercise, but have gained much of that back over the intervening years, during which I suppose it was inertia that kept me from trying again.
Anyway, that's not really my point. I'm a scientist and was definitely as perturbed as you were about how poorly controlled, given the amount of other scientific evidence the book presents on past studies, the book's test program was.
But to me there's another angle to that: It doesn't seem like any of the recommendations he makes could really turn out harmful. It's easy to imagine many of them working. To do a properly controlled study would take many years, during which there are potentially thousands of people who could have made use of the largely sensible (as you point out) recommendations he gives. So while he probably should have been more upfront about the lack of rigor in the pilot program, I think presenting these recommendations now is on balance a good thing.