Monday, January 02, 2006

Dumb Diets in the Sunday Star Times

So obviously papers have a very loose definition of news on January 2. I was already grumpy because they didn't do a Sunday magazine - it's the holidays and I've got nothing better to do than make fun of overpriced, ugly clothes. Then on page 4 of the 'news' section they printed an article where 5 members of the Sunday Star Times staff each trial a different diet for two weeks. Each diet is evaluated about by a dietician (for extra confusion between 'news' and 'advertising' the dieticians contact details and website are at the bottom of the article).

Now two and a half of these diets say that they mimic what our ancestors ate. This is an unbelievably moronic idea, and I have been looking for an opportunity to mock this idea shitless for quite a while. But I wanted to point out that just because I'm mocking a few of the other diets more that doesn't mean weight watchers is any better. Despite huge wittering to the contrary, weight is not a good indicator of health. It's true that diet and exercise can impact on people's health, but if you change your diet and exercise for health reasons, rather than as an effort to lose weight, you're more likely to see better health results. I would find diets like Weight Watchers slightly more palatable, if they were just a little bit more honest, and admitted that the reason people want to loose weight is because of society's pressures about our bodies. But I have some mocking to get into, so I'm not going to get into that rant right now (although I recommend Ampersand, he has a lot of good information and analysis - even if I don't agree with all of it).

Anyway let the mocking commence:

One of the diets is the Warrior Diet: "Mimics ancient hunter-gatherers by promoting exercise and under-eating (raw fruit and veges) by day, and overeating (nearly anything you want) by night." That actually just mocks itself, but the blood-group diet is equally ridiculous. The idea is that blood type is an evolutionary marker of the sort of food you can eat:

I am Type O, The Hunter, [...] According to my red blood cells I am a muscular, active sould who thrives on a meat-rich diet. I am not sure I am true to my type but I know I am not Type A, The Cultivator, whose blood dictates they should avoid red meat and only eat vegetables. Type B is The Nomad, the only type that can thrive on dairy products.

There's also the Australian Total Well-Being Diet (brought to you by the Australian Meat Board) which is a low-carbohydrate, high protein diet. Now I only counted this half because as far as I know it doesn't reach back into time to find out what we should eat. It's slightly nuttier cousins The Zone and Atkins both do, so I thought I'd take this opportunity to mock them as well (the argument goes that the domestication of grains is a relatively recent invention and therefore our ancestors didn't eat that much carbohydrates because they were all out killing dinosaurs - or something)

So there are a whole bunch of diets out there with various eating programmes that all defend themselves by saying they were how we used to eat back when we were living on plains. Now, the fact that there is more than one diet that does this is the first signal that maybe we shouldn't trust them. But more importantly, we're a pretty adaptable lot; we've lived from Greenland to the Equator, and had a slightly different diet everywhere we went. We've hunted large mammals until they died out, and then found other things to eat. We've lived in areas where there's lots of protein, and areas where there's little protein. Just about every society Jared Diamond described in Collapse had a slightly different diet - some high in carbohydrate, some high in protein - and whether they died out or not depended on what they did to their environment, not the ratio of 'carbs' to protein in their diet.

However, that's just a pimple on the bottom of the the fundamental logic problem these arguments have; they all say that eating like our ancestors will help us lose weight. Lets go back to life on the plains (or early agriculture, or most times in history) what were people's main nutritional needs? Throughout the vast majority of history there has been only just enough food to feed the people who want it (and not enough in some years). So our main goal was to have enough food to live through the next winter (or drought depending on where you were). If you put on some weight this was a good thing because that store of fat was energy that you could use to get through hard times.

Our ancestors wanted to gain weight not lose it; there is no reason at all that eating like our ancestors would make us lose weight.

I know the diet industry is one stupid unbacked up statement after another, but the complete lack of basic logic here stands out even so.


  1. Anonymous1:44 pm

    I saw that lame article too, and oh my god it was stupid. Why do they print this shit?! It's not informative, it's not entertaining, and it's certainly not intelligent...every week I buy the Sunday Star Times, and every week I finish it in less than 20 minutes, and then swear at it in digust. And this week, as well as all the New Year's diet resolutions bollox, it was also filled with lots of stupid quizes about dumb celebrities. It's just appalling 'reporting'.

  2. Anonymous2:00 pm

    Speaking of scary-sounding diets, I'm really curious as to what the 'Israeli Army diet' could possibly be.

  3. Anonymous2:05 pm

    Go the internets!

    The diet lasted for eight days with the dieter only eating one type of food for two days each.

    Days One - Two: Apples (black tea/coffee allowed)
    Days Three - Four: Cheese (black tea/coffee allowed)
    Days Five - Six: Chicken (black tea/coffee allowed)
    Days Seven - Eight: Salad (black tea/coffee allowed)

    Mmmm... healthy.

  4. Anonymous5:30 pm

    I just can't stop commenting on this post when I should be doing school work...

    I just thought it was interesting that I found the above 'Israeli Army' diet on wikipedia and it was classified as a 'fad' diet. The article basically said that it was from a time when fad diets were really popular (I think they said the 70s and 80s) and it included the cabbage soup diet and some other examples. The article made comment about how people lose weight on these diets mostly through loss of water, not fat, and that when they start eating normal food again they immediately put the weight back on. But anyway, it was very clear that the objective for these diets is weight loss.

    Whereas I would say that fad diets now: atkins, zone, blood type, whatever - are framed in terms of being healthier for you and therefore you lose weight (skinniness presumably being a 'natural', 'healthy' state).

    Do you guys think the way people (especially women) talk about weight loss and health has changed in the last couple of decades, or do you think I'm just hyper aware of it?

    Not that I'm trying to get you to weigh in (heh) on my next chapter or anything...

    P.S. Admittedly I know very little about armies, but what army would feed people just apples for 2 days? That's hardly going to give you enough energy for killing people!

    P.P.S. Tea without milk! What are they? Weirdo hippies?

  5. I think that's a really interesting idea - there has certainly been a trend to replace talking about 'weight' to talking about 'healthy' until 'healthy food' is synonymous with food that people think will cause weight loss. It also goes beyond this to talk about 'healthy' glow and so on.

    As to whether or not it's a new trend - that's an interesting idea. The thing is Weight Watchers wasn't even formed till the 1960s (I think) and the whole idea of associating losing weight with health was definately around by the 1980s (Jane Fonda and Jazzercise). So I think it's interesting that they began selling weight loss as something more pretty soon after it became common.

    I have a whole theory that the ramping up of the 'you must be thinner' thing was a response to women's rising autonomy of the 1970s (which roughly works chronologically). But I think the whole 'health' angle plays an important role in that. Because everyone knows what 'health' is code for, there are lots (even most) who just view it as weight loss. Then there are people who don't feel comfortable just talking about weight loss, particularly those who have a feminist analysis of that. If they talk about 'health' instead then they can go through exactly the same process and get the (vitally important in my opinion) positive feed back from other people. Finally health then feeds back as the reason that you need to lose weight, and there's a whole lot of 'science' to back them up (which are incidentally unreliable as fuck - when someone shows me A BMI comparative risk study where they control for poverty then I'll take them a little seriously, but until they do that the whole thing is just ridiculous).

    The way to make the argument would be to compare the marketing of Atkins and low-carbohydrate diets in the 1970s and the way they were marketed now. Because Atkins was a fad diet of the 1970s (it just won't die).

    P.S. I guess on the plus side Orthodox would be able to do it because there'd be no mixing milk and meat.
    P.P.S.Weirdo hippies drink milk with their tea - it's just soy milk or rice milk.

  6. interesting discussion.

    my mum has always been on this or that diet - i remember going to the cafe at the Mall with her as a child and she would whip out her calorie counter book to work out what she was allowed to eat.

    i have reacted strongly against this at a conscious level, but subconsciously i find it hard to escape. i'm determined to hide my body image woes from my own children (when i have them).

  7. Anonymous10:24 am

    I agree, Esther - losing weight hasn't always been about being healthy - in fact, I remember very clearly my Mum saying to me in the 80s that being 'overweight' doesn't neccesarily mean you are unhealthy. I think her dieting was purely for cosmetic reasons...funnily enough, she doesn't seem to subscribe to that idea any more. Instead, it's now 'healthy' to lose weight, since 'fat' is 'unhealthy' and the obesity epidemic is such a worry that we all need to pitch in and lose a little, or something (I guess what I'm saying is I think that the 'obesity epidemic' is upping things by making people even more paranoid and deluded about their own bodies - the number of slim middle-aged women I've heard talk about the obesity epidemic like it's AIDS fucking kills me.

    Span - I too do not wish to pass on any body image issues to any potential kids of mine...but I'm not sure 'hiding' my issues will help. I'm starting to think that as a mother I'll need to be quite explicit about why I think like I do about myself and about beauty and health. I want my children to know why I don't buy into modern Western society's beauty myth, and how damaging it can be. I think that modelling good behaviour to your children is essential, but I also think that unconscious modelling (e.g. doing things that contradict what you say) can be quite damaging. So I guess we just have to be really conscious of our own behaviour, but I also think we have to be honest too. I want my kids to be able to question the bullshit fed to them by society about health and beauty, and if necessary, question me and challenge me and/or what I say about it too (I'm not planning to make stupid self-loathing comments about myself in front of children...I hardly ever do that any more, but as you say, it hard to reject everything subconsciously too).