Junk Food: The New Weight Loss Diet?

To nutrition professor Mark Haub, losing weight was a piece of cake.

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Losing a double-digit chunk of weight in one month was a piece of cake for Mark Haub. On August 25, the Kansas State University professor of nutrition began a 10-year-old's dream diet of Twinkies, Ho Hos, and brownies for each meal. Thirty days later and 15 pounds lighter, Haub not only feels great, but his bad cholesterol is down, his good cholesterol is up, and his blood pressure is fine. But while he is pleased about his new, trimmer self, that's not the reason he switched to junk food. He wanted his students to see for themselves that any diet can produce weight loss­—and if accomplished with a menu all but guaranteed to wreak havoc, then weight shouldn't be the sole standard for good health.

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Haub's diet grew from a course he teaches on energy balance. Weight loss, he told his students, is simply about consuming fewer calories than you burn—energy in, energy out. To illustrate the point, Haub announced that he would eat exactly the kind of junk that's supposed to be off limits to someone who wants to lose weight. "If weight loss is the ultimate goal," he asked his students, "does it matter how I achieve it?"

He knew he was a good candidate. At 5 foot 10 and 201 pounds, Haub's pre-diet body mass index of 28.8 classified him as almost obese. To reach his goal of a normal BMI of 18 to 25, he would need to lose at least 25 pounds. He set an eventual target of 175 pounds and calculated that a diet of 1,800 calories a day for one month, 600 to 800 calories fewer than usual, would get him halfway there. To keep his energy up during the day, he grazed on 400 to 500 calories every few hours, more than 80 percent of which came from prepackaged chocolate-coated snacks. He ate almost no whole grains, fruits, or dietary fiber. A daily multivitamin, milk (whole) for calcium and protein, and a small serving of vegetables were his only concessions to nutrition. He also registered about two hours a week of physical activity—cycling, walking around campus, and chasing two young, high-energy sons .

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The pounds quickly started to melt away. Haub began to plot out how he would relate his experiment to a larger issue: concern over the obesity epidemic. Of course the trend is alarming and tens of millions of Americans need to lose far more than 15 pounds, he felt, but public health programs seemed to him to be obsessively focused on losing weight, using weapons like taxes on sugary drinks, while ignoring the need to do it healthily and sensibly. He knew his junk food program, like any popular fad diet, was bound to work for a few weeks or months if losing weight was all that mattered, but, like most fad diets, it was hardly a healthy way to eat for very long. Some 90 percent of Americans who try to lose weight, many of them with fad diets, are locked in a cycle of losing and regaining the same 10 pounds, which raises the risk of hypertension and heart disease.

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But it's not the junk that's the problem, says Haub. "I'm losing weight and my cholesterol is improving by eating those foods. Is it really soda and chips that are making people obese, or how much of them they eat?"

He wants his experiment to prod his students to reexamine their own relationship with food. He doesn't advocate a steady diet of junk food, but he doesn't advocate abstinence, either. "Food tastes good," he says. "Don't be scared to eat things that are considered unhealthy, but limit them. Moderation and variety are the key to nutrition." He has an ally in Paul Campos, author of The Obesity Myth: Why America's Obsession With Weight is Hazardous to Your Health. "I think it's a terrible message to be sending to kids that you can't eat certain foods or you'll get fat," says Campos. "There are kids who are going to be overweight whether or not they drink soda."