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What Experts Say Works Versus What Dieters Say Works [Surprising Research]

Posted Jul 31 2011 11:08pm

Yet another expert opinion…

Today as I was reading through various conflicting research studies and opinion pieces – I like to torture myself this way pretending that I’m “learning” and not just further confusing myself – I came across an interesting, if unwitting, social study playing out in real time. A few weeks ago US News & World Report came out with a ranking of the top 20 “best overall diets. ” To wit, “U.S. News evaluated and ranked the 20 diets below with input from a panel of health experts. To be top-rated, a diet had to be relatively easy to follow, nutritious, safe, and effective for weight loss and against diabetes and heart disease.”

I didn’t blog it at the time because frankly their rationale had more holes in it than a bucket of Life Savers. Their “experts” ignored a lot of very important research in favor of maintaining the conventional wisdom which made their rankings essentially meaningless in my opinion. What is worth reading in the report, however, are the little numbers below each diet. These numbers weren’t there the first time I looked at the report but some of them have grown quite large in the interim. What are they? There’s a button underneath each diet that says “Did this diet work for you?” and you can click “yes” or “no.”

Holy buckets of anecdotal evidence, Batman! Obviously it’s not rigorous, nor even very scientific but there’s something very compelling about just asking one simple question and seeing how anonymous people answer it. No qualifications, no explanations, no prevarications: either it worked for you or it didn’t. It’s the equivalent of listening in on random diet chatter in every locker room, coffee house and book club in the country. Here’s what I found:

- The #1 ranked DASH diet (essentially every piece of conventional wisdom that we’ve been told and that has been discredited over the past 30 years – bah, US News “experts”) shows that it worked for 177 people and didn’t work for 713. The #1 diet recommended by nutrition experts failed for a whopping 80% of people who tried it.

Okay so obviously I’d expect most diets to not work since most people have a hard time on any type of restriction – which every single diet entails regardless of what they tell you – and when they do lose weight, they quite often gain it back.  But in the rankings not every diet was topsy turvy like this.

- Weight Watchers (#2) had more respondents with 4,085 people clicking the yes or no button. 61% said it worked for them. Not that this is scientific either but this lines up pretty well with the people I personally know who have done or are doing WW so I find this believable.

- Vegetarianism (#9) had even more respondents with 18,395. (As a former researcher, let me tell you it is nearly impossible to get this many people to fill out a survey without some kind of bribery or coercion.) The verdict? 95% of respondents said it worked for them! Huh.

- Veganism (#12) came in just behind vegetarianism with 15,987 respondents and 94% said it worked for them.

- So if you put vegetarianism (#9) and veganism (#12) together (which I’m not sure you can actually do since the same people could have answered both) that’s (possibly) 34,382 respondents! That is definitely a sample size large enough to draw some conclusions from. And they’ve concluded they’re pretty darn happy with it.

- Which diet came in dead last on the list? Paleo/Primal. Of course the experts hated it, that’s no surprise (that also doesn’t mean much to me either) but what did surprise me was the results. Out of a staggering 28,710 respondents (!!!), 83% said it did not work for them.

This last point really shook me – you should have seen me, jaw dropped just like in the cartoons and everything! – because, as you all well know (especially if you’ve read my book, holla!), I failed spectacularly at the Primal/Paleo diet.  What I haven’t really blogged about is that in the ensuing years I’ve tried it two more times – I’m that swayed by their reasoning – both times for the full 30 days with no cheating. Both times I gained weight and felt awful. It doesn’t work for me. Period. Yet, I’d come to conclude that the fault was with me and not the diet. Maybe my body’s just weird? Maybe it’s messed up from so many years of psycho eating? Primal works and works very well for a lot of people, many of whom I deeply respect and are much smarter than I am (Mark Sisson, Rob Wolff, Gary Taubes etc.) and I’ve read so much about it that I kinda figured I was the only one it didn’t work for. But apparently I’m in good company! I’m not the only one who failed at Primal! For some reason that makes me feel so much better! (For the record, vegetarian/veganism didn’t work for me either .)

Now to the caveats: Obviously there is very little control with respect to the respondents. We don’t know gender, socioeconomic status or education level (all factors shown to greatly influence success in weight loss). But moreover, we don’t know if certain answers were stuffed like the proverbial ballot box. The site allows you to answer “yes” or “no” to each diet once and then any other time you click it, nothing happens but that doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t clear their cookies and re-vote. (It would take a lot of time and effort – more than I’d be willing to make but you never know what some people will do, I guess.)

Could there have been a push on some vegan/vegetarian sites telling all their readers to go vote? Yeah. Are veggies more militant than Paleos? (They’re both neck-and-neck in my experience.) Could there have been some Paleo haters trying to torpedo the results? I suppose. Did the respondents even really know what the Paleo diet is? Dunno, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there. And of course there isn’t any definition of what “yes” or “no” means. Did they self-report that it worked because they initially lost some weight/felt better but it changed later? Did they perceive it to work because they’d been told by prominent celebs and media figures that it would? Maybe they didn’t lose any weight/get healthier but just felt positively about their experience? Anything’s possible. But I don’t think these limitations mean the results are meaningless.

What we can conclude is that there is a HUGE difference between what “experts” say will help people lose weight and what real people are saying actually works for them.  This ranked diets list is bunk for what it’s meant for but as a survey of what people have tried and whether or not they think it works for them, it’s very valuable. The tricky part for me now is to stay consistent with my Intuitive Eating as I read stuff like this and it makes me want to overhaul my entire diet. In the past I would have totally switched overnight but thankfully I’m (a little) more sane these days so while I maintain curiosity about it, I won’t make any drastic changes.

And because I know you’re curious: The Mayo Clinic, Volumetrics, Jenny Craig, Slimfast, Ornish, Nutrisystem, South Beach, medifast, raw foods, and The Zone diets all failed abysmally. And weirdly, Eco-Atkins had a large majority saying it worked while plain Atkins had a huge majority saying it didn’t.

Anything surprise you on this list or in the survey portion? Anyone else really interested in other people’s anecdotal reports of what worked for them and what didn’t? Anyone else easily swayed to completely change their diet based on a few limited reports?



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