While researching another topic I came across this blog post from Skeptoid entitled How Does a Skpetic Lose Weight. I'll admit I agree with a lot of what he said and implied, including how some diets seem more like a religion than they do actual science, how you can't ignore the First law of thermodynamics, how keeping a log is vital for increasing your awareness of what and how much you're eating, and how people fail to lose weight by overestimating the calories burned during exercise. I did, however, take issue with a few things he said, or rather, maybe it was the way he said it.
1) He mentions calculating your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and then links to a site that has you calculating your BMR using the Harris Benedict Equation, which was discovered in 1919. Not a bad place to start, as all equations are just estimates, but this has been supplanted by the Mifflin St. Jeor equation, especially for those who are very overweight or obese. (Link) Unless you have access to a machine that performs indirect calorimetry, if you want to know what your caloric restriction should be, you probably want a more up to date formula.
2) Then there's this statement: "I’m someone who believes there is no such thing as “junk food” or “health food”. While there are no “healthy” or “unhealthy” foods, there are plenty of healthy and unhealthy diets. Any food is good for you if you eat the right amount, and bad for you if you eat the wrong amount."
Technically, he's right, and I think in the comments section he uses one of my favorite quotes regarding the dose determining the poison. I also disagree with a lot of the terminology/tone used in many diet books that basically says "If you eat this food you are going to die right now!" (I once was reading a blog post where the author had devised a quite tasty recipe in which she suggested the use of grapeseed oil. Yes, that oil is heavier on the omega-6, but most of the commenters, instead of acknowledging that, essentially accused her of telling them to kick puppies). Also "healthy/unhealthy" are very vague terms, and I think could be replaced with more specific terms like "calorically dense" or "this elevates my blood glucose to an unacceptable level" which describes a food rather than make a judgement on it. But, from a practical standpoint, I do think that there are some foods that are so calorically dense, or that raise the blood glucose level to high, that they are just too hard to fit in to a weight loss plan (or plan for Type 2 diabetes) and each person should develop a list of things for themselves that they have to avoid. This writer has obviously achieved a level of rationality that allows him to eat a donut and not sit there and think obsessively about donuts the rest of the day, and I think that's great. I personally, however, have not achieved that level of self control, so I am not ashamed to say "If I bring that bag of tortilla chips home I will want to eat them all, therefore, this is not on the plan to bring home!" and still consider myself a good skeptic when it comes to evaluation diet info.
3) On a related note, I also got a little cranky when I read this statement, "But, when I reached the end of each day's calorie budget, I stopped eating. That's really all there is too it."
Once again, good for him for reaching the level of rationality and self control that it takes to do that, as well as keeping close track of his calorie intake! However, I'm sure I'm not the only one who has ever reached the end of my calorie budget (after allowing myself to have tortilla chips, chocolate, or whatever it was) and couldn't concentrate or sleep because I was so goddam hungry I wouldn't be satisfied until I had something to eat and subsequently went way over my calorie budget. I'm sure there are plenty of internet bullies that would be happy to accuse me of having the self control of a teenager (usually meant to say--not much), but given my knowledge of biochemistry, I would say that I may have eaten in such a way or arranged my food supply in such a way that I promoted my natural desire to consume food, and I need to not do that again any time soon. So, yes, I have actually set myself up on a plan, based on the best research that we have available for now, that restricts my consumption of carbohydrate so that I don't promote elevated insulin levels and subsequent hunger. And since I actually want to get some nutrition out of my food that I eat (in appropriate portions), I actually do choose to forgo the donuts/pecan pancakes/twinkies on a regular basis. I don't claim anything magical about it, I know that I control my weight by not taking in more calories than I burn. How I help myself stay within that calorie budget, however, might actually involve forbidding myself to eat certain foods and concentrating on enjoying the things I do eat.
Now I think both the author of this blog post and I would both agree that each of us found what works for us, and that anecdotes/personal stories/n=1 studies are not evidence. What I did think he forgot to point out though, is that what works for him may not exactly work for the rest of us, particularly since he didn't seem to use any of the "tricks" that I have mentioned before, like not shopping while hungry, that will help you stay within your calorie budget. Maybe he thinks such psychological "tricks" are too much of a soft science to be used, but I don't know without asking. I take a different approach in that said "tricks" are worth using as long as you know what you are doing and don't consider them to be "magical."
Take home message--you lose weight by taking in less calories. If in your quest to achieve that, however, you do feel like you have to avoid certain foods, you can still restrict yourself and still be a good skeptic.