Eat Twinkies, be healthy
It’s not what you eat, it’s how much
January 31, 2023
Pizza, french fries, donuts, sodas.
These are some of the most unhealthy foods, according to the American Heart Association, containing a lot of fat, sugar, and cholesterol, yet they are some of the most popular dishes in America.
These are the foods that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say to cut out if someone wants to lose weight or improve their overall health. They advise a diet of unprocessed foods, plant proteins, and whole grains, and to restrict the consumption of high-calorie or high-fat foods to a few times per month.
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, 80% of those diet plans fail. In this case, the failure stems from the fact that the plan is not sustainable, it isn’t adhered to, or weight and health improvements revert back to their original state.
“It’s not sustainable because it’s putting boundaries on yourself that you wouldn’t normally have. There’s an emphasis on removing things from your diet or adding things that you don’t usually do and it’s hard for people to be able to do that and make that happen long term,” said Rachel Tilsen, a registered dietitian.
According to Tilsen, diet plans fail because they are putting emphasis and restrictions on the wrong thing, the food.
The Twinkie Diet
The only thing anyone needs to do to lose weight, and thus improve health markers, is to follow a calorie deficit diet.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a calorie is a calorie regardless of where it comes from. As long as someone eats fewer calories than they burn, excess energy stored in the body, such as in fat, will be spent and they will lose weight.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans held a different position. The guidelines had a section on how sugar and saturated fats are obesogenic or tend to cause obesity.
“Since it wasn’t put in context, that could be interpreted that it doesn’t matter how many calories you eat, but the type of food where that fuel comes from, that is what’s most important in the obesity prevalence data,” said Mark Haub, a nutrition and dietetics professor at Kansas State University (KSU). “So I thought ‘That’s interesting. Let’s try that out.’”
If somebody considered that food to be unhealthy, it was on my menu.
— Mark Haub
Haub wanted to prove that the calories, not the type of food, were the only thing that mattered in order to gain or lose weight. He underwent a 38% calorie deficit weight loss diet for 10 weeks, based on foods that people around him considered unhealthy.
“If somebody considered that food to be unhealthy, it was on my menu,” Haub said.
Eventually coined the Twinkie Diet by Good Morning America, his diet consisted mainly of sugary cereals, whole milk, sodas, meat, and packaged snacks like zingers, chips, and Twinkies. In order to maintain a regular nutrient intake, Haub drank Muscle Milk as a source of protein and took a Geritol multivitamin.
“As far as nutrients, if one were to examine my nutrient intake for a day, it’d look normal, it was actually pretty good,” Haub said.
To hide his temporary eating habits from his young sons at the time, Haub would generally eat a tomato, a can of corn, or a can of green beans as his only source of high-nutrient food.
His daily calorie intake was about 1,600 per day and he maintained his regular activity level to get an accurate result of what would happen if he simply ate less. Haub had confidence he was going to lose weight and see improvements in his metabolic markers because he knew that was the result of a calorie deficit diet.
“There was a lot of research to show that if you are eating less, then your metabolic markers are going to go in that direction,” Haub said. “But there were some professionals within nutrition around me, who were concerned about increases in cholesterol, increases in blood pressure increases in glucose because of the food, not the quantity of food.”
His experiment supported the premise that the type of food does not matter if the goal is to lose weight and improve metabolic levels, countering the 2010 USDA guidelines.
“I think the point holds that sugar and salt and fat in and of themselves are not the problem,” Haub said. “It’s going back to the basic practicality issue of the dose is the poison—the dose of the toxin is a poison, not the actual product. So yes, sugar can be problematic, but for most, it’s not.”
According to Haub, his high-fat, high-carb, high-sugar diet demonstrated that supposedly unhealthy food does not inherently lead to obesity, it’s the amount consumed that makes it obesogenic. However, to many nutrition professionals, he would be considered unhealthy simply because of his diet.
While Haub did lose 27 pounds, he was still struggling with if he could consider himself healthy or not. His overall health improved but he had not been eating high-nutrient foods that would sustain his well-being long-term.
“The question I would still have is, does the food we eat dictate our health, or do the biomarkers of our health?” Haub said. “That’s a question that still has yet to be answered.”
The Clinical Study
To prove that Haub’s results were accurate, a group of researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands published a study similar to Haub’s in 2022.
It was a randomized control trial that compared the effects of a high-nutrient versus low-nutrient calorie-deficit diet.
The trial included 110 overweight men and women split into three groups – high-nutrient, low-nutrient, and a control group.
The high and low-nutrient groups were in a 25% calorie restriction over the course of 12 weeks, while the control group maintained their usual diet. They were all instructed to maintain their usual level of exercise.
The high-nutrient group ate foods high in plant proteins and unsaturated fats, and low in fructose. Similar to Haub, the low-nutrient group ate foods high in saturated fats, sugar, and carbohydrates. Both diets were described as nutrient adequate.
Despite the difference in diet, both groups saw improved metabolic markers and similar losses in body fat, liver fat, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity, to name a few. These results, like insulin sensitivity, improved both groups’ risk factors for type 2 diabetes.
This clinical trial expanded on Haub’s experiment and provided evidence that his findings were true. People will lose weight when they are in a calorie deficit, no matter where the calories come from, and their metabolic markers will improve.
However, the high-nutrient group lost more weight on average and their metabolic markers were slightly healthier than the low-nutrient group.
“They had a weekly dietician check-in and they were prescribing the diet but there certainly could be discrepancies,” Tilsen said. “They would have to self-report if they ate anything in addition to what they give them. So there could be at least a little bit of margin for error in what they found.”
Real world implications
The Twinkie Diet and the clinical study demonstrated something that many people refuse to believe – the type of food does not matter for weight loss.
Common knowledge about nutrition, as told by social media, is so deeply ingrained into society that despite the evidence, Haub has discovered that many people do not believe in his findings.
In Haub’s observations, public schools that teach the minimum amount of required nutrition education may be partially at fault. The lack of education may cause people to seek dietary guidance from social media influencers who likely have no nutrition education.
“People are easily persuaded by either letters after somebody’s name or how somebody looks, and they want to emulate that look, or they trust the letters after that name,” Haub said. “They come out of high school, become independent, and then all of a sudden be making food choices when they’re 18. They’re making those choices based on ‘Well, I saw a video on Tik Tok this person looked fit and so I’m gonna follow their diet plan without having any context of potential harm or health.’”
Diet plans from social media or recommended by the USDA can be restrictive so following them and cutting out enjoyable foods can harm overall well-being, according to Haub.
“I’m afraid that sometimes we get into a scenario where people eat with shame and guilt because they ate something they weren’t supposed to because they liked it,” Haub said. “And it’s due to poor relationships with food.”
Haub recognizes that all diets will work if they are done a certain way, but it is different from person to person and everyone should be educated adequately in nutrition before following an influencer’s diet plan. There is not one specific diet to lose weight or get healthier.
“If you want to lose weight, then whatever goes in has to go out, so burn the calories in the gym, and that way you’ll maintain your figure,” said Jon Arikata, a fitness enthusiast who has been weightlifting for 34 years.
A calorie-deficit diet is not sustainable long-term. This was something Haub struggled with when interpreting the Twinkie Diet results – What is a sustainable diet? Is anyone eating the same things they ate 10 years ago? Probably not, so how does one sustain weight loss?
“Depending on how you’re handling the diet itself, if it feels challenging or unsustainable to you, you might rebound,” Tilsen said. “After a certain point, you hit a plateau and have to challenge yourself to do something else.
You know, go in and do your time in the gym, get your exercise in. It’s just a combination of diet and exercise.
— Jon Arikata
A sustainable diet, a diet that doesn’t restrict food or calories and contains adequate nutrients, coupled with exercise is the key to a healthy lifestyle, according to Arikata. Eat a good amount of any food and burn it off.
“I think it’s more around being disciplined to stay the course,” Arikata said. “And you know go in and do your time in the gym, get your exercise in. It’s just a combination of diet and exercise and you change the exercise routine to fit what you are trying to accomplish.”
For Arikata, there is no difference between a high-nutrient or low-nutrient diet in muscle building or athletic performance. His performance is negatively affected if he doesn’t eat enough, not if he doesn’t eat certain foods.
“I don’t see much difference between high-nutrient and low-nutrient foods,” Arikata said. “I eat fast food, I’ll eat anything. So I don’t think there’s anything to that. I think you just have to be conscious and know your foods and know what it’s high in and what it will provide your body.”
A healthy lifestyle can look different from person to person. As an expert in nutrition for several years, Haub wants healthy to mean enjoying food but keeping metabolic health at a strong and stable level.
Similar to what Haub teaches, Carlmont courses like BTI and human biology have taught junior Alison Mao and senior Shaila Mehta that healthy means “sustainable and balanced” and to live a healthy life, people should “take care of their body and stay mentally healthy.”
“Someone who is healthy is comfortable with what they’re doing and doing their best and doing what works for them,” Tilsen said. “So whatever fits into the lifestyle that you’re able to make work, I think is healthy.”