Calories Not Diets

Have a favorite way to lose weight, one that has worked for you? As long as it involves cutting calories over the long term, then it will probably be effective. That’s the basic lesson from the latest research.
Last week Frank Sacks, a Harvard professor of nutrition, and his colleagues published a major study in the New England Journal of Medicine, Comparison of Weight-Loss Diets with Different Compositions of Fat, Protein and Carbohydrates (full text). A total of 811 participants from Boston and Baton Rouge were divvied up into four diets with different emphases on protein and fat. The participants were then followed over two years. The conclusions, as summarized by Journal Watch, were:

Changes in weight and waist circumference at 6, 12, 18, and 24 months were indistinguishable among groups: At 2 years, only about 15% of each group had lost at least 10% of body weight. Attendance at group counseling sessions strongly predicted successful weight loss.

So there’s the catch! The weight loss was modest. As the Journal Watch title puts it, “Four low-calorie diets yield the same mediocre results. Dieters ate different amounts of protein, fat, and carbohydrate — but, after 2 years, most were still obese.” Still, many people would accept an average loss of 9 pounds and 2 inches less of waistline.

The main implication of this study is that calories matter, not diets. As Frank Sacks emphasized in a great interview on Science Friday, most research on diets has focused on the short-term. But weight loss is a long-term problem – and there calorie restriction is what really adds up. How to achieve that is a major issue, which I considered at length in a previous post on successful weight loss.

In the Science Friday interview Sacks himself ends up advocating a “very common sense approach – to have portion control, to cut out the highest calorie stuff you are eating, and getting some exercise. It’s all an integrated whole.” To that end, Sacks says that individuals should experiment with different diets to see what works for him or her.

On the research side, Sacks bluntly states that “we should move on from trying to figure out which diet is best.” Rather, we should examine why individuals vary so much in their response to weight loss programs. “The difference in individual response just overwhelms any possible dietary difference.”

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What Is American Cuisine?

Mundane Ethnography is a site I enjoy, an interdisciplinary mix of anthropology, food, and everyday life. Melissa recently sent me a post that she cherishes with pride and frustration: Cuisine vs. Food: What Is American Cuisine?

As she wrote to me, “I think this post sums up what anthropology should be: deep critical analysis leading to more, pretty much, unanswerable questions. That is the beauty of the discipline.”

In asking What is American Cuisine?, Melissa writes “the term “cuisine” means more than just food, but rather means the big picture around food–the form of expression through food and cooking and how people use food and cooking and eating as a way of expressing identity, even if it is an unconscious or understated form of affiliation and identity.”
By way of answering, I will use some photos from Melissa’s own Flickr site (with a whole range of photos, not just food) – the old cliche of American pie and our signature holiday, Thanksgiving.

So go enjoy more of What is American Cuisine?

Supersized Sweet Secular Search Engine

The latest economic downturn is giving us plenty of business losers, as well as a few winners. It’s the winners that have been catching my eye recently. McDonalds is doing well. Hersheys too. Netflix and Nintendo. Hamburgers, chocolate, movies, and video games. Things we consume, that we experience – not manufactured goods, not services, but activities that mix goods and services together in ways that promote demand, a desire to return and do or have or experience it again.

Let’s take a more mixed example. Mattel the toy company. Its popular 99 cent Hot Wheel toy cars weren’t so popular last year. But American Girl, dolls built around an experience and an identity, is doing well. John Sherry, the anthropologist who heads up Notre Dame’s Marketing department, recently wrote, “The staging ground for the brand’s performance and enactment, American Girl Place, has become a commercial Mecca, a secular pilgrimage site to which female believers throng.”

In my recent piece on what one day at Kotaku the gaming site shows us about our modern world, I wrote:

On this particular day, January 12th, a range of pieces captured why the video game phenomenon has so much to tell us about our modern obsessions, from sex to shopping, drugs to drinking. These eight stories show us the powerful convergence of people looking for fun and industries looking for profit. From pleasure to despair, this convergence is the story of our post-modern lives. It’s not commodities anymore, it’s activities.

We are seeing the emergence of a new type of economy amidst a new type of globalization, and it’s going to produce its own winners and losers, both on the economic side and on the people side.

Want to know how the world is changing? Just look at this Coke avatar ad from the Super Bowl, where the online world meets the iconic brand. It gives us a walk through a modern urban life and ends with romantic tension. Coke is right there in the middle of our enjoyments and our desires, and its enhanced sweetness and pitch-perfect iconic value part-and-parcel of how we live now.

Last April in Cellphones Save the World, I wrote the following:

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Paleofantasies of the perfect diet – Marlene Zuk in NYTimes

Prof. Marlene Zuk (University of California Riverside), author of Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex and the Parasites That Make Us Who We Are (Amazon, Google books), has a very nice short essay in The New York Times on the recent discussion of whether or not our dietary problems stem from our bodies being ‘out of step’ evolutionarily with things like Mars bars and Big Macs: The Evolutionary Search for Our Perfect Past. We’ve seen these sorts of arguments all over the place, that a ‘Paleolithic diet’ can make you healthy and banish bulges from inopportune places, after all, just look at Raquel Welch in 10,000 BC!

Paleolithic dieter?  Not exactly...
Paleolithic dieter? Not exactly...

When I talk about diet and human evolution in my freshman class, I have to point out that there are a tremendous number of complications, including the fact that the vast majority of us do not have the cultural knowledge to get ANY nutritional resources out of the environment around us (see my earlier post with my slides from that lecture, if you like). It’s all well and good to say, ‘Eat meat, roots and berries,’ but that just means spending our time in the grocery store aisles a bit differently for most of us, not actually transforming the ways that we get food, how we relate to our environment, or even the quality of the meat, roots and berries we’re getting (after all, even the meat we get is from the animal world’s equivalent of couch potatoes, not the wild stuff on the hoof– or for that matter, dead on the ground where we can scavenge it).

Zuk draws on Leslie Aiello’s concept of ‘paleofantasies,’ stories about our past spun from thin evidence, to label the nostalgia some people seem to express for prehistoric conditions that they see as somehow healthier. In my research on sports and masculinity, I frequently see paleofantasies come up around fight sports, the idea that, before civilization hemmed us in and blunted our instincts, we would just punch each other if we got angry, and somehow this was healthier, freer and more natural (the problems with this view being so many that I refuse to even begin to enumerate them). It’s an odd inversion on the usual Myth of Progress, the idea that things always get better and better; instead, paleofantasies are a kind of long range projection of Grumpy Old Man Syndrome (‘Things were so much better in MY day…’), spinning fantasies of ‘life before’ everything we have built up around us.

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Food, Obesity and Eating Posts

So I am back teaching. This semester I have an intensive qualitative methods course after teaching medical anthropology in the spring. I am planning to have several assignments revolve around the issue of food, health and eating. So the list below is meant first for my methods students. But I also thought some of you other folks might like a refresher on what got posted last spring. Hopefully the categories will help you find what interests you most…

My Main Pieces

Ethnography and the Everyday: Knapp’s Appetites

Comfort Food and Social Stress

Successful Weight Loss


Culture and Inequality in the Obesity Debate

The Family Dinner Deconstructed


On the Causes of Obesity: Common Sense or Interacting Systems

Diet, Weight and Health Round Up

Live Healthy, Turn On Your Genes

“Willpower” and Effort

Tightening Your Belt on Your Mind

The Sugar Made Me Do It

Laura’s Weight Loss

Experiments and Effort

Glucose, Self Control and Evolution

General Biology

Genetics and Obesity

Human Biology and Models for Obesity

Obesity: Mortality, Activity and More

Obesity and Some Behavioral Biology

Red Meat, Neandertals Were Meant to Eat It

Biological Mechanisms

Dopamine and Eating

Sleep, Eat, Sex – Orexin Has Something to Say

Fat Cells Die

Laura’s Weight Loss

Laura over at her psychology blog discusses her own successful weight loss (plus a big on-going study). She also linked back to an April post on successful weight loss I had when my med anthro class and I were examining obesity (for more posts, check our food and eating category). She highlights one of my main points with that essay, the American fixation on self-control and will-power as both pragmatically and philosophically problematic for going about weight loss.

As I put it, “So ‘willpower’ is not the answer, at least as conceived as an intrinsic and internal property of the individual.”

But obviously behavior does matter, linking internal and external dynamics together: “our behavior takes place within specific contexts, relationships, and symbolic meanings. It is also linked to subjective experience, available opportunities, bodily function, and the ongoing interpretation of our memories.”

Laura gives a great example of this (and congratulations too, on what you’ve accomplished): “What I have found useful is to take the decision-making out of my hands. I follow the Jenny Craig maintenance program, and that’s it. No variations, except for special occasions, like Mr. F’s chocolate cheesecake, and that happens no more than once a week.”

We humans are cultural creatures, much more than we are free will creatures. We are also emotional creatures, so major life events can provoke major change (a major health problem is frequently a main factor in successful weight loss, in reframing everyday life so doing “what it takes” suddenly makes sense). And of course we are decision making creatures, with conscious awareness and all that.

But I wonder, if our society put as much effort into developing our cultural and emotional ways of being, and not just our conscious and technological ways of being, would we have so many behavioral health problems in the first place?