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Those Diet Fads and Crazes

I get these Google alerts for anything with "low-carb" in the title.  For months and months, I've been seeing headlines "low-carb losing steam" or some such.  Some of this was based on the erroneous assumption that just because people aren't buying the processed low-carb imitation products (protein bars, low-carb candy, bread, etc.), that this means that many fewer people are low-carbing.  Couldn't it be perhaps that when the explosion of these products hit in early 2004, people new (and even some old) to low-carb were curious about them, but eventually lost interest because they either tasted bad or tasted so good that people ate too much and sabatoged their diets?  Others are based on random polling.

Now there's this report that suggests that low-carb has had a new surge after New Years.  It has been credited to the usual surge of new dieters during this time of year, but it neglects to relate this to the whole story behind dieting trends and continues to use loaded terms like "craze."  Here's what seems obvious to me: 

  1. The low-carb movement came to critical mass at the beginning of 2004.  Part of this was due to the growing number of studies that were giving more legitimacy to the method of weight loss.  Part of it, no doubt, was due to Gary Taubes' high-profile defense of the low-carb movement and theory in the New York Times the previous year.  Part of it was due to the notoriety of Dr. Robert Atkins death and the controversy created around the misinformation and privacy invasions perpetrated by PCRM animal rights activists.  Part of it was due to a new low carb book (which the author continually claims is not a low-carb book) called The South Beach Diet.  And finally, part of it was based on food companies finally sitting up and taking notice of a new potential product category that they could get in on the ground level now that low-fat products had by and large sunk to unprofitability.
  2. There are constant articles in the press about how popular low-carb is becoming and this just snowballs to create more and more interest.  People buy primarily only two books about low-carbing, the Atkins book, or the South Beach book, which may not even be particularly about low-carbing.  Some of these people make a genuine effort, lose weight and even adopt truly healthy eating patterns - they aschew most of the processed low-carb foods for the bounty of "legal" whole foods like vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, nuts, eggs, dairy products, and even some fruits.  Many more people, though, either don't read the books, or read only the menu sections, and get a very scewed idea about what low-carb is about.  They believe that low-carb is, as the press and critics have painted it, about eating all meat, fat, and cheese, no vegetables, no fruit, etc.  Likewise they get the impression that all of these new products labeled low-carb are ok to eat in whatever quantity they want.  Actually, anything low-carb (like meat, cheese, etc.) is considered to be an all-you-can eat affair.  Despite these misconceptions, some of these people succeed in losing a lot anyway.  Many others don't.  Of the people who succeed, eventually they get sick of eating the same thing over and over because they mistakenly believe that low-carb is only about eating a few types of food.  They also don't understand why or how low-carb is supposed to work to make them not only thinner but also healthier, and so their motivation to continue goes out the window.
  3. By this point it's probably the summer, and most people are more active anyway, so the weight doesn't fly back on, and people aren't eating huge meals in summer heat either.  But neither are they buying anymore low-carb products, and so we start to hear rumblings in the press about low-carb being on its way out.
  4. A few months later and even more of the bandwagon-jumpers have jumped back off and then people start gearing up for the holidays.  And by gearing up I mean they start to give themselves much more leeway in what they eat.  Everyone else is getting lax during this time, so it becomes much easier to let yourself go because you aren't alone in your guilty pleasures!  Even many old stalwart dieters are slackening during this period, but of course the polling taking place makes the argument that this slackening indicates a definite trend in relationship only to low-carb dieting and not an overall pattern for all dieting over many, many years.
  5. Finally the New Year comes and many of our resolutions are about getting back on that horse at least for the moment and thus, yes of course, the polling now indicates that.

What I think is important to stress here is that low-carb dieting is not any different in terms of dieting trends than other diets out there.  It's the new kid on the block, or at least newly respected (by many but not all) kid on the block, so it's going to get more attention.  However, the issue, I don't think, is so much about low carb being something that people can only do for 6 months before getting bored, as critics would say, but that the whole tradition of dieting in this country, and many others, is a very seasonal one.  We expect every year to be tempted through much of November and December at Holoween, Thanksgiving, Christmass, New Years, and umpteen holiday parties spread throughout.  The weather is getting colder and there's this sense that it's more forgivable to put on a little more "insulation" for the cold.  Then there's the obligatory concession of guilt and resolution to be good again once the New Year has arrived.  Because this is a pattern that so many of us fall into, it becomes easy to ride the wave so to speak.  Sharing your life experience with countless others (whether friends or strangers) even if that is not a healthy one, is a lot less lonely than being one of the few different ones.

Another part of this as I've mentioned above, is also that many of us are either to busy to feel like we should really learn how and why to go about eating and/or exercising.  We want quick summaries and the most basic information to just "do" the diet.  "Just tell me what to eat" I've heard from countless people itching to start low-carbing.  They don't want to read a book, even if that means they will have a much better idea of what they can eat, why, and whether eating a certain way actually makes sense to them.  Nope, in this world of instant gratification, even dieting falls prey to this mentality of just cutting to the chase to get the most dumbed-down directive about how to eat.

So, in other words, I'm really sick of hearing about how trendy low-carb is or isn't.  The fact of the matter is that it shouldn't matter!  The only thing that should matter is whether low-carb works for you.  If it doesn't so be it, but just ask yourself if you really know whether you know what low-carb is about.  Read a whole book, or better yet read a couple or a few and get some different information about the theories and facts behind low-carb eating and decide whether it makes sense and whether if you've done it in the past, were you doing it in the best way?  Any diet can be adhered to technically, but also not optimally.  For example, I could eat a low-fat diet full of lean protein, but I could also eat a technically low-carb diet with almost no protein, no vegetables, or fruit.  I could eat just spaghetti with low-fat margarine, low-fat candy, etc.  I could also eat low-carb based on the misinformed critics' idea of mountains of fried pork topped with mounds of cheese with a liter of grease thrown in for effect!  But, after reading a couple of books, it became very apparent to me that eating reasonable portions of a combination of different foods including meat, poultry, fish, nuts, eggs, vegetables, and even fruits was just as technically a low-carb diet, just not one that low-carb critics want to admit are allowable.

For years, critics have been painting low-carb diets as "fad" diets, but really most diets are fads to one degree or another.  Diets come and go and while there is a diet that is officially recommended by nutritionists and the medical community which has changed over the years, that could never be labeled as a "fad," right?  Fads are bad because they are ostensibly about irrational reasons for doing something.  It's fasionable or popular, but may not have any legitimacy.  However, just because a diet is popular or becomes very popular and then not so much doesn't make it good or bad.  What really matters is whether it works to help you lose weight healthfully and actually makes you more healthy.  As I'm sure you know by now if you didn't already, I am very much believe in the data that suggests that eating low-carb (in the healthy way I mention) can be very healthy.  But if we keep concentrating on what the critics, the media, or pollsters say is or isn't popular when that shouldn't be an argument for or against anything, we will continue to maintain this really skewed understanding of eating and also our wacky and unhealthy traditions of seasonal dieting trends.

posted Wednesday, 19 January 2005

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