“Twinkie Diet”: Just a Starvation Diet in Disguise



As if there weren’t enough conflicting nutrition information out there already, a professor of human nutrition decided to go on a Twinkie Diet. He then proceeded to lose weight, improve his cholesterol numbers, and make matters even more confusing for the general public. But while the media has taken the easy headline and run with it, I think this story deserves a closer look.

Professor Mark Haub of Kansas State University did the one thing that will guarantee weight loss—he cut his total calorie consumption. Haub limited himself to a total of 1,800 calories a day. A man of his size and weight would normally consume 2,600 calories per day.

The CNN headline that he made news with was: “Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds.” It should read: “Cutting calories by nearly half helps professor lose 27 pounds,” which would be far more accurate—but hardly news. In yet another misleading headline CBS news claims, “Twinkie Diet for Weight Loss: Is Professor Haub on to Something?”

The story’s implications are really what concern me. In its coverage, CNN writes, “Families who live in food deserts have limited access to fresh fruits and vegetables, so they often rely on the kind of food Haub was eating.”

I do not see any reason to try and justify this kind of diet. Let’s remember that Haub did this for 10 weeks, not over the course of a lifetime or even several years, which would have shown more accurately what the long-term effects of a Twinkie diet might entail.

Meanwhile, the suggestion remains that those worried about the dearth of healthful foods in poor areas really have no basis for concern. That’s what conservative pundit Rush Limbaugh would have you believe. Not surprisingly, he’s using this story to try and prove that the advice to eat healthful and organic foods is some sort of liberal conspiracy, one spearheaded by Michelle Obama. He claims that he knew all along that the “garbage she’s growing in her garden” does not make people healthy. He’s also undermining the important food policy work she’s doing.

Limbaugh said, “Michelle Obama wants to spend $400 million to combat food deserts. She’s all upset that the only food available to poor urban people are convenience stores, the 7-Elevens…So she’s complaining about food deserts, and Michelle Obama wants to punish Big Food and Big Retail for not putting quality food stores in poor neighborhoods, right? And that’s why there’s an obesity epidemic, right? Okay, along comes Mark Haub.”

You can see where Limbaugh is going with this, and you can see what Haub has unleashed. This is fuel for conservatives who think the talk of eating whole foods, supporting sustainable farming practices, and addressing issues like access to fresh fruits and vegetables is all a sham. Limbaugh and his followers typically say it’s all about personal choice and responsibility. Just eat fewer Twinkies! Maybe that will solve our national obesity and diabetes epidemics?

Supporters of this notion will then point out that Haub’s lipid profile actually improved during his 10-week experiment: His bad cholesterol fell, his good cholesterol rose, and he reduced his triglycerides. But this is to be expected with a 27-pound weight reduction. When it comes to lipid profiles, they are directly related to weight. When you lose weight they improve, bottom line. Haub would have to continue his experiment for much longer in order to see if his lipid profiles continued to improve or would in fact worsen with a long-term nutritionally depleted diet.

Haub could have easily done a different experiment—he could have eaten 1,800 calories a day of whole foods. In fact, I think that’s what he should do next and compare how he feels on each diet. I’m curious about a few other indicators of overall health: What was his digestion like? Did he feel fatigued? Have headaches? Have poor sleep? Experience a lack of energy? His report leaves all this out. You can starve yourself to lose weight—that’s not a new concept, but it will not make you healthy. On any restricted calorie diet, it’s extremely hard to maintain good nutrient status and prevent malnutrition. Your health will eventually suffer, it’s just a matter of time. Ten weeks, however, is not long enough to determine the consequences of any diet.

Haub also told CNN this: “I wish I could say the outcomes are unhealthy. I wish I could say it’s healthy. I’m not confident enough in doing that. That frustrates a lot of people. One side says it’s irresponsible. It is unhealthy, but the data doesn’t say that.”

His data may not say that it’s unhealthy after a 10-week trial period, but consider the data that exists in the United States. Two-thirds of the population is obese or overweight, diabetes is fast becoming an epidemic, heart disease is the number one killer, and nearly all diet and lifestyle related diseases are on the rise.

But according to Haub, a nutrition professor, the data just doesn’t indicate that Twinkies or other packaged, processed foods are detrimental. Professor Haub has succeeded on one front though; he’s confused the public about nutrition and provided fodder for the media in its sensational questioning of what makes a healthy diet and just what’s making our nation’s citizens obese and sick.

Photo: Christian Cable via Flickr

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  1. Friday, November 19th, 2010
    Great article, Kristin.

    Haub also took a multivitamin and drank a protein shake every day — a detail that's been largely glossed over by the media reports.

    The media also makes no mention of Haub's mood, energy level, or mental acuity. I'm amazed that Haub was able to concentrate at all -- 1,800 calories a day of mostly refined flours and sugars isn't exactly going to keep your energy levels consistent!
  2. Jeff Oscodar
    Friday, November 19th, 2010
    Wasn't the same diet used by Dan White to defend himself against murdering then Mayor of SF George Moscone? Haub's diet not only allows you to lose weight, but also provides a defense to first degree murder.

    Seriously, why would a professor who studies nutrition for a living not think beyond these superficial conclusion??
  3. Dana
    Friday, November 19th, 2010
    I'm 36 years old, 5'6" tall and recently weighed in at 230.5. Back in July I had labs done. My HDL was low, but not scary-low; it was in the 40s (low for a woman but normal if I were a guy). My LDLs were a bit on the high side, only a bit, but they were calculated and my total was still under 200. My triglycerides were in the 60s which is on the low end. If we're going to argue that Haub had good cholesterol numbers because he got down to a normal weight then explain me.

    Also I'm not particularly impressed by his numbers because the AHA says a healthy HDL is in the 60s, which his is not.

    Also his fasting sugar was a bit on the low side, almost hypoglycemic by some standards (74). And I saw his body composition report on Facebook, where he had posted his numbers--at least, the numbers he shared. He had an 8 percent body fat loss. More interesting to me was that he also lost lean mass.

    I don't care who you are, or how much you starve yourself. If you lose lean mass you are doing something wrong. Weight loss is actually supposed to be *fat* loss.

    And as far as I'm concerned he cheated by taking the multivitamin and drinking the protein shakes. I have no particular opinion either way about his also eating the occasional canned veggies or the celery. There are traditional cultures where the people don't eat any plant foods at all, and they're healthier than Haub is.

    The term "whole foods" is meaningless. If I ate a diet of nothing but soybeans in their "whole" form, maybe lightly steamed at most, it wouldn't be long before my thyroid shut down and I got sick. There *is* something to be said for food processing, at times. The actual problem we have here is with food being made *industrial.* That, and our loss of traditional knowledge about food.

    By the way, there are conservatives who understand that nourishing food is important, and who support family farms and traditional food knowledge. If their beliefs do not embrace the claims of PETA and its ilk, too bad. My great-grandmother wouldn't have agreed with PETA either, and she was a damn sight healthier than I am.
  4. Monday, November 22nd, 2010
    This is an awesome article!! I really can't believe some of the findings myself!
  5. Corey
    Wednesday, November 24th, 2010
    The important thing to recognize about this "experiment" is that most people living in food deserts and relying on heavily processed foods are typically getting a lot of calories from meat, fried foods, carbohydrates and SODA. The items he supplemented with, multivitamins and protein shakes, are probably also not typical purchases of someone on a limited budget. It is quite surprising to read the reactions to this study considering that its parameters are quite unrealistic and would likely never be adopted by anyone voluntarily... except maybe children.
  6. Thursday, November 25th, 2010
    Fad diets dont work no matter how they are promoted. Safest way is still the healthy weight loss method. Nutrition counselor, Lisa Shanken, has a lot to say about fad or crash diets on her blog.
  7. yay food
    Monday, November 29th, 2010
    People living in food deserts are NOT getting calories from 'meat'. By definition, they don't live in areas where large amounts of meat, fried or otherwise are the norm to have access to.

    Meat should not be the scapegoat when it's the starches and sodas that are the true health bottlenecks.