April 20, 2003

The Great Diet Debate
by Phil Kaplan

It's amazing how many people still call, e-mail, or visit my offices asking for a diet. I understand what they mean. They really mean they want a supportive eating program, but the diet mentality that has swept over our population is clearly one of the greatest causes of escalating obesity.

I've been in the business of helping people reshape their bodies for over 20 years and continue to amass evidence that adherence to a diet, any diet, without a concern for exercise is going to fail the great majority of people seeking physical excellence.

Here are some issues that should be recognized by anyone considering a diet:

  • Food is fuel as well as the raw material from which we build new cells.

  • Metabolism is the speed with which your body burns through food.

  • If you do not take in ample calories to sustain basal metabolic needs you run the risk of feeding off of muscle tissue.

  • Rapid weight loss beyond two pounds per week is certain to include a loss of water and/or muscle

  • If weight is lost via calorie deprivation and any portion of that weight is muscle, metabolism slows leading to a greater weight loss challenge.

  • Eating has a thermic or "calorie-burning" effect and some foods will burn more calories in the act of digestion making any diet that limits its recommendation to caloric intake a flawed program.

  • The body treats nutrients very differently if it is asked to adapt to regular exercise.

  • The addition of lean body mass (muscle mass) increases both exercise and resting metabolic activity making the body far more efficient at burning through food.

Those simple facts should indisputably indicate that the path to long term fat loss will result, not from cutting calories, but from a concern for the Synergy I address every week on my radio show, in every one of my seminars, and in every one of my books and programs. By Synergy I'm referring to the combination of the Right Nutrition (which means eating, not starving), Moderate Aerobic Exercise, and a Concern For Muscle.

Research Has Proven?

There have been two recent research abstracts published in the respected Journal of the American Medical Association which illustrate precisely how confused and uncertain the medical community is when it comes to weight loss via changes in nutrition.

The first one compared the commercial Weight Watchers program to a self-help dietary program over a course of two years (1). Both the commercial program and the self-help program approached weight loss with a calorie-cutting approach. The conclusion of the study was that Weight Watchers proved more successful than self-help dieting. If we relied on that conclusion, we'd be led to believe that Weight Watchers is effective, but let's look a little deeper into the study. What is the goal of an obese person embarking upon a weight loss program? Simple. Weight loss. But is the goal to lose weight and gain it back? Not likely. The goal is long term healthful permanent gratifying weight loss. In this study, 25% of participants failed to complete the two years. The dropout results were not included in the final calculations which in itself skews the study as a measure of results. Of the remaining 75%, those in the self help group regained any weight lost. In the Weight Watchers group the mean weight loss at the end of two years was just over 6 pounds. So isn't that good? Well, not if you consider that at the one-year mark the average weight loss among the Weight Watchers group was almost 10 pounds. That means the study indicated that weight lost was regained in both groups. The participants in the study were overweight or obese. Would a six pound weight loss over 2-years prove gratifying to those who make up the obese population? I think not. There was no measure of body composition which leads to a pretty well founded suspicion the weight lost was a combination of water, fat, and muscle, which can prove to lead to greater weight loss challenges in the future. Still, taken out of context, that study supposedly supports the efficacy of commercial weight loss programs.

What's up with this low-carb thing?

The second abstract reviewed research conducted since 1996 to attempt to draw some conclusions related to the popular but controversial low-carb diets (2). What was the final consclusion?

There is insufficient evidence to make recommendations for or against the use of low-carbohydrate diets

So in other words, the conclusion was inconclusive. Here's another interesting part of the conclusion:

Participant weight loss while using low-carbohydrate diets was principally associated with decreased caloric intake and increased diet duration but not with reduced carbohydrate content.

Do these studies lend any credence to the idea that diets are in fact a solution? If you're searching for a diet, allow me to provide a few questions you might want to consider before beginning a course of action:

  • Have you been on a diet before? If it worked, why would you still be searching?

  • Have you lost weight and gained it back on a diet? Doesn't that indicate the diet's failure?

  • Why would you return to a technology that continues to fail people?

The Atkins Diet Revisited

In the wake of the unfortunate and untimely passing of Dr. Atkins, I feel obliged to share all of my concerns related to the low carb diet in order to provide a resource for those seeking complete clarity on the risks, benefits, and potential outcomes. I've compiled those concerns in a lengthy article (you might have to digest it - no pun intended - in two or three sittings) which is available in its entirety right now. Click here for the entire article.


  1. Heshka S, et al. Weight Loss With Self-help Compared With a Structured Commercial Program: A Randomized Trial. JAMA 2003 Apr 9;289(14):1792-8
  2. Bravata DM, Sanders L, Huang J, Krumholz HM, Olkin I, Gardner CD, Bravata DM. Efficacy and safety of low-carbohydrate diets: a systematic review. JAMA 2003 Apr 9;289(14):1837-50


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Previous Updates:

Update 3/22/03 - I Know What I Should Eat, But . . .

Update 3/6/03 - Deceptive Food Labels
Update 2/4/03 - The Relationship Between Sex and Fitness
Update 1/25/03 - Phil's Biggest Mistake - The EAT! Formula Screw Up
Update 1/12/03 - The Talk Show Illusion (Infomercials exposed)
Update 12/14/02 - Penis Enlargers and Breast Enhancing Pills
Update 11/20/02 - How Do I Lose This?
Update 8/27/02 - The Promise and the Real Story Behind the Infomercials
Update 8/01/02 - Clearing up Four Prevalent Myths

Update 6/20/02 - Giving Credit Where Credit is Due
Update 5/11/02 - Miracle GH, What "Works"
Update 3/25/02 - Women on Steroids and More on Core Training

Update 2/15/02 - the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Fitness
Update 1/14/02 - Counting Calories
Update 12/28 - 'Twas the Night Before New Years
Update 12/8 - The New Electronic Ab Offerings
Update 12/12 - The "Magic" is Within You
Update 11/20 - Holiday eating!

Update 11/3 - Weight Loss Bread and other Nonsense!
Update 10/29 - Supplement Values
Update 10/3 - Getting Back to Doing What We Do
Update 9/19 - Tragedy and Love, RE: Sept 11
Update 8/15 - Myths, Fallacies, False Beliefs
Update 8/1 - The Internet, Leptin, Steroids, and more
Update 7/9 - The New Supplements
Update 6/14 - Seminar offerings and clarity on "Brownies"
Update 5/29 - Lose Weight, Eat Brownies?!?!?
Update 5/1/01
- Pizza, Beer, and Fitness
Update 4/7/01 - "Phil-osophies" and Rip-Off Realities!
Update 4/1/01 - Gourmet Recipes!
Update 3/15/01 - Research Has Proven?
Update 3/1/01 - Preparing for The New Infomercial
Update 2/1/01 - Time, Space, Matter, and Energy
Update 1/15/01 - Atkins hits the UK
Update 10/7/00 - Supplements, Additional Clarity
Update 7/27/00 - The Experts Round Table, Almada, Colgan, Parillo
Update 7/3/00 - Core Training & Metabolism Boosters

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