Which Diet Is "Best"?
Our Hunger for Answers to a Perilous Problem
"Thirty years of nutritional advice
have left us fatter, sicker, and more poorly nourished.
Which is why we find ourselves in the predicament we do:
in need of a whole new way to think about eating."
- Michael Pollan
We are probably more confused about the basic question of "what to eat?" than anyone else in history.
It wasn't always this complicated. And it seems like it doesn't have to be. After all, what could be more simple? If you're hungry, eat! Eat what you have, that's good, and that gives your body what it needs! Right? ...umm, right...?
Not at all. These days, dieting seems to be a national pasttime. Thinking, reading, studying, and arguing about dieting is almost a national sport. As Ron Burgandy might say, the diet game these days is "kind of a big deal."
Our current state of confusion isn't for lack of information. Or science. Or public policy do-gooders trying to educate us all about the proper way to do things. In fact, our current state of confusion may well be because of all these things.
We've heard wild stories of times long ago when eating food was actually supposedly used to be, you know, relatively enjoyable, not anxiety-ridden, and low-stress. And at the same time, at least compared to today, folks were actually, generally, thinner. And even, certain medical advances aside, healthier.
But those days are apparently gone. Americans now spend something north of $60 billion dollars every year (again, that's billion with a "b," every year) trying to lose weight (Marketdata Enterprises). ABCNews estimates that there are 108 million people on diets in the United States right now, and they typically make four to five "attempts" per year. They also estimate that the US weight-loss industry revenue is somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 billion dollars. In 2002, 231 million Europeans attempted some form of diet. (WDMUF).
We could go on.
“I’ve been on a diet for two weeks
and all I’ve lost is fourteen days.”
- Totie Fields
We're overcrowded and clogged with a glut of plans, experts, advice, systems, "solutions." For example, just some of...
Then Engine 2
The Carbohydrate Addict
Various Miracle pills
"Diet Doesn't Matter"
...and so on.
And of course, the "villains"
- the evil, diabolical "root cause" of all the food-related suffering in the world are, depending on who you ask...
the "western" diet
high-fructose corn syrup
monounsaturated fatty acids
...and so on.
Name practically any food out there, and you can be pretty sure that somewhere there's some ivy-league expert trying to educate you on how terrible it is.
The amount of time, energy, stress, worry, and effort that so many people are putting into their diets these days is vast. So is the confusion. All this is pretty good for the bank accounts of the weight-loss industry. It isn't good for the rest of us.
We're tired of it. We'd rather spend our money, time and energy somewhere else. It seems to us that there has to be something better to do with your life (and time, energy, money) than spending it trying to lose a few pounds.
So of course, we see all of the above and have to ask the simple, multi-billion-question:
which diet is “best”?
Finding the answer to that became our mission.
"One cannot think well,
if one has not dined well."
It's rough out there. There's an avalanche of information, much of it is random, fragmented, contradictory, and in complete disarray. Experts disagree; books contradict each other; two medical doctors from
some cliche ivy-league school (and therefore infallible) will tell you, with absolute certainty and full confidence, diametrically opposite things. Or sometimes they'll agree, and soon after, will change their minds after yet a new "study" will come out that contradicts what they just said. And so on.
Yep - it's rough out there.
But this is what we do. So we dove in, sorted through mountains of information, examined arguments, bought front-row seats to M.D. knockdown debates, arrived at several different conclusions over many years, changed our minds dozens of times, tested our answers to see if they were solid, found them lacking, found better answers, tested those again, and so on. We turned ourselves into lab-rats and conducted experiments on ourselves. (And not entirely pleasant ones either). We kept trying to disprove our "answers," to try to prove ourselves wrong, until we finally arrived at stuff that we couldn't disprove.
It was a wild ride. And not a completely comfortable one.
But finally, we arrived at an answer we're satisfied with.
(Editor's Note: For the record: as usual we aren't planning to rest on our laurels with this "answer." Whenever we find an "answer" that satisfies us, we treat it as a "working hypothesis" and keep trying to disprove it, and/or find something better. And if something better comes along, we'll adopt it. But until it does, we're satisfied that what we have is the "best" answer available. For now.
So, to clarify a few things before we attack the problem. How do we define “best”? Is there definitely a "best" diet at all? Isn't it all just a matter of "taste"?
Is there definitely a "best" diet at all? Is this a trick question?
There's one school of thought - argued most eloquently in the book Diet Cults - that there is no "best" diet; that humans can and have survived on essentially anything.
We agree with the premise that humans can and have survived on essentially anything. And the full answer to this is a complex one. That said, based on our research, we do believe we've found one specific approach that really is actually, generally "better" than the others.
"One 'answer' that's better for EVERYONE, though?"
One thing we've become convinced of is that there should be room for individual variation. People and bodies are all alike in some ways (eg everyone needs oxygen; that is a good and accurate "generalization") - and different in other ways. The approach we recommend allows for that. We don't think that every person is SO different that nothing general can or should be said. We're offering general guidelines that should apply to most folks; but we still recommend that each person should customize it, if they want, to work for them. For example, some people have celiac disease, have strong reactions to wheat/gluten, and really should avoid it. That's fine - we aren't trying to overrule anything along those lines. If something's working for you, keep it.
So, what's our criteria for deciding "which diet is "best"?
- Effectiveness: Does it work; is it as effective as possible in regards to health & weight
- Time: Is it time-consuming (ideally we want to be able to do something with our lives besides struggling to lose a few pounds)
- Simplicity in Plan: Does it require you to become a nutritionist, biochemist, chef
- Simplicity in Execution: Does it require the attention, energy, and effort of a full-time job, or is it fairly easy/low-maintenance
- Expensive: Does it cost a ton of money, (eg is triple-organic, hand-sifted, pre-gargled coconut water that's been made from the sweat drips of a pregnant virgin Tibetan llama at $40/drop - a daily requirement?) - or is it actually affordable for normal people
- Positive: Does it tell us what to eat, as opposed to only telling us what not to eat
- Willpower Exhaustion: Does it require a constant, relentless amount of exhausting effort to keep up; are you supposed to go around fighting hunger all day, every day
- Health: Is it healthy (we aren't too interested in a diet that helps us lose weight and also kills us, like one in very popular one seems to do...)
- Relations: How does it affect other folks and the rest of the world
- Honesty: We want to make sure we don’t have a hidden agenda, an ax to grind, we aren't secretly making a few extra bucks by promoting our mother-in-law's diet book, etc. (We don't, and aren't. And as of right now, none of our in-laws have written diet books.)
Is this a trick question? Is there a straight anwer?
Yes, we do give a straight answer. There might be a minor "surprising spin" on the "which diet is best" question; but we do give a straight answer. It involves a book that sells for about $10. Or a penny if you buy it used. Plus shipping.
You could save $10 if you'd want to do some fancy Googling; or there are other books & materials we refer you to if you want to dig deeper. We aren't making money off selling the book (see the "honesty" criteria above); we just don't want to (and can't) entirely replicate that book here. We do relay some of the core ideas here, but the book we recommend fleshes it out more clearly. One of the reasons we like it is because of how simple-yet- comprehensive it is, and how well it reduces a topic that often becomes one of overwhelmingly complexity down to very straightforward, very clear, bite-sized pieces.
(The way we see it, spending $10, once, as what could be the last money you'd need to spend in this area, is way cheaper than whatever is adding up to the $60 billion the rest of us are spending on this stuff.)
Is this a "short-term" solution or "long-term"?
We are 100%, actively avoiding the “short-term diet scheme” angle. We are whatever the opposite of “Lose 30 pounds in 30 days!” hyped-up (and probably dangerous) BS. If you're trying to figure out how to fit into a prom dress in two weeks, this isn't for you. If you're trying to figure out how to drop weight in time for the wrestling match, or lose that extra micro-milliounce of belly fat for your next bikini-modeling gig, or figure out how the ninth hour of your daily workout can get that extra vein to pop out on your thirteenth quad...this isn't for you. What we're aiming for is - sorry - “normal” people (meaning, people who don't work out fifteen hours a day or get paid millions of dollars to be skinny) who don’t have a specific short-term agenda in mind, but who are reasonably looking to adopt “the best diet” which will ideally be good for weight and health, and something they’d be able to adopt, with a minimum amount of strain and effort, for the rest of their lives.
So, finally...what's our answer? Which diet is "best"?