Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 28

A 90% diet solution -- in 2 words

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Hi this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com. It's been a while since my last segment, and I apologize about that. But I have a great excuse: great not only in that it satisfactorily explains my mysterious absence, but also great because it's just great -- I'm thrilled and amazed that it actually happened: out of the blue, I got a book deal for the No S Diet. From a real publisher, with an advance So I had to take advantage of this opportunity and devote every spare second to getting the manuscript done -- including the time I normally would have used for this podcast. I'll talk a little bit about the book next week, for now I'm sick to death of the subject. I just wanted to let those of you who were wondering know what happened.

Unfortunately (or rather very fortunately) I've got another great excuse to avoid podcasting coming up in the next few weeks: even greater, my wife and I are expecting our second child.

So realistically, it's probably going to be a while till I can bump it up to once a week again, but once a month, at least, I should be able to manage. I promise I won't give up altogether. Persistence and consistency are things I'm constantly preaching with my everyday systems, so I'll try to practice them in my capacity as podcaster too.

Today I'm going to revisit the No S Diet, or one aspect of the no s diet. The most contentions part -- which I think, is also actually, the most important. You'll remember that the nos diet has three rules: no snacks, no sweets, no seconds. No sweets and no seconds no one has a problem with, at least on a conceptual level. Maybe you have trouble actually refraining from sweets and seconds, but you know intellectually that you should. No snacks is a little more contentious. A lot of people seem to think snacking is good. They think it's good for one of two reasons: because it makes them less hungry, that's both a good in itself and (presumably) they'll eat less the next meal because they're less hungry, and two because they may have read something somewhere about smaller frequent caloric inputs being metabolized more efficiently -- in other worlds, if you eat the same amount of calories in 6 meals a day instead of 3, you'll burn them more efficiently and that same amount of calories won't make you quite as fat.

So hunger management and metabolism, these are the two pro snacking arguments. The second one, the metabolism argument, may actually be true, to some small degree. But the first one is so false, that the second one doesn't even matter. Snacking does not manage hunger effectively. We do not eat any less at meals if we've been eating between meals. We don't, outside of a lab, compensate for snack calories at mealtime -- at all. Snacks are just extra calories. By snacking, we just eat more. And no matter how efficient your metabolism, you aren't going to turn those extra calories into negative calories. They will add up and will make you fat.

Can we quantify this? According to data from the Continuing Surveys of Food Intake by Individuals, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 90% of our increased calorie consumption since 1977 has come from increased between-meal eating. Calories consumed at meals have stayed about the same. If this statistic is accurate, snacking is not only the biggest problem in terms of dietary excess, it is almost the entire problem.

90%. You've heard of the 80% solution. Well here's a 90% solution to the problem of obesity (at least on the consumption end), two words: "no snacks." In fact, you don't even have to go that far. No snacks except on S-days -- remember that NO S diet exception -- will probably be enough to bring you back to 1970s levels of consumption.

I'm getting this data from from a 2003 study by David Cutler at Harvard University called "Why have Americans become more obese?" I'll post a link to it on the website. The other interesting thing he points out is that it's not the size of the snacks that have increased but their frequency -- the very "grazing" that diet gurus love to praise.

Cutler writes: "The average number of snacks increased by 60% over this period, thus more snacks per day -- rather than more calories per snack -- account for the majority of the increase in the calories from snacks." So while it might be tempting for some to keep our current high frequency of snacking while focusing on making those high frequency snacks smaller or healthier as a way to reduce total snack calories, there is no historical precedent for such behavior. We didn't get fat because we ate bigger or less healthy snacks, we got fat simply because we ate more snacks. So the obvious step to correct this problem would be to do the opposite, to eat fewer snacks, like we used to. We know how to do that; we know we can; and we know it works.

One way of examining the relationship between snacking obesity is to look across time, like we just did. America in the 70s vs America today. Another way is to look across cultures.

In America we get 26% of our total calories from snacks -- twice the amount as in 1976 -- and our obesity rate is now over 31%; the French get only 8% of their calories from snacks, and their obesity rate is correspondingly lower at 11%; the Chinese get less than 1% of their calories from snacks -- they essentially don't snack at all -- , and their obesity rate is a mere 3%. Any place I've looked where statistics like this are available you see the same pattern -- more snacking means more obesity.

Do you know what the french word for snacking is? le snacking. Not a french word. It's such a foreign concept to them that they had to borrow our word for it.

Snacking is a weird thing. It's a very recent historical development. Without big technological advances that make food so cheap and convenient, snacking wasn't even possible. So don't think that snacking is somehow this natural thing that you're being kind to yourself to preserve. It's a new, bad habit, plain and simple. Don't look around you and say "hey, everybody's doing it, so should I." Look around you and say, "hey, everybody's doing it, and look how fat they are."

If snacking is this big a problem, why does it get so little play in the media and popular literature? I think there are three reasons. One is there's a lot of money to be made in snacks. Not just by junk food companies but also by the "wellness" industry and the diet gurus who partner with them to get a cut of the diet bar sales -- the ultimate sign of having made it as a diet guru is to have your name on what is essentially a candy bar. I know it sounds crazy but go to your supermarket and take a look at these things. The second reason snacking gets ignored is simply because the excess that comes in through snacking is less visible than other problems like gigantic portions -- supersizeing gets a lot of attention in the media because it looks so bad. When someone is eating a double whopper with a mountain of fries that looks awful, you can look at him and say "stop! you shouldn't be But when someone is munching a little here and a little there, it you can never put your finger on the precise point that it becomes excessive. And that's precisely the problem. Snacking bypasses your eyes ability to see excess. The only way you can measure excess with snacking is to count - count calories, points whatever, and let's be realistic, no one is going to be able to do that for any length of time. Get rid of snacking, and all of a sudden excess jumps right out at you. It doesn't just become visible, it becomes unavoidably visible. It's hard not to see it. The other reason snacking gets let off the hook is that it can theoretically be a good thing. It is conceivable that you would eat only celery sticks and carrots and balance the extra calories by eating less at meals. But in practice, it isn't realistic. Almost no one manages to pull this off. So stop trying. Instead, do what skinny billions have done for millenia: stop snacking, stick with meals.

That's all for today. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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