Let's say that you want to lose weight. You might have health concerns, you might just want to look better - there are many reasons to want to drop some pounds. But if you're looking for a way to get your weight under control and you try to approach this rationally, what should you do? You're going to end up running into John's First Law of Dieting.
John's First Law of Dieting: ALL DIETS ARE ABOUT YOU BUYING CRAP. Often it's a book - they all want to sell you books. Lots and lots of books. Weight Watchers, one of the more reasonably priced diet plans out there, tries to sell you food scales and points books. When they change their points formula you know what that means: BUY NEW CRAP. (Disclaimer: My mom was dragging me to WW meetings when I was 12 or so. Not happy memories.) Jenny Craig/Nutrisystem: BUY OUR FOOD (and other crap). They are always trying to sell you something. Never forget this. This is perhaps the source of my biggest grip about diet stuff.
The fact that the "diet industry" wants to part me from my money, and often does so in ways that I feel are less than honest, automatically sets my teeth on edge when someone comes along hawking a way that's guaranteed to shed pounds. The second thing that works against me is that I really really really hate pesudo-science, especially when used to sell something, even if it's just an idea. My BS sensors are *very* sensitive.
So let's say you're trying to figure out how you should eat. Let's say you want stuff that is backed by sound science, and hopefully the science is further backed up by published un-biased data that at least partially proves the science. What do you find? These days you'll basically find two camps:
On the one hand, we've got the "thermodynamics" folks. This are the folks that go by the (traditional) view that if calories in are more than calories out you gain weight. It's a pretty simple idea and it's rather intuitive. Of course it also says that if you're fat then you're just a lazy slob and why don't you go work out fattie. (I may be exaggerating, but not much. News flash: a lot of people are mean to fat folks. Including their parents.) They don't really care *where* a calorie comes from they just care how many you take in. And because, as most folks know, fat has more calories per gram than carbohydrates or protein these folks usually end up pushing a low-fat high-carb diet. They will also point at data regarding the link between fat intake and heart disease. This advice is the "standard" advice - it's what you'll hear from nutritionists, your doctor, etc.
Then there are some folks who are saying it's not how much you it it's what you eat that causes the problem. They've also got a simple idea: insulin makes you fat. Carbs make your insulin spike, which takes the blood sugar and then turns it in to fat. As long as you keep your insulin levels low then the actual number of calories doesn't matter - your body doesn't metabolize it. Then tend to push a high-protein/high fat diet. These guys are already somewhat in a corner because they seem to think that the advice of the majority of medical folks is wrong, for whatever reason.
What's a respectable geek supposed to do when given people pushing two opposites? Even the New York Times has commented on how these two sides are diametrically opposed. You've got the head of Weight Watchers giving away fruit baskets as gifts (isn't fruit supposed to be healthy?) and you've got another guy saying that the apple in your hand is "just another serving of fructose", and fructose is the type of sugar that your body converts to fat the easiest. Thus that apple is bad for you.
Let's take a specific example. I have some friends who are way into CrossFit. (On the one hand those guys scare me - I haven't seen an exercise program described as a "cult" before. On the other hand one of these friends got hit by two cars while on a motorcycle and his survival was credited, in part, to his conditioning.) The CrossFit guys tend to start advocating the Paleo Diet - it's very popular with the CrossFit crowd. One of my friends in particular has been discussing it with me.
In general I don't see anything terribly new presented with the Paleo diet. It's basically a more restrictive form of the standard low-carb fare. But I can't help but agree with this guy:
"I have no opinion on the actual recommendations of the fans of paleolithic culture. Maybe we would be better off eating more meat or having random bursts of intense exercise; I have no idea. However, I object to the pseudo-scientific rhetoric used to support the recommendations. I also object to the implicit assumption that it would necessarily be good to emulate the lives of paleolithic humans even if we did know how they lived."
That's pretty much sums it up. It *might* work. But even if it does work I don't think it works for the reasons they say. The whole "caveman" part of it just pings the BS meter way too high. It's just annoying. Give me hard data about the plan working and actual science as for why and I might start to be interested.
However when you ask for hard data you find out an awful truth: there isn't a lot of completely unbiased research out there about diet. A lot of it is funded by folks with something to prove (and money to make off of what they're proving). For example on the website for the "official" Paleo Diet book there is a published research section - and from what it looks like the author of the book is one of the investigators on all of the published research listed. That seems kinda bogus to me.
I don't want imply that I specifically hate the Paleo diet or whatever - it just happens that since I've had someone evangelizing it to me I've been researching it and debating it with him. And he's got a lot of anecdotal reports of people that it is working for. However anecdotal reports are just that...anecdotal. But this criticism can apply to many diets - just take a look at all the pro- and anti-Atkins data out there. One study will say it's the best diet ever. Another will say it's crap.
This all ends up providing nothing but frustration. I am VERY reluctant to trust someone when it comes to weight loss. I've tried too many things and had them fail to believe folks at this point. I've spent a lot of money. It just angers me a lot because I see my health being toyed with to make someone money. I see my fellow fat folks being put on reality shows for the amusement of America. (Given a chance I would love to do cardio boxing with Jillian Michaels so that I could "accidentally" punch her in the face a few times.) I'm an angry fat man that's tired of being lied to.
Oh, by the way, there's a third camp. Bariatric surgeons will tell you, to your face, that the only long term proven solution for weight loss is bariatric surgery. The only thing that will fix you is chopping your guts up. I'm not saying that it doesn't work for some, but the way it's currently being marketed is worse than anything I've ranted about here. But since I've dismissed it as an option I'm not really focusing on it. I told my doctor I'd rather die fat than spend the rest of my life worrying about malnutrition.