Monday, May 24, 2004

Atkins and the Selection Diet

A good friend once told me that discovery is like a drunken walk. You wander about, picking up an idea here, a notion there, moving forward without completely knowing your destination in advance. So it is with my weight struggles. The Akins diet worked for me, for a time, but I’ve come to a few conclusions.

  • Depriving Yourself Is Bad

  • Atkins is a Selection Diet

  • Selection Diets Force You to Deprive Yourself

  • A Calorie Is A Calorie

  • Market Forces Are Always In Play

  • Extreme Adoption of a Selection Diet Lessens Its Effectiveness.

  • Happiness is a Warm Puppy

Depriving Yourself Is Bad

While Dr. Atkins encouraged you to eat until you are full, it was only with allowable foods. If you ate carbs to the point of leaving ketosis, you had ruined your diet for days until you depleted those stored carbs. Being hungry is a diet killer in the short term. Feeling deprived of whole categories of food is a diet killer in the long term. The answer, it seems, is to eat small quantities of whatever you want, frequently enough that you never let yourself get terribly hungry.

Atkins is a Selection Diet

I’ve become convinced that the Akins diet works primarily by limiting the amounts of food available for you to consume. When I was on Atkins, I almost always ate the same amount of meat with a meal I would have had otherwise; it was the additional items that accounted for the decrease in calories taken in.

For example, while I was eating “in the wild”, I would often order a 12 ounce steak. When on Atkins, I would order the same 12 ounce steak. The difference is when on Atkins, that would be my entire meal. Knowing I couldn’t have the fries, or baked potato, or other carb rich dish available at Texas Longback, I would have to stop eating when the steak was done. That encouraged me to eat slower, with smaller bites, and give my brain time to receive the “I’m full” signal that I would have blown past had I been able to eat the sides.

Selection Diets Force You to Deprive Yourself

Deprivation is the name of the game when it comes to selection diets. That’s just how they work; you aren’t allowed to eat certain things. If you select down so that finding acceptable food is actually difficult, the diet works. You’ve forced yourself (by selecting out certain foods) back into what was man’s natural state for most of human history, that of scarcity. It’s an artificial scarcity, yet it still limits not only what you can eat, but also how much you eat.

A Calorie Is A Calorie

This goes hand in hand with the above section. I lost weight on Atkins not because of some mysterious metabolic advantage that cannot be measured directly, but only inferred through anecdotal evidence, but because I consistently ate less food. I ate less food because there was less I was allowed to eat, and I can only eat so much steak before I start growing udders.

Market Forces Are Always In Play

A year ago, I heard rumors that the major snack companies and bakeries were in secret meetings to address the growing Atkins threat, and decline of sales of carb-laden snacks as the Akins diet gained mindshare. While those images are amusing, and most likely exaggerated, the truth of the matter is the market will adjust to supply whatever people are willing to pay for.

I’m starting to see it now. Every restaurant is offering “Low Carb” options. Atlanta Bread Company now has an extensive low carb selection. Subway, the company that made its name by having fresh, in store baked bread, now has “Atkins Wraps”. It is no longer hard to eat a lot of food and still stay “low carb”, whereas when I was on Atkins the first time, it was consistently a struggle for me to dine out.

Extreme Adoption of a Selection Diet Lessens Its Effectiveness

Now, it is easy to eat out and be on Atkins. The grocery shelves are brimming with snacks and treats of all kinds, promising low carb taste. There are malatol chocolate bars, soy breads, and even low carb cereal and milk.

A person on Atkins now doesn’t have to give up any type of food, just to buy these new alternative formulations and go about life as normal. If you believe me (and the mass of the scientific establishment) that a calorie really is just a calorie, you can see how mass acceptance will bring Atkins success rates crashing to the floor.

Happiness is a Warm Puppy

Charlie Brown would have you believe that happiness is as easy as having Snoopy by your side. Dr. Atkins would have you believe weight victory is as easy as leaving out the carbs. While both are comforting thoughts, they are naive, and ignore the complexities of human existence and metabolism.

If you want a diet that works, face the facts I outlined above. Accept there is no magic cure, no silver bullet, and no easy fix. It takes discipline. The battle is not in what to eat, but in overcoming our own weakness and make the hard choices to eat less, exercise more, and make conscious, rational decisions about food. John Walker, the founder of Autocad Software, wrote a book you can download for free called The Hacker’s Diet. If you are ready to give up the fuzzy thinking, and approach weight loss like an engineering problem, I encourage you to give it a read.

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