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How Not to Diet

Michael Gregor, author of How Not to Dietdiscusses the research that led him to a simple solution to the obesity epidemic: instead of relying on fads and trends, adopt a diet centered around whole-plant foods.

By
Michael Greger, MD FACLM
how not to diet
The Quick And Dirty

The reason that diets are so profitable, according to Michael Gregor, is because they don't work—leading people to try them over and over again, spending more and more money each time. Gregor argues that the best way to control your weight is to adopt long-term lifestyle changes. 

Every month seems to bring us a trendy new diet or weight-loss fad, and they always sell because they always fail. The diet industry rakes in up to $50 billion a year, and the business model is based on repeat customers. Racked with the guilt and self-hatred of failure, people often line right back up to be fooled again.

We should eat real food that grows out of the ground, natural foods that come from fields, not factories, and from gardens, not garbage.

The battle of the bulge is a battle against biology, so obesity is not some moral failing. I can’t stress enough that becoming overweight is a normal, natural response to the abnormal, unnatural ubiquity of calorie-dense, sugary, and fatty foods. So, my goal with How Not to Diet was to give you every possible tweak and technique I could find to build the optimal weight-control solution from the ground up, whether you’re morbidly obese, just overweight like the average American, or at your ideal weight and wanting to keep it that way.

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In How Not to Diet, I cover everything from cultivating a healthy microbiome in your gut to manipulating your metabolism through chronobiology, matching meal timing to your circadian rhythms. I discuss ketogenic diets, low-carb versus low-fat, meal frequency, eating rate, sleep enhancement, and more. I also dive deep into the hows and whys—and why-nots—of myriad intermittent fasting regimes.

A calorie isn't just a calorie

Isn’t a calorie just a calorie, though? In that case, why does it matter what we eat? The notion that a calorie from one source is just as fattening as a calorie from any other source is a trope broadcast by the food industry as a way to absolve itself of culpability. Coca-Cola even put out an ad emphasizing this “one simple commonsense fact.” As the chair of Harvard’s nutrition department put it, this “central argument” from industry is that the “overconsumption of calories from carrots would be no different from overconsumption of calories from soda.”

The notion that a calorie from one source is just as fattening as a calorie from any other source is a trope broadcast by the food industry as a way to absolve itself of culpability.

While it’s true that in a tightly controlled laboratory setting, 240 calories of carrots—ten carrots—would have the same effect on calorie balance as the 240 calories in a bottle of Coke, this comparison falls on its face out in the real world. You could chug down those liquid calories in less than a minute, but eating 240 calories of carrots could take you more than two and a half hours of constant chewing. (It’s been timed.) Not only would your jaw get sore, but 240 calories of carrots is about five cups—you might not even be able to fit them all in your stomach. Like all whole plant foods, carrots have fiber, which adds bulk without adding net calories. So, in a lab, a calorie is a calorie, but in real life, far from it.

Diets don't work—here's what does

How Not to Diet isn’t about “dieting.” Diets don’t work almost by definition. Going on a diet implies that, at some point, you will go off the diet. Short-term fixes are no match for long-term problems. Lifelong weight control requires lifelong lifestyle changes. It’s not what you eat today that matters, or tomorrow, or next week, but rather what you eat over the next months, years, and decades, so you have to find lifestyle changes that fit into your lifestyle. What might that look like?

First, a diet has to be sustainable. Consider water-only fasting. No diet works better. It’s 100 percent effective, but also 100 percent fatal if you manage to stick with it. This is why an optimal diet needs additional building blocks to ensure long-term viability.

Safety is about losing weight without losing your health.

Along with being efficacious and sustainable, it needs to be safe. Books touting liquid protein diets in the 1970s sold millions of copies, but the diets started killing people. Safety is about losing weight without losing your health.

Any long-term eating pattern must also be nutritionally complete, containing all essential vitamins and minerals. Finally, our chosen diets should be life-extending. In the very least, what we eat shouldn’t cut our lives short and ideally should be healthy enough to improve our life spans. There’s no point in losing weight if it causes you to lose it all.

We should eat real food that grows out of the ground, natural foods that come from fields, not factories, and from gardens, not garbage. The same diet that has been shown to prevent, treat, and reverse some of our leading killer diseases just so happens to be the one with the greatest potential for permanent weight loss. Inspired by my grandmother’s story, I went on this deep dive into the medical literature for an answer to the obesity epidemic and came full circle. Not only did I succeed in finding a plain solution to the crisis, I discovered the same solution: a diet centered around whole-plant foods.

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