Over the past several weeks, I’ve received quite a few emails and comments about Kansas State nutrition professor Mark Haub and his “Twinkie Diet.” I became aware of professor Haub’s experiment awhile back because he emailed me about it.  He’s seen Fat Head, and if I remember correctly, he said he shows it to his students in class.

In case you haven’t heard about his experiment, here’s a typical headline, this one from a CNN article:

Twinkie diet helps nutrition professor lose 27 pounds

For 10 weeks, Mark Haub, a professor of human nutrition at Kansas State University, ate one of these sugary cakelets every three hours, instead of meals. To add variety in his steady stream of Hostess and Little Debbie snacks, Haub munched on Doritos chips, sugary cereals and Oreos, too.

His premise: That in weight loss, pure calorie counting is what matters most — not the nutritional value of the food.

The premise held up: On his “convenience store diet,” he shed 27 pounds in two months.

As you might imagine, a lot of the emails and comments I received included a question along the lines of “How can this guy be losing weight when he’s living on all those refined carbohydrates?” I replied that I’d need to see a breakdown of what he actually ate. Fortunately, Professor Haub (unlike Morgan Spurlock) has nothing to hide and has made his food log and health assessments public. I finally spent some time going over them and crunching some numbers.

So, the answer to the question How can this guy be losing weight when he’s living on all all those refined carbohydrates? is … (wait for it):  By not actually consuming a high number of carbohydrates.

Despite the headlines, Professor Haub wasn’t living on a “Twinkie Diet” or a “Little Debbie Snack Cake Diet.”  He was on a diet that includes Twinkies and Little Debbie Snack Cakes.

First, let’s look at a couple of daily menus:

November 12
Pumpkin Spice Donut
Coffee
Protein shake
Onion Rings
Steak
Broccoli
Macaroni and Cheese
Baked potato casserole
Dynasty Lychees
Baby carrots
Peanut butter cookies
2% milk

October 29
Hostess cupcake
Coffee
Sesame chicken
Teriyaki chicken
Egg roll
Chicken nachos
Broccoli
Lemon zingers
Kit Kat

Like my Fat Head fast-food diet, nobody would mistake this for any kind of health-food diet.  The guy is definitely consuming sugar.  And yet he lost weight, lost body fat, raised his HDL, and lowered both his triglycerides and LDL.  How can that be?  Well, let’s look at the numbers.

I copied the daily nutrition totals into Excel and calculated Professor Haub’s average daily intake of calories and macronutrients over the 10 weeks he’s been on the diet:

Calories: 1457
Fat (g): 61
Carbohydrate (g): 173
Protein (g): 54

As a percent of daily calories, it works out to:

Fat: 38%
Carbohydrate:  47%
Protein:  15%

Now, 173 grams of carbohydrate per day certainly isn’t low, but it’s not high either. Depending on whose figures you use, that’s about half as many carbohydrates as an average American male consumes per day. It’s also at least 1,000 fewer daily calories than an average male consumes. So it doesn’t surprise me at all that Professor Haub lost weight on a “Twinkie Diet” that is actually moderate in carbohydrates and very low in calories. I’d lose weight on that diet, too.  (I’d hate it, but I’d lose weight.)

I would also lose muscle on such a low protein intake, and according to his health assessments posted on Facebook, Professor Haub did in fact lose 6 pounds of lean body mass over the 10 weeks. So we’re looking at a fat loss of 20 pounds in 10 weeks, or two pounds per week.

As with dieters everywhere, his weight loss appears to be slowing down as he goes along. During the first four weeks of the diet, according to his online data, he lost an average of 3.75 pounds per week, but slowed to 1.8 pounds per week over the next six weeks. That’s not surprising. There’s usually some initial water loss in the early phase of a diet, and of course once you begin to lose weight, your basal metabolism tends to drop. What would be interesting to see is how quickly he’d regain the weight if he went back up to 2500 calories per day and consumed more carbohydrates — not that I’d encourage him to try it.

Overall, it looks like an interesting experiment, and it’s certainly generated a lot of media buzz. It’s just too bad the buzzing media reporters aren’t taking a little closer look at the professor’s online food log. There’s certainly junk food in this diet, but it is not (as one headline described it) a Junk Food Binge. When you consume fewer than 1500 calories and 175 carbohydrates on an average day, it’s not any kind of binge.

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41 Responses to “The ‘Twinkie Diet’”
  1. Barbara says:

    I love it when you do this! Fantastic as usual!!

  2. Dejta says:

    Fascinating, I think this is possible if applied correctly in reasonable servings.
    And the best thing is not to trick yourself, avoid indulging on one particular meal.

  3. mrfreddy says:

    reminds me of the epic dust up between Dr. Eades and Anthony Colpo…. AC’s big point was that metabolic ward studies proved the calories in/calories out and disproved metabolic advantage, and that Dr. Eades and his ilk were perpetrating an outrageous scam on the clueless dieting public, defrauding us all of our chances of sporting six pack abs on beaches everywhere…

    Dr. Eades pointed out, among other reasons, that the metabolic ward studies didn’t really prove anything, because most of them involved fairly low calorie intakes. On a low calorie diet, your body pretty much uses everything you eat.

    Sounds like the same thing with this so called twinkie diet.

    That’s what I think is happening here, too. 1500 calories and 175 carbohydrates isn’t likely to produce a high level of insulin.

  4. Chris says:

    Thanks for pulling back the curtain on this, Tom. You analysis of food log reveals the real story of the so-called Twinkie Diet. How this study got the legs it did is baffling.

    It made for good headlines.

  5. Elenor says:

    You are my HERO! It’s such a relief to have in our corner someone who can actually APPLY the math(s) to some guy’s lying idiocy. (Too harsh? Not when the press picks it up the way he seems to have intended!)

    I’ve been arguing in my head that the guy probably lost a *lot* of muscle, and probably screwed up his blood glucose — and it turns out he wasn’t on a Twinkie diet at all! (And what a LIE to ‘advertise’ it that way! Somehow, I was really doubting the mainstream media decided, out of the blue, to call it that without the professor introducing it off that way…)

    Thank you Tom, for giving me the ammunition to spend on my friends and doubters!

    I think we’re looking at the media’s desire to sex up the story, not any deceit on the professor’s part. He made all his data public. He may have gotten them interested by talking up the Twinkies and Kit-Kats, but all they have to do is look at the food journals to get the story right.

  6. Jan says:

    Less than 1500 calories a day, many of them in the form of refined carbohydrates? Does he say anywhere how he felt eating like this? I know I’d feel like crap if I ate like that, and would be miserably hungry most of the time to boot. And I’m a tiny (fine-boned, 5 feet tall) woman.

    You know what’s funny? I’m battling with the nurse practitioner at my endocrinologist’s office over a diet similar to this: http://www.jbsitedesigns.com/?p=9181

    He says he felt fine. I would’ve felt lousy, but it’s his experiment, so I’ll take him at his word.

  7. AWESOME. I am speechless with happiness that someone so effectively debunked this BS.

    THANK YOU.

    M

    We should be clear that the b.s. is in the media coverage. Professor Haub has done the right thing and made his diet and results very public.

  8. Paul451 says:

    Maybe we should challenge Dr. Haub to forget about calories and eat no more than 75 gm of carbs a day for 10 weeks…

    He apparently likes to experiment, so you never know.

  9. Felix says:

    Well, basically what he did was lower his calorie intake and lose weight. Ancel Keys noted similar things in his study on starvation, lowering the calorie intake from 3000 also to around or under 1800 calories per day.
    The interesting thing is the improvement in bloodwork despite the makeup of the diet, which would suggest that weight loss in and of itself can lead to improved risk factors, which makes sense. So all the “I’m eating healthier food, that’s why I’m now having better risk factors” arguments need to be taken with a grain of salt when weight loss is involved, since it could be the weight loss as such which caused the improvements, since fat is metabolically active. Basically what his study would suggest is that weight loss improves bloodwork, no matter which way it’s being attained. Improving it without body weight or fat changes would be the more interesting thing regarding health.

    I’d say that’s a good way of looking at it. As Chris Gardner found in the Stanford study, some people do better on one diet, some on a different diet, apparently depending on their level of insulin resistance.

  10. I have heard a few people talking about this in the hallways at work. As you were I was skeptical but never bothered to check it out, thanks for confirming my assuption. Unfortunately I am sure there is a portion of the population who are currently stocking up on Twinkies with their fingers crossed…

    If they can eat Twinkies and still limit themselves to 1500 calories, I guess it will work.

  11. Don says:

    I knew there had to be more to the story than the short blurbs I kept reading. Thanks for doing the grunt work to keep us all well-informed, we really appreciate what you do.

    My pleasure.

  12. Lori says:

    Several years ago, I lost weight on Body for Life, where you eat six small servings of carb per day (like whole grains, fruit, starchy veg–not Twinkies) and plenty of protein and green veg. You also work out a lot. I felt great! So yes, it’s possible to lose weight eating carbs, and feel good. Truth to tell, I cheated on the diet with Cokes and candy, and still lost weight.

    This worked for about three years, and I started putting the weight back on. I cut out the Cokes and ate less, to no avail. And I was good about doing my workouts.

    What I think happened was that my metabolism changed. I couldn’t deal with the carbs anymore.

    I’ve found a low-carb diet and Serious Strength are waaaaay easier than Body for Life. More effective for me, too.

    Yup, a lot of it seems to depend on individual tolerance for carbohydrates, which can definitely change over time.

  13. Anna says:

    I was initially a little surprised at the low number of daily carbohydrates with the Twinkie Diet.

    But then I remembered the trouble I had using the recommended ADA “exchange” diet when I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes a dozen years ago. On the ADA exchange diet, carbs weren’t counted or weighed, rather units like 1 slice of bread were used. I was very frustrated using the “exchange” plan, because my BG results were higher than with my regular way of eating.

    Turns out it’s because the ADA assumes 1 slice of bread is a small, airy slice of Wonderbread (or similar refined and highly processed bread). I was NEVER a Wonderbread-style bread eater. I was eating heavier, denser, whole grain bread that was also a much larger (wider) slice; my bread weighed about twice as much as a slice of refined and airy white bread, therefore contained a LOT more carbohydrates in 1 slice. No wonder I was getting worse BG control.

    On the advice of the dietician I was seeing, I ditched the ADA “exchange” diet, and instead focused on making every bite as nutrient-dense as possible, but within a 60 g CHO allowance per day (spread out into 15/15/15g/meal plus 2 VLC snacks). I weighed & counted carbs (and essentially ditched all but the smallest amounts of bread, rice & pasta, as it was hard to them into the nutrient-dense and 60 g/day CHO limit that gave me good BG numbers). This tactic gave me excellent BG control for the remainder of the pregnancy, and in the long run, surely was a much better diet for my pregnancy than I’d been eating prior to the GDM diagnosis.

    A “Twinkie Diet” of light, airy refined carbs could easily be much lower in carbs than the diet I used to eat (and which resulted in 20+ pounds of weight gain) that was high in “healthy” whole grain foods like dense whole wheat-high gluten breads, brown rice, and pasta.

    But, wow, the lack of nutrients would worry me, even with the vitamin-enriched flours. I fear for this researcher’s bones and dental health, for surely those tissues suffer as part of his loss of lean mass. I hope he shares later if he develops problems in those areas. At his age, it may be hard to reverse any losses incurred in this diet experiement without concerted and informed effort.

    He was smart enough to take vitamin supplements while on the diet. I wouldn’t want to lose 6 pounds of muscle at any age.

  14. At 150 calories a twinkee, eating one every 1.5 hours for an average sized man like myself would provide enough energy to equal out my basal metobolic rate. Though as you well describe in Fat Head much of the sugar in these would go right to fat storage thus making you very hungry….though a bite of twinkie every 25 minutes you might have something there. If I only had the ambition to start yet another health blog I would be all over being a human guinnea pig for a week :)

    I didn’t mind living on fast food for a month as an experiment, but Twinkies … gag.

  15. Hilary Kyro says:

    Coulda had two Twinkies and a lemon zinger! I’ll be thinkin’ that next time I force down my succulent rib-eye steak.
    As for the headline-grabbing disinformers in the medical and schooling business, let them eat all the cake; it tastes like well-deserved retirement.
    Do these “calories in /cals out” experiments ever measure the calories in #1 and #2? Some Twinkie Totallers may be pooing actual Sweet Marie bars and peeing Mrs. Butterworth’s.

    I’d much rather have the steak.

  16. Kate says:

    I am glad to hear that a professor from my college is not being sneaky and dishonest. My guess is he’s not very insulin resistant to begin with, so dropping down his carbs from 300* g to 174 g along with the low calories was a big enough difference to drop weight. That also explains why he felt good on his diet.

    Losing muscle mass is not a good thing, though. He should be able to gain that back fairly quickly.

    *Since that’s the average and I don’t know what he was eating before.

    That’s pretty much what I concluded. Lots of people can lose weight on low-calorie diets that are also moderate in carbs.

  17. Holly J. says:

    I’m glad you posted this. Here’s my $0.02 – he’s built like my bf and your wife (and your son). The professor probably doesn’t watch what he eats normally and doesn’t have a problem eating sugary foods. I doubt he had much weight to lose to begin with. He probably is not carb sensitive like other people who end up overweight and feeling bad by eating more carbs.

    If I did something like this to my bf, two things would happen: He would not be happy with me because *I* limited his intake and he would lose weight. Really, the November 12 entry looks sort of like my bf’s normal diet… I cannot eat the same way he does; I’d find the 90+ lbs I’ve lost – and they’d bring friends.

    He started out at 200 lbs. with 33% bodyfat.

  18. Seth W. says:

    I don’t really think the amount carbohydrates really matter for losing fat / muscle weight and tissue, what’s more important is that he created a calorie deficit. Of course if he consumed some more protein to replace either fat or carbs he would have retained more muscle mass.

    I believe the calorie deficit works as long as you’re not producing enough insulin to slow down the fat loss.

  19. RobR says:

    This reminds me of the Delgoofy video.

    Its not complicated to test variables people… Eat nothing but snack cakes and see what happens. I don’t see any reason that he should be eating steak, broccoli, and protein shakes . Those are just confusing data to consider.

    If you want to test that its all about the calories, eat nothing but sugar (or at least nothing but snack cakes) and see what happens. Bad science and bad journalism as usual.

    It certainly doesn’t amount to living on Twinkies.

  20. gallier2 says:

    And we should not forget, and it’s important, that every caloric restricted diet is a HIGH FAT diet. A lard diet to be precise, the own lard of the person doing that diet.
    As for the point of how he felt during the diet, I suppose that it may depend on the starting point. One can be overweight, but with an overall good health with all the minerals and vitamins in good reserve, and one can be overweight (or even normal weight) but with no reserves on that level.

    Good point. If you’re losing 2 lbs of fat per week, you’re consuming your own lard.

  21. mrfreddy says:

    I heading to Dunkin Donuts right now hahaha….

    (not really)

  22. Barryman9000 says:

    Excellent break down – and very interesting. I had a feeling something was up when one article listed the vegetables he was eating.

    As I pointed out to a friend: of course he lost weight, he was starving himself. But the point is, how long is that going to last and how healthy is it, really?

    I usually borrow from Dr. Eades on this – Ultimately, it comes down to calories, but when eating high fat, low carb it’s very difficult – if not impossible – for most people to eat too much for an extended period of time.

    People often neglect that pesky “time” variable when discussing weight loss.

    I certainly couldn’t live on that diet long-term.

  23. Nick says:

    Tom…>Thanks again for explaining the mystery and Bull*&^% that the media always leaves out….

    Keep up the Great Work!!!!

  24. Crusader says:

    Off to Fatburger for me!

    Just don’t order the Twinkie shake.

  25. gollum says:

    Well, so it is possible to lose weight (short-term) by caloric restriction with moderately many carbs.

    Kudos to him to suffer and to publish all his data, yes.

    I think he burnt the carbs faster than they were coming in. Farm worker-style. People doing heavy physical work (30 MJ/d) also tend to get lean for this reason. It’s another question as to how healthy this is, long-term, in terms of HbA1c and muscle mass.

    But, I mean, it is amazing. As much as I like that he actually did the experiment – this is a single case, what is called anecdotical evidence. So, in one (n=1) healthy male, short-term weight reduction has been seen with calorie restriction. (I think this ought to work for other cases too, IF they stick to the calorie count (they don’t). Another issue may be that adipose metabolism may already be damaged (i.e. NOT healthy), but it is hard to argue with the First Law of Thermodynamics.)
    I mean, what about the standard reply to “Low carb worked well” – “yeah, you know, that’s just your opinion, man, anecdotical evidence”..? Here we have one brave man and suddenly it’s good for the media. Twinkies!

    I wouldn’t try it long-term. Shrinking your muscle mass is going to slow your metabolism over time.

  26. matt says:

    And if he was making up the caloric deficit with metabolized body fat then effectively his diet is over 60% fat as a a percentage of total calories. He’s on a high fat diet and doesn’t even know it.

  27. Tim says:

    Gallier2′s comment about every fat loss diet being a “high fat” diet is so on point. When our own stored fat is metabolized, our lipid panels/blood work improves. Experts say “no matter the diet, weight loss results in better health markers….”! What sort of dis-connect blinds them from seeing that metabolism of animal fats (our own stored fat, or that of ingested pork, beef, poultry, seafood) is precisely what results in this better health!? It is our natural diet!

    Exactly. And the fatty-acid profile of our own body fat is nearly identical to lard.

  28. Paul Eilers says:

    Of all the blog posts I have read on this subject, yours is by far the best one. I say this because you write in such a way that makes things easy to understand.

    Also, the thought did occur to me, “I wish CNN and others would do their due diligence on subjects like these, and not be in a hurry to get the story out.”

    If so-called health reporters had indeed read the food log as you posted here, the headline likely would have been different than the current “Twinkie Diet” headline.

    I’m not sure if the reporters were lazy or just couldn’t pass up the dramatic headlines.

  29. Jo says:

    200lbs is pretty hefty even if he is tall. If he is a professor of nutrition you’d a thought he would be better at keeping his weight down, since the experts keep telling us how easy it is. No offence prof if you’re reading!

    I was at 198 last time I checked, so I’m “borderline hefty.”

  30. I KNEW it! Well, I knew part of it – I knew there had to be a big muscle loss eating that way. Thanks, Tom, for working this up! I’ve been getting so tired of hearing about this everywhere, and now I have a response – the link to this post!

    Six pounds of lean mass lost in 10 weeks is not good. I wouldn’t want to see him live on this long-term.

  31. JeremyR says:

    After a few calculations he was consuming about 1200 calories of man lard on average per day. I guess that would explain the improved blood work.

    Live on fat, raise your HDL.

  32. Aaron Curl says:

    “I don’t really think the amount carbohydrates really matter for losing fat / muscle weight and tissue, what’s more important is that he created a calorie deficit. Of course if he consumed some more protein to replace either fat or carbs he would have retained more muscle mass.”

    I’m not picking on you but….you need to do some studying and stop watching The Biggest Loser. There is way too much evidence that supports low carbs. Now, low carbs is different for everyone but reducing carb intake is the BEST way to lose weight. Calorie restriction is great in the form of intermittent fasting but thats it! The traditional eat less (sad) and exercise more is a ridiculous model that can’t be maintained by the average human. In fact, we were not designed to over exercise or overeat. Americans are the most undernourished, fat people in the world because of our great “understanding” of health. It’s simple….eat meat, some veggies, a little fruit and throw in some nuts and eggs and you’ll be great.

  33. Laurie says:

    Tom and JeremyR (and everybody else) these ideas are genius and thank you for them. ‘Twinkie’ diet that wasn’t and muscle mass was degraded and he consumed his own lard to improve his blood lipid chemistry- outstanding ideas. However, Dr Haub does get some blame. There is a ?$billion? dollar a year (don’t know the exact $ figure) diet industry- cookbooks, weight watchers, jenny craig, even Atkins (which of course we know works, but most don’t) and I probably could test and announce that I’d lost weight on a ‘pineapple’ diet (anybody remember that one?). Haub’s little demo does not help anyone and it obscures a lot. In the 1996 Atlanta summer Olympics a security guard was unjustly accused of setting off a bomb. This sullied his reputation and the retraction of the accusation didn’t get any press. There are better examples of this I just can’t think of but I’m getting at that if junk diets and STUNTS like Haub’s consume some of the air (heck any) and are lauded and sensationalized, lots of damage is done and it further delays the correct (and FAR more interesting) information emerging. We’re sent scurrying off on a waste of time tangent.
    I listened to Taubes on Jimmy Moore’s podcast. He said lots of interesting things but what struck me most is his claim of the delay in helpful ideas getting any press. Taubes said he went to a conference on childhood obesity. What struck him is that lots of detailed, minutia clinical research is being done on the genetics of some specific marker of obesity…..in zebrafish. And what fat, unhealthy kid right NOW is going to benefit from those results in ten years? And really do rat studies, rabbit and zebrafish studies advance this? For pity sake we have a randomized, large population, controlled, longitudinal nutrition study staring us in the face and the conclusion if we but look is that low-fat, high-carb diets make us sick. (30 plus years of the USDA food pyramid- thank you Dr Feinman for pointing this out). Help these young kids now. And Dr Haub and your ilk- knock it off.

    The glacial pace can indeed be frustrating.

  34. Laurie says:

    Newsflash. Alert the media. Spurlock gained weight on a 5000 calorie/day diet and Haub lost weight on a 1450 cal/day diet. Big Whoop. Too late, the media has already been alerted. Eat ‘Twinkies’ ad libitum is the conclusion from this latest randomized, large population, controlled, longitudinal, nutrition study.

  35. D. Sterner says:

    There were a lot of posts on this all over the low carb & paleo-spheres, including a thread at PaleoHacks. Instead of just quipping “that wouldn’t work long-term”, you dug out the data, did the hard work of analyzing it and wrote a lucid and detailed piece that totally blows the covers off! You may not be an M.D. or a trained scientist, but if anyone wants THE rebuttal to this Twinkie nonsense, I’ll be forwarding a link to your post.

    Thank you.

  36. Darth Chaos says:

    Tom, I just found out that there will be an “Obesity Truth” seminar at the University of South Florida on April 16 at 6:30PM. It’s titled Myths and Misinformation About Fat and Cholesterol: How Bad Science and Big Business Have Created the Obesity Epidemic. I have encouraged readers of my blog to use information gathered on my blog concerning CSPI and to buy and watch your documentary to use said information to develop questions and/or talking points should the general public be allowed to ask questions. I also posted the info on the Prison Planet Forum (I’m an “obesity troofer” like that douchebag on YouTube xxcelinux would say, and I wear that label PROUDLY), and a member on there said he is a USF alumni and may attend the event.

    Glad to hear it. I’d like to know what kind of information they’ll present at the seminar.

  37. A common argument I hear against low-carb diets is that Asians eat a lot of rice but you don’t see that many fat asians. Those who raise that argument probably have no idea how small serving sizes are in asian countries. Here in the Philippines I suspect the average Filipino eats a moderate amount of carbs despite having rice as a staple.

    That’s what an Asian researcher told Gary Taubes as well; we’re talking about a population that (until recently, anyway) was largely poor and living on semi-starvation diets much of the time.

  38. Darth Chaos says:

    Here’s the information about the seminar.

    Myths and Misinformation About Fat and Cholesterol: How Bad Science and Big Business Have Created the Obesity Epidemic
    April 16, 2011 @ 6:30 p.m.

    University Club, Harbour Room
    One Tampa Center, 201 N. Franklin St., 38th Floor. A R.S.V.P. . is required

  39. I don’t understand why this was considered an experiment. What was the control group? What was the null hypothesis? Does anybody think you won’t lose weight on pure carbohydrate diet of bread and water?

    There you go insisting on scientific principles …

  40. Paula says:

    First off, I love your site and recommend everyone I talk to to watch “Fat Head”. My husband couldn’t follow it, but you must understand he is deeply in denial and thinks Pepsi Cola is a food group.

    Anyway, way back when I did Weight Watchers, it might as well have been a “Twinkie Diet” – an awful lot of energy was put into finding low “WW Point” versions of our favorite foods (cookies, cakes, starchy casseroles, carbs carbs carbs). And I did lose a lot of weight in a fairly short time on the program – for a few months, then it stopped. And I was always ravenous…. If the Twinkie diet had continued for a couple more months, chances are the weight loss would have stopped for Professor Haub, too.

    I now eat half a pound of bacon every morning, the weight is falling off, and I’m not jonesing for my next sugar fix… I’ll take that over WW any day.

    Professor Haub also ate meats and drank protein shakes. It wasn’t the “Twinkie Diet” as portrayed in the media, and he isn’t fond of the term.

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