Friday, 17 June 2011

The Great WLR Debate

With little to report on the running front (but more on that later), I thought I better boost my tawdry post count for June by summing up my thoughts on a big debate that seems to be very prominent on the message boards.

I don't use the boards very much as they don't seem to offer anything very new and, if I'm quite honest, I don't think I have anything very new to offer the boards either. For as long as I can remember though there has been what Alistair Campbell might describe as 'rigourous debate' on the fundamental question of how to approach weight loss and weight management.

There seem to be two rival, and often outspoken, camps: those that advocate a very basic calorie counting approach (epitomised by WLR itself), and those that believe dramatic results can be achieved through adopting the latest trends in the field.

Proponents of traditional calorie counting say its very simple: as long as your 'calories out' figure exceeds your 'calories in' one then you lose weight. What these calories are made up of is neither here nor there, though a passing nod is sometimes given to the idea that the food intake should be 'balanced'.

They believe that anything beyond this is, at best, over complicating the issue and at worst is an attempt to prey on the gullible and desperate by suggesting false benefits, backed up only by pseudo-science, in order to make someone in America very rich. In other words unsustainable fad diets.

On the other hand there are plenty of people who feel that calorie counting misses the point: it over simplifies complex issues and is flawed in that it tries to accommodate the many failings of a modern western diet, a diet that we're not evolved to cope with.

Instead of calorie counting they believe we should concentrate more on the composition of our diet. Typically this involves limiting, or even excluding, simple carbohydrates and putting a far greater emphasis on protein. In doing so they are supported by research that shows that protein promotes satiety and, as it is more difficult for the body to process, promotes a greater calorific expenditure.

Sometimes I see the debate as conservatives versus radicals. Equally, I think the debate could be seen as between those that favour a macro management approach (concentrating on the big numbers) versus those prefer micro management (looking at the detailed composition of food intake).

The debate seems to extend, less passionately, to exercise. Traditionalists seem to favour cardiovascular exercise to burn more calories and directly effect the daily calories in vs calories out calculation; modernists favour muscle building from resistance training to slowly raise the metabolic rate. Again, I see this very much as macro management versus micro management.

Both groups claim that their way is proven and scientific, while the other route is unsustainable and here's where my own opinions start to emerge:

They're both right and they're both wrong!

The fiercest proponents of each camp are often living proof of their own beliefs: people who have lost a lot of weight through an approach. I suspect that their success leads to understandable frustration with those that countenance the existence of an alternative view, and this leads to the debate sometimes having a pretty intolerant, smug tone from the alpha (fe)males of the WLR message boards.

Leaving the tone aside, take two examples of success from the two camps. There's a chap (whose name escapes me) posted this week that he'd lost something like 7.5 stones by following a very basic calorie counting approach. Incredible result and bravo. Take a look at Jo's blog (linked to on the right) and you'll see she's had some incredible results through a mix of resistance training, intermittent fasting and a paleo diet.

What these two individuals show though, isn't so much that their approach does work more that it can work. I think there's an important distinction.

Building on the theme of using my two examples (and without asking either first!) I'd question the sustainability of both.

I very much doubt that Jo is going to be intermittently fasting and eating a paleo diet for the rest of her days. At some stage she'll want/need (for want of a better word) to 'normalise' her diet. That's a risky point. I just don't see a full on radical approach like this as being something truly sustainable 'for life' even if it may feel like it for a while.

Its not plain sailing for the calorie counter either, despite the claims that calorie counting benefits from not excluding any food. I'd hazard a guess that 99% of WLR members 'fail' in the sense that they wont reach the target they set by the expected date and the vast majority that join will never reach their goal. I'd also guess that even a great many of the site's success stories wont have stayed at their goal weight. Calorie counting is too rigid and doesn't make allowance for differences physiology and psychology. It isn't really sustainable either, not least because few of us would like to be spending £10 a month and 20 minutes a day in order to log our food intake until the day we die.

I suppose I see it that 'new diets' can offer an exciting opportunity to reinvigorate your approach to healthy eating and weight management, as well as the opportunity for dramatic short term results, but each will ultimately prove to be the next in a long line of approaches that come into, and then fade out of, fashion. Calorie counting, on the other hand, will always be there and its long standing reputation for no nonsense success allows companies like WLR and Weight Watchers to come into being, but its the reality of its widespread failure that allows them to make a profit.

We're all very different. Our bodies are different, our lifestyles are different, our relationships with food are different, our psychologies are different. That means that different approaches have more appeal (and will work better) for different people. More than that we change and what we find easy to follow and successful today may not work for us tomorrow.

To claim there's a one size fits all approach is ill informed and, in the context of a weight loss message board, distinctly unhelpful.

I feel there are definite merits to both approaches, and in my view the ideal would be to work to the loose framework of calorie counting whilst accommodating gradual changes to dietary composition that will make the results more meaningful and lasting, but thats a deliberately broad statement.

The precise diet any of us follow should be what works best for us, not for anyone else, and not because it makes a few bob for someone else either, but above all it should be flexible, designed with the long term in mind and allows for the evolution of habits.


Sarah said...

Thanks for a really interesting post. I completely agree with your conclusion - even if you are counting calories I think it's important to learn more about nutrition and find ways to make changes for the long term.

I lost approx 50 pounds with Weight Watchers over about 18 months and that really worked for me, but there's NO WAY that I could count points for the rest of my life. I'm been maintaining my weight for 18 months now and it's tough, but I've done it by eating healthily 80% of the time and committing to exercise.

My dream is to not have to worry about my weight or what I eat. It's a whole other debate about whether that's possible, but I suspect that it will always be a struggle for me to certain extent.

Sorry for the essay, but it's a subject I have an opinion on!

Maria said...

A very interesting post. I have seen loads of posts recently about the intermittent fasting and things, and it seems to be another fad, and also quite bad for people who may be recovering from eating disorders- with the with-hold and then binge cycle being used frequently. But as I have not read up on it much I do not feel like I can comment towards it much.
WLR helped me a lot to realise how much I was eating (even though it was mainly healthy stuff) and also how few calories I burn in exercise (I thought it would be loads more!)- but I am trying now to think more about a balanced approach, and getting the right nutrients etc. All those low fat alpen cereal bars etc- so what if they are 70 cals, they also have 70 ingredients so really are not a good option. Not sure what my point is really...
There is no easy answer because food is linked to other things, as well as being hungry (eg social occasions, treats, etc)- but you are right- we need to learn about nutrition, not just calorie counting to maintain healthy lives.

Rose said...

Very interesting post Rob. I totally agree with what you say too. I think there are places for all these approaches and even within my 'calorie counting' I sometimes introduce a different slant (particularly when struggling to lose).

I'm a big advocate of the 'everything in moderation' way of life/eating etc etc.


Alison said...

Really interesting post Rob, and very well articulated too I thought.

I think the first thing people have to acknowledge is that with both differing physiologies and, perhaps more importantly, differing psychologies, people are going to find success in a variety of approaches. I think the single-mindedness that people adopt when dieting is probably a self-protection mechanism. They don't want to let questioning and self-doubt creep in for fear that their resolve weakens, so they adopt a somewhat dogmatic approach. This is what works, and this is what I must do, and it's what you must therefore do too...

I must admit that I think there are limits on the "well it works for me" argument. I feel very squeamish about intermittent fasting, and I think it just goes to reinforce the attachment we have to food and "rewarding" ourselves with it. A lot of what I read about it seems to focus on the (implicit) saving up of calories so that you can eat a huge meal -- there's something in that way of thinking that reminds me of the binge-starve cycle.

I guess if I am of any "approach" it's eat mostly plant-based, mostly unprocessed, with a generous helping of lean protein and good quality fat. I don't think certain foods or macros are weightloss promoting, but I do think there are better and worse ways of managing hunger and cravings, and hence avoiding undermining your more direct efforts at weightloss. To me, it's just prudent to eat wholegrains and voluminous foods if I'm trying to lose weight.

But then that's just for me. For others, of a different history, psychology, and activity level, their experience may be entirely different...

Eleanor@eatinglikeahorse said...

Great post, thank you!
I think you're right; it's all about finding what works for each person, while also exercising and eating a healthy balanced diet... :-)

FatToLean said...

I liked WLR because its scientific. Cals in cals out. I can't tell you how often I've heard ...1500 cals a day, you'll go into strvation mode, the rda for a women is 2000!! well yes that s true if she is 5ft 5 with an active job. I have a desk job and am 5ft2.
The paleo thing sounds great if you want fast results, I couldn't do it long term as I'm too greedy, but thats not to say there are those that can't and do follow it. I've never really been overweight as far as charts go. I joined WLR to lose 10lbs. At my height thats the difference between me being a size 8 or size 12. Therefore I need that level of calorie couting granularity. Ayway have waffled enough :)

TOTKat said...

Bravo :o)

TBH I don't use the WLR boards at all any more. It was something I sort of tried -after- I'd already lost a load of weight and only really dabbled - the "personalities" are just a bit much, like many social groups on The Internets. There're always the people who can't stand to let a post go by with something "wrong" in it and the eternal fluffers and not a lot in between. Not for me really.

I do believe that the 80:20 rule is fundamental to a lot of successful weight loss and maintenance, consciously or not, anything else is details that are personal as long as you're getting the basic essential nutrients in sufficient quantity.

I also have a sincere hope that the diet industry will come a cropper at some point, but until then...