Everyone loves Bob Harper, right?
Homeboy’s got a swell beard, some fierce ink, and he’s the sweetheart who guides obese contestants on The Biggest Loser as they sweat their way into smaller, healthier figures. [Although let’s be real, it’s not hard to look like a sweetheart when you’re working next to
the Kim Jong Il of fitness Jillian Michaels.] Plus, he’s trendy – he does Crossfit!
He seems to have a great heart and a genuine passion for those people he helps, and I’d jump at the chance to do a training session with him, but I have a major problem with some of the dietary advice that he gives, particularly in his new book, Jumpstart to Skinny.
**I want to be upfront with you: I have not read, from cover to cover, Jumpstart to Skinny.**
I have read the free excerpts I found available online. This is not a book for which I am willing to spend my hard-earned money, and the waiting list at my library was months-long. However, I don’t need to read the book in its entirety to know that some of the principles being promoted therein are fundamentally flawed in theory and potentially harmful in practice.
The book’s premise is a guide to achieving weight loss that is both fast and substantial – boasting that readers can lose 20 pounds in 3 weeks on this plan – which can then be sustained or built upon. In an interview on the Today Show, Harper emphasized that “…this is the time of season when people are going to be getting into bathing suits, or wedding dresses, and I know that women – or men- are going to do whatever it takes. And I’m going to make sure you do it in the healthiest possible way…” Additionally, in an excerpt available on Amazon.com, Harper writes, “Jumpstart to Skinny is not a permanent regimen. But it is safe, and it will get you into that dress, Speedo, or bikini.” So there we have it, correct? Harper is promoting his plan as one that is both effective [results in quick weight loss] and healthful [“healthiest possible way…”].
The main thing that I take issue with in Harper’s newest book is his directives on cutting calories. His second rule for his diet [again taken from the excerpt at Amazon.com] is this: “Cut back on calories. Then cut back again.” He goes on to instruct male dieters to consume a maximum of 1200 calories per day, and female dieters a maximum of 800 calories per day.
Again, with feeling: 800 calories per day [or 1200 calories if you’re of the male persuasion].
For perspective, 800 calories is half of the caloric intake recommended for a sedentary 10-year-old girl. Tell me again how a grown woman is supposed to function well [let alone maintain health and keep lean mass intact] and complete the prescribed exercise routines on 800 calories per day. As for men and the 1200 calorie allotment Harper gives them? Well, a sedentary 4-year-old boy is recommended to aim for 1400 calories per day. I’ll let you figure the rest for yourself…
Will Harper’s diet cause weight loss?
Yes. [But a significant portion of that weight loss will be water. Of that which is not water, much will be lean tissue – i.e. muscle – that the body catabolizes in a desperate effort to glean more energy from any available source. Any weight loss both lean and adipose tissue, but on diets such as this one, the ratio of fat lost to muscle lost will be very low. This is crucial because the loss of lean mass causes metabolism to slow, making it more and more difficult to maintain a stable weight/prevent regain.]
Will Harper’s diet be healthful?
No. [In his defense, he does admit that the diet was not created for long-term use. However, that does not negate any ill-effects that would incur during the 3 weeks he recommends dieters spend following his program.]
Admittedly, Harper is following some variant of the very low-calorie diets (VLCD) used in many randomized controlled trials done to study weight loss methods. Professional opinions vary wildly on the suitability of VLCDs as a 1st-choice weight loss protocol, but the near-universal consensus is that these kinds of diets are dangerous outside of a clinical setting and/or without professional supervision.
In other words, nearly all scientists and doctors would tell you, “Don’t try this at home!”
There is no denying that restricting calories can lead to weight loss. My personal opinion is that your time and efforts are going to be more successful when focused on the quality [macronutrient] and source [specific food] of your diet rather than your total caloric intake. By fixing the former, the latter typically falls into place quite naturally. For some, though, the easier and/or more generally applicable method is to count calories and create a moderate caloric deficit. If such a measure results in healthy weight loss [i.e. the client is significantly overweight to begin with], it can be a great starting place for those to whom it is applicable. The thing is, Harper’s recommendations are anything but moderate and healthy. **Extreme caloric deficits such as what Harper prescribes do not result in sustainable weight loss, rather, they can cause physiological and metabolic damage and they habituate clients to harmful and/or disordered practices.**
I would have no problem with this is Harper were promoting Jumpstart to Skinny as simply a crash diet. If he promised results but not health, then I think that would be fair advertising. Anyone eating 800 – or even 1200 [yes, women included] – calories per day is going to lose weight, barring some severe metabolic problems [the likes of which are extremely rare]. But that doesn’t mean they will keep the weight off, or that the weight they lose will be fat tissue, or that they will even be able to reach Harper’s goal of 20 pounds lost in 3 weeks. That’s just an extraordinary amount of weight to lose in such a short time, and to do so is inherently dangerous. Although Harper’s program may be safer relative to the crash diet your Average Joe cooks up on his own in a fit of hasty desperation, it is not safe. A stuntman can take all the precautions he knows of, but that does not make driving off of a bridge/leaping from a 12-story building/etc. something that is safe to do. The risk is inherent to the stunt. Likewise, crash diets are by their very nature [extremely fast and significant weight loss by radical means] detrimental to health, and Jumpstart to Skinny is a crash diet.
The reason this frustrates me is because people like Harper should know better, and instead they are giving people false hope. As a fitness celebrity, Harper should have the knowledge and personal experience that compel him to discourage crash dieting rather than writing an entire book devoted to doing so successfully. I would think that the stories of his clients from The Biggest Loser – a majority of whom regain most, if not all [and sometimes even more], of the weight they lost on the show – would be motivation enough to advise healthy and sustainable dietary habits. When influential fitness figures such as Harper promote crash diets like Jumpstart to Skinny, they also promote an underlying ideology that no amount of disclaimers can soften: Weight loss should be extreme. Regardless of whether the Jumpstart to Skinny is endorsed for long term use, it perpetuates the idea that weight loss requires extreme measures [to clarify, I mean “extreme” in terms of health risks, not “extreme” as relative to the standard American diet/lifestyle]. Moreover, this kind of diet encourages rapid, unhealthy weight loss for the sake of vanity rather than health. Harper cites bikinis and Speedos as a reason for using his crash diet. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look fantastic naked [or nearly so], vanity is not a sufficient reason to embark on such an risky dietary program. When a health “expert” promotes vanity over health, you have to wonder whether they truly are an “expert” at all.
If you’re looking to look better in a short amount of time, there are plenty of ways to do so without endangering your health or spending money on bunch of nonsense like this. [For example, don’t wear a Speedo.]
If you’re looking to lose a significant amount of weight, please do not be lured into trying this kind of crash diet. Do your own research, find qualified experts, and then choose and/or modify a healthy and sustainable diet. Give it your best effort and give it time, and continue researching and adjusting as necessary. You’ll get there, you really will.
Ok fellow trainers, nutritionists, and health-geeks, what do you think of Harper’s dietary advice? Terrible? Alright for a limited time period? Green light all the way? Discuss!
Also, does anyone even watch The Biggest Loser anymore??