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For months I’ve been left speechless by the latest development in the world of Paleo – the “Potato Hack!”  Based on Chris Voigt’s 20-potatoes a day extravaganza, which was done as a publicity stunt in defense of the potato (somebody’s gotta love it amongst all those tater-haters out there), the potato hack has set the Paleo world ablaze with the last thing it needed – more weight loss frenzy.  Today, I weigh in on the good, bad, and ugly of the blossoming tater trend.  And I hope to abuse potato references along the way.

Just so you homefries know, the potato hack is basically a mono diet – meaning your diet consists of one food.  That one food is potatoes.  Mash ’em, boil ’em, but don’t stick ’em in a stew.  A little salt and pepper isn’t recommended per se, but generally “allowed.”  Supplemental fats, meat, condiments, and other foods that might make the potato enjoyable are discouraged.  One of its success secrets is keeping the calorie-density of meals low and the palatability of the diet as a whole very low.

I have been hypercritical of the Paleo movement for years, even going so far as to publish a book highlighting the critical scientific and philosophical errors of the movement called 12 Paleo Myths: Eat Better Than a Caveman.  But these potato heads have taken things to a point where, to be honest, I’m a little embarrassed for them.  I’ve gone down some pretty lame rabbit holes myself and embarrassed myself many times too, don’t get me wrong.

One thing I will say is that I am ecstatic about what the tater tots have been showing the rest of the Paleo community about carbohydrates – they are awesome, not fattening, can be eaten in unlimited abundance and not lead to “insidious weight gain,” stimulate the metabolism (“Dude, why are my hands so freaking hot?”), and so forth.  But that doesn’t mean that this Potato Hack isn’t smeared with a bloody trail of ketchup.

The spud buddies claim that 1/2 to 1 full pound of bodyweight is almost guaranteed to be shed doing the potato hack each and every single day, similar to what anyone who suddenly embarks on a low-fat, low-protein, low-calorie vegan diet might experience.  This is probably the most alarming part about the hack, and where most tubers are likely to get fried.  While certainly a lot of this weight lost is body fat, it’s likely that losing scale weight this quickly is attributable to large losses of bone, organs, and muscle.

Let’s say your caloric needs for a day are roughly 3,000 calories.  You eat a 5-pound bag of boiled potatoes containing 1600-ish calories.  That’s a calorie-deficit of 1400 calories.  If every single one of those deficit calories were jerked out of the fat tissue, that would be a loss of 1400/3500 = 0.4 pounds

That would be close to the maximum amount of fat a typical person could lose in a day unless they were doing lots of hiking, cycling, or other demanding exercise.  So if you are losing more than 0.4 pounds of fat per day, those losses are probably coming from other sources.

Let’s calculate where the losses are likely coming from in someone losing a pound per day.  It takes a calorie deficit of just 600 calories to lose a pound of lean mass, something covered in an old post of mine called “Lose 25 Pounds in 28 Days!” 

If you are just looking at a scale with no other metric for success, a 1400-calorie deficit might result in losing 400 calories of lean mass and 1000 calories of fat, resulting in 2/3 of the weight you are losing coming from lean mass, not body fat.  That’s not as pretty of a picture, and considering everything that is known about weight loss – most notably that the lower the protein content by percentage of calories while in a calorie deficit the more lean mass is lost in proportion to body fat, you’re looking at something a lot less exciting than it sounds like on the surface (That is, if eating potatoes and nothing else was already getting you excited!).

The potential benefits of the hack is that it is carbohydrate-based, is low enough in polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) to expel a lot of those metabolically-suppressive fats out of the tissues, contains no inflammatory arachidonic acid (AA) whatsoever, contains low levels of the inflammatory amino acids like methionine, cysteine, and tryptophan, can lower uric acid,  and can otherwise reverse a lot of the cumulative problems one can incur on a diet too heavy in meat and fat like the standard Paleo approach.  In some sense, it’s probably good medicine for Paleoitis.  I also strongly feel that losing weight without being hungry – typical of this approach, is far superior to trying to deny yourself food in the face of intense hunger pangs.

What’s annoying and obnoxious about it enough to go to the trouble to hash out a post on the topic is:

  1. Just about ANY diet consisting of only one food will trigger similar weight loss.
  2. Supplementing some high-quality protein with these taters is a much more shrewd way to do it.
  3. It violates the golden rule of “Anything you do to lose weight you better be able to continue doing it for life or else the weight will likely return plus bring some friends along with it.”
  4. This approach is already well-known, and many mono diets have been popular at some point throughout the last century.
  5. Paleo people think that this is special because it doesn’t contain grains or dairy or refined sugar or any other “nasty neolithic foods.”  Yet, the potato hack could probably work just as well, with less loss of lean tissue, if it were the pasta hack, the rice and tuna hack, the orange juice hack, the MuscleMilk hack, or the Froot Loops with skim milk hack.

Fry at your own risk.  Don’t be surprised, even if your intial results are effortless and astounding, that your gnocchi gets pokey within a few months of losing weight on the hack.  “I’ll just do the hack again!  No problemo!  Losing weight is easy!”  You may find that round 2 is nothing like round 1, to say nothing of rounds 3,4, 5 and beyond.  You can fool the body once with a new starvation trick – be it low-carb, HCG, low-fat, endurance exercise, fasting, liquid diets.  But it wises up if you give it a chance to learn how to defend itself.

Overall score:  More yo-yo diet bullshit

Tip to Paleo Movement:  End the movement immediately and let’s join forces as part of the new fad called “Let’s figure out how to eat, live, and be healthy in the modern world in an open-ended and exploratory way without the interference of the religiosity of one single ideology with one very limited viewpoint-eo.”

Sorry If I sound like I have a chip on my shoulder.  I hope I didn’t Ruffles too many feathers with this.  Here, watch my nemesis Matt Stonie eat an entire 10-pound bag of potatoes.  It will make you feel better.