Health and Diet: Individual Results May Vary…

by | Mar 4, 2022 | Nutrition, Resilience

Image: Shutterstock

If we were to ask individual participants of either diet whether their diet "worked" for them we'd get a wide range of positive and negative responses.

Promoters of health, diet, and supplement products often include, in small print, a short disclaimer such as “individual results may vary”. We readers of marketing materials should keep such disclaimers in mind before believing we’ll get the incredible results they often promise. Why? Let me give a little insight into why our uniqueness, and therefore our individual results, can cause quite a headache for marketers—not to mention for the researchers whose studies and papers are often cited to back up various claims.

There are at least four primary influences (or reasons) for these variation in results: 1) our environment, 2) our personalities (which include things like emotions, attitudes, likes and dislikes), 3) the condition of the body (level of wellness versus disease), and 4) our body’s unique built-in biological variability. Built-in biological variability, of course, refers to our DNA, but it turns out there are influences from the first three which can directly affect expression of the DNA as well – and, hence increase variability.

It might seem complicated (well it is, and you’d never believe me if I said otherwise) but I think we can appreciate what’s involved without too much complexity. We can drive cars without knowing how they’re built or the technology behind how they run, right? So, let’s explore this concept of variability by reviewing a study we’ve previously reported on: Want to lose weight? Focus on quality of food, not calories.

For the study, researchers enrolled more than 600 overweight adults and randomly assigned them to either a “healthy low-fat” or “healthy low-carbohydrate” diet. Each group was instructed to limit intake of either fat or digestible carbohydrates to a specified daily total for eight weeks, and then to slowly increase this to a level they felt they could sustain for life. Both were told to eat minimally processed food, prepared at home as much as possible, to maximize vegetable consumption, and to limit intake of sugar, refined flour and trans-fat.

After 12 months, they found that the mean weight loss in both groups was so similar that no statistical difference could be detected.1 However, there was a single sentence in the “Results” section of the paper which caught my eye: “There was a similar range for weight change of approximately 40 kg within each group.” In other words, there was an almost 90 lbs variation between the best and the poorest results, with individual weight changes ranging from losing around 66 lbs. to gaining more than 20 lbs.

The researchers designed the study to look for differences between the two groups based on differences between their diets. They weren’t attempting to look at why there was such a large range in individual responses to the diets. Averages are fine for research but there are very few of us, as it turns out, who are “average.”

There are various takeaways to consider.

If we were to ask individual participants of either diet whether their diet “worked” for them we’d get a wide range of positive and negative responses. The individuals who lost 50 – 60 lbs. would likely be enthusiastic promoters. The dieters who gained weight would likely say that their diets (low-carb or low-fat) “didn’t work” and would possibly turn to the “other” diet to try to lose weight.

The reasons for this wide range of results could be many. In addition to the issue of participant compliance with the diets, there are the influences I noted at the beginning of this column. I’ll be exploring these in future writings.

The success stories you read in books and advertisements and watch in videos are certainly taken from people who got great results. This applies to your friends and family as well; you won’t be hearing testimonials from the folks who gained weight.

Unfortunately, this is also often true of documentaries who seek to “educate” us on various health messages.

None of this is meant to say that there aren’t valid approaches to improving health. Far from it. A large majority of participants (from both diet groups) got good to excellent results by avoiding processed foods with highly refined vegetable oils, refined starches, and sugars.

I’ll close with a parting thought: Promoters of health products and services are counting on us to believe we’ll “always” get great results. Their business model depends on it. So, when you hear something which seems too good to be true, it’s savvy to remember, “Individual results WILL vary…”

Our courses and materials are designed to help you sort out fact from fiction. We hope you make good use of them.

The Carbohydrate Wars! 
Insight: The Complexity and Simplicity of the Human Body
Guidebook: Diets
1 “The mean 12-month weight change was −5.3 kg (95% CI, −5.9 kg to −4.7 kg) for the healthy low-fat diet group and −6.0 kg (95% CI, −6.6 kg to −5.4 kg) for the healthy low-carbohydrate diet group, which was not statistically different (Table 3). There was a similar range for weight change of approximately 40 kg within each group (−30 kg to 10 kg; eFigure 1 in Supplement 2).”

Bob Graves

Bob Graves


Bob Graves is a long-time veteran of publishing of health, environmental and public-benefit information. He holds a Masters degree in Nutrition from UC Davis.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!