Butch Harmon Bogeys Five of His Weight Loss Tips

By Daniel Kirschenbaum, Ph.D., ABPP, & Carolyn Coulter, RD, LD

Professional golfer Butch HarmonWorld renowned teaching professional Butch Harmon offered advice on something other than how to hit crisper irons or straighter drives in the May 2013 issue of Golf Digest.  In “How I Lost 45 Pounds and Gained 15 Yards,” Mr. Harmon described his motivation to lose weight (“I looked disgusting.”) and the substantial changes he made to his eating and drinking habits.

Although quite a few of Mr. Harmon’s weight control tips mesh well with the science of weight loss, many aspects of it do not.  We’re sure Mr. Harmon would quickly respond to any instructional article on golf written by non-golf professionals if he knew, beyond a doubt, that the advice in that article would make golfers worse.  As weight loss experts, we found ourselves in the exact same situation when reading this article on losing weight written by a golf instructor.

We’ll first consider five of Mr. Harmon’s helpful hints and then five of the dubious aspects of Mr. Harmon’s ideas in the rest of this commentary.

Helpful Hints

  • Get a little help from your friends.  Mr. Harmon’s wife Christy joined him in his quest to lose weight.  Birdie!
  • Use a scientifically based easily accessible structured approach. Mr. Harmon and Christy joined Weight Watchers.  He didn’t indicate if they attended groups, but that would be far more likely to produce better results than merely using their online program.  Weekly meetings with weigh-ins can help a lot, if the approach follows a low fat regimen that encourages consistent goal setting and self-monitoring (writing down and counting what you’re eating).
  • Decrease total amount eaten. This one seems obvious, but some fad diets actually pretend that reducing calorie intake is not critical; it is.
  • Decrease amount of fat eaten.  A calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie.  In other words, eating high fat foods makes it much harder to lose weight and keep it off than eating very low fat foods.  Very low fat foods reduce appetite and help your body avoid loading up those hungry fat cells.
  • Decrease drinking your calories.  Calories consumed in liquid form, in Mr. Harmon’s case from wine, beer and fruit juice, can increase appetite and certainly do not fill you up as well as calories from real food.

Corrections to Mr. Harmon’s Weight Loss Bogeys

Bogey #1: You cannot lose weight and keep it off without changing your activities/exercise. 

Mr. Harmon seemed pleased that he succeeded, at least in the short run, “by changing only my diet.” Activities matter just as much as eating for long-term success in weight control.  If you hope to break 80 consistently, can you do it by only focusing on your full swing and ignoring your short game?  This analogy works perfectly when thinking about losing weight.  Successful weight controllers almost always increase their activities substantially, for example by walking about an hour a day more than they did before losing weight

Bogey #2: You cannot eat the way Mr. Harmon said he used to eat without becoming morbidly obese and developing major cardiovascular problems. 

Mr. Harmon described his former eating and drinking habits in a way that perpetuates some unfortunate and negative myths about obese people.

Obese people do not usually eat and drink anything like the way Mr. Harmon said he typically did. Actually, we find it very hard to believe that he ate like that too.  Research on the eating habits of average people and obese people show that obese people generally eat about the same amounts as others, but with a higher percentage of calories from fat.

Overweight/obese people have biological predispositions to gain weight very easily and many such people continually and consciously try to reduce what they eat to avoid accelerating weight gains.  They do not eat huge amounts of high fat food and drink bottles of wine to wash it down on a regular basis.  They are not gluttons.

Research on normative samples of people indicates that men consume about 2500 calories a day.  We computed a nutritional analysis of Mr. Harmon’s “then” (pre-diet) foods and found that according to his recollection he averaged a whopping 7200+ calories a day, almost three times the average amount and more than three times the average amount of fat (about 370 fat g vs. 98 for average men).  Based on the amount of variability in the normative data, we can say that the probability of any man consuming that much more than average is about 1 in 10,000.

The probability of Mr. Harmon eating and drinking like that and still avoiding major cholesterol and other cardiovascular and metabolic problems (like high blood pressure, type II diabetes), as well as morbid obesity, is even less than that.

Bogey #3: Consumption of diet drinks has no relevance to weight gain or loss. 

Mr. Harmon reported decreasing his intake of diet cokes in his new regimen.  That’s irrelevant to weight loss or weight gain.  In the programs the authors help manage, Wellspring (therapeutic weight loss camps and boarding schools, www.wellspringweightloss.com), we encourage participants to use non-caloric drinks like diet cokes as “lovable foods that love you back.”  In other words, losing weight requires lots of restraint.

When weight controllers have access to foods or drinks that they really like and that won’t interfere with their goals (like diet coke), it helps them avoid feeling deprived and maintain their efforts over time.

Bogey #4: Moderation does not work well for weight control.

Many people believe that moderation helps weight controllers succeed.  We do not. Moderation just does not get the job done.  The biology of excess weight simply cannot be overcome by going half way with this kind of major lifestyle change.  More than a dozen biological forces resist sustained weight losses.  In addition, our culture resists very low fat eating and consistent exercising.

We believe the evidence shows that successful weight controllers must develop healthy obsessions in order to succeed.  A healthy obsession is a pre-occupation with the planning and execution of target behaviors (like self-monitoring eating and activities; eating very little fat; accumulating 10,000 steps per day measured on a pedometer) – to reach a health goal.  This type of intensive focus helps elite golfers practice several hours or more virtually every day – and that helps them win.

Ben Hogan claimed that when he was forced to take off 2-3 days due to illness, it took him two to three months to return to form. Something similar to that healthy obsession applies to weight controllers.

Mr. Harmon believes it is just fine to keep eating small amounts of high fat foods, like steaks and olive oil.  His current diet is relative low in total calories (at about 1600), but is far too high on total fat (60+ fat g).  In our books and programs, we encourage weight controllers to strive for zero fat g and accept a maximum of 20 fat g per day.

Again, moderation does not work for weight controllers, nor does it work for elite athletes.

Bogey #5: Most people who drink alcohol to the degree reported by Mr. Harmon will struggle a great deal to maintain weight losses.  Mr. Harmon did report decreasing his alcohol intake substantially in his new diet.  However, he’s still drinking essentially every day and that pattern usually does not bode well for long-term success in weight control.

Conclusions

Tremendous expertise in one line of work does not always translate too well to another.  Golf is a very challenging sport, but weight control poses just as many barriers to success, maybe more.  In both cases, some of the tips you hear from friends and neighbors do not produce the best outcomes (e.g., keep your head down vs. low-carb diets and moderation work best).

We wish Mr. Harmon all the best in his efforts to improve his fitness, but encourage your readers to seek help from those who have credentials in the science of weight loss that parallel Mr. Harmon’s in golf when attempting to make changes in this vital aspect of their lives.

Click here to download a pdf file of a nutritional analysis of Butch Harmon’s diet, as best as we could determine based on his description of it in his article in Golf Digest.

References

Baecke, J.A., Van Staveren, W.A., & Burema, J. (1983). Food consumption, habitual physical activity, and body fatness in young Dutch adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 37, 278-286.

Barnard, N.D., Akhtar, A., & Nicholson, A. (1995). Factors that facilitate compliance to lower fat intake. Archives of Family Medicine, 4,153-158.

Gierut, K., Pecora, K.M., & Kirschenbaum, D.S. (2012). Highly successful weight control by formerly obese adolescents: A qualitative test of the healthy obsession model.  Childhood Obesity, 8, 455-465.

Harmon, B. (May 2013). How I lost 45 pounds and gained 15 yards. Golf Digest, 118-119.

Kirschenbaum, D.S. (2005).  Very low-fat diets are superior to low-carbohydrate diets. Patient Care, 39, 47-55.

Kirschenbaum, D.S. (2011). The Wellspring weight loss plan. Dallas: BenBella Books.

Lowe, M.R., Kopyt, D., & Buchwald, J. (1996). Food intake underestimation: Its nature and potential impact on obesity treatment. The Behavior Therapist, 19, 17-20.

Shick, S., Wing, R.R., Klem, M.L., McGuire, M.T., Hill, J.O., & Seagle, H. (1998). Persons successful at long-term weight loss and maintenance continue to consume a low-energy, low-fat diet. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 98, 408-413.