Diet Damage Control
As a former professional weight loss counselor and diet junkie, what I see today is a very disturbed relationship between people and the food they eat -- or don't eat. In earlier times, say 30 years ago, eating was essential and natural. Now it is a nightmare of nutrition panels: fat grams, carbohydrate grams, protein, calories, fiber, sugars, artificial flavors, etc. This confusion makes Americans irrational about our food choices. After all, while we are trying to be so careful, we must simultaneously resist constant food cues that entice us to eat endlessly -- wantonly -- with abandon.This leaves Americans both afraid of food and frustrated by it. Our health suffers. We have no energy. We are fat. Diabetes is epidemic. Yet we know more about nutrition than our ancestors could ever have imagined. Nutritional information is at our fingertips, but with all this knowledge at our disposal we hardly know what to feed ourselves. We hardly know what's real. Our instincts for what is nourishing have been damaged, possibly obliterated -- we trust guidelines instead of our guts.And the obsession with weight loss is not new. The sales slogan from a turn of the century newspaper advertisement reads: "Protone, the remarkable new flesh builder, builds up flesh fast and makes you plump and strong. Don't look like a lamppost," the ad further exhorts the reader. "Thin people suffer a great deal of embarrassment and ridicule, while the plump, well-formed man or woman is a magnet; Protone makes you plump, strong, well-formed, normal, puts color in your cheeks, and a happy twinkle in your eye..."Many of us today have the plump part of that equation down, but we are missing the happy twinkle in our eyes because now the slogan goes: "lose thirty pounds in thirty days!" However, this old ad from the early 1900s reminds us that concern with body size is not new; that it has been going on for a long time; it's just that as we reach the end of the century, the phenomenon has become a full blown, national phobia.We are getting fatter and sicker even as we feed the bloated diet industry big bucks in exchange for small hopes of permanent weight loss. Temporary relief from fat is about the best we can achieve with a typical diet program. An estimated 98 percent of dieters regain lost weight within five years, most within one to two years. "The odds are with the house," as they say in Vegas.Think about those odds for a moment and ask yourself, would any of us plan a vacation to gamble in Las Vegas if we knew up front that there was only a two percent chance of winning? Not likely. If a physician prescribed an expensive medicine for us, while warning us that there was only a two percent chance it would work, would we buy? Probably not. Most of us, in fact, would only accept those kind of odds on something frivolous like a lottery ticket. Yet billions of dollars are spent each year on dieting when only two percent will make it over the long haul. The other 98 percent eventually wind up fatter than they were when they started dieting. So what gives? How did we come to this? And what can we do?A Calorie is a Unit of HeatI used to find that equation hard to square with drinking beer and eating pizza when I was in college. How many units of heat were in that beer and pizza anyway? Counting calories sure took the fun out of eating. But surreal as it was, calorie counting was the mainstay of dieting. A simplistic calories-in/calories-out formula for weight loss gave rise to the highly successful Weight Watchers organization and the birth of the commercial weight loss industry.As a veteran dieter for more than a quarter of a century, I remember those days well. I used to know the calorie count in most foods by heart. And yes, I became a lifetime member of Weight Watchers. Yes, I have reached my goal weight -- over and over and over again. Subscribing to the simplistic theory: calories-in/calories-out equation for weight loss, some commercial outfits like Weight Loss Center dropped the calorie count for their program down as low as 500 a day.As early as World War II it was known, though not widely, that low-calorie dieting is ultimately ineffectual. A landmark study to help famine sufferers, conducted by Ancel Keys, M.D., is recounted in the book, "Intuitive Eating," by Tribole & Resch. Participants in the study were healthy, normal-weight males whose calories were cut from over 3500 a day to 1500 hundred a day for three months. The study required the men cut their weight by 19 to 28 percent.Here is what occurred in the face of food deprivation: * Reduced metabolic rate, up to 40 percent * Food obsession, the men could talk of nothing but food * Constant cravings * Frantic eating: gulping food, gorging * Sneaking food, even stealing food * Over-exercising to earn larger portions of food * Binging and purging * Moodiness, irritability and depression.When normal eating was resumed the men remained insatiably hungry for several months, going on weekend binges of up to 10,000 calories.Low-calorie/forced-famine. Who could have guessed an entire industry would grow up around selling famine? But when we factor in the irresistible power of fashion, an industry that panders to our vanity, and fuel that with a media message that says "gaunt is beautiful," "looking like a lamppost" becomes desirable -- at any cost.Public Enemy No. 1: Dietary FatA changing of the dietary guard occurred in the late '80s. Counting calories was out, counting fat grams was in. "It's the fat that makes you fat," became the battle cry. OK, shift gears, learn how many fat grams are in every morsel of food you eat. It was about this time that Jenny Craig made a big splash on the diet scene, muscling out most of the low-cal centers, giving Weight Watchers a run for their money too.It's an expensive program, requiring participants to buy their prepackaged food. Jenny Craig touts the 60-20-20 program -- 60 percent carbohydrate, 20 percent protein and 20 percent fat, which only added up to about 1000 calories. However, you were provided with your own personal weight loss counselor to hold your hand while you endured food deprivation. Like so many in pursuit of thinness, I boarded the new diet train, first as a dieter, then as a weight loss counselor, eventually managing a Jenny Craig Center in St. PauI, Minnesota. It was a journey into "diet hell!" With a clientele of 200 diet-crazed people and a staff of 14 beleaguered counselors and sales people, it became brutally clear to me how unnatural dieting is. My experience prompted me to write my own book, "Body Rescue."After a decade of relentless low-fat dieting Americans are fatter than they have ever been. "Ever." One third of the adult population in America is obese. An alarming article in the October '96 issue of "Shape Magazine" called the "Obesity Epidemic," stated that if this trend continues all Americans will be obese in 230 years. Thin people will actually be rare, if not freaks of nature. In essence, our lifestyle will govern our genetics. High-protein/Low-carb "New" Diet CrazeWell...not exactly new. A voice from the '70s has reemerged in the '90s preaching the high protein gospel -- that old rapscallion, Dr. Atkins. Back in the late '70s "Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution" hit the scene promising that a high-protein, low-carbohydrate (none), high-fat diet, in conjunction with mega doses of vitamins was the true path to thinness. Suddenly people were eating bacon and eggs sans the toast and grits, steaks sans the baked potato, lobster with drawn butter and real cream in their coffee. Forbidden were such items as bread, pasta, cereal, fruits, even carrots, and all sweets. The diet was treated as a fad at the time. Today his book is a best seller.Yes, Atkins is back with his old diet revolution made new again along with a new chorus of voices which are warning us that, indeed, pasta and bread make us fat, raise our cholesterol and triglycerides and cause diabetes, too. There's a plethora of diet books emerging with this theme, with more creditable voices than Atkins, based on more scientific evidence than Atkins. There's "The Zone," by Barry Sears, M.D., "Protein Power," by Michael Eades,M.D. & Mary Dan Eades, M.D., "The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet," by Joseph & Rachel Heller, M.D.s, to name a few. They all agree that Atkins is on the right track, just too extreme.Though regimens vary with each new approach, all agree that eating excessive starch in the absence of either protein or fat elevates insulin levels. It turns out that insulin is a powerful fat-storing hormone. Too much insulin, secreted from eating too much bread, pasta, potatoes, cereal and sugar, causes you to stay fat, be ever tired and hungry and under the endless sway of cravings.In "The Zone," Sears recommends a 40-30-30 ratio -- 40 percent complex carbohydrates, to 30 percent mono or polyunsaturated fat, to 30 percent lean protein -- to control insulin. Sears claims that 75 percent of Americans are sensitive to carbohydrates with the lucky 25 percent, the "naturally thin," being immune to the carbo-induced insulin spikes. Sears suggests we treat our food as a powerful prescription for health, not just weight control, which puts him in agreement with Hippocrates, the father of medicine, who said, "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food."Medical doctors Michael and Mary Dan Eades also advocate a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet in their book, "Protein Power." Friends of Sears, they share a similar food philosophy with a slightly different approach; they keep the carbohydrates much lower than Sears and the fat, like with Atkins, is not an issue since they regard it as metabolically neutral when combined with protein rather than carbohydrates. Currently you may see the Eades on "Talk America" advertising their program in a package that sells for $149. "Protein Power," like "The Zone," is well researched, based on medical journals, and hands on experience in their Arkansas Clinic. They name high insulin secretion, triggered by a low fat high starch diet, as the culprit in dozens of serious weight related diseases.These low-carb diets are addressing the same issue: sugar, whether it be in the form of table sugar, corn syrup, high fructose, honey or starch. If you eat a piece of white bread, for example, it turns to sugar in your bloodstream just as fast as if you ate a chocolate bar. This forces the pancreas to oversecrete insulin to control blood sugar. Eventually the pancreas becomes exhausted, resulting in Type II diabetes.These theories based on scientific studies sound reasonable and logical, but here's the rub, we're talking about sugar and starch, which converts instantly to sugar. If anyone recalls, sugar happens to be highly addictive and quite mood altering. Ever have a sugar "buzz?" Furthermore, these seemingly sensible plans are being presented to a medically unsupervised public -- one that does not consult with a doctor or nutritionist before going on a program that may be both ineffectual and risky. The target audience for the recent flurry of diet books is people who have damaged their metabolisms through chronic dieting; they are fat from repeated dieting, and they are desperate to lose weight. How else to explain the recent fen-phen frenzy with its tragic results?"I refuse to have the Atkins book in my store," says Michael Thompson, owner of Aloha Natural Foods, who is about to become a certified nutritionist, and who is currently studying pre-med to become a naturopathic doctor. "I know I am losing sales because of it, but I won't support such an unhealthy approach to dieting." Thompson, who also has a degree in nutrition, says the first thing he asks people who are following Atkins is, "How are your kidneys?" Knowing that excessive protein puts a strain on the kidneys, he warns customers, "If you are going to do that diet, you better drink plenty of water." However, Thompson is not down on protein, or fat for that matter, this is why he is a proponent of "The Zone.""Unfortunately, 'The Zone' gets lumped together with all these other high-protein diets; it's not anything like that. 'The Zone' is not a high-protein diet -- it's a protein-adequate diet." Thompson says. "At Aloha we stress getting enough good fat, like olive oil, flaxseed oil and fat from fish like salmon. People following low-fat diets tend to be deficient in both protein and essential fatty acids that the body requires." Having been an advocate for the low fat diet in the past, I ask Thompson what turned his head with "The Zone?" "It was one of my employees that did it. John was an athlete, did martial arts -- a man of steel, and he was living on a very high-carbohydrate diet. John was also hyperglycemic and would go into physical slumps in the afternoon where he would have to just go in the back and lay his head down on the desk. Quite frankly, I thought he was a slacker and I was about to let him go. Then John tried 'The Zone' diet to help his blood sugar problems and in three days he was a different person. It turned his life around."Eventually, Aloha was selling about 50 copies of "The Zone" a month and Thompson was seeing customers lower cholesterol, reduce hypertension, control high blood sugar and experience weight loss.And what about weight loss? "I recommend 'The Zone,' of course, and I encourage them to reduce their carbohydrate intake and up their quality protein," he says. "Many people do not hear this. Here in the store we do a question and answer with the customers because, ultimately, we want to help them change their lifestyle so they can lose weight and be healthier, but they want a magic pill."Thompson profiles his weight-conscious clients as being predominantly middle-aged females who have a long history of dieting. "Younger women tend to have a distorted body image problem. Older women are stuck in a diet mentality. I had a lady in her early sixties come in the other day and asked me if I had any 'calorie-free nutrition!'"Extreme Diets Shock the System"Customers who are on a low carb diet are starving for starches," says Tom Williams, owner of Books, Herbs & Spices. Williams, who has a B.S. in Nutrition and a Masters in Botany, specializing in Medicinal Herbs, warns, "People on these high protein diets are loading up on high residue meats which slow down metabolism. It's too extreme. It shocks the system." Williams says that the body is forced to convert protein into glucose in the absence of carbohydrates which are ordinarily used for fuel. "Low carbohydrate dieting leads to depression; there is not enough serotonin. Dieters experience cravings, dizziness and even say they feel a little crazy," Williams tells me.Like Aloha, when customers come into Books, Herbs & Spices, questions are asked about their lifestyle. "The scenario usually plays out like this," explains Williams, "lack of exercise, high stress job, lots of caretaking either of family or in the job itself, as in nurses -- overweight, don't eat much, but when they do, they gorge on starches, which makes them very acidic."Interestingly, that description fits the client profile at Jenny Craig: 35 and older, educated, balancing family and career, consistently undereating, except for occasional binges on sweets and starches. As far as the acid goes, sweets and starches have been shown to be very acid forming.Williams also sees younger women come in who are trying to lose weight but he, like Thompson, feels they suffer more from distorted body perception."Now I do see my fair share of overeaters, people who just love to eat, and, they eat primarily starches." However most of his weight loss clients have been dieting for a long time and are almost always malnourished, with a low metabolism and often, low thyroid activity. "These women are in the trenches" says Williams with compassion. "They have so many demands on them. That's why we start with lifestyle, try to get them to learn how to take care of themselves. First we try to get them off the dieting track. We carefully outline a program that reduces starches, except for complex carbohydrates like whole grains and vegetables, include some high quality protein, some supplements, some exercise." However, after he patiently gets them to agree to follow this more balanced approach, Williams says they always have one final question: "How soon can I expect to see results?"Feeling BetrayedSeveral women are gathered to celebrate Stephaney Moyer receiving her blue belt in NIA, a fitness regimen that is not part of a traditional diet and aerobic exercise package. I have my notebook with me and announce that I am writing an article about dieting. I get quite a vocal response to that topic! The women range in age from mid-twenties to late-forties, and they all have various dieting experiences to report."I feel betrayed," says Kelly, a red haired young woman. "I did everything they told me to. Eat low fat, count your fat grams. Eat lots of carbohydrates. Exercise. And now they are saying it was all wrong? We shouldn't eat carbohydrates and fat is OK. The hell with it!"Another young woman, Julie, says, "I tried eating low carb and I was craving them all the time, especially things like milk. When I finally stopped doing that I ate a lot of carbohydrates for awhile, as if I was making up for not eating them."Jill, an older woman and a veteran dieter like myself, speaks up, "I never did anything but diet all my life. I remember living on nothing but vanilla yogurt and bananas for weeks. I finally had to stop dieting; I couldn't live that way anymore." Jill put herself on a loose plan of three meals and three snacks a day, usually eating balanced meals but if she has rich foods or treats she doesn't chastise herself and go on a guilt trip. "I lost about a 1/4 of a pound a week and over a two-year period I dropped 30 pounds. And I've kept it off for over five years."We all applaud Jill, and Kelly chimes in with, "Madonna said that if you stop worrying about a diet you won't be fat.""Dieting is abuse as far as I'm concerned," says Moyer. "In NIA I try to teach people to let go of exercise as a weight loss tool. I ask them what their goals are? Do they just want to trim their thighs or do they want to feel better and have more energy. Do they have healthy goals? People sabotage themselves, so I want them to set some other goal first, before trying to lose weight." Reclaim/RenourishIn the final analysis, dieting is a thief. It robs you of your time, your energy, your health, your money and your well being. As Moyer says, it's abuse, a form of self-sabotage. And I can tell you from personal experience that it's addicting. Once, when I attended an Overeaters Anonymous meeting where the custom is to identify yourself to the group and openly admit that you are a compulsive overeater, I had my moment of truth. The realization hit me that I am a "compulsive dieter," not overeater.After leaving the commercial weight loss industry I had to retrain myself to eat naturally, and figure out what a normal weight was for someone my age after years of staying unnaturally thin. I formed support groups, and we gathered together to rethink our central problem -- dieting -- and begin a healing dialogue with our bodies, reclaiming our natural appetites.As a health writer and researcher, I have stacks of medical journals and other research material that link obesity to high insulin levels, a condition called hyperinsulinemia, also called insulin resistance. The details of this metabolic disturbance are laid out in the books mentioned in this article, along with others like it. However, a metamorphosis occurs en route from a medical journal to a glitzy new diet book on a store shelf. What is a condition in a journal becomes the promise of a cure in the pages of a diet book. In the end it just becomes another diet rage, tried and abandoned.There are alternatives to dieting and diet books. "Intuitive Eating," by Evelyn Tribole M.S., R.D. & Elyse Resch, M.S., R.D., offers a series of steps that challenge you out of the diet mentality and puts you back in touch with your natural eating instincts. The authors, after recommending that you give yourself unconditional permission to eat and make peace with food, bring you back to the point where you can practice what they call "gentle nutrition."For those suffering from body image distortion or who have bought into the "gaunt is beautiful" look presented in magazines, have a look at a copy of "Mode" magazine. All the models are size 12, 14, 16 -- no lampposts here! Very stylishly dressed, the models look like real people."The Ten Habits of Naturally Slim People," by Jill H. Podjasek, M.S.,R.N., is an in-depth approach to weight control that is based on changing your entire belief system regarding food and body weight issues, offering tools that make weight loss natural and effortless.Plus, there is "Body Rescue: A Weight Normalization Plan," my own book. I address the acid/alkaline balance in the body as well as examine herbs, vitamins and minerals that improve insulin response. Most importantly, I try to get people to appreciate the absurdity of the fix we are in, in an effort to break free of it."The ancient Chinese believed that the seat of the soul was in the stomach." Pause for a moment and assume that the above statement is true. That means that the 50 million Americans who will go on a diet this year will starve their souls. Then they will stuff their souls. Starve their souls -- stuff their souls.Now that's no way to get to heaven!