The Life And Death Of Super Diets

By
Bradley A. Radwaner, M.D., F.A.C.C.

Super diets come and go. And they always make perfectly good sense…at the time. As a business traveler in the early 1960s, Kenny always ordered the 16-ounce T-bone but tossed the baked potato in foil back to the waitress. "I have this great diet," he bragged. "I can eat as much steak as I want since it's 100 percent protein and non-fattening." But no potatoes. A decade later, Karen vowed: "No more red meat!" To clear her body of sugar and poisons, she frequently fasted for several days at a time. She lost weight, while fasting, and eventually lost interest in macrobiotics. It's easy to laugh at indiscretions of the distant past, but Americans today are no less likely to swallow half truths, distortions of fact and pure nonsense in their quest for the super diet that will keep them slim, trim and healthy with minimal effort. During any given year, at least half of American women and a quarter of men go on a diet. In the view of clinical psychologist Maria Root, Ph.D., quoted in the Journal of the American Medical Association, "Manipulation of the body through dieting and exercise has become a normative strategy…It is the strategy that most women resort to when they are attempting to make their lives better for whatever reason." The amount spent by Americans on various weight loss programs in 1989 alone totaled more than $30 billion. Yet at least 30 percent of adults are significantly overweight. Would we be better off using our weight loss dollars to reduce the national debt?

THE CASUALTIES OF CRASHING

Crash diets have always been popular, but the dramatic results produced by many popular plans can be attributed primarily to water loss and a dangerous dehydration. Fasting and very low calorie diets are also risky in the absence of medical supervision. A diet of 1200 calories a day is generally considered the minimum necessary to assure adequate levels of essential nutrients. Most physicians recommend a balanced program of slow weight loss over an extended period through a moderate decrease in calories combined with a moderate increase in exercise. An August, 1993 review article by the National Task Force on the Prevention and Treatment of Obesity concluded that very low calorie diets (under medical supervision and using liquid formulations) are indicated only for "well-motivated individuals who are moderately to severely obese and who have failed at more conservative approaches to weight loss", particularly individuals with pressing medical conditions such as sleep apnea or adult-onset diabetes.

TRIMMING THE FAT

Physicians are virtually unanimous in their belief that Americans should lower their intake of saturated fats to about 25 to 30 percent of daily calories. Some have heeded the advice, and this dietary restraint may be a factor in the decreasing incidence of heart disease over the past several decades. The trend is positive, but recent surveys show that 40 percent of Americans believe that it is impossible to follow a healthy diet and enjoy yourself at the same time. A poll conducted by the American Dietetic Association found that 8 of 10 Americans classify foods in their pantry as either good or bad, and 33 percent say they feel guilty when they eat foods they enjoy. The French people, on the other hand, eat more fat, yet they live longer and have a much lower incidence of heart disease than Americans. Visit a small village in southern France and you may find part of the answer. Between noon and 2:30 pm. every day business is put on hold as shopkeepers, vineyard workers and bankers go home to savor a sumptuous mid-day meal, with wine of course. Compare their lifestyle to that of the American who catches a fast-food lunch on the run, then nibbles on chips and candy and feels guilty the rest of the week. The bottom line is not that you can eat anything you want: nutrition, in fact, ranks high among choices you can make to assure good health. Nutritionists point out, however, that the healthiest diet is one you can live with, and enjoy, for a lifetime.

LESS MEAT VS COLD TURKEY

Americans consume an average of 11 ounces of red meat daily, more than any other people in the world. You don't have to choose a monkish existence to limit yourself to the federal government's dietary recommendation of no more than six ounces a day. Contrary to Kenny's assertion, even lean meat has significant fat. Red meat, on the other hand, is an excellent source of high-quality protein, iron, zinc and other vitamins and minerals. Many cultures have traditionally built their meals on a base of rice, pasta, bread, noodles or beans to which small quantities of meat are added for flavor. Americans who try similar meal plans, at home and in restaurants, are finding them tasty, nutritious and economical. But too much rice, pasta, bread and beans - all carbohydrates or "starches", complex sugars, is the most common reason for obesity in America. One major reason to cut your intake of red meat and saturated fats is to leave plenty of room for other important foods: whole grain breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy products. Surveys show that Americans on average eat only half the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables; 10 percent eat very little, if any. The recent fad of low carbohydrate diets advocated by the Atkins diet and modified in the South Beach diet is reasonable if one limits the overall calories. To reduce carb intake but increase overall calorie intake by larger non-carb portions will, of course, defeat the purpose of the diet. Calorie intake each day and expenditure from exercise determines whether one loses or gains. Since carbs contribute to the majority of calories in American diets, if one reduces carb intake without substituting these calories from something else, then one will lose weight.

SUPER FOODS?

A few super foods and food substances - beta carotene, cruciferous vegetables, anti-oxidative vitamins, soluble fiber and oat bran - have surfaced in recent years following the release of preliminary research results. One study, for example, found that women who ate just one serving a day of vegetables or fruits high in beta carotene (such as carrots, apricots, spinach, lettuces or other greens) had a 40 percent lower risk of having a stroke and a 22 percent lower risk of a heart attack than women who ate very little of such fruits and vegetables. In most cases, additional placebo-controlled studies are necessary, but there's no reason to let the late-breaking news determine your daily diet. All of the proposed super foods are found in commonly available foods. Anyone getting 6 to 11 servings of grain and 5 to 9 of fruits and vegetables each day, as government guidelines recommend, will be getting super enrichment and a super diet.