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The Woes of Dieting


FOOD FOR THOUGHT - Mark R. Vogel - - Archive

Millions of Americans are either on a diet or will start one at some point in their life. Weight loss and health are the primary motivators. And for every person on a diet there’s a scam, a magical weight loss pill, an exercise gizmo, or an attractive new membership offer at a weight loss center.  Let’s peruse some of the issues that dieters must face.

     First and foremost it must be understood that no diet in the world will create sustained weight loss without exercise.  Your body has a built in survival mechanism. When you diet, the drop in calories creates signals to the brain.  Your brain does not know that you want to fit into that new bikini by summer.  It thinks you’re starving to death. To combat this, it lowers your metabolic rate so calories are expended at a reduced pace.  That is why after the initial weight loss in any diet, (which is mostly water), your body hits this wall where continued weight reduction is difficult and incremental at best.  To counter this biological reaction you need to maintain an increase in your metabolic rate.  Hence, exercise.

     Second, be leery of diets that eliminate or almost eliminate one of the three key nutritive substances of food, namely carbohydrates, protein and fat. Your body needs all three, (yes, even small amounts of fat), to function normally.  Eliminate any one and you will develop metabolic problems and even illness. “No carb” and “No protein” diets are dangerous fads not based in orthodox science.  They are aimed at depleting your finances more than your girth.  Weight loss is facilitated by calorie reduction, not nutrient depletion.

     Third, it would be advisable to take a multivitamin, especially if you plan to diet.  Even unrestrained eaters do not consume perfect combinations of foods that ensure the intake of every single nutrient. For dieters this task is even more arduous.  Moreover, if your nutrient requirements are assured by a daily supplement, than you are at liberty to make food selections based on calories, without the added criteria of vitamin content.

     Weight reduction pills are limited in their effectiveness and very often dangerous to your body.  Most contain amphetamines, i.e., drugs that speed up your metabolism.  They increase the rate at which you burn calories and reduce the appetite.  But, you can develop a tolerance to these medications and also cause collateral damage to your internal organs.  Like most short cuts in life, diet pills come with hidden costs and don’t produce long term results.

     The bottom line is this.  Losing weight and keeping the weight off means a continual process of curtailing calories while simultaneously maintaining a sufficient activity level. It’s not so much the foods you eat per se, but the overall number of calories you are taking in vs. the number you are burning.  You could eat nothing but vegetables but if you were consuming more calories than you were expending, you would gain weight.

     Nevertheless, most dieters seek to reduce their consumption of fatty foods. Fat is the nemesis because it has the highest calories per gram of the three main substances in food.  While carbohydrates and protein contain four calories per gram, fat contains a whopping nine.  The problem is fat is what makes many foods taste good and avoiding it renders dieting so depriving and difficult.  It’s a cruel and ironic twist of fate that the very substance that makes food taste juicy and delicious can also be so malevolent. Every good thing comes at a cost.

     Alcohol by the way contains seven calories per gram.  But I wouldn’t be in a rush to forgo that glass of Bordeaux with dinner.  There is a mountain of evidence to show that moderate alcohol intake reduces cholesterol and has other health benefits. Moderate means no more than one or two drinks at a time.  Go beyond that and the benefits of alcohol backfire.  Skip the extra pat of butter and enjoy one glass of vino instead.  (One tablespoon of butter has 100 calories and 11 grams of fat.  One five-ounce glass of wine has approximately 120 calories and no fat).


     Returning to the fat problem, the issue becomes twofold:  1) avoiding excess fat and 2) discovering alternative means to replace the lost flavor.

Avoiding excess fat can be achieved by:

  • Switching to more lean meats such as fish, turkey/chicken breast, and pork.  (Because of modern animal husbandry pork contains far less fat than it used to).
  • Trimming as much fat and/or skin from the meat that you do consume.
  • Use olive oil in place of saturated fats like butter.  Remember, not all fats are created equal.  Polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oil, and monosaturated fats like olive oil, although still containing nine calories per gram, also provide health benefits.  They have been shown to lower bad cholesterol and olive oil in particular has been implicated in reducing cancer risk and improving blood pressure.
  • When a recipe calls for a dairy product high in fat, switch to the next lower alternative. Heavy cream contains 36 – 40% fat, light cream 18 – 30%, half and half 10.5%, milk 4%, low fat milk 1-2%, and skim milk between .1 and .2%
  • Use tuna packed in water instead of oil.
  • Avoid bottled salad dressings. Make your own at home. The traditional vinaigrette calls for a 3-1 ratio of oil to vinegar. But nothing says you can’t drop it to 2-1. You’ll still get good flavor with less fat. 
  • The next time you make eggs, have two egg whites and only one yolk.  Most of the fat in an egg is in the yolk. The white is a very low calorie source of good protein.
  • You can also make homemade pasta without the egg yolks.  In certain sections of Italy pasta is kneaded from flour and egg whites.
  • Use mustard instead of mayo on your sandwich.
  • Use low-fat versions of yogurt, cheese, milk, chicken broth, etc.
  • Try switching to black coffee instead of cream and sugar.  For that matter, try lemon in your tea instead of milk.
  • In general, avoid processed food.  Although less convenient, you have far more control over foods made from scratch than ones in a box or a can.

Here are some tips for adding flavor in place of fat to food:

    • Use fresh herbs and spices.

    • Use hot peppers.

    • Use vegetable broth in place of chicken or beef broth. 

    • Try lemon with herbs and seasonings on vegetables instead of butter

    • Use more aromatic vegetables like onions and garlic. 

    • Employ cooking methods that do not require added fat. Thus, instead of sautéing, pan-frying, or deep-frying, substitute steaming, boiling, roasting or baking wherever possible. Here’s one good example.  Instead of breading that chicken breast and cooking it in oil, rub the outside with lemon or Dijon mustard. Then sprinkle it with your favorite herbs, salt, and pepper. Bake it at 375° and you will produce a delicious no-fat exterior, especially if you remove the skin.

    • You don’t need oil to marinate foods. Use Worcestershire sauce, mustard, vinegar, vegetable broth, soy sauce, citrus juices or hot pepper sauces.

    • Learn to make vegetable purees and use them as a sauce or condiment.

    • Switch to fresh fruit with low fat yogurt for a delicious, healthy dessert.

     In closing it is important to remember that many individuals will need to watch their diet and exercise indefinitely. Biochemistry varies from person to person.  Many people are naturally heavier because of their metabolism, not because they are lazy or chronically overeat.  For these poor souls it is a lifelong struggle.

     Moreover, there are countless people who are not obese, yet wish to weigh less than their natural body equilibrium.  They too will have a never ending battle counting the calories and visiting the treadmill.  And that is what is at the heart of sustained weight reduction:  mustering up the diligence and the fortitude to make dieting and exercise an inherent part of your life.  


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