Thursday, March 6, 2008

Bob Greene's Guide to Good Eating: Great Food for Good Health

As far back as I can remember, I've been interested in the connection between food and good health. Even at the tender age of nine, I'd read in the paper about the health hazards of nitrates, then lobby my parents to banish bacon from our table. Though I was just a kid when word about the harmful effects of pesticides hit the headlines, I took the news to heart and worried about the quality of the produce my family was eating. What about the news (which turned out not to be true) that margarine is better than butter? I pestered my mom until she finally bought a tub of it. Or that salt causes high blood pressure? I warned my dad about using the shaker so liberally.

I guess you could say I was kind of an alarmist kid, but as the self-appointed guardian of my family's well-being, I took nutrition news seriously. And I still do, though I've learned that not everything you read in the papers and hear on the news is good solid advice -- or that just because friends are into a new eating fad, you should be, too. I've also learned that while the more the average person learns about nutrition, the better, the sheer amount of information out there can be confusing. People are perplexed by all that they read and hear about nutrition and weight loss. Whenever I have a speaking engagement, I'm often bombarded with a million questions about crazy diets, "revolutionary" new foods and supplements that supposedly melt off pounds. People will also ask me for sound nutritional advice: Should I limit the amount of carbohydrates I eat? How many fat grams should I allow myself each day? Should I be taking nutritional supplements?

Nutrition, relativelyspeaking, is a very young science. But although we don't yet know everything about how good nutrition can help us stay healthy and lose weight, we do know a few key things. Foremost is that eating moderate amounts of nutritious foods -- in combination with exercising regularly -- is the number one way to ensure our well-being and fight the accumulation of body fat. Eat sensibly and exercise. It's a relatively simple prescription -- and we know it works.

We also know what doesn't work, particularly in regard to weight loss. Americans have been dieting since the early 1900s (if not before; however, it's the crash diets of the last forty years that have really given us a crash course in what to avoid. I hate the idea that a lot of people (and possibly even you) have tried to lose on many of these programs, perhaps even gaining more weight in the process of yo-yoing from one diet to another. But these programs have at least taught us that going to extremes is an impractical -- and clearly inadequate -- way to slim down. And looking at them, you can see why.

Learning from Past Mistakes

Take The Doctor's Quick Weight Loss Diet, which helped to kick off the whole very-low-carbohydrate, high-protein approach to weight loss. Published by Dr. Irwin Stillman in 1967, The Doctor's Quick Weight Loss Diet dictated that its followers survive mainly on cottage cheese, eggs, seafood, poultry, and meat; fruits, vegetables, and grain foods were virtually forbidden.

Twenty million dieters tried Stillman's plan. The next fad: Dr. Robert Atkins's 1972 Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, another highly touted low-carbohydrate plan. This one let you eat just about all of the fat you wanted (and was the precursor of the diet Atkins still promotes today). It was followed in 1978, by The Complete Scarsdale Medical Diet, also low-carbohydrate, high-protein, and another top contender for American dieters' dollars.

What was the appeal of these low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets? For one thing, they seemed to work -- but at what cost? People lost weight on them because eating high doses of protein causes the body to eliminate a lot of water weight. However, a very high-protein diet can also strain the kidneys and the liver and create a substance known as ketones. Ketones suppress the appetite (another reason the dieters might have lost weight). They also make you feel dizzy, cause bad breath and gas, and may contribute to gout and heart and kidney diseases.

Another problem associated with low-carbohydrate, high-protein eating is that it makes it harder to exercise effectively. That has to do with glycogen, a form of carbohydrate stored in the muscle and liver, and a primary source of fuel for exercise. If you don't have much glycogen left (which can easily occur if you are existing on a low-carbohydrate diet), you're not going to be able to exercise to the best of your ability -- or, as a result, burn very many calories. The depletion of glycogen stores is also what causes low-carbohydrate, high-protein dieters to lose so much water and exaggerates their weight loss: for each gram of glycogen you use for energy, you give up about two and a half times that in water. The loss of glycogen and water makes it virtually impossible to exercise effectively.

Most people who were on these diets in the 1960s and 1970s weren't aware of what was going on in their bodies as they skimped on carbohydrates and filled up on protein. But even if they were cognizant of the health risks (and it's hard not to be aware of unpleasant side effects such as gas and bad breath), what ultimately made most of them throw in the towel was the fact that these diets, which restrict beloved foods such as bread, rice, and pasta -- not to mention fruits and vegetables -- are just too hard to stay on. Emotionally and physically, they're cruel deprivation. Few people can live on almost all protein. Eventually they give up and gain back all the weight, usually very quickly.

A lot of people got wiser after these failures, but some just went on to more extreme measures. In 1981, an even more restrictive low-carb, high-protein plan called the Cambridge Diet was introduced, and it quickly became all the rage -- with dire consequences. This novel diet ensured that nobody had to worry about making the right food choices anymore because it involved no food -- you had to consume only a couple of protein-rich liquid meals a day, totaling a mere 320 calories. Not surprisingly, the FDA and U.S. Postal Service quickly clamped down on mail-order sales of the diet, but its creators found a way to sell it through other means. At least until disaster struck. Many people on the Cambridge Diet started having health problems ranging from upset stomach to gallbladder problems, and then, sadly, about thirty of the dieters died.

There are still plenty of liquid diets around today, and, in fact, the Cambridge Diet is back, albeit reformulated and reportedly safer. In the 1980s, many people tried the medically monitored Optifast diet. Again, they shed pounds, only to put them all back on again -- and then some. Liquid diets, regardless of how conscientiously they're created, rarely work over the long term. Nothing about a liquid diet prepares you to deal with the real food challenges you face once you stop sipping your meals. And trust me, eventually you'll have to start eating real food again.

Later in the 1980s (and into the 1990s), fat became diet enemy number one. Suddenly carbs were in and fat was out in a big way. Now, there is some legitimate concern about having too much fat in the diet. A high fat intake -- especially a high saturated and hydrogenated fat intake -- is linked to a variety of maladies, including obesity, cancer, and heart disease. But we do need some fat in our diets -- it's essential for certain physiological processes to take place and it plays a role in how satisfied we feel after a meal. When you eat fat, your body gets the message that its needs are met and signals your brain to tell you to stop eating.

But even more significant is the fact that fat makes food taste good. Eating needs to be enjoyable as well as fulfill your nutritional needs, and fat plays an important part in making food not just palatable but delicious. If you take away all the fat, you take away much of the pleasure. Who can stay on a diet like that for very long? A plan that includes healthy fats in moderation (while limiting or eliminating the unhealthy saturated and trans-fats ones) offers you a much better chance of success.

Given all that, it's not surprising that despite the rash of diets that preached cutting fat to rock-bottom levels and the wave of fat-free foods that came onto the market to make it easier, many people still struck out; the diets were just too rigid and boring. Quite a few dieters even gained weight because they ate massive quantities of fat-free foods, not realizing that while the foods might have been free of fat, they were still chock full of calories, mostly from sugar. Like the very-low-carbohydrate diets before them, many of these very-low-fat plans have fallen out of favor.

Just about the time that fat was being cut from diets left and right, another option became available: sophisticated and heavily marketed pharmaceuticals that promised to help people slim down dramatically. It seemed as though the prayers for a magic pill that would burn off fat had finally been answered. Of course these drugs didn't work like magic, and some of them even turned out to have serious side effects. Most notably was Fen-phen, a weight loss drug cocktail that had to be pulled from the market because it was found to cause heart valve abnormalities. Even when people who took the drugs suffered no adverse side effects, they usually gained back the weight they'd lost when they went off the pills. Like the liquid diets before them, drugs can help you slim down, but they can't teach you to eat right or make you exercise. Unfortunately, some of these pills are still out there, and we are likely to see more come onto the market in the next few years.

But even as diets and drugs come and go, there is always something new to replace them. Anyone who wants to lose weight is still faced with a lot of enticing come-ons that can be hard to resist. Lately, it's been the promise of quick loss on (yes, they're back!) low-carbohydrate, high-protein diets. These new versions aren't as extreme as the ones from the 1960s and 1970s, but they're similar. Some of them let you eat all the meat, fat, and eggs you can stomach and claim that you'll be healthier for it. Never mind that this simply goes against reason (not to mention an extensive body of research). When all evidence points to the fact that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains lowers the risk of many diseases, including various cancers, and that a diet rich in animal foods increases the risk, it doesn't make sense to substitute steak for salad. Is it worth risking your health just to be thin? And temporarily thin at that?

The diet industry often asks you to suspend logic. Could taking a tablespoon of something called Dream Away before bed really help you shed pounds overnight with no effort on your part? Of course not, but the very idea that it might work can make even a rational person take leave of her senses. The fitness industry also plays into our hopes. You may know in your heart of hearts that a piece of exercise equipment can't help you lose something unbelievable like twenty-five pounds in fourteen days. Yet there they are on the TV, men and women with cut bodies, looking as if they're having more fun exercising on a cheap piece of equipment than they would picnicking in the South of France, and promising to change your life. For many people, common sense be damned -- it's hard not to buy into the dream.

An Approach to Good Health and Weight Loss You Can Trust

It's easy to knock the people in the diet and fitness industries who have led consumers down the wrong path. But the failures of all these diets and exercise gizmos bring us full circle to where we started: nothing works better than eating healthy foods in reasonable portions and exercising. That's what worked in 1960, and it's what works now. These days, though, we have significantly more information about the process of weight loss to guide us. We have a better understanding of how the body responds to food and exercise and greater knowledge about how big a role emotional eating and metabolism play in the whole equation. So while moderate eating and regular exercise are still the basic prescription for good health and weight loss, we can now also supplement them with other strategies that increase the likelihood of success.

In Get With the Program! I covered the first steps you need to take in order to lose weight: making a commitment to yourself, getting a grip on emotional eating, and becoming stronger and healthier through exercise. This companion book The Get With the Program! Guide to Good Eating, builds on those steps by giving you nutrition information that will show you how to choose good-quality food in reasonable quantities and how to reach your weight loss and fitness goals: by eating breakfast, having a cutoff time for eating, and redistributing your calories throughout the day.

Most weight loss programs start by addressing food, but I addressed it only briefly in Get With the Program! because I believe that first adopting positive behaviors such as exercising and dealing with emotional issues makes it easier to change your eating habits. It's also very important to rev up your metabolism with exercise before you start cutting calories. Cutting calories slows down your metabolism, but if you're already exercising, your metabolism will resist the slowdown and stay strong. If you aren't exercising yet (and by exercising I mean engaging in aerobic workouts and strength training), I suggest that you go back to Get With the Program! for guidance on how to get moving, or check out the recap in Part I of this book to "move" you in the right direction. Then, when you feel you're ready, begin taking steps toward more healthful eating.

There are plenty of misconceptions out there about what constitutes a healthy diet. We all hear a lot about nutrition, but often the information is misleading or even downright inaccurate. This book is devoted to setting the record straight and helping you make the right choices. It will help you lose weight. It's important, though, to keep weight loss in perspective. You may dream of being supermodel thin, but if it's not in your genetic makeup, you never will be. Nor should you want to be. This program is geared toward helping you realize your potential, and that means helping you become stronger and healthier. That may include losing a substantial amount of weight, or it may not. What's most important is that you find the courage to make the meaningful changes in your life. This will allow you to feel good both physically and emotionally as you reach the weight that is correct for your body type.

One thing I know for sure is that by following this sensible plan based on moderate eating and exercise, you will reach your goals. You may not reach them as quickly as you'd like -- almost nobody does -- but you will reach them. I'm not going to throw anything crazy at you, and I'm confident that you can handle all the steps to good eating that you will encounter in this book. That's because I'm not asking you to change your life overnight; that simply doesn't work. For change to really take effect, it has to be gradual. Quick fixes are seductive, but doing things the right way requires more time and quite a bit of patience. But it's worth it. You'll get the best results if you take it slowly, waiting until you master one step before moving onto the next.

What Lies Ahead

The Get With the Program! Guide to Good Eating is divided up into three main parts. In Part I, I go over the core principles that were described in Get With the Program! If you've read that book, this is a perfect opportunity for you to refresh your memory and check up on how you're doing. You may even want to renew your commitment to yourself by re-signing the "Contract with Myself" that was included in Get with the Program! If you're unfamiliar with the earlier book, Part I in this book will familiarize you with the behaviors that were integral to that program: increasing your water consumption, exercising aerobically, getting a handle on your emotional eating, and performing strength training exercises.

In Part II, I'll talk about why eating breakfast matters (I think you'll be surprised at how much it does) and why you need to cut out late-night eating. I'll also go over the importance of distributing your calories properly throughout the day and give you a quick course in nutrition to help you understand how different foods affect your body. After reading this, you'll better understand how to divvy up carbohydrates, fats, and proteins in your diet and how to make choices that will keep your energy -- and your metabolism -- revved up.

Finally, in Part III, you'll get some real specifics on how to eat well. Unless you've been living under a rock, you already know that you should eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but how can you actually incorporate them into your diet in an interesting and appealing way? Over the last few years, some foods have gotten a bad rap; I want to restore their reputation and tell you how they can be part of a healthy diet and even help you to lose weight. In Part III, you'll also learn how to dine out wisely and how to shop smart: when you're trying to drop pounds and eat healthfully, probably the most critical move you can make is simply to not put certain foods into your shopping cart.

In addition to all this, I am excited to bring you eighty truly wonderful recipes. These delicious dishes will quickly lay to rest the notion that healthy food is dull. For primitive men and women, the purpose of eating may have been simply to stay alive, but we are highly evolved beings! For us, eating is -- or least should be -- a pleasurable experience. It's part of our culture; many friendships and family relationships have been cemented over the sharing of good food. I hope that you won't let wanting to improve your health and lose weight exclude you from the joys of eating. It's time to take the guilt out of consuming good food, and these satisfying recipes do it beautifully. They'll help you enjoy yourself, safe in the knowledge that you are also eating intelligently.

I'm happy that you have made the choice to forgo get-thin-quick schemes in favor of The Get With the Program! Guide to Good Eating -- it's your ticket to better physical health and well-being. In my years as an exercise physiologist, personal trainer, and author, I've had the good fortune to help many people reach their goals. You're next, so read on!

Copyright © 2003 by Bob Greene

Get With the Program! Guide to Good Eating: Great Food for Good Health

by Bob Greene
Buy this book at Barnes & Noble
Get With the Program! Guide to Good Eating: Great Food for Good Health