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De-Mythologizing Diets

OK, we have good news and bad news.

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Now let's go ahead and handle the bad news , because you really already know this, you're just hoping that technology will make it not so: The ONLY way to lose weight is to burn more calories than you take in. No high protein diet, no all-shakes diet, no grapefruit diet, no pill, no other fad, etc., no matter how expensive, works any other way than by causing you to burn more calories than you take in. When they work, it is because they are low-calorie, or they interfere with calorie absorption (& therefore nutrient absorption), or they are doing something to your body (possibly something harmful) to kill your appetite and/or make you burn extra calories. Those are the only possibilities. Period.

Now, the good news: This does NOT mean that the answer is to starve yourself! In fact, once you feel deprived, you are probably going to quit and regain all the weight and then some. It is the VERY rare individual who can give up their favorite indulgences forever.

So, this is why we refer to what you should be eating as a "nutrition plan," not a "diet". We encourage you to stop thinking in terms of deprivation and denial, but in terms of what foods are your friends, and what are the best choices of those foods currently available to you, and how to keep eating those foods that you LIKE.


With very few exceptions (and if you have a medical condition that proscribes certain foods, your doctor has probably already advised you), the Food Guide Pyramid (kindly provided below by the USDA and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services) is still the best guide available. This is a fairly high-carbohydrate, plant-based diet, with a moderate amount of protein and a small amount of fat, sufficient to meet your needs for those nutrients at the lowest levels of healthful calorie intake (anything under 1200 calories a day is not recommended because you are not likely to take in enough essential nutrients, but if you insist, you MUST be supervised by a physician). Those authors I have read who suggest scrapping the Food Guide Pyramid have been guilty of faulty logic, but if you see any articles about this send them along, I'll take a look and put them up on our Q&A pages. If an innovation takes place that works safely, we want to be the first to know about it! Meanwhile, the trick to making the Food Guide Pyramid work for you is to make the best choices in each category.


**Focus on foods you LIKE and activities you ENJOY**

**Toward the bottom of each page, we include ways that people have learned to ENJOY changing their lifestyles; feel free to e-mail us to add YOUR hints and suggestions!**

**Flexibility: You can use regular foods you buy at the grocery store, go out to eat, indulge occasionally in fast foods, have one of the commercially prepared shakes, buy prepackaged frozen dinners, WHATEVER works for YOU, as long as you average your intake as recommended in each category**

**Emphasis on keeping hunger under control -- You do NOT have to go hungry to lose weight!!:**
-->Eat smaller meals and snacks FREQUENTLY<--
-->Mixed meals are digested more slowly<--
-->Keep blood sugar within normal range, avoid hunger<--

**Combine nutrition, activity and lifestyle plans -- the REAL "secret" to permanent weight loss -- change MORE areas of your life!**

PLEASE NOTE (we're repeating this from the previous page, because it's that important):
It is very important that if you are under treatment for specific medical conditions or taking prescribed medications, you also consult with your physician, to ensure that our advice is appropriate for your specific situation.

Also please note:
Slower weight loss is safer weight loss, and is more likely to be maintained over time. Weight loss of more than three pounds per week is associated with an increased risk of gallbladder disease, and this risk is higher than that resulting from remaining overweight. Weight loss of one pound a week is recommended. If you lose faster than that after the first week or so, please eat a little more.

How to Use the Pyramid to Build Your Nutrition Plan:


We start with a base of grain/starch foods (the first group on the Food Guide Pyramid, working from the wide base up to the peak). The recommended amount is 6-11 servings per day. A serving is a slice of bread, a half cup of cereal, or the equivalent (about that size). Obviously, when aiming to lose weight, aim for about six servings a day, not eleven, but seven or eight occasionally is probably OK; it's important not to get too obsessive about eating. Work toward making most of your choices in this category whole grains. If you are not currently eating a high fiber diet, please GO SLOWLY! Too much fiber too fast can hurt you! Start with one high-fiber selection a day.

**Be sure to drink plenty of liquids! It will help you properly process the fiber.**

Go to two servings of whole grains a day next week. And so on, until in the sixth week you are selecting all whole grain choices. If at any point you experience gastrointestinal distress, then back off one daily serving until your GI tract has adjusted, and be sure to continue to drink plenty of liquids. Give yourself plenty of time. We're aiming to make changes that last a lifetime, so if it takes you a little while to adjust, that is OK. Ultimately what's important is that changes are made that become fairly permanent, NOT that changes occur right away.

WHY high-fiber grains?: Fiber comes in two types, soluble and insoluble. The soluble type binds to cholesterol and helps wash it out of the body, which is why it has been shown to help keep your cholesterol numbers in the recommended range. The insoluble type speeds up digestion through the colon, and has been associated with a lower risk of colon cancer. So both are important for optimal health. Most important to dieters, perhaps, both types provide bulk without calories, so you feel full sooner on fewer calories. The extra liquid we've recommended you drink combines with the fiber to bulk it up and to help it pass out softly. Both types of fiber also slow digestion in the stomach, so you feel full longer. Since they are digested more slowly, blood sugar rises more slowly and remains more level for an extended period of time, which also helps you keep from feeling hungry.

MISTAKES dieters have made: Assuming that if it's lowfat, it's good for you and your diet. Refined flours are similar to sugar in that they are digested quickly and may raise blood sugar too much. Therefore, after you eat a high-refined-carbohydrate or high-sugar meal or snack, you're hungry again as your body pumps insulin out to handle the sugar load, which can lead to extremely low blood sugar in an hour or two. This leads to eating too many calories too frequently.

Want to order some different whole grains to try? Check out this site. They also have a huge variety of beans, a good protein choice!
The ultimate in gourmet rice, grains and beans!


The second group in the Food Guide Pyramid is the Vegetable group. 3-5 servings are recommended. Most vegetables have about 25 calories a serving (a serving is about 1/2 cup, except 1 full cup of leafy vegetables), so more is better. Almost nobody thinks they like vegetables, but included here are onions, garlic, herbs, tomato sauce, etc., so you may have more enjoyable choices than you thought. For ideal health, choose one cruciferous vegetable every day (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussels sprouts, etc. - the bitter veggies), one dark green leafy vegetable every day, and one orange/yellow vegetable every day. Then choose two more of your favorites.

WHY veggies?: Studies have shown that people eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables have less cancer and other health problems, probably due to their high level of antioxidants (1-10)*. In addition, these are the best sources of beta carotene (the precursor of vitamin A) and vitamin C. Vegetables tend to have a few more essential minerals than do fruits.

*Numbers in parentheses refer to references for the Nutrition section on our References page.

Green tea is sort of like a vegetable. Loaded with antioxidants, its health benefits are currently under study. The caffeine content is about a quarter that of a cup of coffee. If you'd like to try some unique green teas, you may want to check out these sites:
Adagio Teas

MISTAKES dieters have made: Yes, potatoes and corn and olives and avocadoes are vegetables. However, potatoes and corn have a high starch content, olives and avocadoes have a high fat content. They're fine for an occasional treat, depending on whether you can spare the calories and still lose weight. But THEY do NOT have just 25 calories a serving, but a lot more! I've been asked to say it isn't so, but I'm afraid they do. But this does not mean to avoid these altogether, they have been a staple of human diets around the world for millennia. Just choose these veggies judiciously, depending on how many calories you can afford. And try to eat your potato skins, so the additional fiber slows digestion time a bit.



The third group in the Pyramid is the fruit group. 2-4 servings are recommended, a serving is about a half cup. Fruits average 60 calories per serving, so for most people the nutrient advantages of eating more outweigh the calorie savings. So aim for four servings a day, unless you REALLY can't lose weight using our program. You can substitute fruits for richer desserts, satisfy your sweet tooth a little bit and save all those calories from the usual fat-laden desserts. If you have diabetes, be sure to spread your fruit intake throughout the day and to mix it with a little fat and/or protein (i.e., fruit & cheese, fruit w/ minimally sweetened yogurt, etc.). You can choose among fresh whole fruit (particularly recommended in summer when there is a wide array of choices), canned fruit packed in its own juices, frozen fruit packed without sugar. Beware heavy canning syrups, and juices. Juices are fine in small amounts, but lack a lot of the desirable fruit fiber, so may be digested quickly and send blood sugar skyrocketing. For the most healthful fruit juices, look for those with "extra pulp" -- that's fiber. Canned fruits also generally have the skins removed, and with them a lot of the fiber and some of the vitamins, but they will still have more than the juice alone, and can be used occasionally.

WHY eat fruit?: See veggies. Fruits also are somewhat protective against cancer and other diseases (3,4,9). People like fruit better than veggies, though, so most people get their antioxidant vitamins from fruit. For optimal health, choose at least one citrus fruit a day (i.e., grapefruit, lemon, lime, orange, tangerine) and one non-citrus.

MISTAKES dieters have made: Indulging in more than four servings -- it can add up! Also thinking that a serving is whatever a whole fruit is. A half cup approximately translates to half a grapefruit or banana, a one-inch slice of watermelon, a small whole apple or plum or orange. Bigger fruit divide into a larger number of servings.


The next group is the dairy group. A lot of people think they need to forego dairy products in order to lose weight, but this is simply not true. Choose nonfat or lowfat dairy products to lower calorie intake and particularly to limit your intake of saturated fat, which can contribute to clogged arteries. However, studies have shown that people who ingest nonfat dairy products, such as drinking skim milk instead of soft drinks, are MORE likely to be thin! Probably because the protein along with a trace of fat make it a fairly ideal food that contributes to feelings of satiety.

2-3 servings are recommended, but we believe that one more is better (i.e., 3 servings for men, 4 servings for women, and even 5 servings for pregnant women and teenaged girls, and 6 servings for pregnant teens!).

WHY dairy?: Bone solidity becomes problematic in later years, and bone strength is best built up while young. Particular attention needs to be paid since we are living longer than ever, and so a lifelong depletion of bone is more likely to cause problems. How horrible to have heart health, etc., only to have bones breaking! Dairy products, particularly milk and yogurt, have all the vitamins and minerals needed for healthy bones. We need more than just calcium, although certainly if you are completely lactose intolerant, calcium supplements can help. But we also need adequate vitamin D, potassium, magnesium, copper, and a moderate intake of protein (11-15). Dairy products provide all this and more in a convenient package.

MISTAKES dieters have made: Either eating full fat dairy products because they "can't stand" the nonfat stuff - try the lower fat products for awhile, your taste buds will adjust - as you avoid milkfat, your sense of taste becomes more sensitive to the flavor that is still there. After you drink skim milk for awhile, you won't like the taste of full-fat milk any more! OR, as mentioned above, many dieters avoid dairy products entirely. One serving, an 8-ounce glass of milk or a cup of yogurt, is only about 90 calories, and well worth it for the nutrients obtained therein. And certainly less than a sugary soft drink! Under our plan, you'll eat 1200-1500 calories, which is considered low but not dangerously so. You DO have room in your nutritional weight loss plan for sufficient dairy products.


The next group is the meat and meat alternatives group (a little wordy, unfortunately): poultry, fish, eggs, beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, soy products. 2-3 servings are recommended. There are potentially a lot of calories here, so we recommend two servings. If you are building a lot of muscle (i.e., trying to be a fairly serious weightlifter), you may need three servings to meet your protein needs, but probably not if you follow our recommendations for increased dairy intake. A serving of meat is only 3-4 ounces! About the size of a standard deck of cards or hamburger patty. So obviously, most Americans eat WAY more than they need! So this is sometimes difficult for dieters because it may be a radical change. Think of ways to work meat into your diet as more of a condiment. For example, rather than a chicken dinner, with potatoes and veggies on the side, have a stir fry, with lots of oriental vegetables and a few chicken strips added. If you like casseroles, etc., you will probably not miss the large servings of meat.

It IS okay to occasionally choose lean red meats. But try to choose fish, skinless poultry, and meatless dishes more often.

If you want to be a vegetarian, seriously consider taking a multivitamin/multimineral supplement that contains 100% of the daily value for most vitamins and minerals. Vegetarians generally get enough protein, but not necessarily enough iron, B12, zinc, or certain other B vitamins!

WHY any protein servings?: Very important to replace substances used up during normal body functions, such as enzymes, hormones, immune substances. Also, since we encourage you to gradually increase your activity level, you will be gradually increasing your muscle mass, which requires protein and iron. Furthermore, it takes a little more time and effort to digest a mixed meal (a combination of carbs, protein and fat), therefore protein helps you feel full longer and helps maintain good blood sugar control.

MISTAKES dieters have made: Eating too much protein! High protein diets are dangerous, unnecessary and unhealthy, and this fad too will pass in due time (actually, it's already way overdue!). I wish they worked, too, it would be nice to gorge on some of the fattier meats. But all they do is make you ill. OR, eating too little protein! You need some, for the reasons outlined above. Aim for a moderate protein intake.

Want to try some unusual beans? Here's a good source; they also have some different whole grains!

The ultimate in gourmet rice, grains and beans!


At the top of the Pyramid are the fats and sugars, which it recommends we "limit". This mostly refers to these substances added to foods either in processing, cooking, or at the table. If you ate a very healthy diet, you would not need to add any extraneous fat or sugar to obtain all your essential nutrients, you'd get what you need in your foods. But we do NOT expect people to avoid these substances entirely. Once you've eaten enough food to provide for good nutrition, which your nutrition plan provided here will allow, if you can afford the calories, go ahead and add a little fat and/or sugar. In particular, add a little fat to otherwise high-carbohydrate snacks, to slow digestion time. Or add a little fat to vegetables if you are trying to learn to like them, or add a little sugar to fruits as you begin substituting them for heavier desserts; in other words, indulge a little while you learn new healthier habits. Try to avoid saturated and trans fats, those are the worst for you. Divide your remaining fat intake among polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, slightly favoring the mono's. A little goes a long way; a serving of sugar is a teaspoon, a serving of fat a tablespoon!


Following our recommendations above, you will be eating the following:

6 servings grains/starches
5 servings vegetables
4 servings fruits
3 or 4 servings dairy
2 servings meat or alternative
Fat, sugar, additional servings if more calories are needed!

That's a minimum of 20 servings of food a day, for about 1500 calories. If that sounds like a lot of food, the portion sizes are fairly small, so you really need at least that much for proper nutrient intake and to feel satisfied.

An easy way to remember this: from the bottom of the pyramid, we want you to eat 6, 5, 4, 3 (or 4), 2 servings: of grains, veggies, fruits, dairy, and meat or meat alternatives.

OK, now you know what to eat, what do you do with all of it? The best strategy, as mentioned briefly above, is to divide it up throughout the day into snacks and small meals, which helps maintain better blood sugar control and helps you avoid hunger pangs. This may feel a little weird at first, and you may feel deprived of nice big, heavy meals. If so, you can certainly try eating just three squares a day. Some people lose weight better on one pattern, some another, but most do better with about 6-8 feeding times per day!

This is a lot of reading! Let us know if this is confusing, if we need to add more information, and certainly if you have questions about particular health conditions. We can be reached via e-mail, or by telephone in Lexington, Kentucky, at (859) 269-1500.

Ellen's Easter Menu:

Spring is a great time to commit to a healthy lifestyle! You can have great meals with colorful spring produce from the grocery store or farmer's market. And with warmer weather, focus on activities other than eating, maybe try a new outdoor activity!

Light potato salad (see our Recipe Exchange page)
Grilled salmon
Watermelon for dessert

If you play outdoors before or after your meal, you won't have to worry if you eat a few more calories than usual -- you'll have burned off the extra calories! What else are holidays for?!?

Want more ideas and recipes? Try the site below -- they offer FREE Cooking Light menus and recipes by category! They're already quite healthful, but you can always modify further by substituting more whole grains, using less fat, etc. E-mail us if you have any questions about that!

Looking for more unusual recipes and ingredients? Want to explore the cuisines of other cultures? Many cuisines around the world emphasize more vegetables, and less meat and fat, than American cuisines, and so we recommend them highly. Look for recipes and foods here:
Real Ethnic...Real Easy.

**Suggestions From Our Clients and Others**

I look for a new vegetable to try each time I go to the grocery store. The produce department often has recipes for these. If not, when I get home I scour my recipe books to find a way to use it. I've enjoyed new tastes and new cuisines!

We make an event out of a trip to the whole grain bakery on Saturday mornings. They give free samples of fresh, warm, just-out-of-the-oven breads, so we have a slice there, then carry our purchases home. Fresh-baked bread is good enough that we don't need to use butter or margarine on it! It costs a little more, but saves us tons of fatty calories!

Instead of giving up desserts entirely, I have fruit for dessert. This gives me a lot more nutrients and a lot less fat and sugar, but satisfies my sweet tooth!

We use different cheeses to make sauces for vegetable dishes. We're not crazy about a lot of veggies, but as we develop a taste for them, we use less of the sauce. Meanwhile, we're getting a calcium boost along with our veggies!

I remind myself that onions, garlic, tomatoes and peppers are vegetables, too! I can add lots of flavor to a variety of dishes while getting more vitamins and antioxidants.

We have an International Cuisine Night once a week, with foods from a different country each week. Lots of other cultures use less meat and more vegetables than American and Northern European cuisine, so we eat healthier while we try out new foods and flavors!

Do you have suggestions for enjoying good nutrition? Please e-mail us, and let us know!

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This page was last updated on 04/22/03.

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