These days, a woman’s size is much more than a number on a scale. For many of us it is deeply entrenched in issues that have as much to do with what’s in our heads as on our hips. Body size has become a sort of gauge for personal, sexual, and even intellectual worth. Women—and men, for that matter—who are constantly concerned about weight do not have an easy time of it. On the one hand, junior high school girls are starving themselves to achieve waiflike thinness. On the other are whole magazines and organizations dedicated to promoting “fat acceptance.” And in between are millions of people in a perpetual struggle with every plate of food they consume, wondering why food so easily turns to unwanted body fat. It’s a confusing era. We live in a high-tech food chain that, instead of simply providing good, reliable nourishment, bombards us with increasingly unnatural foods in ever-expanding portions. Once we recognize the influences that affect us each day, it is much easier to overcome them. We’re right to be concerned about our collective weight. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, well over half—now about 60 percent—of British adults are now overweight. This unprecedented epidemic contributes to many of the four thousand heart attacks that occur every day, the cancers that eventually hit more than one in three of us, and most cases of high blood pressure and diabetes, diseases that have reached new heights of their own. Attaining and keeping a healthy body size is not just about appearances, it’s also about creating harmony between your mind and your physique. It’s about having the freedom to jump from one activity to the next without excess weight holding you back, mentally or physically. It’s about protecting yourself from hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and cancer. And it’s about feeling good, both about the foods you eat and the body they are nourishing.
Why Diets Fail
It’s understandable how a high school reunion or a poolside vacation can send you into a panic over unwanted pounds. And it’s tempting to dabble with crash diets to shed them quickly. Diets can be effective—albeit unhealthy—for a few weeks or even months. But they are not the way to maintain your ideal weight throughout life. In large research studies, the vast majority of people who lose weight gain it all back—and then some—within a year or two. As you well know, following a “grapefruit diet” or a “cabbage soup diet” for any length of time is totally unrealistic. But the real reason why fad diets fail isn’t merely because your taste buds long for a more varied array of foods. They biologically work against your natural weight-regulating mechanisms, sabotaging your efforts to trim down. Researchers at Boston’s Children’s Hospital found clear-cut evidence that the foods you eat at one meal can affect your snacking later on. They gave teenage boys various breakfasts and then tracked how much they ate later that day. It turned out that those who had had instant oatmeal for breakfast took in 53 percent more snacks later in the day than boys served exactly the same amount of regular oatmeal. The reason: Instant oatmeal has been heavily processed, and it digests very rapidly. It releases its natural sugars a bit too quickly, causing your blood sugar to peak and then plummet, triggering hunger. On the other hand, regular or “old-fashioned” oatmeal is less processed, has its original oat fibre still intact, and releases its natural sugars slowly. There is no big rise and fall of sugar in your blood, and no tendency for hunger to return right after breakfast. Many dieters seem to have a similar story to tell. They cut way down on food portions and count every calorie, but despite how much weight they lose, it is all gained back again, often more than before. When put on a diet, human bodies are pretty much all the same. They don’t care what the “new and improved” diet of the month is, or how important it is for you to look better in shorts. When your body is suddenly deprived of adequate nutrients, it responds as though it is starving. It has two preprogramed reactions: a slowed metabolism and an increased tendency to binge.
The first thing to go is your healthy metabolism—your calorie burning speed. Within just two days of starting a diet, your body will begin to burn calories more slowly—that is, to defend itself against impending starvation and hold on to its fat. In a research study at the University of Pennsylvania, a group of volunteers went on a punishing 420-calorie liquid diet. A month later, the researchers checked their calorie-burning speed, finding it had dropped by an average of 20 percent. That means they were burning about 500 calories fewer each day. Even vigorous exercise cannot counteract this metabolism slowdown that comes from dieting. The worst part is that when you finally come off your diet, your metabolism does not return to normal for several weeks. It stays slow, making it very easy to regain the weight you’ve just lost. Frustrating as this may be, it is one of nature’s life-saving mechanisms to help us outlast periods of food shortages that were common in former ages. Hard as you try to outsmart the system, it’s just not possible for very long. The surest way to hang on to the fat you have over the long run is to cut way back on calories and turn down your metabolism. Genetics does play a part in metabolism, and you may well inherit a tendency toward a rapid or more sluggish rate. However, each bite of food you eat plays a much more significant role in whether your food calories burn up efficiently or hang around waiting to cling to your hips and thighs. Have no fear; you have already learned the secrets to choosing very-low-fat foods (think plant foods), and these are just the ones that tend not to turn to unwanted pounds.
The second classic dieting pitfall is the binge. When a diet sends your body into survival mode, it tries desperately to hang on to the fat you have and, naturally, will try to devour every morsel of food that you lay your eyes upon. When your distant ancestors came upon a bounty of food there was no guarantee when the next would arrive, so they took advantage of the opportunity to stock up on calories. Flash forward to today. Although you may have deprived your body of calories for only days or weeks, it will tend to binge when you come upon edible gold mines. When presented with a fat- and calorie-dense plate of cookies, you are virtually powerless to stop with one. This is known as “restrained-eater phenomenon.” The easiest way to avoid this automatic binge mechanism is not to restrain yourself in the first place. Here is how to turn the tables. First, avoid turning on your body’s ant starvation devices by eating enough food throughout the day. Make sure that your diet contains at least 10 calories per pound of your ideal body weight. For example, if your goal weight is 125 pounds, your daily menu should contain, at a bare minimum, 1,250 calories. You’ll almost certainly need more calories to fuel your day-to-day activities, but if you have fewer calories than this, your metabolism is bound to fall, and you’ll be likely to binge. Second, make sure that those calories come from sources that leave you feeling satisfied and provide plenty of vitamins and fibre. Foods that are rich in complex carbohydrates (and naturally low in fat) do just that. Try oatmeal with fruit for breakfast. Eat as many vegetables as you like—carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli—prepared without fatty oils or butter, as you will learn to do with recipes included in this book. Treat yourself to new international restaurants where you can try different varieties of pasta, rice, and bean dishes flavoured with delicious spices rather than animal fats (one of Western civilization’s biggest culinary downfalls). They are all right when you know exactly what you are looking for. For a change of pace, get to know your local Indian, Thai, Ethiopian, or Mediterranean eateries. Restaurants that stick to traditional recipes often have more vegetarian selections, or will gladly substitute tofu or other no animal products for meat. Think of it this way: You will end up eating eventually. Your body will make sure of that. And, in today’s society you can’t escape coming into contact with giant bags of doughnuts, buckets of chicken wings, and colossal chocolate muffins. How you are feeling when it happens makes all the difference. If you just treated yourself to some vegetable lasagne, hearty pasta salad, or lentil soup, you will be able to see these other foods for what they are: a greasy load of fat or sugar (sometimes both). You’ll be better able to keep them at arm’s length, because you are well nourished.
Where Body Fat Really Comes From
To lose weight and keep it off, you’ll want to focus less on how much you eat and more on what you eat. For most of us, weight on our hips or thighs does not come simply from excess calories. The cause is much more specific, as researchers at a Veterans Administration home in Los Angeles graphically proved. They inserted a tiny needle into the derrieres of a group of volunteers and carefully removed samples of body fat to send to a laboratory. Chemical analysis showed that their body fat did not come from bread, pasta, or potatoes, for the most part. The fat on their bodies mirrored the fats they had been eating. So men who had had plenty of chicken or beef in their diets ended up with remnants of animal fat, almost unchanged, in their own body fat. Those who were keen on olive oil or fried foods had the remains of vegetable fats stored in their behinds. In other words, your body uses the fat you eat to build your own fat layer. Carbohydrates, whether they are from vegetables, beans, grains, or fruits, actually boost your calorie-burning speed for two to three hours after a meal. They do this by triggering the release of calorie burning hormones that turn some of the food you’ve eaten into body heat instead of body fat. Fat in foods does not have the same effect. So if fat in foods is the cause of our weight problems, where is it all coming from? Animal products, first of all. Meats are simply mixtures of protein and fat, and even the leanest beef, chicken, or fish has more fat than your body needs. Most dairy products (other than the skim versions) are high in fat as well. And oils that have insinuated themselves into French fries, doughnuts, and sauces add to the problem. The most important key to weight loss is to steer clear of these problem foods.
Foods That Make You Hungry
We’ve all had mornings when we feel hungry barely an hour after breakfast. Or evenings when we’re looking through cabinets and refrigerator shelves to cure cravings that linger after dinner. Moments like these can feel devastating to dieters. “How can I be hungry when I just ate?” they ask. It feels as though all of your thoughts revolve around food. There’s an easy answer. Hunger doesn’t only arise when your stomach is empty; it also occurs when your body isn’t properly nourished. When you eat complex carbohydrates, found in the starchy parts of vegetables, beans, and grains, it takes time for your digestive enzymes to break apart their densely packed molecules. You get a slow, steady release of sugar, and your appetite stays in control. Your energy is more evenly maintained, and your brain and other organs are steadily nourished. However, when you eat refined foods such as white bread, its starches break apart quickly, and sugar rushes through your bloodstream. This rapid rise and fall signals your brain to eat again. Foods that leave you feeling satisfied the longest include beans, peas, lentils, whole-grain breads such as pumpernickel, certain grain products such as pasta, barley, and bulgur, and vegetables and fruits. Each of these foods has a low glycaemic index or GI. They release their nutrients slowly and are your best choices for staying satisfied for hours after a meal. As you can see in the table on pages 61–63, you might try long-grain rice rather than short-grain, and new potatoes instead of russets to fill you up. And don’t limit yourself to tiny portions. Prepared correctly, plant foods are very low in fat. They provide a gradual, even burn that will leave you feeling full and satisfied.
“Fake Fats” Fool Your Good Intuition
Your body doesn’t long for potato chips; your taste buds do. New innovations in “fake fats” such as olestra, introduced by Procter & Gamble in 1996, or in reduced-fat ice creams seemed like the answer to dieters ‘prayers. All taste and hardly any calories. But they had no effect whatsoever on the epidemic of obesity. What these products really do, besides displacing healthy foods and adding unwanted chemicals, is keep your desire for fat turned up high. The more fat—or foods that taste like it—you eat all week, the more you’ll want tomorrow. A better approach and a worthwhile experiment is to readjust your taste preferences by eliminating the ones that have you captivated. You’ll soon see that your preferences are actually determined by what you’ve eaten in the past three weeks. Just as a person’s desire for coffee diminishes after the caffeine addiction is broken, so the desire for fatty, sweet, or, salty foods will lessen—if you give yourself the opportunity. By eating new foods and trying new dishes, you’ll awaken your tastes to entirely new flavours. And by consistently reducing the amount of salt and fatty toppings you put on your favourite healthy foods, you’ll re-educate your taste buds so that you come to prefer lighter, healthier meals. So skip the “low fat” cheese or “fake fat” potato chips. These foods keep your preferences for fatty foods going strong instead of redirecting them toward more nutritious selections. Making a clean break of it works best. You can start by mimicking what scientists in Philadelphia discovered: By simply eliminating fatty toppings such as mayonnaise, butter, margarine, and salad dressing, study participants reduced their preference for these condiments. You can, too. Instead of teasing yourself with unbearably small portions of turkey or chicken, or eating fat-free cheese when you still long for the fat-filled variety, it pays to make a more thorough diet change. In a study by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Georgetown University Medical Centre, designed to compare various nutritional approaches to controlling diabetes, participants were asked to engage in a total diet makeover. They eliminated all animal products from their diets and used no more than minimal amounts of oil, but ate unlimited amounts of whole grains, fruits, bean and lentil dishes, and vegetables. Most reduced their need for diabetes medications or eliminated them altogether. The average participant lost sixteen pounds over twelve weeks. But a very crucial change came in their feelings about food and eating. Food was no longer the enemy. There was no need to agonize over every bite and calorie, because the food itself had changed. The pleasure of eating returned as weight continued to melt away—every dieter’s dream come true.
Understanding Genetic Influences
Are you genetically programmed to desire chocolate? Are genes the cause of your Brussels sprouts aversion? Is there something in your chromosomes conspiring against your efforts to slim down? Well, yes and no. You do have built-in calorie-burning mechanisms so that if you have large quantities of fat in your diet, your body has certain methods for handling it. Generally, if you are consuming more fat than necessary, the excess easily turns to body fat. The rare individual may be fortunate enough to stay very thin no matter what he or she eats. Here is an example: a study has shown that one in every fourteen people has the gene for an unusually rapid metabolism, and it is passed from parent to child. In other families, a gene that causes a slower metabolism can make family members more susceptible to weight gain. For most of us, however, our genes just make suggestions. More important by far are our eating and exercise habits. Think about professional bodybuilders, for instance. People who commit to a daily weight-lifting routine completely change their body shape. Anyone who might choose to follow their habits would simply be unable to maintain their old appearance. This happens for everyone who puts the time in—not to the same exact degree, but it happens. There are no unshakable genetic barriers that will keep you from dramatically changing your body’s shape. Weight loss is similar. When you replace tomorrow’s chicken breast with vegetable stir-fry over rice and continue, at every meal, to substitute animal products for healthy plant foods, you’ll see changes, too—no matter what your genes have to say about it. When we have trouble losing weight, it’s tempting to put the blame on genetics. We figure that if these blue eyes and curly hair came from Dad, this tendency toward an ever-expanding waistline must be his fault, too! Well, science has made great strides in understanding genetic influences in recent years. And it looks, for the most part, as though the ball is really in our court. While your eye and hair colour is definitively granted to you at conception, your weight is primarily a result of how you’ve been treating your body. What may have seemed like an unfair dose of “fat genes” may largely be a legacy of less than ideal eating habits. This is actually good news. If your size and shape were absolutely determined by your genetic makeup, you would be powerless to affect them. In reality, your body is more like a piece of mouldable clay—ready and willing to be reshaped whenever you are ready. This isn’t to say that genes are not in the game at all. Science has shown us what their role is and isn’t.
Tastes are genetic to some extent. Scientists can tell a lot about your food preferences by giving you a little taste of a substance called PROP (6-n-propylthiouracil). It leaves most people with an unpleasant bitterness on their tongue, yet one in four people cannot detect it. Those who can taste it are generally more sensitive to many flavours. For example, too much sugar tastes unbearably sweet, cabbage may taste awfully bitter, and fatty foods may seem overwhelmingly . . . fatty. Being a PROP-taster may turn you off to sugary drinks, salty snacks, and even alcohol’s slight bitterness. Your sensitive taste buds really do taste the foods you eat, so you’re more likely to enjoy a meal without needing large quantities. And this is a definite perk. To your disadvantage, you may shy away from any healthy vegetables that trigger your bitter tastes, missing out on their fibre, vitamins, and cancer-fighting compounds. This does not mean you’ll never like vegetables. Tastes change over time. If broccoli hasn’t touched your lips for many years, give it another try. You’ll find you can actually override your genetic tendencies. Be sure to cook your vegetables adequately and try them over pasta or rice, with flavourful new sauces found in the recipes included in this book. A few drops of fresh lemon juice knock the bitterness out of vegetables as well, without adding fat. Fat-free salad dressings provide an endless selection of flavours, too. PROP-nonstarters have virtually the opposite set of challenges. You may gladly eat all your vegetables, then all of your cake and ice cream and perhaps some wine, too. Your “taste blindness” can make it difficult to sense when you have had enough, and you may make up in quantity for what is missing in taste quality. Unfortunately, PROP-nonstarters are more likely to gain weight, as Yale University researchers found in a recent study. Whether you are a PROP-taster or not is purely genetic. There are other predetermined taste preferences, too, and they tend to be similar among genders. Whereas many women are commonly drawn to chocolate, cake, and cookies, men are more often seduced by burgers, fries, and pizza. Whether you are a woman or a man, supertaster or nonstarter, you have unique vulnerabilities to face, and if your genes have been nudging you toward the potato chip aisle for far too long, it’s time to break the cycle. Understanding your challenges can help you avoid making poor choices.
About Snack Foods
The sweet tooth all children have lingers on for some people, especially women. “Chocoholics” are easy to spot. They may want a soda, or want a slice of pizza, but they need chocolate. It’s okay. Although sugar is one of the most common cravings women report, the occasional chocolate bar is not the cause of serious weight problems, and some forms of chocolate are modest in fat. Sweet iced tea or lemonade won’t do much harm either. But if your sugar is constantly teamed up with fat in the form of endless candy bars, cake, and ice cream, it is time to readjust your diet to include more filling, fibre-rich foods. The reason why chocolate is favoured by so many has never been nailed down, but it is likely its combination of sugar and fat, along with caffeine, a related chemical called theobromine, and an amphetamine like compound called phenyl ethylamine. Whether your love of sweets is genetic or learned, what is important is how it is affecting you today. An occasional chocolate bar is a perfectly fine indulgence, but if you feel controlled by them, or they are adding daily doses of unwanted fat to your diet, there are better ways to manage cravings. Try dessert recipes using applesauce instead of eggs, soy milk instead of cow’s milk. Or you can also put sweets aside until you make a total diet change because getting rid of other unhealthy foods during lunch and dinner— hot dogs, omelettes, chicken wings—can reduce sugar cravings. The added fibre, antioxidants, and vitamins you’ll get from the New Four Food Groups will likely boost your energy, allow you to shed pounds, and benefit your psyche in more ways than you can imagine. Another seductress to the salivary glands, especially in winter months, is carbohydrates. With shorter days and less sunlight, seasonal depression can occur, elevating your desire to eat bread, cake, and cookies. Carbohydrate-rich foods boost serotonin in the brain, much like antidepressant drugs. Taking advantage of natural antidepressant agents in foods is perfectly healthy as long as you choose wisely. Crusty, whole-grain rolls with jam instead of butter, pasta with zesty tomatoes and garlic instead of cream sauce, or new potatoes with fat-free, spicy salsa instead of sour cream are good for your mind and body.
You may recall news stories from the mid-1990s that suggested that a cure for obesity had been found. The newly discovered hormone leptin was the momentary superstar because it caused obese laboratory mice to lose weight rapidly. Rodent biology being much different from human biology, the experiments turned up little of value to millions of people looking for a quick way to lose weight, and to the industry hoping to profit by selling it in a pill. Despite this misleading experiment, we do have an understanding of how leptin works in human beings, how genes influence it, and how we can make it work in sync with our weight-loss goals. Leptin is produced by body fat. As you gain weight and as your fat layer expands, you produce more and more leptin. The increase in leptin acts as a signal to your brain to turn down your appetite. It’s a fairly weak signal, however, and obviously doesn’t prevent obesity. Nor does adding artificial doses do much at all to help people “trick” their bodies into not feeling hungry, as researchers had hoped. Nonetheless, you definitely want your body’s leptin system working normally, because if you lose it, your appetite will go through the roof. Strict dieting easily cuts leptin production and can make your appetite soar. The way to keep your leptin hormone functioning properly is to eat enough of the right kinds of food. It is important to eat the caloric equivalent of ten times your ideal body weight. A goal of 130 pounds indicates a need for a minimum of 1,300 daily food calories, and almost certainly more. Going on a calorie-restricted diet will cause your leptin to fall quickly, causing an appetite rebound. Refocusing your attention toward what you eat, and not how much, will allow your leptin to work for you.
LPL or lipoprotein lipase is also partly determined by your genetic makeup. This critical enzyme decides whether the fat you eat will be stored on your body or be burned off for energy. LPL is found in the small blood vessels that course through your body fat. As particles of fat move by in your blood, LPL pulls them out and adds them to your fat layer. The same LPL enzymes work similarly in your muscles, sliding fat in and burning it up for energy to fuel your movements. This is where genes play a role. Many cases of overweight reflect a predisposition to store fat. Do you have any say in the matter? Yes, you do. If you add a steady consumption of high fat foods, weight gain can creep up quickly. If your body stores fat a bit more easily than the next person, it is critical that your food choices give your cells little to work with—not little food, little fat. German researchers found that one in thirty obese people carries a gene that turns other cells, called fibroblasts, into fat cells. But for the rest of us, it’s merely a matter of how much fat we give LPL to work with. Everyone’s LPL works the same way in that it is always looking for fat in the diet. LPL doesn’t pick up carbohydrates or proteins and turn them into fat. It locates the fat you consume in your steak, chicken breast, fish sandwich, heavy salad dressings, or breakfast sausage and, with little chemical transformation, delivers it right into the cells of your body. Although we do need traces of fat in our diet for important biological functions, the requirement is just one-tenth the fat that most of us actually consume.
Your genes also make the hormone insulin. Insulin’s job is to escort nutrients—sugar and protein in particular—from the bloodstream into the cells of your body, where they can be used. When insulin is working right, it can be your best friend as you aim to trim off the pounds because, when insulin brings sugar into your cells efficiently, it can be burned as energy. This “after-meal burn” is responsible for 10 percent of all the calories you burn in a day, without lifting a finger. Your after-meal metabolism boost depends on two things: the foods you eat and the health of your insulin. Pasta and other grain products, vegetables, and beans deliver a powerful burn because their healthy complex carbohydrates deliver natural sugars that are easy to convert to energy. Foods high in fat, such as meat or eggs, do not. They have a load of fat that simply gets stored in your body. Healthy insulin gets nutrients into your cells, but when it is impaired by eating too many greasy foods and accumulating too much body fat, it can’t perform well at all. In medical terms this means that your cells are becoming resistant to insulin. And here’s the problem. If your insulin isn’t working well, your body makes more and more of it to overcome the cell’s resistance. When insulin is at work, it temporarily shuts down your fat-burning machinery. So if your insulin is constantly working overtime, you can see how this can easily lead to weight gain. Your goal is to make your insulin efficient so it can get sugar into cells fast without shutting down your fat-burning machinery for very long. To increase your insulin’s efficiency, you can do two things: Cut the fat from your diet, and increase your daily activity. When you get the grease out of the foods you eat, insulin can start working properly again.
Movement—the Essential Sculptor
To further increase your insulin sensitivity, keep moving. If you are new to exercise, simply start walking. Start casually, perhaps three times per week. As you get in better condition you can walk more briskly for longer periods of time. Walking is great for people at nearly any fitness level. Dancing, swimming, cycling, or playing tennis will tone your muscles, increase your energy, and tame your appetite, providing yet another barrier to weight gain. The endorphins released by your brain during aerobic exercise also elevate your mood to keep you on the right track toward total fitness. Here are some common exercise activities, with the number of calories they burn for a 150-pound adult. For a 100-pound person, subtract one-third. For a 200-pound person, add one-third.
Whether you are twenty, thirty, or eighty pounds too heavy for comfort, or you are simply weary of counting each calorie to maintain your figure, switching to the New Four Food Groups is the safest, healthiest way to go. For the most noticeable results, both in weight loss and increased energy, give it 100 percent. You wouldn’t ask your doctor for “a mediocre weight-loss plan for partial success.” You’d want the best for yourself. The only way to eat for weight loss or maintenance without robbing yourself of vital nutrients is by eating generous portions of low-fat, fibre-rich foods. In research studies at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, doctors throw out animal products completely and keep vegetable oils very low. And study participants are inevitably surprised at how easily they lose weight. Most likely, with minor adjustments to your routine, you’ll see that this kind of change is much, much easier than thinking in old-fashioned terms of portion size and weight. Forget about calories, forget about restrictions. Enjoy food and lose weight.