What if someone said you could eat the foods you love, not exercise and still lose weight?
Sounds pretty good, right? But, as the old saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Diets like the one described above — unlimited food, no exercise, guaranteed weight loss — have been around as long as the institution of dieting. Backed by physicians armed with convincing arguments, they are popular for a while, until the masses inevitably find out that they don’t have lasting results and people move on to the next latest thing.
However, the true results of these “fad diets” may be more than merely disappointing. What many dieters do not know (or choose to ignore) is that both starvation and high protein diets can cause participants to become sick, not fit.
The latest great debate in the world of fad dieting centers around high-protein diets, made popular by two recent best-selling books: “Enter the Zone” by Barry Sears, and “Dr. Atkins’ New Diet Revolution” by Robert Atkins.
Both books stress that the key to losing weight is to replace carbohydrates with protein. Participants are allowed to eat steak, ham, chicken, pork, cheese, eggs, butter and cream. Eliminated are foods containing carbohydrates such as bread, pasta, rice, fruit and sugar.
Both the Zone diet and the Atkins diet are popular because, unlike the bulk of quick weight-loss diets, the widely accepted United States Department of Agriculture food guide pyramid, they do not eliminate fats. In fact, the Zone Diet recommends that 30 percent of an individual’s daily calorie intake come from fat, while the USDA only allows for “sparring” amounts.
In the fast food age, which one sounds more appealing?
The Zone Diet is based on the “40-30-30” food distribution ratio. According to Sears, the diet’s creator, everybody has a natural “peak performance zone” that will maximize energy and weight loss. The key is in putting the right foods into the body in order to enter that Zone.
According to the diet’s official Web site, www.zoneperfect.com, “This science-based nutrition program harnesses the powerful, almost drug-like effects of food, to position your body within a harmoniously controlled ‘zone’ 24 hours a day.”
Sears recommends that every meal and every snack a person consumes should be composed of 40 percent carbohydrates, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat. The USDA calls for 10-15 percent protein, less than 30 percent fat, and the remaining percentage to be made up of complex carbohydrates from fruits, vegetables and grains. Sears diet doubles the amount of protein a person should eat daily.
The Atkins diet is relatively similar, although it does not adhere to a specific food intake ratio. However, like the Zone diet, it does encourage an increased consumption of protein and discourages eating carbohydrates. The Atkins diet is especially mindful of sugar intake, and strictly prohibits participants from taking cough syrup or cough drops, chewing gum, or using breath mints, all of which contain small amounts of sugar.
Sears criticizes heavily the food guide pyramid diet, blaming it for the increase in obesity in the American population.
“It was designed by the U.S. Agricultural Department,” Sears is quoted as saying on the Web site. “Now, the Agricultural Department is a fine agency, but (its) job is not to give medical advice. Its job is to sell agricultural products.”
According to Sears, the pyramid diet has fattened the population the same way that ranchers fatten cattle: by feeding them low-fat, complex-carbohydrate diets. His proof?
“When the diet was created in the late sixties,” he claimed, “25 percent of the adult population was obese. We have now hit the 50 percent mark.”
Sears goes on to blame the hormone insulin for fattening people up. Atkins also thinks insulin is to blame for our expanding waistlines.
“(The Atkins diet) corrects the basic factor that controls obesity and influences risk factors for certain illnesses,” Atkins said in his book. “That factor is insulin.”
Terri Lisagor, Pepperdine visiting professor of nutrition and food science and a registered dietitian, has an all together different explanation of the rise in American obesity.
“What has happened,” Lisagor said, “is that over the last several years, we have become an obese society because we are eating more and exercising less. Food has become so available, and portions have become bigger.”
Lisagor stresses that the average American — especially children, teens, and young adults — already get more than the recommended amount of protein daily without ever ascribing to a high-protein diet like the Zone or Atkins. This is because protein can be found in almost every food group.
“If either Sears or Atkins were looking at the facts,” Lisagor said, “they’d know that we’re already getting more than enough protein.”
Pepperdine sophomore Schulyer Kerker, who was on the Atkins diet for about a month, said that one pitfall of the diet may be in people’s interpretation of what it calls for. Protein doesn’t always equal meat.
“You have to make sure you eat a lot of vegetables, too,” Kerker said, “and I think a lot of people don’t.”
Lisagor agrees that when people hear “high-protein diet,” this automatically translates into “all meat, all the time.” And this is where we run into trouble.
In his book, Atkins claims that his diet is healthy, not harmful. “I’ve yet to see a single study that a high-protein diet causes kidney problems,” Atkins said.
He also indicates that the Atkins diet can help cure fatigue, irratibility, trouble concentrating, headaches, insomnia, joint aches, depression, and PMS, among others.
“For the lion’s share of patients,” Atkins said, “ (The Atkins Diet) is a specific prescription against such ills.”
But there is substantial evidence to indicate that animal protein-based diets can pose serious medical risks.
According to a recent article in The McDougall Newsletter titled “The Great Debate: High vs. Low Protein Diets,” diets that are heavily animal-based rather than plant-based are factors in most cases of obesity, heart disease, adult diabetes, breast, colon and prostate cancer and kidney failure.
“You don’t have to be a trained nutritionist to see the risk of becoming sick increases the more of these unhealthy foods that are eaten — like with high-protein diets,” McDougall said.
McDougall cited a 1988 study published under the direction of Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, that stated: “The over consumption of certain dietary components is now a major concern for Americans. While many foods are involved, chief among them is the disproportionate consumption of foods high in fats, often at the expense of foods high in complex carbohydrates and fiber that may be more conducive to health.”
Furthermore, both McDougall and Lisagor say that protein has no magical fat-fighting, weight-losing power.
Kerker can attest to the fact that Atkins dieting doesn’t always equal weight loss.
“I didn’t really lose any weight,” she said, although she added that she liked being on the diet because she “felt healthy.”
And even those who are losing weight aren’t necessairily doing so because protein has fat-busting powers.
“Why are people losing weight?” Lisagor asked. “It’s calorie reduction, plain and simple. Prescribed eating. If you eat a prescribed number of calories, you will lose weight.”
Lisagor also explains that the body acts differently when digesting carbohydrates than when digesting proteins. And because the digestion of carbohydrates involves the production and storage of water, when carbohydrates are eliminated, so is the digestive water.
“It’s just a loss of water weight,” Lisagor said. “But to you, it’s five pounds.”
To Lisagor, fad dieting is all a money-making operation by physicians who want get rich quick.
“It’s all about making money,” Lisagor said. “If any one diet book worked, there wouldn’t be another type written.”
While fad dieting and too much protein can be risky and ineffective, there are healthy ways to lose weight and improve fitness. It isn’t magic, either – it’s just plain common sense. Well-balanced meals and daily exercise are the way to go.
Lisagor emphasizes four main components to a healthy lifestyle: Balance, variety, moderation and exercise. She said that restrictive diet plans are simply unnecessary.
“Get away from good food, bad food categorizing,” Lisagor said. “You can be trusted to make your own decisions about food.”
Lisagor is a fan of the USDA food guide pyramid. “I think that it is well-designed,” she said, adding that following the serving suggestions on the pyramid is a healthy way to eat.
The key to what an appropriate serving size is is literally at our fingertips, Lisagor said. One serving of any given food is about the size of the palm. of your hand.
However, “what we usually come out with is a huge plate full,” said Lisagor.
Again, moderation is the key.
February 21, 2002