Diet is a Four-Letter Word

Diet is a Four-Letter Word

Those who know me might think it out of character that I am contributing to the 5 Diets project of the Washington Post’s Food section, because I believe “diet” is a four-letter word – one that connotes an unsustainable, sometimes self-abusive, short-term fix. But as a registered dietitian who spent years in private practice, I have learned that many people have no structure or strategy at all in their day-to-day eating. They desperately need some kind of plan, an effective set of breaks, and it is often at this January juncture that they grasp for one.

My hope is that the perspective I lend here can help the brave participants, and you, to transcend the diet mentality and land on a way of eating, a lifestyle, that is ultimately sustainable and satisfying beyond this month-long challenge.

The idea that any one plan – or, if you insist, diet – is THE WAY is more a reality of marketing than of biology. Humans can thrive on a wide variety of foodways – a big plus from an evolutionary point of view. All of the plans these Washington Post staffers have chosen have the potential to help them reach their goals in a healthful way. But there are plenty of potential pitfalls for them to navigate in these next 30 days, and more to do to make it all matter in the long run.

The Whole30

The Whole30 is the epitome of the tough-love, boot camp approach to habit change. It involves an ultra-strict 30-day elimination diet with a lineup of “nos” – no sweeteners (real or artificial), no alcohol, no grains, no dairy, no beans, no baked goods, no “treats” – followed by a reintroduction process in which you gradually add the forbidden foods back into your life, paying close attention to how they make you feel, with the ultimate goal of establishing a sustainably moderate way of eating. The plan is whole-foods based, with many inspiring and delicious-looking recipes. (There is a new accompanying cookbook.) Although snacking is discouraged, at mealtimes you can eat as much as you want, and you are encouraged to “toss that scale” in favor of other indicators of progress, such as how you feel and how your clothes fit. If you slip even one tiny bit during the 30-day elimination phase, you have to start back at Day One.

Post Local Living editor Kendra Nichols says her ultimate goal is “making moderation the new normal,” but notes that “I need to do something drastic to get there.” A self-described “rule person” who has made it through the first phase of the Whole30 before without much difficulty, she sees it as a reset from unhealthful habits like snacking on vending machine candy and eating the same “boring” foods all the time.

It’s safe to say that on this plan she will be cooking more, trying a wider variety of healthful foods and re calibrating her snacking habits. But from my vantage point, the real challenge for her is not the first 30 days with its precise rules. It is making it through the reintroduction phase to everyday moderation, where the boundaries are less cut and dried. For Kendra to achieve her ultimate goal, she will need to learn to live in the gray, not just the black and white.

An important note: Although this plan may be right for many people, its extremely strict approach may be dangerous for those with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating.

Buddha’s Diet

The simple gist of this plan, which is based on the teachings of Buddha – who was apparently quite thin, unlike those big-bellied statues – is to limit the window of time in which you eat or drink, starting at first at 12 hours a day, then gradually reducing that window to nine hours a day. So, for example, if you ate breakfast at 9 a.m., you would have dinner wrapped up by 6 p.m. There are no hard-and-fast rules about what to eat but rather a goal of attaining a Buddha-like “middle way,” eating mindfully, focusing on foods that provide the greatest sense of fullness, and cutting down on added sugars and highly processed foods. The plan allows one “cheat day” a week.

I believe Post Food and Dining Editor Joe Yonan, a vegetarian, will find many aspects of this flexible, mindful approach enlightening, and it will serve to get him out of his unhealthful late-night snacking regimen. The 12-hour window, with a cheat day built in, should be sustainable for him over the long term. But given his schedule, the nine-hour window doesn’t seem like a realistic goal. If he starts with his usual 8 a.m. breakfast to fuel up for his 9 a.m. workout, he would have to have his day of eating wrapped up by 5 p.m. on the nine-hour plan. That would mean dinner at the office most evenings, and forgoing relaxing meals out with friends.

That kind of change might be technically achievable, but at the expense of his social life and relationships – which are also important to overall health. Alternately, he could exercise on an empty stomach (which the book says “is perfectly natural”), but he and I both suspect that would compromise his workouts. It will be interesting to see where he ultimately lands on this.

The Souper ‘Cleanse’

This plan was developed by the mother-daughter duo behind the Washington area’s Soupergirl enterprise. Each week, you get 20 of their vegan soups delivered to you in prepackaged, single-serve containers. The idea is to eat four containers of the soup per day (added healthful snacks are permitted) for five days that week and take the other two days of the week off to eat “minimally processed, plant-based, dairy-free foods.” It is not meant to be a lifelong soup-only strategy but rather an occasional reset of a week or more to get back on track to generally healthful eating.
The soups look tasty – and at least they put the quotation marks around the word “cleanse” in naming their plan, which makes me wince a little less, since that is another word that I would like to banish from the conversation about healthful eating.

The most helpful aspects of this plan for Post Deputy Food Editor Bonnie S. Benwick are that it is portion-controlled and plant-centric, which gets at two of her biggest personal challenges: reining in the amount she eats and getting enough vegetables. The four soups come in at about 1,200 calories a day, and if she adds one or two snacks, that should be right in range for her to lose weight at a healthy pace. (It would probably not be enough calories for many men or extremely active women.) I am eager to get her reaction to the amount of food allotted. Will she think it seems small, or will she be surprised about how satisfied she is?
The biggest obstacle Bonnie anticipates is managing the time after the evening soup. You’ll see this as a recurring theme here; most of the staffers, and I am guessing many readers, have fallen into the habit of late-night noshing, and diets typically make you face that issue. On top of that, I think Bonnie will really miss the pleasure of chewing and having crunchy texture in her meals. More important, how can she turn this effort into lasting change?

A major concern about this plan right now is the amount of sodium it contains. Soup happens to be a food that needs a fair amount of salt to taste good, so even though these are moderate in sodium as soups go, a typical day’s worth adds up to more than 3,100 milligrams, not including added snacks. (The recommended limit is 2,300 mg daily.) I have been given word, though, that to address this issue, the company will be rolling out lower-sodium recipes in January that will bring the daily total to 2,200 mg.

Given Bonnie’s history of high blood pressure, she will be monitoring her sodium intake as she follows the plan and checking in with her doctor.

Offseason regimen

Sportswriter Adam Kilgore’s diet, which he calls “the discipline and mild deprivation plan,” limits refined grains, highly processed foods, fried foods, cheese, desserts and beer. He permits exceptions on special occasions and allows himself an alcoholic drink or two (other than beer) at social functions. He aims to eat more vegetables, lean proteins, foods such as sweet potato and avocado, and healthful snacks such as almonds instead of cookies.
This is a tried-and-true strategy for Adam that he has followed over the years. He typically loses about 10 pounds per month and sticks to it for about three months, but then gains back all but seven or eight pounds of the weight over the course of the year as he gets back to what he calls “normal eating.”

“Football season kills me,” he says, because he spends a good amount of it on the couch eating wings and drinking beer. I especially like this plan for Adam and think it works (at least for a stretch of time) because he came up with it after evaluating his own personal triggers and preferences, and he factored in a measure of flexibility to make it realistic for his lifestyle.

The next step for him is to narrow the gap between the first and second parts of the year. In these next 30 days, besides following his go-to diet as planned, I’d like to see him strategize a modified follow-up plan to kick off with football season.

Weight Watchers

While each of the staffers’ plans address exercise and overall well-being along with diet to some degree, Weight Watchers’ Beyond the Scale program integrates these facets of healthful living most completely with its three core components.

Eat Better involves eating what you like and doing it mindfully while tracking your choices using their SmartPoints plan, in which each food gets a value based on calories, saturated fat, sugar and protein, and you get an allotment of points to budget as you like. Move More incentivizes you to be more active and earn FitPoints. And Shift Your Mindset helps tap into what motivates you and increases your happiness. You can do the program online only, or, for additional fees, you can add weekly meetings or one-on-one support. Weight Watchers provides many appealing, accessible recipes, ideas, tips and motivations throughout the program.

This program’s whole-life, flexible approach, with no banned foods, makes it an excellent fit for food critic Tom Sietsema. It will be eye-opening and challenging for him to track what he eats throughout the day, but it is the kind of awareness that will help him meet his weight-loss goal and maintain it over the long run.

One obstacle for him will be figuring out the SmartPoints value of everything he eats in his 12 weekly restaurant meals. I doubt two bites of leek panna cotta with coconut “bacon” is listed in Weight Watchers’ tracker system, which is why I suggested Tom go for the added one-on-one support to help him figure out things like that. But as for so many others, a major challenge for him is – you guessed it – late-night snacking. “I have to break that habit of eating at night,” he told me.

Tom, I know you can do it.


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