Diets: the Good, the Fad & the Ugly

With trendy weight-loss plans, you may end up losing more than just weight

Obesity is America’s number one public-health problem -- and, increasingly, in some other countries as well. It is no surprise that weight-loss diets are popular. 

Fad diets and weight loss programs are a booming and growing industry in the U.S., costing billions of dollars each year (about $40 billion in 2002, for example). Obesity costs another $92 billion each year (half funded by tax dollars) in medical bills in the U.S.

The motivation for losing weight is often vanity. People want to look better. Looking “better” really means looking healthier. 

It’s somewhat ironic that some dieters take drugs, rob themselves of nutrition, eat processed, unhealthful diet foods or imbalanced diets -- in other words knowingly degrade their health -- in order to appear healthier. Some smokers even say they don’t want to quit because they’re afraid they’ll gain weight. 

You may be unsurprised to learn that I think the best way to look healthy is to actually BE healthy, by eating wholesome, vegetarian organic food and exercising regularly. 

What’s a Diet?

We often use the word “diet” to refer to a temporary eating plan we’re “on” in order to lose weight. The implicit assumption is that once we’ve lost weight, we’ll go “off” our “diet” and go back to eating the way we used to. (That’s a recipe for fluctuating weight and poor health if ever there was one.)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “diet” means, “food and drink regularly provided or consumed.” In other words, our diet is what we habitually eat. The word diet comes from the Latin diaeta, which means "manner of living." 

If you want to maximize health, your “diet” should not be temporary. Nor should it rob you of essential nutrients or include harmful ingredients. 

What’s Wrong With Fad Diets

Fad diets are like fashion, they’re trendy today but later you'll ask yourself: "What was I thinking?" Ugly clothes and bad hair-dos never hurt anyone (who knows, maybe they do!) but a fad diet can have a lasting impact on your health.

Losing weight rapidly by eliminating entire food groups -- or any scheme that creates dietary imbalance -- is unhealthful.

Fad diets that focus on one food group (such as meal replacement drinks) and neglect all other dietary needs might help you lose weight, but temporarily. 

Weight loss plans based on pills can deprive you of essential nutrients and make you suffer the pain of side effects such as vomiting, headaches, insomnia, nervousness, addiction and worse. 

Experts who have studied the most popular fad diets have found that the weight loss is achieved through calorie restriction, in spite of what they claim. When it comes to looking healthier by losing weight, a calorie is a calorie regardless of where it comes from. But when it comes to actually being healthier, the quality of those calories really counts. 

In a high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate diet, for example, excessive intake of protein can lead to loss of calcium and eventually osteoporosis (osteoporosis Amira Elgan is more common in developed countries like the U.S. where high-protein food is the norm). A diet consisting of high fats can increase the fat in your blood to unsafe levels. Studies have shown a link between high fat and certain types of cancer and heart disease. 

Carbohydrates in moderation don’t cause obesity, although the typical American diet is too high in simple carbohydrates. 

Nutrition-poor and high-calorie foods coupled with insufficient daily exercise -- is what’s causing obesity and related illnesses in children and adults alike.

There is overwhelming evidence that consumption of grains, fruit and vegetables are necessary for optimal health and prevention of cardiovascular disease and certain cancers, eliminating these will make you sick in the long run.

Fad diets and diet programs make you loose weight fast, but starve the body from other necessary nutrients and are more harmful than beneficial. No craze diet can be better than eating a diet based on healthy variety of whole food, eating in moderation and exercising regularly.

Interestingly, both junk food and fad diets tend to throw the metabolism out of whack, and cause intense food cravings, which lead to more eating and more weight. Healthy food, on the other hand, gives a feeling of satiety and reduces cravings, which makes it easier to maintain a lower weight.

Our obsessive spending on fad diets and weight loss programs gives the appearance that we’re willing to do just about anything in order to lose weight. 

In fact, most people aren’t really willing to do that much. The easier the diet, the more popular it is. Some say, “Just eat what we’ve prepared for you.” Others say, “Just eat fattening, greasy food and you’ll lose weight.” Still others claim that weight loss will come from a pill. 

The boring and unprofitable truth is that eating healthy food, sensibly and moderately, reducing or eliminating alcohol consumption and exercising regularly to burn more calories than we consume, will make us lose weight. And permanently changing our habits means we’ll keep the weight off. As a bonus, we’ll feel good all the time, have more energy and live longer!

And finally, here is what the American Dietary Association says about fad diets:

“The popular high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets are based on the idea that carbohydrates are bad, that many people are “allergic” to them or are insulin-resistant, and therefore gain weight when they eat them. The truth is that people are eating more total calories and getting less physical activity, and that is the real reason they are gaining weight. These high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets tend to be low in calcium and fiber, as well as healthy phytochemicals (plant chemicals). Some authors of these fad diets advise taking vitamin-mineral supplements to replace lost nutrients. However, supplements should “bridge the gap” in healthy eating and not be used as a replacement for nutrient-rich foods. 
Also, the authors of high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets advocate taking advantage of ketosis to accelerate weight loss. Ketosis is an abnormal body process that occurs during starvation due to lack of carbohydrate. Ketosis can cause fatigue, constipation, nausea, and vomiting. Potential long-term side effects of ketosis include heart disease, bone loss, and kidney damage.” 

And here is what they say about how to spot fad diets:

Ten Red Flags That Signal Bad Nutrition Advice 

1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix 
2. Dire warnings of dangers from a single product or regimen 
3. Claims that sound too good to be true 
4. Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study 
5. Recommendations based on a single study 
6. Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations 
7. Lists of “good” and “bad” foods 
8. Recommendations made to help sell a product 
9. Recommendations based on studies published without peer review 
10. Recommendations from studies that ignore differences among individuals or groups 

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Food for Thought

American Institute for Cancer Research
Diet and Health Guidelines for Cancer Prevention

1. Choose a diet rich in a variety of plant-based foods
2. Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits
3. Maintain a healthy weight and be physically active
4. Drink alcohol only in moderation, if at all
5. Select foods low in fat and salt
6. Prepare and store foods safely
7. And, always remember: Do not use tobacco in any form

Reader Q&A 

Q: I assume that raw vegetables are best for us and that freezing and cooking reduce the nutritional quality of food. Is this an oversimplification of the issue? Can some nutrients be made more available to us through freezing or cooking?

Thanks for your time,


A: Great question. Your assumption is mostly correct. 

There is no question that the way you eat your veggies (raw, steamed, cooked, etc.) affect their nutritional value. Deep-frying is the worst and most harmful way of eating vegetables. Not only do they become sapped of nutrients but they can be chemically altered, causing stress to the digestive system and promoting free radicals.

I don’t believe, however, that eating 100% raw foods is more beneficial than adopting a sensible eating plan that includes raw vegetables. The key is moderation--eating strictly raw foods can lead to health problems. A diet based only on raw foods that include large quantities of fruit can cause insulin imbalances in the body due to the higher intake of concentrated sugar from fruit.

Generally speaking, cooking and processing of food destroys micronutrients changing their chemical composition. Raw vegetables are rich in enzymes, which are natural substances vital to the digestive system. Enzymes help break down food for energy, help in the development of connective tissue and cell growth such as bones, muscles, nerves, etc. and also help store surplus nutrients in the body for later use.

Eating vegetables with dead enzymes overworks your pancreas and other organs, as digesting overcooked and over processed vegetables and food can impair the body’s ability to digest properly in the long run. Depletion of digestive enzymes can result in gas, belching, bowel disorders, bloating, abdominal cramps, allergic reaction to food and heartburn.

On the other hand, cooking and freezing certain plant food can provide more nutrients and make more nutrients available to the body. Broadly speaking, frozen fruit and vegetables can be just as nutritious as fresh. Nutrient losses in frozen vegetables are not necessarily due to freezing but to the blanching process of vegetables that usually happens before freezing. The loss of nutrients in vegetables during blanching is not more significant than loss of nutrients due to cooking. 

Buying frozen vegetables from a good source can be helpful. For example, finding a company that harvests high quality organic vegetables and operates under efficient processing practices can ensure better nutritional value of frozen vegetables. If the vegetables are organic and harvested at their peak as well as frozen immediately after being harvested they can often be richer in nutrients than “fresh” vegetables. Note that not maintaining frozen foods at deep freezing temperatures (-18ºC) causes additional nutrient losses, so the way the food store handles frozen foods at the receiving dock as well as how soon you place them in the freezer after you shop also affect the nutritional value of frozen vegetables.

Aside from the obvious benefit of enhancing flavor, cooking some plant foods can be beneficial to health. 

Cooking can kill harmful bacteria and toxins that are present in some raw food plants. It can also help break down some nutrients, which our body could not use otherwise. Cooking legumes usually improves their nutritional value and makes them easier to digest. Large beans are made more digestible by soaking overnight in water. And cooking beans destroys compounds that could prevent the proper digestion of the proteins beans contain. And baking makes niacin more abundant in flour for the body to use.

Cooking tofu, tempeh and vegetables, for example, don’t require over processing and over cooking of food at high temperatures because these foods are generally ready to eat even before cooking. Using low to medium heat for as little time as possible can reduce the loss of nutrients when cooking plant foods.

Eating a variety of organic vegetables daily gives you a wide range of nutrients vital for optimal health. They provide thousands of compounds such as fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and enzymes to help prevent and treat all types of diseases including cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

To maximize your intake of enzymes eat a few servings of raw vegetables and fruit everyday. Add chopped raw vegetables to salads or make raw vegetable juice. When cooking vegetables place them in a tightly covered pot using very little water for lightly steaming until just tender to preserve the nutrient and enzyme content of vegetables. When cooking vegetables in soups and casseroles and stews minimize the loss of nutrients and enzymes by cooking over moderate heat for the minimum amount of time.

Words of Wisdom

People spend a lifetime searching for happiness; looking for peace. They chase idle dreams, addictions, religions, even other people, hoping to fill the emptiness that plagues them. The irony is the only place they ever needed to search was within.

Ramona L. Anderson

Health News

The good news is that FDA has passed regulation requiring manufacturers to list on food labels the harmful trans fatty acids (trans fat) usually found on vegetable shortening, some margarines, snack foods, fried foods, crackers, candy bars, salad dressings, crackers and other processed food.
The bad news is that manufacturers have until January 1, 2006 to put it into practice. Nonetheless it's a step in the right direction. Trans fats are just as bad as saturated fats contributing to cardiovascular disease, a leading cause of death in the U.S. Here's more.

Vegetarian Organic Recipe of the Week

Thai-Indian Medley (vegan) 
Serves 4 to 6

This enticing complete protein dish is inspired by the magnificent and mouth
watering Thai and IndianThai-Indian Medley cuisines. This recipe makes a very satisfying, tasty and highly nutritious one-dish meal using ground ginger and curry powder. Curry powder is a blend of up to 20 spices and can vary depending on the Indian region it comes from. In the U.S., commercial curry comes in standard and Madras styles, the latter is hotter and both are widely available at any health food store or supermarket. The fusion of spices gives this dish an array of aromas and subtle piquancy that open up all your senses letting you truly savor the all the ingredients.

Ahead of time: Cooked chickpeas (garbanzo beans) or substitute with organic canned chickpeas.

Preparation time: 10 minutes Cooking time: 30 minutes Equipment: Food processor or blender

Get ingredients ready (use organic ingredients if possible)
1 tablespoon unrefined safflower oil 
4 fresh garlic cloves 
½ small onion 
1 (8 oz) package of Tempeh (crumbled)
2 cups cooked chickpeas (drained) or canned (rinsed and drained)
2 large slicing tomatoes (or 4 Plum Roma tomatoes) cut in quarters
¼ cup fresh cilantro leaves (no stems)
1 cup light coconut milk (canned)
1 teaspoon ground ginger (powder)
½ plus ¼ teaspoons curry powder 
¼ teaspoon paprika
¼ teaspoon cayenne
1 cup chopped broccoli (small pieces) 
1 cup chopped cauliflower (small pieces) 
1 cup chopped or diced carrots
1 cup chopped zucchini (small pieces)
1½ teaspoons lemon juice (or lime)
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

1. In a large pot or saucepan, heat oil on low heat. Meanwhile, in a food processor or blender combine garlic and onion and chop finely. Put chopped garlic and onion in pot, stir and sauté until lightly browned. Add tempeh and stir constantly for 5 minutes. Add garbanzo beans, mix well and cook for 5 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, in the same food processor add tomatoes, cilantro and half the coconut milk and processed until almost pureed (about 1 minute). Add tomato and coconut mixture to tempeh and chickpeas stirring well. Add ginger, curry, paprika and cayenne mixing well. Add broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and zucchini stirring thoroughly and cooking for 15 more minutes. Add lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Serve. 

Cook’s tip: The vegetables may be substituted with frozen veggies. Cascadian Farms makes 10-ounce bags of frozen organic vegetables of what they call “California Blend”. Two bags make the perfect substitution.

If you try this recipe, let me know how you liked it! 


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This newsletter is not intended to provide and replace medical advice. The author and editor expressly disclaim all responsibility for any adverse effects resulting from any information, diet or exercise suggestions. It is imperative that the advice of a physician is sought before any diet or exercise programs are adopted.