Shifting the Diet Paradigm

How best-selling diets differ (and how they are the same)
By Adam Swenson

I have early memories of the word diet, most of them bad. As a kid, I remember adults talking about diets as something you had to go on when you could no longer see your toes. Diets were akin to wearing a hair shirt next to the skin, a sort of penance to make right years of gastronomical sins mortal and venial. They were a sorry necessity to wallow through until you reached purification (i.e. dropped 15 pounds) at which point you could return to your wicked ways (i.e. beer, cookies, and ice cream) until the toes disappeared once again.

But of course such a view is a half-truth. After reviewing The Blood Sugar Solution, the Wheat Belly Diet, the 17 Day Diet, the Eat to Live Diet, and The South Beach Diet Supercharged (plus Jonny Bowden’s 150 Healthiest Foods and Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food), it became clear that this old-school notion is short-sighted. It is antiquated to say “I got this way by eating too many calories, now I’m going to right the ship by eating less and exercising more.” It turns out reduction in quantity is not the most helpful lens through which to view the problem. Calories in and of themselves are not the be-all, end-all we once thought they were. The problems are more complex than that, though the solutions are elegant in their simplicity.

Jonny Bowden (aka, the rogue nutritionist) framed the issue nicely in our recent interview. “We’re living in a toxic food environment: Big Food engineers its products to be addictive, and advertising creates a market for the worst kinds of foods while promising we can eat them and still look like Calvin Klein models. All our social events are built around enormous amounts of food, most of it crappy. And our lifestyle demands that we squeeze efficiency out of every second of every day so we eat out more and more. We choose food on the basis of how cheap, quick, and easy it is.

“Add all that to the fact that we’re constantly bombarded with out-of-date nutritional dogma about low-fat, high-carb diets, the ‘dangers’ of red meat and cholesterol, and how all you have to do to lose weight is eat less and exercise more—which is possibly one of the stupidest oversimplifications ever uttered—and you have a perfect storm for what my friend, Mark Hyman, calls ‘diabesity,’ an epidemic of both obesity and diabetes, with heart disease waiting in the wings.”

More than anything, the authors of these books want to change our views on eating—if, that is, your unhealthy dietary decisions landed you nose-deep in a diet book. In this view, a diet becomes a lifestyle change, a course correction—or if you’re someone who lives on the food-like substances churned out by McDonald’s and Mountain Dew, a Copernican revolution in food and fitness.

So … will the books help you lose weight? Yes, and that is what keeps them flying off the shelves. As Jonny Bowden quoted fellow nutritionist Nick Perricone, “We promise them what they want so we can give them what they need.”

“I think that’s brilliant,” Jonny continued. “Fortunately, the same strategies that address their reason for coming in [to a nutritionist]—to lose weight, to look good, and to feel energetic—also address the long-term issues like heart disease and healthy aging.”

The Blood Sugar Solution by Mark Hyman, MD

The New York Times #1 bestselling book The Blood Sugar Solution is where Hyman unites the twin specters of diabetes and obesity in the term “diabesity.” (Diabetes + Obesity = Diabesity. Though Hyman did not coin the phrase, he certainly gets credit for shotgunning it into our modern lexicon.)

In this book Hyman says very simply that sugar is the biggest cause of weight gain and obesity. Americans eat 150 pounds of sugar annually (an amount roughly equivalent to a post-cancer Lance Armstrong) and half of us have either pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes.

Hyman exhorts us to “get rid of metabolism blockers, and add metabolism boosters.”

Hyman offers a six-week program that may at first strike you as monastic in its level of discipline, but that’s only if you have not yet read Eat to Live. You will cut out sugars in any form, all flour products, all processed foods, and all gluten and dairy. If you’re on the advanced plan (i.e. you were a very bad transgressor) you will also cut out all grains, starchy vegetables, and fruit.

So what will you eat? Real food, that’s what—beans, nuts, seeds, crunchy vegetables, protein, olive oil, fish oil, and coconut butter for starters. Under nutrition basics, he writes: high-quality foods; low-glycemic-load meals; phytonutrient-rich foods; slow carbs, not low carbs; omega-3 and other healthy fats; high-quality protein; herbs and healing spices; three square meals and two snacks; mindful eating. “If it came from a plant, great,” he says. “If it was made in a plant, forget it.”

Overall fitness and well-being doesn’t happen with diet alone, so Hyman advocates 30 minutes of interval training two or three times a week. Those suffering from severe diabesity should exercise at 70 to 85 percent of their maximum heart rate for up to 60 minutes, five or six times a week.

If it was easy, wouldn’t everyone be doing it?

The Wheat Belly Diet by William Davis, MD

Diet books must differentiate themselves, and a good way of doing that is by taking a firm stand that becomes the trademark issue. Whereas The Blood Sugar Solution is about the prevention or reversal of diabetes, The Wheat Belly Diet takes wheat to the mat (much to the chagrin of North Dakota).

Davis says wheat has changed and now has ingredients that stimulate appetite, citing studies that wheat eaters will consume 440 more calories per day. On his blog, Davis responds succinctly to a reader who wrote to him about the perils of wheat:

“Healthy whole grains” are anything but. You are a victim of the gliadin protein of modern wheat, the protein that, upon digestion in the human gastrointestinal tract, binds to the opiate receptors of the brain–but, rather than providing euphoria or relief from pain, it stimulates appetite, sometimes extravagantly.

In fact, your experience reminds me of the people with binge eating disorder and bulimia who deal with 24-hour-a-day food obsessions that are completely relieved with ridding their diet of all things wheat.

Self-destructive behavior, self-mutilation, migraine headaches, depression: These are also all part of the effects of the gliadin opiate in wheat. And the solution is most decidedly not a drug.

The solution is to remove all traces of this incredibly destructive thing from your life. You have been victimized by the blundering of agricultural geneticists, the indifference of agribusiness, and the deceptions of Big Food. Lose the wheat and take back control over appetite, your mind, your weight, your health, and the health and welfare of your family.”

As you’ve no doubt ascertained, dieters are to eliminate all wheat-based products, oat products, cornstarch-based, and, of course, sugary soft drinks and candy. Like Hyman, Davis also recommends we avoid processed foods like fried foods, fast food, trans fats, cured meats, and so on.

While this list may look daunting, fret not, the list of foods you can have gives you a lot to work with. Unlimited: veggies, raw nuts and seeds, healthy oils, meats, non-wheat grains, teas/coffee/water, real cheeses, avocado. Limited: fruit, fruit juices, dairy, legumes/beans/ sweet potatoes, dark chocolate.

Wilford Brimley and the dyed-in-the-wool whole-grain contingent may not like it, but Davis’ book bears scrutiny for those concerned about their waistline.

The Eat to Live Diet by Joel Fuhrman, MD

A common thread through these books is the notion that we Americans are often more accustomed to eating “food-like substances” than actual food that grew somewhere, was plucked from the field, and wound up on our plates with little else happening along the way. The fresher the better, the less processed the better, the greener the better.

When you read the synopsis of Fuhrman’s book, you just feel thinner by the time you’re done—how could you not lose weight eating this way? One of his main tenets is something I heartily agree with: losing weight is more about knowledge than it is about willpower. (This is a notion that dates back to Plato: before one can be virtuous, one must be wise. When you know the good, you will do the good. If you fail to make the good choice it’s because you are either unaware or unconvinced of its essential goodness.)

Fuhrman boils this down to a simple and elegant formula, the E=mc2 for the diet set.

Health = Nutrition/Calories

The best form of eating, then, is when you are consuming the greatest number of nutrients relative to the calories consumed. (If you’re getting the feeling sugar cookies aren’t going to make the cut, you’re right.) The best foods by this measure are leafy green vegetables that are packed with micronutrients and are only 100 calories per pound. So the question you should be asking yourself right now is “how many ways are there to eat bok choy?”

Fuhrman’s equation essentially flips the de facto America food pyramid on its head. Never mind what the FDA puts out, studies show that what Americans actually eat is 62 percent processed foods and 27 percent animal products. So our food pyramid goes something like Sphaghetti Os, Captain Crunch, and Snickers at the bottom, beef and chicken in the middle, broccoli and pears up top.

Fuhrman’s food pyramid has veggies at the bottom (half raw, half cooked) and accounting for 30 to 60 percent of calories. In the 10 to 40 percent category are: fruits, beans/legumes, seeds/nuts, and avocado. Eggs, fish, and fat-free dairy are at less than 10 percent: beef, cheese, sweets, and processed foods are “rarely.”

For most people, this may look pretty austere. It requires a large lifestyle change to be sure. But think of the benefits: rid yourself of diabetes, heart disease, allergies, asthma, arthritis, lower your cancer risk, and maintain a lean physique. Is it worth it? That’s for you to decide.

In the end, Fuhrman would like to change the way you see food. “This isn’t a diet, this is just a healthy way to eat.”

The 17 Day Diet by Mike Moreno, MD

The 17 Day Diet and South Beach Supercharged are both characterized by their use of cycles—South Beach calls them phases. Moreno says 17 Day is a carbohydrate cycling diet where you adjust your carbs with each of the four phases: cleanse, activate, achieve, and arrive. (Contrary to what you might think, the 17 Day Diet is actually a 68 day diet, as each phase lasts 17 days.)

I asked Moreno why the cycling. “Sticking to a healthy diet without variation is so difficult,” he said. “Variation and avoiding monotony is critical. In my opinion, monotony and boredom lead to failure.”

And, potentially, to regaining lost weight: “Eating the same foods day after day will eventually lead to a plateau … eventually it will lead to weight gain. This is why cycling of food groups leads to further weight loss and maintenance of an efficiently running metabolism.”

While 17 Day is a carb-cycling diet, it isn’t necessarily a low-carb diet, and that, Moreno says, is the biggest difference between his book and South Beach. “Our busy lifestyles require proper nutrition from carbs, proteins, and even fats. If the carbs are properly placed in the day, and the right carbs are chosen, they can be used as a fuel source that will not lead to weight gain.”

The four cycles remind me of a parent with a teenage child who has misbehaved. At first they have little liberty: they are being retrained. (You could think of this as a character building phase.) By the second and third cycle you get a little more leash, and by the fourth cycle you get to indulge in your favorite foods on the weekends.

Moreno is a pragmatist and knows that, for the diet to be sustainable long-term, concessions to the weekend realities must be made. “For so many people, weekends create an obstacle. Parties, weddings, birthdays, or just plain life happens. I try to mimic life’s algorithm with the diet so that liberty comes on weekends. But follow the rules: don’t get too carried away, and if you do, bring it back down to a healthy level and stick with the plan.”

Also pragmatic, Moreno advocates 17 minutes of exercise a day—walking is highly encouraged.

The South Beach Diet Supercharged by Arthur Agatston, MD

With sales of over well over 25 million copies, South Beach has gotten plenty of press over the years. It is a three-phase diet (rapid weight loss, educational phase, maintenance) with each phase lasting two weeks. The South Beach Diet Supercharged leaves the nuts and bolts of the original diet intact: Supercharged also adds 20 minutes of fitness per day to complete the cycle for dieters. Agatston says plateauing was a common complaint for the millions of South Beachers—here he clearly states that exercise is the answer, not deprivation.

Agatston advocates interval exercise as a way of burning more calories in a relatively short amount of time. Both high and low intensity interval exercises are emphasized in a 10-week walking program—there are also 27 strengthening exercises for a “more defined look” that would clearly be important if your goal here is a beach body. (Naturally there’s an accompanying DVD.)

For those with very green eating tendencies his reliance on artificial sugars might be problematic. Also, he is pretty high on grains, whose reputation has been sullied as of late.

South Beach is known as a low-carb diet, and that’s true, but Agatston says it’s really not so much the quantity as it is the type of carbs (are they veggies or processed carbs?) and their glycemic index. High-glycemic-index carbs (i.e. most of your guilty pleasures) are unequivocally condemned. Good fats, like olive oil and avocado, are also encouraged.

Like Moreno’s diet, Supercharged goes from more to less restrictive. The third phase, maintenance, is designed to be a lifelong eating habit.

Boiling It Down

For all the controversies (wheat: wholegrain nutrition or America’s dark addiction?) and all the talk of phytonutrients, glycemic loads, formulas, and plateauing, certain conclusions can be drawn. The answers, in the end, are elegantly simple.

Sugars are public enemy number one, with processed foods a close second. As Dr. Fuhrman (Eat to Live) says, there are three food classes: natural/plant, animal, and refined/processed. You were designed to eat from natural/plant and some animal—processed foods are heavily marketed and addicting.

The rise in America’s rate of obesity and diabetes correlates very closely to the processing of food and the decline in exercise. This is not a coincidence. A 2003 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Why Have Americans Become More Obese?” cites division of labor in food preparation. Pre-WWII, Americans ate tons of potatoes, and they were baked, boiled, or mashed. (In other words, healthy.)

French fries were rare because of the immense amount of work needed to make them by hand. Now that factories make them, French fry consumption (with a side of high fructose corn syrup… er, ketchup) has become the norm. Potato chips are another leading form of potato-based food-like substances ingested by Americans.

UC Berkeley food geek Michael Pollan (among others) unleashed a maelstrom with the scathing documentary, Food Inc. (Food Inc. was to pork chops as Deliverance was to weekend canoe trips. Paddle faster, I hear banjoes! … You’re going to eat that bacon? What, do you have a death wish?) Corporate farming, it found, creates food that is unhealthy and does so in an environmentally harmful way that abuses both animals and employees for good measure.

But in the end, we’ve got to eat something. In his book In Defense of Food, Pollan synthesizes a seven-word eater’s manifesto: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

So, the less processed the better, and the closer to “natural” the better. I am using natural here not as Big Food uses it (these potato chips are “all natural” because they were made from potatoes, which are “natural”) but as more of a synonym for Edenic, ideal. Plants should grow without pesticides, ideally. Pesticides are adopted for convenience, not health. Pesticides are bad for plants, and they’re bad for you when you eat them.

Animals should be grown without antibiotics, preferably with enough room to stretch their little piggy legs, and with quality food given to them to eat. This is not the “cheapest” or “most efficient” way to produce a pound of pork, so you’ll have to pay more for it. Do so.

Vegetables are good for you. So is fruit. Meats are good for you too, so long as they are good meats. Experts vary widely, though, in the amount of meats that are appropriate to eat, from Jonny Bowden and William Davis’s “unlimited” to Joel Fuhrman’s “less than 10 percent.” Exercise is also essential.

Read whichever diet book appeals to you, stop eating sugar and processed foods, up your intake of fruits and veggies, and go for long walks after dinner. You’ll be just fine.


The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth

by Jonny Bowden

150 Healthiest Foods opens with this delightful quote from Claude Fischler: “If you are what you eat and you don’t know what you are eating, do you know who you are?”

We should all take an active (though hopefully not neurotic) interest in our foods, asking questions like where they come from, what is in them, and why are they good or bad for me? Bowden does readers a great service with a very readable breakdown on every major category of food, from fruits and vegetables to grains, beans, sweeteners, oils, and condiments. Well-written and exhaustive, though not exhausting.