Dissecting the Diet Dilemma
Help yourself to a feast of knowledge
Photos by Shannon Cornman
“In America, we are almost addicted to food. We celebrate with food. We mourn with food." - Vicki Mayfield
Hey there, January. Every other person is officially on a diet, or eating “clean,” and if history is any sort of indicator, wagons will be fallen off in about six weeks. Diets will go off the rails, and the more extreme the diet, the more likely it is to fall apart. Losing weight, though, is actually a pretty simple proposition.
Leah Hoffman holds a Ph.D. in nutrition, and teaches at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. One course she teaches is adult weight management, and part of what she does each and every day is explain and demystify the science of weight loss and how to achieve it.
But before we lose the blub, it’s worth it to take a look at why we’re blubbery in the first place. And the fact is, like it or not, we are. America is the most obese country in the world. More than 109 million Americans are obese, according to a 2017 report. The words overweight and obese are loosely defined as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that may impair health, according to the World Health Organization. For adults, that means if your Body Mass Index, or BMI, is greater than or equal to 25, that’s overweight. If your BMI is greater than or equal to 30, that’s obese. That means a person who is 5’7” is overweight at 160 pounds and obese at 190.
Vicki Mayfield, a registered nurse and licensed marriage and family therapist in Oklahoma City who does a lot of work with people struggling with obesity and body image, said that part of the problem is our country’s unhealthy relationship with food. “In America, we are almost addicted to food. We celebrate with food. We mourn with food. Food is in our break rooms. When we’re bored, we eat. Our portion sizes are out of control, and restaurants make matters worse by serving huge plates of food, which distorts our ideas of what a portion looks like,” Mayfield says.
“We eat without thinking or tasting. We eat quickly, and we don’t enjoy it. We self-soothe with food. The fat in potato chips seems soothing to us, almost like a medication. When we’re sad, one brownie may lead to a whole tray. The energy of addiction kicks in, and we don’t stop until the substance is gone. Then we feel ashamed, and we soothe ourselves again,” she says.
Hoffman agrees. “We override our hunger and satiety signals because of the abundance of food. We place a lot of cultural importance on getting a good deal, so we feel like we win with a super-size meal. Americans have a terrible relationship with food. We are suspicious of it, and we believe that the worst thing possible is to be overweight. We don’t enjoy food the way we should.”
“A craving will pass, whether you satisfy it or not.” - Vicki Mayfield
Losing weight is no great mystery. It’s actually quite simple in principle, yet we complicate the heck out of it through our emotionally charged relationship with food. And the diet and food industries don’t help matters, both women agreed.
“Less quantity and more quality is the simple way to say it,” Hoffman says. “Fad diets encourage people to think of foods as either good or bad. There is no food that cannot fit into a healthy diet, but in moderation. My favorite way to lose weight is to reduce the calories coming in.”
The fact is, she said, to lose weight, most people have to control their diets in some way. Fad diets do that, but by too much. “Start by seeing how much you are eating now by using a calorie counting app, like MyFitnessPal. Eat about 2,100 calories a day for a few weeks, and then knock off 500,” Hoffman suggests. “Most people don’t do very well in the long term with really restrictive, grapefruit-and-bacon-type diets.”
“I try to get people to go to Overeaters Anonymous or Weight Watchers,” Mayfield says. “Many people need more than just the information. They need support, a team.” She also encourages her patients to add movement into the picture. “I use the word movement, instead of exercise. Movement does not mean running shoes or sweating it out at the gym. I shifted away from the word exercise because I’d say it, and then have to peel people off of the walls a little. Movement can just be getting up and walking around the office.”
Exercise (or movement, if you just freaked out) is a double whammy of goodness. If a person overeats out of sadness, movement will help because it’s a scientifically proven treatment for depression. “Physicians will prescribe movement for people,” Mayfield says. Another pearl of wisdom from Mayfield? “A craving will pass, whether you satisfy it or not.”
Hoffman recommends two steps to anyone who’s looking to lose weight: “First, start counting calories. Then, add two cups of fruit and two and a half cups of vegetables to your diet each day. If you can do both of those, then start working on other things, like adding fitness.” Most people will hit a weight-loss plateau, but Hoffman says not to worry, just keep on keeping on and it will eventually crack. The plateau is all mental – you just have to wait it out.
“Fad diets encourage people to think of foods as either good or bad. There is no food that cannot fit into a healthy diet, but in moderation.” - Leah Hoffman
Weight Watchers is also Hoffman-approved, because it’s calorie counting in disguise, she said. She agreed with Mayfield that group support can be crucial to weight loss success. “Rarely do we gain weight just because of food. We overeat because we are bored, or emotional. The root cause of why we overeat can be as important as what we are eating,” she says.
One root cause could be nostalgia. “Fast food holds allure for many reasons. Its branding is nostalgic. Fast food ads are designed to trigger hunger, and the foods available are incredibly palatable,” Hoffman says. The McDonald’s gateway meal, designed to train children to love eating fast food, is called the Happy Meal, for crying out loud. Corporate scientists and food engineers spend years perfecting such minutiae as the most satisfying amount of jaw pressure required to crunch a potato chip.
Mayfield and Hoffman encourage people to learn what works for them. Diet books can be helpful for people who just want to be told what to eat and when. For others, categorizing a food as off-limits makes them think of nothing but that food and how much they want it. Both women also agree that highly restrictive fad diets are at best not sustainable, and at worst harmful to your health. “Fad diets like Oprah’s liquid diet may cause weight loss, but people lose focus on how to actually eat healthy,” Mayfield says.
What’s the takeaway? To safely lose weight and keep it off, you must burn more calories than you take in, that’s it, that’s all. Ideally, that happens gradually, and for overall health benefits, exercise is a part of the picture, as are lots of fruits and vegetables. Sometimes the truth is unsexy.
►Crash Dieting 101
The Minnesota Starvation Study
During World War II, conscientious objectors were given the option of becoming research test subjects instead of combat. Let that digest for a moment. Ansel Keys headed up a study, which has inadvertently given us much of the data about calorie restriction, weight loss and health that we still use today. Keys is a bit of a research hero of Hoffman’s, but she is as amazed as any of us that the studies ever happened in the first place.
The Minnesota Starvation Study was designed to learn how quickly people who had been badly malnourished could be brought back to a healthy weight and nutrient levels. A group of men went through a malnourishment simulation and repair, and their body weight was reduced by 25 percent.
None of the men was heavy to begin with, although the heaviest man in the study hailed from Enid.
They were fed 1,570 calories a day for six months during the “semi-starvation” portion of the study, and their diet was restricted to foods similar to what victims of concentration camps or prisoners of war might be fed: cabbage, potatoes, not much else. After that, they ate between 2,000 and 3,200 calories per day for three months in the ‘restricted rehabilitation’ phase, and then it was eight weeks of unlimited calories. They also had to perform work, and walk 22 miles a week. Before the study started, the men were happy. As it went along, though, they began to fight with one another, hoard and hide cooking magazines, shirk their work and sleep poorly.
The men’s metabolic rates dropped, their heart rates dropped and when they dropped low enough long enough, they lost cardiac muscle. Their metabolic rates took more than 15 years to recover, even though the duration of the semi-starvation part of the study was only six months long. This is why people who yo-yo diet are at increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
►The Whole 30
A First-Person Account
Erin Merryweather is many things: a jewelry maker, an art gallery manager and a single mother. One thing she is not: a cook. So when she embarked on the Whole 30 challenge a year ago, she hit a double learning curve. “I’ve done it one time. It’s really hard. You have to go all in, and really want to do it,” Merryweather says.
She decided to give it a go because she wasn’t eating healthy, and she’d slipped into eating like her son, meaning junk food, PB&Js, cheese pizza. “I wasn’t running. I’d slipped out of my good habits and needed to transition my mind back to being healthy.” Merryweather took on Whole 30 under the guidance of Stacey Patton, health coach, Piloxing instructor and owner of Wandering Heart, a life coaching company.
“I didn’t know anything about Whole 30, but I knew it was healthy. To do it, I had to cook, and I do not cook. But I did it. I ate a LOT of fish. Coolgreens, where we had our initial meeting, did a Whole 30-compliant menu, which was great,” she says. Merryweather learned a lot about nutrition, and still uses coconut butter and reads food labels, two positive takeaways from her experience.
“After the first week, I had more energy and would wake up naturally in the morning. I had less puffiness. I felt like I’d lost a lot more weight, but I only lost four pounds.” For her, though, the meal planning was tough, and the unyielding restrictions left her feeling isolated. “I couldn’t go to my favorite coffee shop,” she says.
A disliker of leftovers, Merryweather found the salad-in-a-jar recipes many use while on the plan off-putting. “I ended up eating the same things over and over. Baked fish with cauliflower rice or sautéed vegetables, boiled eggs three times a week, lots of okra and asparagus,” she remembers.
“The process felt abnormal. I think that’s why people don’t finish these diets. You aren’t allowed to recreate foods you love using Whole 30 ingredients. It also really changes your social life. There were times when I said, ‘Screw it, I’m making a banana pancake,’ or I would sneak taro chips, which technically met the guidelines.”
Would she do it again? After talking through its merits and sharing that it inspired her to meditate, taught her that she can, in fact, cook and helped her learn how to work through food cravings, she looks into the distance for a couple of beats and says, “No.”
► Diets du jour
We’re not sure how it happens, but diets seem to come in waves. All of a sudden, everyone is Paleo, or confusing you by posting so many pictures of sweet potatoes. Here is a handful of current diet fads, what they claim and what they entail.
The Ketogenic Diet
The idea here is that by eating certain foods, one can force the body into ketosis, which is a natural process that occurs in people when food intake is low, to help them survive. When a person is overloaded with fats and removes carbohydrates, he or she will begin to burn ketones as the primary source of energy. Ketones are made when the liver breaks down fats. This triggers weight loss, and is thought to benefit people who suffer from diabetes. The downside is that it can be hard to sustain and can cause bad breath, lightheadedness, confusion, fever, chills and a fast heartbeat.
The Mediterranean Diet
This is Hoffman’s favorite diet. It’s a healthy eating style, using typical foods and Mediterranean-style food preparations. Foods eaten are mainly plant-based, whole grains, legumes and nuts. Less salt is used, and herbs and spices add flavor to foods. Fish and poultry are eaten at least twice a week; red meat just a few times a month. Healthy olive oil replaces butter, and red wine is drunk in moderation. Exercise is encouraged.
The Paleolithic or Paleo Diet can be summed up as eating like a cave dweller. If a cave person couldn’t have hunted or gathered it, you won’t find it on this diet. What Paleo Diet fans do eat: meats, fish, nuts, leafy greens, seeds and nuts and local or regional vegetables. What they don’t: pasta, cereal, candy and dairy. The focus is less on calorie counting and more on eating the right foods.
The South Beach Diet
No bad carbs for you! The South Beach Diet was cooked up by a cardiologist in 2003, and is philosophically similar to the super-healthy Mediterranean Diet, because it encourages its followers to eat a balanced diet of healthy fats, good (read: complex) carbohydrates, lots of fiber and nutrients. It’s meant to be a sustainable lifestyle change, not a short-term diet.
This is a 30-day elimination diet. Its premise is that common foods may well be making you tired, achy, fat and inflamed, and may also be causing skin issues, digestive woes and chronic pain, as well as screwing with your blood sugar and causing cravings. So for 30 days, you strip them right out of your diet. No sugar, maple syrup, honey or sweetener. No legumes. No grains. No dairy. No alcohol. No baked goods (or even pancakes) made out of approved foods. The goal is health; you don’t weigh yourself until it’s been 30 days, and weight loss may or may not be a side benefit.