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Healthy Living

Bury These Books!

Bury these books!

The latest fad diet books claim cutting out sugar and most carbohydrates is the easy way to lose weight. Here's why that's nothing but sweet talk.

Check the diet section of any bookstore and you'll find a small-town library's worth of new books, all selling the same weight-loss line: Stop eating sugar and most carbohydrates and the pounds will melt away.

And they do sell. For months, carbohydrate-bashing books, such as The Zone, Sugar Busters!, Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, The 5-Day Miracle Diet, and The Carbohydrate Addicts's Diet have taken turns at or near the top of the best-seller lists.

This isn't the first time the anticarb forces have held sway. Diet trends tend to go in cycles and two decades ago, books such as The Scarsdale Diet and Dr's Atkins Diet Revolution also promoted low-carbohydrate and high-protein/high-fat diets similar to the current crop. The earlier books faded when, as with all fad diets, devotees found they couldn't keep the pounds off.

While the details may vary, the primary thesis in these new books is the same: Avoid foods with a high glycemic index, including processed foods made with refined sugar or white flour, as well as pasta, bagels, white potatoes, carrots, corn and others. That's because these foods are quickly broken down into glucose by the body. This triggers production of the hormone insulin, which is needed to absorb the glucose. But too much insulin, the books warn, also inhibits the absorption of fat. So if you eat too much of these forbidden foods, that excess fat will find its way to your hips, thighs, and buttocks.

"The science has never been clinically proven," says Gerald Reaven, M.D., prefessor of medicine (active emeritus) at Stanford University School of Medicine and developer of the theory of insulin resistance. "Too much insulin doesn't cause weight gain, calories do." Extra insulin can, however, increase cravings, which may result in consuming extra calories and lead to weight gain.

But while highly glycemic foods may cause problems for people at risk of adult-onset diabetes, Reaven contends most healthy people are perfectly capable of handling any temporary spike in insulin that follows, say, a dish of spaghetti marinara.

That's not the only objection Reaven and others have. Here's a look at these books' more egregious claims.

  • It's better to eat fatty foods and lots of protein than most carbohydrates and sugars. Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, for example, assures readers that they can eat omelettes for breakfast, cheeseburgers for lunch and steak for dinner and still lose weight. Yet this flies in the face of years of clinical studies.

    "There is too much evidence that fat is a risk factor for many serious medical conditions, including heart disease. And too much protein stresses the kidneys," says Gary Foster, Ph.D., clinical director of the Weight and Eating Disorder Program at the University of Pennsylvania. "Any diet that substitutes high-fat foods for carbohydrates is suspect from a health point of view." The Sugar Busters! diet has also been criticized for relying on difficult-to-obtain meat, such as venison, duck, alligator, pheasant, elk, and quail, which are all on the list of acceptable foods. Most people will probably opt instead for a nice, juicy (and fatty) steak.

  • There are "good" foods and "bad" foods. This is a sure sign of a fad (and difficult-to-follow) diet. The problem with saying, as these books do, that certain foods will cause a dangerous spike in blood sugar is that most foods are not eaten alone.

    "Usually people eat a baked potato as a side with grilled chicken and vegetables, which slows any increase in blood sugar," says Elizabeth Somer, M.A., R.D., editor of the Nutrition Alert newsletter and author of Age-Proof Your Body (William Morrow, 1998). And again, if your're otherwise healthy, your body is well-equipped to handle these normal fluctuations.

  • "Sugar is toxic." This direct quote from page 3 of Sugar Busters! is simply untrue. Arsenic is toxic, sugar is not. Do American's eat too much sugar? Sure. Per capita consumption of what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "caloric sweeteners" (all the natural sugars) jumped 22% between 1970 and 1995. It's no wonder then that while Americans are eating less fat, they're also gaining more weight. But for a book that, according to the cover, is "scientifically sound," such a statement should give pause.

  • Exercise isn't important. While Dr. Atkins and The 5-Day Miracle Diet both recommend exercise, The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet makes a point of noting that "[exercise] is not an integral part of the weight-loss component of this diet." Even more shocking, one of the Sugar Busters! authors boasts that he doesn't exercise while on the diet. "That's a bad message to be sending," says Chris Rosenbloom, Ph.D., R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and associate professor of nutrition at Georgia Sate University in Atlanta.

But if they're so scientifically wanting, why are these books so popular? One reason is they will help you lose weight--at least in the short run.

First, any high-protein diet will cause the kidneys to work overtime, which requires a lot of water. So any initial loss is mostly water weight. And second, these are surprisingly low-calorie diets. When Rosenbloom analized three days' worth of Sugar Busters! menus, she found they averaged only about 1,200 calories per day--much less than the daily recommendation of 1,900-2,200 calories for an adult female.

"You could eat 1,200 calories of pure sugar per day and still lose weight," she says. The diet is also dangerously low in a number of vital nutrients, including iron, calcium, vitamin A and folate.

But there is another reason why these books are so popular. It's the simplicity of their message. All you need to do to lose weight, they purr, is avoid sugar and simple carbohydrates. No more counting calories, worrying about fat, or working out at the health club.

"People are tired of general messages," says Anne Dubner, R.D., a nutrition consultant in private practice in Houston. "They want a quick fix. But although they appear to get that quick fix, it's a dangerous risk in the long run--it can increase the risk of heart disease and increase blood sugar, which is a danger to people with diabetes."

Soothing the Sweet Tooth

Here's how the experts suggest you control sugar cravings:

  • Don't deny yourself entirely. Just limit yourself, say, to a smaller piece of cake, or share dessert with a friend.

  • If you want dessert, eat less at dinner. An ounce of chocolate has 150 calories, about as much as two slices of bread.

  • Choose low-fat sweets such as hard candies or jelly beans.

  • Warm liquids make you feel fuller faster. So drink coffee, tea, or sugar-free cocoa along with your dessert

Source: Weight Watchers Magazine November/December 1998

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