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Eating Smart

With Diet Plans, There's No Free Lunch

July 19, 1999|SHELDON MARGEN and DALE A. OGAR | Dr. Sheldon Margen is professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. They are the authors of several books, including "The Wellness Encyclopedia of Food and Nutrition."

Did you hear the one about the writer who discovered a magic lamp?

When the genie told him that he had three wishes, he asked for wealth, fame and to write a book that would be on the New York Times bestseller list for 10 years.

Suddenly there was a puff of smoke, the sound of thunder and --shazaam--the writer was holding a hardcover book with his name on it titled "How to Lose Weight Without Any Effort Whatsoever or Without Giving Up Anything You Like to Eat."

Then the genie roared with laughter. "You were very foolish. You wasted two wishes. Everybody knows that if you just think up a new diet plan, you will automatically have a bestseller and become rich and famous."

"But genie," the writer cried, "what happens when the people find out the plan doesn't really work?"

"Simple, my friend: Hire some celebrities and have them give testimonials on television. It gets them every time!"

And thus it happens that every so often, in this land of compulsive dieting, the people will succumb to anything that promises a quick fix for a lifetime of bad habits.

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The list of books and programs and machines and pills put before the American public is mind-boggling, confusing and often dangerous: The grapefruit-only diet; the anything-but-grapefruit diet; the everything-including-grapefruit diet; the lose-weight-while-you-sleep diet; and the magic pill that will melt pounds off if it doesn't kill you first.

And then there are "Protein Power," "The Carbohydrate Addict's Diet," "The Zone" and "Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution," which is really a rehash of the old diet revolution he published in 1972.

This stuff is like fingernails on a chalkboard. "Lose weight with a high-protein, high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet!" Sounds great, but, unfortunately, the principle runs completely counter to everything the scientific and medical community has been saying for decades about diet and dieting.

Or how about this one? "Eat Right 4 Your Blood Type." The best thing you can say about this scheme is that it's original. Beyond that, it is born entirely of fantasy. Dr. Peter D'Adamo, who wrote this bestseller, postulates that each blood type (O, B, A, AB) has different nutritional needs and forbidden foods. Type As, for example, cannot eat oranges; Type Bs have to give up pinto beans and wild rice; Type Os should never eat corn.

This theory is based on some theories of what folks ate thousands of years ago, although there's not much agreement on whether any of the theories are true. However, because this diet is low in calories, its followers may lose weight for awhile. The real question is why buy this book, just to cut down on calories? The only time that your blood type should matter, at all, is if you're donating or receiving blood.

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You can also save your money by not buying any machines advertised as "spot reducers" or any gadget that promises to tone your body and help you lose weight without exercise or while you sleep. Some laws of physics would have to be violated for that to work.

And the diet plans that are "guaranteed to take off a pound a day"? Even if they worked, they would be extremely dangerous. A sensible weight-loss plan should allow you to lose no more than two pounds a week.

And who can forget fen-phen, now off the market? It was supposed to be the magic bullet.

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Instead of jumping on these bandwagons and hoping they don't crash while you're on board, why not make peace with the fact that losing weight is difficult, it's no fun and there are no shortcuts.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, the following claims (among others) should send up a red flag:

* "Lose 30 pounds in just 30 days." The faster you lose it, the more likely you'll gain it back.

* "Jane Smith lost 80 pounds in six weeks." Even if Jane Smith did (which is doubtful), this has nothing to do with any other individual's weight-loss prospects.

* "Scientific breakthrough--medical miracle." Sorry, no such thing.

* "Guaranteed weight loss, or your money back." There's a nice bridge here that's for sale if you're interested.

There is only one way to lose weight safely and permanently. You must reduce your calories and increase your exercise. You must consume a balanced diet that is low in fat, high in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, contains adequate (but not excessive) amounts of protein. And you must engage in regular, sustained exercise.

This advice is admittedly boring, hard to follow and produces slow results. But look on the bright side: It didn't cost you $35 at the bookstore, you don't have to buy any equipment and best of all, it will work.

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