So you ate a few more cookies over the holidays than you should have, and now you're weighing in at a few more pounds than you'd like. What to do?
Perhaps you should eat more cookies.
Purveyors of several all-the-rage "cookie diets" say you can lose as much as 15 pounds a month on their programs, and they boast of a sizable batch of already sized-down cookie dieters -- reportedly including Jennifer Hudson, Mandy Moore, Howard Stern, Kelly Clarkson and former Madonna husband Guy Ritchie.
But before visions of sugar cookies (or rum balls, pfeffernuesse, gingerbread men . . .) start dancing in your head, be warned: On a cookie diet, you can't eat just any cookies. You have to eat special cookie-diet cookies.
These cookies have been the toast of fan magazines and TV talk shows; on Friday, the granddaddy of them all -- Dr. Siegal's Cookie Diet -- is opening its first full-fledged store in Beverly Hills.
"That's where all our customers are," says Dr. Sanford Siegal, who invented the original cookie diet more than 30 years ago. "That's why it's there, for their convenience."
The basic notion of these diets -- Smart for Life, Hollywood Cookie and Soypal, as well as Dr. Siegal's -- is to replace one or two meals a day with cookies that are much lower in calories than the meals would have been. Although the regimens vary, they are often very low-calorie diets designed to lead to rapid weight loss.
Because all the cookies are standardized in size and calorie content -- and dieters are usually told how many to eat and when -- the diets eliminate the problem of out-sized portions, generally considered a major culprit in weight gain.
James Pacella of Boston adhered to the Smart for Life diet for seven months, and the 23-year-old engineer for Procter & Gamble, lost about a third of himself -- scaling down to 225 pounds from 335.
He thought the cookie diet was as easy as pie. "It's hard to explain," he says, "because it just happened . . . I can't say enough about it. I really believe in it."
But others think the whole concept is nuttier than a fruitcake.
"It's a classic fad diet," says Judith Stern, a UC Davis nutrition professor and diet expert who co-directs the Collaborative Obesity Research Evaluation Team, an international board that reviews published obesity papers. "If it weren't serious, I would just laugh. But people spend money on these things."
In 1975, Siegal was an obesity doctor in South Florida, and his goal in devising the first cookie diet was to make his patients' poundage plummet. He believed patients did best when their results were fast and obvious. "You go to the doctor's office and see the weight coming off every week," he says. "That's a tremendous motivating factor."
Siegal settled on 800 calories a day as the optimum number for weight loss. And he came up with a plan in which dieters got those 800 calories by eating his cookies for breakfast and lunch and then lean meat and vegetables for dinner.
He says it's safe, under supervision -- "I've never seen a problem with too low a calorie diet. Staying obese, that's the danger." And he says it's very effective: "No one fails on 800 calories a day, believe me."
The trick with any diet is sticking to it, and proponents say cookie diets are highly stick-to-it-able. After all, cookies are convenient, portable and, hey, they're cookies.
But the main reason people manage to stay on the diets, manufacturers believe, is because the cookies keep them from getting ravenous.
Hunger suppression is crucial, Siegal says. "Any diet will work if people can follow it, but they can't follow it if they're too hungry."
It's no problem to curb hunger by eating a lot of calories. It's a lot harder if you get only 800 calories a day (or even a few hundred more as some plans allow). Manufacturers say cookie diets pull this off by using special ingredients -- including certain amino acids and soy byproducts -- or by prescribing small, frequent meals instead of three big ones, or by doing both.
A secret blend of amino acids -- known only to him and his wife -- is supposed to do the trick in Dr. Siegal's Cookie Diet. Dr. Sasson Moulavi, founder and medical director of Smart for Life, says a patent is pending on his appetite-suppressing blend of amino acids, fiber and complex sugars. And Larry Turner, president of the Hollywood Cookie Diet, says the protein and fiber in his cookies make them so satisfying that people often don't even eat as many as the diet allows.
Taking a very different tack, Soypal Cookies -- said to be the most popular diet in their native Japan -- are designed simply and literally to fill you up. Their crucial ingredient is okara, the soy pulp left after soybeans are processed into soy milk and tofu. Dieters are instructed to drink plenty of liquids with the cookies because, according to Winnie Shepardson, customer service support representative for Soypal, "When okara absorbs water, it expands two to three times its original size."