Don’t Eat That! or, the Guide to Creating a Diet

Photo: Helga Weber via Flickr/Creative Commons

Photo: Helga Weber via Flickr/Creative Commons

It is June, the month of last-minute “quick-fix” diet plans in ever supermarket magazine. There are so many, all boasting different things: drop 10 pounds in 4 weeks, get slim with brownies and burgers, or lose weight without counting calories just by following our simple plan on page 87. How can these magazines make these promises? I am going to by-pass the cynical answer (those promises sell magazines) for something sadder: restriction diets are an easy sell.

Everyone knows more or less how to eat right–plus or minus some serious, media-fed confusion. It’s basically don’t eat so much processed stuff and eat a whole lot more vegetables. And don’t forget your exercise! Except, it is kind of difficult to convince most people that vegetables can be delicious and that the hardest part of working out is starting. Rather, tell them that they can eat industrial, processed foods that taste sort of like the real foods they imitate (cue fat-free ranch for that boring salad and low-fat, low-sugar ice cream for dessert) as long as they restrict calories (or carbs, or fats, or whatever). And, yes, some of these plans have a parallel workout regimen, but I will get to that below. Let’s build a diet.

Eat This, Not That

Every diet is based on science–at least a little. Weight Watchers is a low-fat program, based on the evidence that lead to the lipid hypothesis. Low carb diets, including Atkins and variations on the Paleo trend, are in part based on carbs breaking down into sugar, which can lead to all sorts of blood sugar problems. Gluten-free diets are based on the same thing: restricting the protein gluten since it can cause inflammation.

So, what about our diet? What shall we restrict? I want to do something novel, but sort of sensical: how about lauric acid, the saturated fat I wrote about last week. In the introduction to this fictional diet of ours, where we sell readers on the reasonableness of our diet, we could put something like this:

It’s common knowledge that saturated fats increase cholesterol counts. The American Heart Association and doctors across the country have been warning patients about the dangers of saturated fats for years. Currently, the new superfood is coconut, and foodies are lauding the use of coconut oil. Like butter and cream, coconut oil is full of saturated fats, the principle of among these being lauric acid. Lauric acid in particular increases the amount of LDL, the so-called bad cholesterol, putting you at risk for heart disease. Foods high in lauric acid include coconut, palm kernel oil, and dairy like butter and cream.

Of course, all that data is completely cherry-picked. This sort of introduction preys on common dietary knowledge, in this instance about saturated fats, which really is not so knowledgeable. The line about increasing the LDL is true, but also misleading: the amount of HDL is also increased, so the all-important ratio between the “good” and “bad” cholesterol is maintained or even improved.

Building Blocks

Now that we know what not to eat (at least according to our intro), we need to organize a diet plan. Let’s start with energy intake. More or less, all of the grocery store magazine diets involve eating between 1500 and 1600 calories a day. The way the calories are broken up in to meals varies, though: even split between three meals? Add a snack? Five meals of equal size or three meals and two snacks?

For this example, I will take the axiom “Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and supper like a pauper” as a guide. Let’s call for 600 calories at breakfast, 500 at lunch, and 400 at dinner, for a total of 1500 calories per day.

Now, to fill in the meals. Most of these magazines would have seven or fourteen days laid out, but I’ll just make up one as an example.

Breakfast: 1 cup of cooked oatmeal (prepared with water) with 1 oz of dried fruit of your choice (but not coconut) and 1 oz of walnuts. Serve with a scrambled egg and glass of orange juice.

Lunch: 1 cup of spaghetti (whole wheat, about 5 oz) with 1/4 cup of pesto. Serve with a large apple.

Dinner: 1 chicken thigh, hold the skin, 2 cups of baby spinach, and 1 tbsp of honey mustard vinaigrette. Serve with lemon-infused water.

Really important note: I haven’t the slightest clue if this is balanced in any way. I just know that saturated fat is at a minimum in this and all the meals add to approximately the correct amount calories. I didn’t tabulate anything else. Please, for the love of God and all things good and beautiful, don’t start eating like this.

Would You Like Some (Dumbbell) Flyes With That?

The final piece is often the fitness program. It usually involves 20 minutes of the newest strength-training craze alternated with cardio. Just for the sake of argument, we’ll assume that the strength portion is a 30 minute, challenging barre workout and the cardio portion is running three miles or 30 minutes every other day. Don’t get me wrong: fitness in and of itself is a good thing. If a workout program like this gets people going on fitness, then that’s fantastic. My personal issue rears its ugly head when the active life style meets the 1500 calorie diet.

See, just being alive takes calories. Really, I swear. It’s called the basal metabolic rate (BMR) and for a girl (let’s call her Grace) about 5 foot 5 inches tall, 125 pounds, and 19 years old, the BMR comes out to be between 1344 and 1414 calories (find yours here and with all sorts of factors that I will get to in a minute). Now, this is what it takes to keep her body functioning–heart beating, lungs working, internal organs humming–if she just lies there for 24 hours.

Now, depending on how active Grace is, we multiply this number by a factor to get her daily caloric needs. There are 5 levels of factors: sedentary, lightly active, moderately active, active, and highly active. According to our fitness plan, Grace are going to be exercising moderately. We multiply it out (or in this case, the website does it for us), and  find that she needs between 2083 and 2191 calories per day. By eating only 1500 calories per day, she ends up with a calorie deficit between 583 and 691 calories.

Since a pound of pure fat is 3500 calories, Grace is well on her way to losing her first pound in 5 or 6 days. Of course, she will likely lose more in the form of water, and if she isn’t careful, she might lose muscle. But if we have a taller girl, just 4 inches taller, her calorie deficit comes out to being around 721 calories per day.

If instead of 4 inches taller, another girl is 4 years younger, she also has a caloric deficit of about 721 calories per day. Not to be a worry-wart or anything, but that isn’t healthy. A deficit like that can cause your body to stop functioning normally. With a caloric deficit like this,  your period might go on the fritz; you can end up being moody, upset, irrational; and it is definitely not healthy.

So don’t do it!

I cannot stress enough the importance to getting enough nourishment for a growing body (not to mention your growing intellect–your brain needs glucose to do every thing from make a decision to recall a factoid). So, eat enough and eat real food.

It’s Easy As 1, 2, 3

There you have it: the formula to creating one of these magazine diets. Or really any diet. Start with lots of science to make the rational point. Maybe throw in some testimonials–get a little bit of an emotional argument going. Then lay out what to eat and how to work out and turn ’em loose.

I hope that next time (if ever) you look at a diet book or one of those quickie, four-week weight loss plans you take the time to look at how this will affect you and your health. I hope you take a look at the science that went into the data–not just some cherry-picked numbers, but some counter-evidence as well. I hope most of all that you take a look at you, and know that you are beautiful.


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