Book World

Diet Do's and Don'ts

By Julie Powell
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Any thinking person with 10 pounds to lose knows what needs to be done. Yet somehow "eat less, exercise more" leaves something to be desired as a motivational maxim. Which is where diet books come in -- by the truckload. Smash-hit diet books don't just tell us what we already know. Whether they demonize farfalle, laud green tea or just employ a bit of convincing cheerleading, one way or another authors have to pull one over on us -- and on our sly, bread-basket-loving bodies, which stubbornly prefer the dream of winning the Nathan's hot dog-eating contest to the one about fitting into a size 2.

The cover of THE DIET CODE: Revolutionary Weight Loss Secrets From Da Vinci and the Golden Ratio (Warner Wellness, $24.95) will make you laugh or shudder, depending on how advanced your aversion is to Dan Brown's cash cow of a book. And the New Age-y chatter of author Stephen Lanzalotta, "a master woodworker, painter, baker and chef" who runs the restaurant Sophia's in Portland, Maine, does not at first inspire. (Though it must be said that the author photo -- showing a small, muscled, Jeremy Irons look-alike -- does.) But past the coattails-riding concept and sometimes florid prose, "The Diet Code" presents a compelling argument for simple moderation -- a concept that not so long ago seemed destined for the dustbin of diet history. What's more, while his philosophical tangents are sometimes questionable, Lanzalotta's ideas about food are refreshingly sound. Too often, diet book recipes are created with a distinct disinterest in taste, featuring no-fat this, I-can't-believe-it's-not that, and unfortunate names like "Mashed Potato Surprise." Lanzalotta is instead passionate about "real" food, and his dishes, from Sardinian Chickpea Salad to Polenta Muffins, are thoughtful, well-seasoned and tasty. If the Renaissance Man is your ideal -- and giving up bread seems an insane step -- you could do a lot worse than following the suggestions in "The Diet Code."

Less successful, and much more sinisterly market-based, is GREAT FOOD, GREAT SEX: The Three Food Factors for Sexual Fitness (Ballantine, $24.95) by Robert Fried and Lynn Edlen-Nezin. This book is jampacked with "science" -- diagrams of men's and women's sexual apparatus, molecular explanations for the interactions of proteins and the dangers of free radicals -- but beneath the gimcrackery, there is very little that is new or substantive. The "Three Food Factors" are "Greens and Beans," "Staminators" (there are many eye-rolling coinages here) and "The Brights." Translation: vegetables and legumes, lean protein and fruit (and more vegetables. And green tea.). To which I say: "Duh." It doesn't help that the book's recipes are standard South Beach blah.

Still, there is something admirable about Dr. Edlen-Nezin's surgically frank introduction: "I am so excited by our approach to modifying dietary behavior through sexual function because I sincerely believe it is intrinsically more appealing to most of us than the continued obsessive focus on waistlines." In other words, same old diet, new focus group -- namely those of us who'd rather have a good time in the sack than fit in the jeans we were wearing when we were in high school.

SECRETS OF THE LEAN PLATE CLUB: A Simple Step-by-Step Program to Help You Shed Pounds and Keep Them Off for Good (St. Martin's, $23.95) is considerably more straightforward, which is both a good and a bad thing. Author Sally Squires, who writes the Lean Plate Club column for this newspaper and hosts a Web chat of the same name, tells it like it is. This is Dieting 101, and many of the Lean Plate Club "members" she quotes are men and women who needed to lose massive amounts of weight -- more than a hundred pounds in some cases. For people in such a position, Squires's methodical approach is undoubtedly an excellent way to get the pounds off for good. Not so much a diet per se, Squires's book seeks to teach specific strategies for internalizing the healthy habits any doctor would tell someone with a serious weight problem to implement -- the old "eat less, exercise more" mantra, again. For people ready to commit to a serious regimen, her advice is sound. But for us veteran yo-yo dieters who just want to slim down those love handles in time for the holiday season, the endless charts and self-quizzes and lectures about leafy greens can seem at once too obvious and too arduous.

After Squires's staid good sense, it comes as a refreshing change of pace to head for the realm of the wacky. I'm almost 95 percent sure that Seth Roberts, author of THE SHANGRI-LA DIET: The No Hunger, Eat Anything Weight-Loss Plan (Putnam, $19.95), is a snake-oil salesman. Here's what he proposes over the course of 157 pages (spoiler alert: If you want to spend $19.95, stop reading here): To lose weight without ever feeling hungry or denying yourself a single foodstuff, swallow two tablespoons of canola or extra-light olive oil a day. Or sugar dissolved in water will work. There are a few more addenda, such as when to do this gulping, but basically that's it. He brings a whole lot of pseudo-science to the table, as diet-book-writing PhDs tend to do, and while reading it I found myself thinking, "This is so crazy -- it just might work!" But the explanation, marginally convincing upon first read, melts into the ether once the book shuts. There's something called a "body-weight set point," which you can somehow "reset" if you eat foods with no "flavor-calorie associations" (i.e. they don't taste like anything). . . . It all gets a little vague. The "short answer" Roberts gives for why this works is that the oil/sugar acts as an appetite suppressant -- though he is adamant about this set-point business. Heck. It might work. But I wouldn't hold my breath. (Though if you do try it, I'd suggest holding your nose while swallowing the canola.)

No matter how nutty or reasonable the diet, eventually your body rebels. And when it does, it might just put down all the diet books and reach for the empty calories of EAT THIS BOOK: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit (St. Martin's Griffin. Paperback, $14.95). Ryan Nerz's account of his year spent emceeing competitive-eating contests -- a "sport" that's grown so in popularity that events can fill stadiums and rate coverage on ESPN -- is all over the place, part laugh-at-the-freaks glee, part ardent admiration. As a narrator, Nerz can grate; a self-satisfied "Ivy League"-educated clown not half as smart as he thinks he is. Or then again, perhaps he's smarter than he lets on, because his prose gains (some) depth once he (belatedly) gets off the subject of himself and onto profiles of some regulars on the "circuit," from 440-pound New York subway conductor and amateur hip-hop artist Eric "Badlands" Booker to 100-pound local Sonya Thomas, a.k.a. "The Black Widow," the smiling, Korean-born chicken-wing champion. Occasionally, Nerz recounts some stunningly bone-headed moves on his part, as when he starts talking to an eater's stomach "in a high-pitched, vaguely Asian voice that sounds like a gay swami." Perversely, these admissions of his ill-considered attempts at humor go much further toward ingratiating himself to us than pages of his tin-eared repartee. Anyway, the real stars of "Eat This Book" are the eaters, and they are a motley but unexpectedly entertaining bunch.

Julie Powell is the author of "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen."

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