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Books About 'Diet' and Other Four-Letter Words

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By Sally Squires
Tuesday, June 17, 2008

"Beach reading" used to refer to books that were light and entertaining. Now, perhaps as a reflection of our nation's growing girth, summer bestseller lists include diet books that promise to make you lighter -- while presumably entertaining you -- on the beach.

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Is their advice sound? Or will it fade faster than a summer tan? Here's a roundup of some of the best-selling choices.

Hungry Girl: Recipes and Survival Strategies for Guilt-Free Eating in the Real World, by Lisa Lillien (St. Martin's Griffin; $17.95). Lillien (who blogs at http://www.hungry-girl.com) is quick to note that she's not a nutritionist. Nor is she a doctor, registered dietitian or professional chef. She's simply hungry and loves food.

Three years ago, this self-described "foodologist" began blogging about her cravings and food struggles to a couple of hundred friends and relatives. That grew into a daily e-mail newsletter, Web site and, now, a best-selling book.

Lillien's philosophy is simple: no fad diets. In fact, no diet at all. Eat healthfully to reach a healthier weight, a message that fits well with the Lean Plate Club approach. This isn't really a diet book but rather a cookbook packed with dishes and meals that are reduced-calorie, low-fat and high in fiber, which can help foster a comfortable feeling of fullness.

Some of the recipes were developed in conjunction with Weight Watchers, for whom Lillien now writes a weekly column. All include nutrition information. Many are healthier versions of tempting foods that are often high in calories and typically pack unhealthy, artery-clogging saturated and trans fats. So you'll find improved recipes for such favorites as cheeseburgers, pizza and onion rings, as well as chocolate peanut butter fudge.

As a nod to the food cravings that can often sabotage the best weight-loss plans, Lillien includes a chapter called Chocolate 911 featuring Chocolate-Coated Mousse-Cones (84 calories each), Chilly Chocolate Cheesecake Nuggets (21 calories each) and Yum Yum Brownie Muffins made with brownie mix and canned pumpkin (181 calories).

Lillien knows from experience that portion control is key. So most of the recipes in this volume are for one serving. That takes the guesswork out of calculating how much to eat. (Double, triple or quadruple the recipes for larger crowds.) "Hungry Girl" makes smart use of some healthful but often overlooked foods. Two to note: Portobello Skinny Skins and Bake-tastic Butternut Squash Fries.

One criticism is that many of the recipes are very high in salt, a misguided strategy often used to compensate for taste in reduced-calorie foods; some recipes have at least half a day's worth of sodium for those 50 and younger and nearly a full day's worth for older adults. In upcoming volumes I'd love to see Lillien create flavor with herbs, spices and other seasonings that are lower in sodium. Based on this clever book, my bet is that she's up to the task in future volumes.

Skinny Bitch (Running Press, $13.95) and Skinny Bitch in the Kitch (Running Press, $14.95), by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin. Call me old-fashioned, but these titles made me slightly embarrassed when I asked the bookstore clerk for help finding them.

Freedman is a former agent for the Ford modeling agency. Barnouin has a master's degree in holistic nutrition. Both have a lot of attitude and, yes, pepper their books with plenty of four-letter words.

Their message: Go vegan.

Kudos to the duo for underscoring the importance of giving up smoking, but some of their other advice is questionable. They claim that organic red wine is healthier than other wine, which it is not. And they call sugar the devil, then suggest substituting turbinado sugar, raw sugar, agave nectar or molasses for refined sugar. Those are all added sugars and should be eaten in moderation. Read this book for fun and maybe a few recipes, but take its nutritional information with a large grain of intellectual salt.

South Beach Diet Supercharged: Faster Weight Loss and Better Health for Life, by Arthur Agatston, with Joseph Signorile. (Rodale; $25.95). Often billed as "Atkins light," the South Beach diet is low-carbohydrate, high-protein and less extreme than its predecessor.

Successful long-term weight loss means finding the right balance between calories eaten and calories burned. One valid criticism of South Beach is that it barely mentioned exercise. Agatston, a Florida cardiologist, addresses that complaint in this book, co-written with a professor of exercise physiology. It includes three phases of exercise that are a great way to ease into activity.

Other welcome additions include whole grains and more fiber-filled food. But fruit lovers beware: The plan still eliminates all fruit from the first two weeks of the diet. What also still rankles is that the plan demonizes pineapple, watermelon, dates and figs -- healthy foods that are listed here as fare to eat rarely or avoid altogether.

The bottom line is this: None of the diet books works for everyone. The real secret is finding a healthful approach to food and activity that you can stick with for life.


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