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Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Eat, Drink & Be Healthy: Dieting vs. newer approaches to losing weight

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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, February 4, 2010

Are we done dieting?

Many of us want to lose weight, and many more probably should. But in recent months I've seen a subtle shift in the diet-guidance market: Instead of prescribing eating regimens, many weight-loss experts are suggesting that we reevaluate our relationship with food, focus on eating healthful whole foods and use psychology to aid our efforts to shed pounds.

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Books such as "The End of Overeating," "Mindful Eating" and "Overcoming Overeating" omit the word "diet" from their titles. Others, such as "The Beck Diet Solution" and "The 9-Inch 'Diet,' " retain the word but rebel against it; first book's subtitle is "Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person."

Of course, there are still plenty of conventional diet plans. There's no escaping the "Biggest Loser" series or the "Flat Belly Diet!" Some people will always prefer to be told what to eat and when to eat it. And for those who like to count, be it calories, fat, carbs or protein grams, options still abound.

In fact, the research firm Marketdata Enterprises shows that the dieting industry earned $55 billion in 2006, a number that's expected to rise to $68.7 billion this year. High-profile programs such as Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig continue to do big business; Marketdata says they made $1.2 billion and $462 million, respectively, in 2006.

But at the same time, the research firm reports that of an estimated 72 million American dieters, 70 percent are trying to lose weight on their own.

Those people, many of whom might seek guidance from books, now can choose resources that offer a holistic and, to my mind, more realistic approach than the standard diet guide. Rather than dictate consumption of specific foods (and avoidance of others) according to a strict schedule, non-diet approaches encourage us to seek a healthful balance of nutrients in our meals and snacks and to recognize and learn to overcome the triggers that lead us to overeat. They urge us to pay close attention to food as we eat it so we feel fully satisfied with a modest amount, and they press us to monitor portion sizes more than calorie counts. These habits may sustain us in our weight control better than the latest fad diet will.

Even Weight Watchers has tuned in to this phenomenon: The program's current tag line is "Stop Dieting. Start Living," and supporting text notes that "Weight Watchers works because it's not a diet," though the program still has participants tally "points" for the foods they eat and dictates how many points to consume to achieve weight loss. That sounds like a diet to me.

Dieting for weight loss is a relatively recent phenomenon. For much of human history, simply keeping enough flesh on our bones to survive winter was feat enough. Even once we'd moved indoors, a bit of pudge was long viewed as a sign of wealth and well-being. Only in the past century and a half has "diet" come to mean a means of making ourselves skinny.

But if diets have increased in popularity since the late 1800s, well, they haven't worked. An astounding one-third of Americans are obese, according to federal data released last month, and more than two-thirds of us are at least overweight.

Bonnie Taub-Dix, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says she encourages people to take what she calls a "more introspective approach" to weight loss, one that takes into account the outside influences that contribute to eating habits. "You need to learn to eat for life," she says.

"A lot of people think following a diet plan makes things easier, more mindless," Taub-Dix says. "But the reality is that it's not easy to eat that way."

"Dieting is very often like a magnet attached to the word 'deprivation,' " she continues. "When you're on a diet, you feel deprived, outcast, and you can't wait for it to end."

"I'm glad fad diets come and go," Taub-Dix says, "and I'm happiest when they go. Most are unhealthy, anyway," in that they tend to "emphasize one food group over another" rather than promoting a balanced mix. Such schemes, she says, are "doomed to fail. They only work on a temporary basis."

Taub-Dix, who says she lost 30 pounds as a teenager and has maintained a healthy weight ever since, asserts that the most successful weight-management program is one that's as close as possible to what you normally do. Even so, she notes, losing weight's not easy. "It's not easy to raise kids. It's not easy to hold on to a job. It's not easy to drive in heavy traffic. There's a lot of things we do every day that aren't easy. Why should food be different?"

The dietitian is clearly not alone in embracing her no-diet philosophy. Still, I don't really believe the demise of the diet is in sight. Even as I was writing this column, FedEx delivered a package to my door. In it was a review copy of a new book: "The New Atkins for a New You," an updated version of the popular low-carb diet plan, to be published March 2.


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