With the Canada Food Guide under review, the low-carb, high-protein meal gets a fresh look

JOHN DEMONT February 24 2003


With the Canada Food Guide under review, the low-carb, high-protein meal gets a fresh look

JOHN DEMONT February 24 2003




With the Canada Food Guide under review, the low-carb, high-protein meal gets a fresh look

OPRAH WINFREY? Richard Simmons? Who really made dieting the joke it has become? How about a show of hands for Robert Cameron, the San Francisco publisher who, in 1964, came out with a book titled The Drinking Man's Diet in which he claimed to have shed 15 lb. while still enjoying his martinis, wine and nice juicy steaks with a postmeal flagon of cognac to settle the tummy. Didn't matter that people wrote funny songs about it (Drink, drink, everyone drink/It's not as bad as we used to think/With every Manhattan/Your stomach will flatten/So drink, drink, drink), and that celebrities made jokes about it. ("Richard and I went on the Drinking Man's Diet," said Elizabeth Taylor, who has tried a diet or two in her day. "It worked for awhile, and then we dropped the diet and just continued drinking.") Or even that Cameron subsequently had to undergo coronary bypass surgery after years of

presumably following his own high-living advice.The Drinking Man's Diet has sold 2.4 million copies. And, 39 years since it appeared, it haunts us still.

How else to describe the Suzanne Somers Diet, the Caveman Diet, the Five-Day Miracle Diet or the Hollywood 48-Hour Diet? Step right up and try the Water Diet, the Rice Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, the Eat Right for Your (blood) Type Diet, the Eat to Win Diet, the Calories Don't Count Diet, the All You Can Eat Diet, the Beverly Hills Diet or the I Love New York Diet. Determined to squeeze into that strapless black number you haven't worn in years? Well, you might want to consider today's dieting rage, plans that push a high intake of proteins like red meat and fewer carbohydrates like pasta as a way to lose weight and lower cholesterol levels.

Does that sound familiar? There's more.

If you buy into another of today's dietary truisms—that anywhere from a couple of glasses of red wine a day to regularly consuming larger amounts of all kinds of alcohol keeps the heart doctor away—it sounds suspiciously like you're back on the same road as Cameron and one of the first high-protein, low-carb diets ever to rule a best-sellers list.

No wonder we're befuddled about what we should be piling on our plates. It's not just the unending parade of new miracle diets promising to melt away the pounds, celebrities like Monica Lewinsky and Sarah Ferguson giving their paid testimonials on the Internet and TV, and the diet creators themselves shilling like modern-day snake oil salesmen. It's the way the food companies make our heads spin with their "lowsodium," "high-fibre" and "fat-free" grub. At least now, under new nutrition labelling regulations that came into effect on Jan. 1,

we'll know those cookies we just tossed into the shopping cart are not only laced with calories, they also contain the pesky trans fatty acids that have emerged as the new villains in the war against heart disease. But then there's all that baffling—often contradictory—information pouring from the laboratories. "The public is getting mixed messages every day," says Jane Dummer, a dietician in Kitchener, Ont. "Who wouldn't be confused?"

So caffeine may make your brain hum better than normal? That's what some scientists say. But other evidence shows that as little as one cup of joe a day could play havoc with a man's sperm count. Think you're virtuous for opting for margarine instead of artery-clogging butter? Not necessarily. Recent studies highlight the cholesterol-raising potential of those trans fatty acids, the hydrogenated (solidified) vegetable oils in

margarine and plenty of other packaged goods. We always knew potato chips and french fries were bad. But who could have predicted that a substance called acrylamide in them can cause cancer, as a widely publicized Swedish study concluded last year? (Reassuringly, a newer study says the small levels of acrylamide found in deep-fried foods will not kill you.)

Even the Canada Food Guide—with its emphasis on cereals, breads, vegetables and fruit—is under suspicion. Health Canada is in the midst of a sweeping review of its guidelines for healthy eating for the first time in 11 years. "Things have changed significantly since 1992," says Mary Bush, director general of Health Canada's office of nutrition policy and promotion, which coordinates the guide. Still, Bush is not prepared to blame the existing guide for making the country fat. Any change resulting

from the review, she says, may simply be a matter of emphasis. But at least one of the experts advising Health Canada on the review has no doubt it's time for an update. "There are places where significant changes need to be made," says Vancouver dietician and author Vesanto Melina.

One of those places could well be the approach to protein. Back in the 1960s, Cameron and others told North Americans that loads of meat would make them healthy. High-protein, low-carbohydrate diets—especially one espoused by Robert Atkins, a then little-known New York physician—were all the rage throughout the 70s, as a campaign against refined sugar gathered steam. But as more evidence emerged connecting fat with heart disease and some cancers, fatty foods—including protein-rich meatsdropped resoundingly out of favour with the medical establishment. In their stead,

PAUL MARTIN, 64, Montreal MP and likely next prime minister of Canada

"I attend a lot of breakfast, lunch and dinner functions," says Martin, who is travelling across Canada a lot these days. "Ironically, I rarely have time to eat at these events, and that's a disappointment because sometimes the food looks and smells delicious. I spend most of the time chatting with people. This means I end up eating at odd hours, so i try to be careful about what I eat. Although I'm a sucker for burgers, I really do try to stick to fish, seafood and lots of salad. When I'm at home I work out. When I travel I try to swim as much as possible, but unfortunately most of my exercise comes from pushing myself away from the table. I've got to do better."

HENRY CHAMP, 63, Washington correspondent, CBC television

"I'm not a fat guy. I'm a big guy [six foot three, 228 Ib.] with a good-sized appetite, and this is a job where you're on the road a lot and can put on the pounds." When his weight balloons-it has ciimbed to 250-he spends a couple of weeks on the low-carbohydrate, high-protein Scarsdale Diet, takes a week off "to normalize," then goes back on it again for two weeks. He says that can take off as much as 25 pounds. "I'm not even sure if that's the way it's supposed to be done. It's a glutton's dietone night, for instance, you get to eat all the lean hamburger meat you want-and I like to eat. i know it would be better to eat sensibly all the time, but I just can't do that."

doctors began recommending starchy carbohydrates as the basis of healthy eating.

The effect? Fat phobia, many experts now believe, led to an overdose of carbohydrates as conscientious eaters switched to rice, potatoes and pasta. Now, in some circles, that dietary shift is taking the blame for the epidemic of obesity and diabetes sweeping the continent. So—surprise, surprise—high-protein diets are now big again. As for Atkins, after 30 years in the scientific wilderness he's suddenly the man of the hour as new, reputable studies support his low-carb, highprotein approach.

What this dietary toing and froing suggests—apart from uncertainty among the experts—is that many of us are so desperate to find a weight-loss formula that works we're willing to give anything a shot. Cana-

da's adult obesity rate tripled between 1985 and 1998, to 14.8 per cent, which means that roughly 3.3 million of us are packing a dangerously high level of fat. What's worse, the picture is even bleaker among the kids— 33 per cent of boys and 27 per cent of girls in Canada are seriously overweight. Whatever the age, down the road the prognosis is the same: an epidemic of early-onset diabetes, high blood pressure and other cardio-vascular problems along with an increased incidence of a range of cancers and respiratory ailments. Not to mention that obesity already costs the country an estimated $2 billion yearly in health-care costs and lost productivity.

Now for the really disheartening news: there is no silver bullet. That elusive, oneshot solution to all of our nutritional and

weight-loss woes simply does not exist, no matter what the latest fad diets and their earnest proponents would have us believe. "Most people are just looking for a quick fix," says Harvey Anderson, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto. "Most people live such a vicarious existence and are so lazy they will just sit back and look for that magic solution rather than go out and actually do what must be done to lose weight themselves." What's more, most research shows diets that promise big weight loss in weeks are just short-term fixes that don't keep the pounds off in the long run.

Some of those plans could do more harm than good. Any diet that calls for cutting back on fruits and vegetables, for example, means you could be missing out on important

ANNE MCLELLAN, 52, federal health minister

"I'm not on a diet because I feel if it's about denying yourself, you get frustrated," says the Edmonton MP, who began paying more attention to her weight and conditioning as she approached her 50th birthday. "I try to eat sensibly, but it's a challenge, particularly for people, like politicians, who may not eat at regular hours, or may end up eating late at night, which is bad. I try to eat something for breakfast, and for lunch I'll have a soup, sandwich and fruit. I lift free weightsI'm up to 15 lb.-and I walk and run up to five kilometres. I've lost weight, but I never discuss how much. My clothes fit better, I feel better and I have much more energy."

vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help prevent a range of diseases. Some experts say eating a low, or no carbohydrate diet—as so many of the pro-protein plans recommend—causes the blood to become too acidic, a condition known as ketosis, which, over time, slows brain functions and harms the kidneys. Experts also worry that highprotein diets have too little fibre—proven to play an important role in the prevention of obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, colon cancer and irritable bowel syndrome— and too much saturated fat, known to cause anything from diabetes and strokes to several types of cancers.

All of which leads to that age-old conclusion: moderation is the way to go. "Even if they weren't bad for you, these fad diets are just too tedious for anyone to follow longterm," says Diana Steele, a Vancouver dietician. The goal is finding a program that you can stick with for life. Usually that means throwing out the bathroom scales and the beauty magazines, and focusing on the nutrient value rather than the calorie count of what you're eating. Most reputable professionals give the same advice: eat a variety of foods—dairy products, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish or other proteins, carbohydrates, whole grains—because we need them all to stay healthy. The high-protein gurus definitely have a point: meat, poultry, fish and nuts take longer to digest than carbbased foods and, therefore, sustain energy and that all-important feeling of fullness that discourages overeating. Even fat is a necessity, as long as it is the "protective" kind—found especially in unhydrogenized versions of peanut butter and canola oil, and in fatty fish like salmon. Unlike the bad stuff that narrows the arteries, it actually reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease.

As for portion size, many experts promote smaller meals, interspersed with healthy snacks every two or three hours. Don't be too much of a puritan; eating something "bad" now and then just for the enjoyment may be what you need to stay on the nutritional straight and narrow. "You're only human," says Steele. "The important thing is to eat the good stuff first."

Just as important: diet alone isn't the road to wellness. You don't have to run a marathon to drop weight. But put down the remote control. Walk the dog, ride your bike to work, or do some sort of exercise for the 60 minutes a day that Health Canada says it takes

to fend off'heart and respiratory disease and the other ill effects that come from being sedentary. Hitting the weight room helps. Fitness experts have known for years that the more muscle mass you have the easier it is to burn calories. Now a slew of books argue that you should forget the stair climber and head for the weight room if you really want to drop pounds. Those preacher curls offer other benefits, too—including a lower risk of osteoperosis and bone fractures. But be patient. "The turtle wins the race when it comes to losing weight," notes Beth Mansfield, an Ottawa-based registered dietician and exercise consultant. "If it took 20 years to put on 40 lb., you're not going to lose it all in two weeks."

Before you get too depressed, remember you're not entirely on your own when it

comes to puzzling over the right stuff to eat. Communities everywhere are coming up with novel ways to address the huge public health crisis in their midst. On New Year's Eve, 10,000 people gathered in a park in London, Ont., for a rally kicking off the city's Year of Healthy Living. Either in writing or through video booths transmitting their commitments to a large screen, they went public with their vows to lose weight, quit smoking, etc. And all across Canada, the new nutritional labelling now mandated for all packaged foods means shoppers will soon be able to compare calorie, fat, carbohydrate, protein, fibre, sugar and vitamin content before making their choice.

With all the confusion and contradiction, it's amazing anyone manages to figure it out. But sometimes all it takes is a little

professional advice. Scott Durocher, a petroleum geologist from Calgary, decided one morning last year that, at 220 lb., he was carrying far too much weight for his six-foot frame. Regular sessions on a cross-country ski machine weren't doing the trick. So in September, the 33-year-old father of three visited a local dietician, Andrea Holwegner. Suddenly, junk food was out. Instead of two big meals a day, she had him eat three smaller meals with a balance of food groups, along with three healthy snacks. "It's weird," says Durocher, who has kept up with the workouts and managed to lose 40 lb. in four months. "I think I'm eating more than I used to. But I've dropped all this weight and I've never had more energy."

Ultimately, it's up to the individual to find something that works. For Halifax film editor Chris Cooper, that's the Zone, a diet designed to help its adherents reach a state of maximum acuity, peak physical performance and optimum health by ensuring each meal has a strict carbohydrate-to-protein ratio. The diet—which eschews pasta and bread but calls for plenty of vegetables—is moderate enough to get the OK from many dieticians, although some complain that it requires too much planning. And Cooper, 47 and a father of two, occasionally slides off it. But seven years after discovering the Zone, he still swears by it. "When I'm on it there are no mid-afternoon sleepy periods," he says. "I feel stronger. I can concentrate for longer periods of time."

The road has been considerably more bumpy for Leticia Beggs, a Mexican-bom actor in her thirties living in Toronto. She has tried pretty much every diet going over the years. Last spring, she embarked on an unconventional treatment involving regular vitamin injections, a severely limited caloric intake and the avoidance of soaps or oils containing fat. Ten weeks and $2,000 later, Beggs had lost 27 pounds. But eating just 700 calories a day left her dizzy, irritable and with no energy. "It was ridiculous," she says. "I was starving myself. There was no way I could keep doing it." Desperate, she went to Susan Osher, a Toronto dietician, for advice. Now she eats balanced meals and, despite having jacked her caloric intake up to around 1,400 a day, has dropped another 20 lb. Best of all, she's her old self again. Eating right can do that, even if you don't follow Robert Cameron's advice and down a couple of martinis before every meal. Iffl