MACLEAN’S | Your Health

The Contenders

L.B. January 17 2005
MACLEAN’S | Your Health

The Contenders

L.B. January 17 2005



WHAT IT IS: Think Atkins, but less strict. Like traditional low-carb diets, these plans focus on trimming your carbohydrate intake in order to curb the secretion of insulin-which promotes fat storage-and spur the use of fat for energy. The difference is, the new versions are more lenient about eating carbs— the complex type in whole grains and broccoli are welcome, in moderation-and more selective about the protein and fats they encourage. Vancouver dietician Jacqueline Ehlert attributes the softened approach to studies linking diets high in saturated fats with cardiovascular disease, as well as to the simple fact that people miss their carbs. 

SAMPLE DIETS: Protein Power; Beyond Atkins. WHO SHOULD TRY: Those at risk of developing diabetes; those defeated by how-low-carb-can-you-go regimens-if you can’t say no to spaghetti alle vongole but can forgo processed foods, give these a go.

WHO SHOULD PASS: People suffering from depression or mood swings (studies suggest carb deprivation exacerbates serotonin deficiency); endurance athletes (carbs are vital to reviving tired muscles); on a budget (the best protein usually isn’t cheap).

FYI: The Epilepsy Foundation says one such plan, the ketogenic diet, reduces seizures in children.



WHAT IT IS: The glycemic index measures the effect of foods on blood sugar levels. The goal is to maintain those levels at a healthy constant by focusing on such low-GI fare as cherries, grapefruits and legumes. These low-fat/high-fibre plans allow for carbs at every meal, promoting a lasting full feeling (and preventing the “Atkins moods” associated with carb deprivation). However, they stress that high-GI carbs, such as pancakes and potatoes, be eaten in moderation. Toronto dietician Matthew Kadey urges Gl dieters to pay more attention to total sugar intake than individual food ratings. “How many people get fat off watermelon?” he asks. 

SAMPLE DIETS: The New Glucose Revolution; The Glycemic Index (G.l.) Diet.

WHO SHOULD TRY: Diabetics; obese kids (the plans shun junk foods).

WHO SHOULD PASS: Those who hate a bloated feeling; lovers of nuts, bananas or carrots. 

FYI: Half of visible aging is due to sugar, which breaks down collagen.



WHAT IT IS: The Mediterranean diet is rich in nuts, vegetables, plant oils, fish and beans--all available locally. The modified plans adapt it to North American realities-subbing in local ingredients and incorporating the low-carb approach of shunning processed foods. A balanced approach to eating that promotes complex carbs-whole grains, veg and whole fruit-the diets stress the difference between good fats (in lean protein like fish or walnuts) and bad (saturated fats in junk food). Recently, some diet gurus have said the plans lower stress levels by trimming production of the hormone cortisol. Kadey points out, however, that Mediterranean people’s health has as much to do with a low-stress lifestyle as diet. 

SAMPLE DIETS: The Hamptons Diet; The Mediterranean Diet (revised edition).

WHO SHOULD TRY: People battling stress and chronic illness-some of the foods have been said to reduce inflammation, plus good fats are extolled for reducing blood pressure and bad cholesterol.

WHO SHOULD PASS: Those seeking detailed meal plans; those who need to lose substantial weight-this is a lifestyle approach to eating, says Ehlert, not a quick solution to excess girth.

FYI: Most olive oil available in North America is less nutritious (mainly because it’s not as fresh) than the European varieties. Try macadamia nut oil instead.



WHAT IT IS: The emphasis is on portion control and moderate exercise. Sound common sense? It is, but these plans incorporate gimmicks to keep dieters engaged (and buying the books). Instead of pushing calorie counting, they rely on counting bites or steps, for example. What you actually eat is generally up to you. Kadey praises the approach for boosting people’s awareness of their activity levels and food intake, noting that dieters who measure steps end up taking more of them.

 SAMPLE DIETS: Diet Directives, a.k.a. the Bite Diet (allows two 18 to 22-bite meals and two 12 to 16-bite meals); No White at Night: The Three-Rule Diet (rule 1: eat three meals a day; rule 2: include lean protein in each meal; rule 3: don’t eat starchy carbs or desserts at night); The Step Diet (the book comes with a pedometer to help you “count steps, not calories”). 

WHO SHOULD TRY: Those who hate elaborate dietary restrictions.

WHO SHOULD PASS: The nutrition-conscious (there’s little about that here); those with obsessive tendencies (bite counting may lead them to compulsively keep lowering the bar); those already active, who won’t see much benefit from the Step Diet.

FYI: It’s recommended that the average person should take 10,000 steps a day. North Americans, however, average about 5,000.



WHAT IT IS: These diets are what’s on your plate but your overall well-being, assisted by herbal aids that deliver vital nutrients and help your body burn fat. The plans tend to rely heavily on over-the-counter supplements such as bitter orange (an appetite suppressant), CoQ10 (energy booster that’s good for the heart), dandelion root (improves digestion) and green tea extract (regulates blood sugar levels and spurs metabolism). This is a pharmaceutical approach to nutrition: you buy it in bottles rather than the produce section. Kadey, though a proponent of supplements, warns that the effectiveness of many has not been proven.

SAMPLE DIETS The New Nutrition: From Antioxidants to Zucchini; The Ultimate Weight Solution.

WHO SHOULD TRY: Harried urbanites not getting the necessary nutrition from meals. 

WHO SHOULD PASS: The financially challenged (a bottle of 100 CoQlO pills will set you back $40). Consult a doctor or dietician before trying supplement-driven plans, particularly if you suffer from diabetes, kidney disease or cardiac conditions, or are on prescription medication, as the pills and potions can exacerbate health problems and drugs’ side effects.

FYI: Studies show omega-3 supplements, combined with sleep, can help melt away abdominal fat that bedevils otherwise thin people.

LEARN MORE the Dietitians of Canada site has a searchable database of specialists around the country. ■ the weight loss section offers male dieters specialized diets, an expert to answer questions and forums for commiseration. ■ clearinghouse of diet info, with both general tips and 600 links to other sites and articles. ■ “Systematic review: an evaluation of major commercial weight loss programs in the United States”: This new study in Annals of Internal Medicine examined such plans as Jenny Craig and Optifast, and found little support for their weight-loss claims.


Every year brings a wave of nutrients and compounds touted as having special health benefits. Expect to see these promoted on product labels and in advertisements. APPLE CIDER VINEGAR: It contains pectin, said to reduce cholesterol, and may serve as a fat-burning trigger (ancient Egyptians used it to keep trim). Fans claim it provides relief for maladies ranging from arthritis pain to sore throats. Down one to three teaspoons before meals to put your metabolism into overdrive. It’s also available as a supplement.

COLLOIDAL SILICA: Marketers of Fiji Natural Artesian Water claim it’s high in this element, an antioxidant that bolsters tissue repair and the maintenance of healthy nails and shiny locks. Look for similar boasts from other peddlers of specialty water. 

GRAPEFRUIT AROM Advocates contend that exposure to the smell of grapefruit several times a day can lead to weight loss-possibly because of its effect on appetite and metabolism-which could explain the popularity of citrus perfumes such as The Gap’s So Pink.

LYCOPENE: Tomatoes, when cooked, can boost resistance to prostate and other cancers, thanks to this substance. Lycopene may also help combat cardiovascular disease. It’s found in smaller amounts in watermelon, guava and pink grapefruit.

NUT BUTTER: Walnut, almond, cashew, macadamia or hazelnut spreads are gaining vogue as fighters of heart disease, thanks in part to the much-touted health benefits of the Mediterranean diet. The nuts contain heart-friendly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, and are also sources of protein, fibre and folic acid. 

DARK CHOCOLATE: Already heralded for reducing blood pressure and promoting cardiovascular health, the dark variety is also said to help fight off cancer. L.B.



WHAT IT IS: The idea is that certain foods, long known to be good for you, have special health-boosting properties. Blueberries are said to improve brain function and motor movement while walnuts are extolled for their anti-inflammatory properties and ability to improve cardiovascular health. Wild salmon helps prevent visible signs of aging (due to omega-3 fatty acids that improve skin’s firmness and elasticity). According to some studies, dairy products boost your metabolism (one calcium-centric plan promises a 70 per cent greater weight loss than through caloric restriction). While there are dangers to overindulging in specific foods and missing nutrients found elsewhere, Kadey is all for the whole foods craze, calling it the “biggest trend coming up” that’s helping to drive the organic craze. 

SAMPLE DIETS: SuperFoods Rx: 14 Foods that Will Change Your Life; Healing with Whole Foods; The Calcium Key.

WHO SHOULD TRY: Those who know (and can abide by) the rules of well-balanced nutrition without a structured diet plan (SuperFoods Rx does offer a lifestyle pyramid that serves as a portion guide).

WHO SHOULD PASS: Those with dietary sensitivities, such as seafood allergies; those with a weakness for the chosen food--Baked French Toast with Maple Yogurt and Fruit may offer 286 mg of calcium but is unlikely to promote weight loss.

FYI: Purple foods (blueberries, grapes, eggplant) could help stave off Alzheimer’s.


Why once sinful foods are now virtuous

Mother was wrong: play with your food.

It’s time we stopped this paranoia that food groups are conspiring against us, fattening us for the kill. It’s a privilege of living in an affluent age that we can pick fights with certain foods—banishing them from our homes on orders of one diet guru, only to invite them back when another restores them to fashion. Must food be about suffering and sacrifice? Scour your insides with bushels of oat bran, if you wish. Clutch that water bottle like a pacifier, if you must. You’ll still be better off ordering from the full menu of life—in moderation. Excess is the killer. Even chugging water, researchers warn, may overwork your kidneys. Grab life by the yams (sensibly substituting olive oil for butter), heave open the doors and invite these dear, once-discredited food trends back from exile. 

EGGS: No need for most healthy folks to be chicken about eggs. Seems much of the stuff clogging your bloodstream comes from dietary fat, not the dietary cholesterol in eggs. Why ignore a fine source of muscle-building protein and fat-burning vitamin B12? Lose the yolk if you’re still squeamish. 

NUTS: Another reformed bad egg. Nuts are full of protein, fibre, good monounsaturated fats and, in almonds, lashings of vitamin E. Ditch the salt and they’re a perfect snack if eaten in small quantities. Snack? Yup, snacking is now considered a good thing.

OLIVE OIL: Adds flavour, burns fat, and the U.S. government says it “may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” Canola is great, too.

ALCOHOL: Wine, especially red, gets the glory, but a flagonful of studies show a modest intake of any alcohol, especially if imbibed while eating, makes for a happy heart. Red wine, the International Journal of Cancer reports, may also reduce the incidence of prostate cancer. Other products—ground flax seeds, for instance—have similar benefits, yet they don’t draw the same attention. Funny, that.

FARMED AND WILD: True, a study found increased contaminants in farmed salmon, but unless you’re eating it by the tonne, don’t let the farmed-versus-fresh debate hide the fact that Health Canada endorses both as great protein sources, drenched in omega-3 fats. Studies show they rev your metabolism and help your heart. Try other oily fish, too, like tuna, herring or sardines. Just don’t lard on the calories by breading and deep-frying.

EAT EARLY, EAT OFTEN: Don’t skip breakfast: you’re 4 1/2 times more likely to be obese if you do, say researchers from the University of Massachusetts. Better yet, eat four or more meals a day; you’re 45 per cent less likely to be plump than if you eat two or three. You’re prone to eat less if you nosh in installments. You’ll also stabilize insulin levels, ending those weight-gaining blood sugar spikes produced by fast and feast.*