August 23, 2007

Diets, Deconstructed: The Boys' Club

This marks the first installment of "Diets, Deconstructed", where NYU clinical nutrition professor Lisa Sasson gives Small Bites the lowdown on today's best-selling diets.

Today, representing the gentlemen, we have The Abs Diet, created and co-written by David Zinczenko, editor of Men's Health magazine.

The premise of the Abs Diet is rather simple. Eat mostly foods from the following groups:

Almonds and other nuts
Beans and other legumes
Spinach and other green vegetables

Dairy (fat-free/low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese)
Instant Oatmeal (unsweetened, unflavored)
Turkey and other lean meats

Peanut butter
Olive oil
Whole grains
Extra whey protein powder
Raspberries and other berries

The book also asks readers to incorporate weight-lifting routines to their day with a special focus on exercises targeting the abdominal muscles.

Here is Professor Sasson's take on this best-selling diet:

What I liked:

"I think the focus on exercise and fitness is really good, because a lot of diet books sometimes forget to stress the importance of adding physical activity to a healthy way of eating. This diet is also not unnecessarily restrictive. At no point are you told to completely cut out an entire food group."

What I'm not so sure of:

"I do feel, though, that dedicating so much of the book to abs exercises is just part of the "abs" gimmick. I would have liked to see some more emphasis on aerobic activity. Someone who hasn't done a sit-up in ten years can easily get discouraged by all this heavy fitness talk. Also, there's too much emphasis on the glycemic index. A healthy meal does not lose this property if it's accompanied by white rice instead of brown rice."

What I don't like:

"This book suggests men need to have whey protein shakes every day, which is ridiculous since the average American gets more than enough protein. I don't like the focus on one nutrient -- protein -- as if it is the magic answer to weight loss. Also, some of the studies the book cites are just preliminary research, but they are presented as tried and true facts. I especially took issue with one passage that makes a link between carbohydrate intake and the development of diabetes!"

My take? I think the Abs Diet has a solid idea behind it. I like the "groups" of food it recommends people make staples of their diet, and am glad they explain why low-calories, low-carb and low-fat diets are not effective for weight loss.

Also, as Professor Sasson says, this is not a restricted diet. Eating dessert once in a while is fine, and enjoying the occassional junk food is not seen as weakness or a breaking of the rules.

I also appreciated the miscellaneous tips sprinkled throughout (ie: "Five Ways to Add More Fiber To Your Diet").

I have a few issues with it, though:

1) It makes no mention of portions or amount of food eaten. Yes, almonds and olive oil are healthy. But, adding four tablespoons of olive oil to your salad add up to 480 extra calories, and two ounces of almonds contribute 330 calories to your day. Unless you are working out heavily, these extra calories will contribute to weight gain.

2) I absolutely agree with Professor Sasson that the emphasis on extra protein powder is overkill. As I explained in the sixth installment of the Small Bites newsletter, bulking up and adding mass to your frame is about eating more calories, not protein.

3) Branding calcium a "fat fighter" is a bit of a stretch.

4) The chapter titled "A Six-pack in Six Weeks" is too optimistic. I have a feeling most of the people who follow this diet might certainly shed pounds and eat in a more healthful way, but will not be displaying a six-pack in a month and a half. The fitness model shown on the very last page is obviously a man who has devoted much of his life to looking as buff and cut as he does, not a regular person who did the Abs diet for two weeks.

I would certainly not refer to the Abs Diet as a ridiculous or unhealthy one. I think its intentions are good and, for the most part, it dispenses practical and healthy advice. However, in order for it to make the grade, it needs to rely less on preliminary research (as Professor Sasson noted) and protein as the key to weight loss.

In my grade book, The Abs Diet receives a solid B.

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