Diet: A four-letter word that can make you fat

Oct 2, 2015 | 2 comments

By Susan Burke March

As obesity takes its toll on health globally, researchers are working on defining how we eat today compared to the eating habits of our grandparents and great grandparents. Predictably, we know wechl susan logo2 are eating much more processed and refined foods than they did — they ate almost none — and that we’re suffering more from diseases related to what we eat, and how much we eat. And we are, after all, what we eat. A CNN report noted that obesity is a bigger health crisis globally than hunger, and the leading cause of weight-related disabilities, not just in the USA, but around the world.

According to the World Health Organization, worldwide obesity has doubled since 2008. Sixty-five percent of the world’s population lives in countries where obesity kills more people yearly than malnutrition, and 42 million children under age five were obese in 2013.

Obesity is the deadliest noncommunicable disease (although some experts point out that obesity is “catching” — and is becoming the “new normal” — which will be the subject of another column!).

Obesity is the leading cause of:

Cardiovascular diseases (mainly heart disease and stroke): the leading causes of death in 2012;

Type 2 diabetes: Health experts have coined the term “globesity” to describe the world-wide epidemic;

Chronic kidney disease: Type 2 diabetes is the most common cause of kidney failure;

Musculoskeletal disorders (especially osteoarthritis, a highly disabling degenerative disease of the joints);

Cancer: endometrial, breast, and colon, and associated with esophagus, pancreas, thyroid, and gallbladder

Diet CycleThe cost for healthy foods have increased while the cost of unhealthy food has decreased and with an increasingly poor population in countries like the U.S., where half the population is malnourished (even though they’re overweight), it is easy to see why we have a lot of fat unhealthy people.

We’re quaffing thousands of “empty” calories from soda, energy and sports drinks, but also from fruit juices — a source of very quick calories. Instead of unprocessed whole grains, whole fruits, and vegetables, people are chowing down on more meat, especially processed meats, fatty hamburger, and cheap, fried foods. Simple sugars—what can I say?  Some estimate that the average American consumes about 25% of their calories from added sugars.

And studies show that advertising plays a bigger role than we might think in how we think, and the choices we make. One study showed that kids who watched TV programs with food ads ate 45% more food than those with ads for non-food items

People are dining out more frequently and studies correlate restaurant food with larger portions, sodium, and fat. Just being told to “eat less” doesn’t make a dent in the growing rate of obesity — especially when we’re consistently served more.

Make Your Diet Work — Permanently

How often have you wondered which diet is best for you or what is the best diet to follow?

If you’re like most people, when asked if you want to lose weight, you’d probably say yes. How much? Most likely 10-20 pounds. When? As soon as possible.

But, in my weight counseling practice, I always ask clients if they want to lose that weight and regain it within a year. Of course not! So, why is it that 90 percent of people who lose weight put it, and sometimes even more, back on?Tired of dieting

Most likely it’s because they went “on” a diet, which I define as that four-letter-word that can keep you fat. “Diet” to many means “deprivation”. It’s time to change the paradigm. Instead of “going on a diet”, it’s time to “adopt a different diet”.

A “weight-loss diet” is by definition a structured program that instructs the “dieter” to eat certain foods in certain amounts.

Diets range from high-protein low-carb to low-fat high-carb and everything in between; there’s the Cave Man diet, the Drinking Man’s diet, the Bulletproof diet … but all “diets” are essentially a set of instructions that leave little room for flexibility or individuality. After all, it’s someone else telling you what to eat and when.

All diets work, if by “diet” you mean doing something different from your usual intake of food or output of exercise. Even a “chocolate diet” will work. If you restrict yourself to eating only chocolate, in just a day or so you’ll be so bored with chocolate that you’ll wind up following a low-calorie diet. Not a healthy or sustainable way to go.

By definition, following a set of instructions limits you to certain foods and portions. That’s great and it can be effective — until it’s not. Until you get bored. Until you say, shoot, I’m tired of this, I want a hamburger! Or …

sick dog

Let’s debunk the belief that a “diet” has to include deprivation. According to most dictionaries, the first definition of “diet” is a noun, as in what you usually eat and drink. If your usual diet is full of fatty, sugary, and processed foods, then there’s your first step: identifying the foods and dining habits you know are making you overweight and finding substitutes. Adopt a different way of thinking about food — make your diet one that is satisfying, tasty, but filled with foods that you can eat more of, so you can maintain a healthy weight.

For example, my own nemesis was the mega bran muffin. I was hooked on that muffin, rationalizing that since it contained bran, it was healthy. But gee, it had more calories than a piece of chocolate cake. It contained some bran, yes, but also white flour, lots of oil, honey, and no protein or calcium, or really, even though it had a “health halo” because of the word “bran”, there was just about no fiber to speak of.

I always say, “don’t eliminate — substitute”. I said “no mas” to that cake for breakfast, and stocked up on oatmeal. Other days, I had cold cereal made with little or no added sugar, some milk or yogurt and some naturally sweet “superfruit” like mango or papaya or other fruit. I saved hundreds of calories weekly and the pounds started to come off.

And once you’ve identified that first food or dish or habit that you admit is keeping you from reaching your weight goal, identify a substitute. And then go on from there. For example, if a big cheeseburger is part of your weekly schedule, consider switching to a grilled chicken sandwich instead and save hundreds of calories. If you typically add cream to your coffee, consider low-fat milk instead. Instead of cheese and crackers each evening, crunchy vegetables and salsa save hundreds of calories and grams of saturated fat, and adds up to pounds lost. It’s your own diet makeover, making your own choices, making your diet a healthy one, and never go on a diet again.

Top Five Substitutions

  1. Yogurt: An extremely healthy food — when it’s not loaded up with sugar. Yogurt is great source of protein, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium. Don’t be distracted by words like “organic” or “natural” — make sure there’s no sugar added and if you want it a little sweet, then add your own honey or stevia is you prefer — and you control the amount. If you want crunch, add some slivered almonds or chopped walnuts — boost the protein and healthy fat.
  2. Oatmeal: Oats are high in soluble fiber, and heart-healthy — researchers found that in addition to reducing cholesterol and blunting glycemic and insulin response, the beta glucans in oats boost defenses of the immune system against bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Ditch the pre-sweetened packets of instant oatmeal — they’re typically full of sugar, additives and preservatives.
  3. Granola: While we’re on the subject of cereal, granola may be labeled “natural” but it’s also a typically calorie-dense food, and can be full of oil and sugar. Sugar is sugar, and all of it, maple syrup, cane sugar, brown sugar, cane sugar, agave nectar, and honey, are recognized similarly by your body, and are all different ways to say more calories! Make your own: click here for a favorite recipe. It makes a good topping on a yogurt and fruit parfait (nonfat Greek yogurt and berries).
  4. “Energy” bars: Another name for “energy” is “calories,” and most bars are more akin to candy bars than nutritious snacks. The first ingredient is usually refined flour (not whole grain), then sugar, sugar, and more sugar, in a myriad of guises, including maple sugar, corn syrup, molasses, honey and more. For sustainable energy, grab a cup of plain yogurt and stir in a ¼ cup of your home made granola and ½ cup berries or cut-up fruit.
  5. Microwave popcorn: Popcorn is a great snack, but not when it’s loaded with hydrogenated fat (trans fat), artificial flavors and preservatives. Yuk! Make it better!  Here are some healthy recipes for your own popcorn. If you’ve got an air-popper, great.


When you’re thinking about achieving a healthy weight, don’t forget about your pets. Our pets unfortunately follow their owner’s clues and there’s an epidemic of pet obesity — and with similar health consequences. Veterinarians report an increase in pet obesity-related illnesses, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, hypertension, and certain cancers. Keep your pet’s weight within a healthy range. This could add more years to your pet’s life!


Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at


Susan Burke March

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