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FOOD, NUTRITION, AND YOUR HEALTH Diet: It’s the four-letter-word that can keep you fat

Editor’s note: Dissatisfied with her first profession, Susan Burke March returned to college in her late 30s to earn a second bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in Nutrition and Exercise Sciences. Although she has received a great deal of recognition for her writing and research over the years, she says that her greatest achievements are helping people improve their health through lifestyle changes. She are her husband Ken visited Cuenca twice, in 2012 and 2013, before becoming permanent residents last year.

By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE

As obesity takes its toll on health globally, researchers are working on defining how different types of foods than our great-grandparents and even grandparents ate are contributing to the epidemic. As societies around the world replace processed and refined foods for the whole foods of generations past, the predictable results are overweight populations.

Susan Burke March
Susan Burke March

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 Diet2012;
  • 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

We’re quaffing thousands of “empty” calories from soda, sports drinks, and fruit juices. We’re eating fewer unprocessed whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, less fish, and more meat, especially processed meats, fatty hamburger, and fried foods.

Even if you’ve made your New Year’s resolution to eat better, it can be awfully difficult to stick to your plan. Food manufacturers spend billions in advertising to tempt us to eat fast and large, salty and sweet. People are dining out more frequently and studies correlate restaurant food with larger portions, sodium, and fat. “Living large” used to mean living richly and well. Today, it means being overweight.

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. In my weight counseling practice, I always ask my 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?

Most likely it’s because they went “on” a diet, which I define as that four-letter-word that can keep you fat.


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

A “weight-loss diet” is by definition a structured program that instructs the “dieter” to eat certain foods in certain amounts. I just typed “weight-loss diet” into my search engine and got 154 million hits! 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.

So, 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 …

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 a substitute instead.

For example, my own nemesis was a bran muffin. Each day I ate a big bran muffin for breakfast, 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 canola oil, honey, and no protein, calcium, or really, any fiber to speak of. Just by substituting oatmeal or unsugared high-fiber cold cereal, nonfat milk, or yogurt and mango or other fruit, I saved hundreds of calories weekly and the pounds started to come off.

And once you’ve identified the first food or dish or habit that you know (and of course, you do know, just as I did) is keeping you from reaching your weight goal, identify that substitute. 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.

Finally, weight is just a number on the scale, and doesn’t necessarily reflect your health status. You may be very muscular, and your weight may be irrelevant. Think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose his Body Mass Index (BMI) would probably be in the “overweight” or even “obese” range. Yet he’s so muscular that that number, which represents his weight relative to his height, doesn’t reflect his body fat, just his muscle mass. If your other numbers are healthy – your blood pressure is normal and your blood lipids (cholesterol, LDL, and HDL) and blood sugar are within a normal range – your weight is less relevant. But if they’re not, then you have the power to choose to live differently. In my next article I’ll talk about the numbers that count for your health.


When you’re thinking about achieving a healthy weight, think about your pets. Our pets unfortunately follow the trend toward overweight – 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 two more years to your pet’s life!

Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management, and a Cuenca expat. Contact her at: