By Louise Kennedy
So far in Project Louise, we’ve been talking mostly about setting goals and developing new exercise habits. But of course there is that one word that always comes up in any discussion of health and fitness, a word that strikes fear into the heart, a word that evokes countless memories of hope and failure and shame, a word that so far I have avoided saying because I hate it at least as much as you do.
That word is “diet.”
But Dr. Thomas J. Moore says we shouldn’t be so scared of this word – and we should learn what it really means.
“What do people mean when they say ‘diet’?” Dr. Moore wrote to me, after I’d asked to interview him about an eating plan that he co-created and that consistently ranks No. 1 in a U.S. News survey of diet plans. (We’ll get to all that in a minute.)
“For some people, it always means weight loss,” he continued. “To others, including most nutrition folks, it means whatever people eat.” This matters, he said, because “if you only think diet means weight loss, you also think diet is temporary. When you have lost your weight, you stop your diet and then … what? You probably go back to what you were eating before and gain it all back.”
Don’t I know it. Just as one example, my current weight is a good 30 pounds above my starting weight when I did a Weight Watchers at Work program back in the early ’90s. I did lose the weight – got all the way down to 135 – but then slowly, inexorably gained it all back, and more, once I stopped going to meetings and writing down what I ate.
Of course we can say – and I did say, for years – that this is my fault for not sticking with the program. (And my fault for not having the “willpower” to stay on Atkins or South Beach or cabbage soup or juicing or any of the other fads that I – and possibly you – have picked up and put down.) But Dr. Moore gets me thinking: What if the problem wasn’t me and my willpower, but my not having found a program that I could stick to for life?
Because that, he says when we sit down in his Boston Medical Center office, is what “diet” should really mean. “A diet is whatever it is that you eat,” he says emphatically. And once you find a way of eating that is balanced and sustainable, “what you eat is what you eat for life.”
So, thanks to him, I am not “on a diet.” I am changing my diet. Say that to yourself: “I am changing my diet.” Doesn’t it feel different somehow? And doesn’t it seem like something that’s possible to do slowly, gradually, so that it’s not a crash program but a choice to live better for the rest of your days?
As it turns out, the only food-related commitment I made in December (“Eat more vegetables”) was not a bad place to begin. For the diet that Dr. Moore helped develop – along with four other researchers whose brief from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute was to study the connection between diet and blood pressure – features lots of vegetables, along with fruits, low-fat dairy products, whole grains, legumes, and lean animal protein. It’s also way lower in fat, added sugar and red meat than the typical American diet.
It’s called the DASH diet, and it’s also been called “the best diet you’ve never tried.” Perhaps because it was developed by scientists, it comes without a lot of hype. (The biggest marketing move they made was the name, which stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension.) What it has instead is plenty of scientific proof that it works.
And not just for lowering high blood pressure. That was the original intent; later studies have shown that it also lowers cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart attacks and strokes, and makes you less likely to develop diabetes and colon cancer. “It even makes people think better!” Dr. Moore says.
And, yes, you can use it to lose weight. Dr. Moore gives me a copy of his book, “The DASH DIET for Weight Loss,” which lays out the whole plan very clearly. You can find shorter explanations at the NHLBI site, including a useful, printable summary; the Mayo Clinic also has good information. Dr. Moore has also developed “DASH for Health,” an online program that offers tracking tools, meal plans and recipes; it costs $39 for three months if you sign up yourself, but you can also urge your employer to offer it as a perk. (Mine does, and regular readers will no doubt be simply shocked to learn that I signed up ages ago and never looked at it until last week. It’s worth the money, I suspect, but only if you’re really going to use it.)
In any case, the basis of all this is simple science. The DASH plan helps you calculate how many calories a day your body needs to sustain its current weight, then subtracts 500 calories from that, and tells you how many servings of each kind of food to eat for that level – in my case, about 1,600 calories a day. If you take in 500 fewer calories than you need each day, that’s 3,500 calories in a week. And, voila, that is one pound you’ve lost.
You can lose a little faster if you increase your activity level to burn more calories. (I can testify to that; I’m down six pounds, to 183, since Jan. 1, with nothing but more exercise and a marginally better diet to credit for it.) But Dr. Moore says that this slow, steady rate “is about all you can do in a sustainable way.”
He also says something that makes me really happy: Even before I reach my goal weight, I’ll be getting all the benefits of eating a better diet. “If you’re eating healthy foods, you’re getting the benefit of the healthy foods, whether you lose weight or not,” he says.
“You can lose weight on a diet that’s all Haagen-Dazs or a diet that’s all celery,” Dr. Moore says, but obviously neither of those is either sustainable or healthy. So changing my diet isn’t really about losing weight. What I need to do – and am committed to doing – is, as he says, to “learn to eat a healthy diet and make that your lifestyle.”
Readers, what do you think? Is there a small, sustainable change you can make this week, like eating more vegetables? And do you have any tips for creating and reinforcing new habits?