The best-selling book by Howard Shapiro, D.O., Picture Perfect Weight Loss (Rodale, 2000) uses pages of mouthwatering photos to show how you can shed weight by feasting on low-calorie foods. And at first glance, it makes "perfect" sense: Why nibble on tiny amounts of rich food when you can fill up on large portions of leaner fare?
What's wrong with this "picture" is that it emphasizes calories to the point that other crucial factors recede into the background.
You also need to consider nutrition, taste and satiety, says Barbara Rolls, R.D., Ph.D., a nutrition/obesity researcher at Pennsylvania State University in University Park and author of Volumetrics (HarperCollins, 2000). "When it comes to long-term weight loss and good health in general, women must think in much broader terms than just how much food is on their plates," she says.
With help from Rolls and other experts, we've identified the five essential elements every successful weight-loss plan must have, plus the four most common diet traps and how to avoid them. We also offer a "before" and "after" meal plan to show you how easy it is to turn a nutritional dud into a winner.
1. Consider nutrition first. Eat plenty of foods full of the six nutrients most often lacking in women's diets. The quality and length of our lives depend on our health; our bodies thrive only when nourished with optimal amounts of the more than 40 nutrients and 12,000 phytochemicals found in minimally processed foods. And, these also aid in weight loss. "If you focus more on your health and less on your waistline, you will automatically eat more low-calorie, nutrient-packed foods, like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nonfat dairy products and legumes, that help you maintain your weight," says John Foreyt, Ph.D., an obesity expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
2. Consume enough (but not too many) calories. To lose weight without starving, or compromising her health and metabolism, the average woman needs to consume 1,800 calories per day. Eating less, especially if you're exercising, could slow your metabolism and sabotage your efforts to build muscle, which is needed to burn maximum calories and be toned. To make calories count, choose nutrient-rich foods with a mix of protein, carbs and fats at every meal.
3. Choose foods with staying power. Fill up on wholesome, fiber-rich, water-filled foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans, which fill you up faster for longer on fewer calories, says Adam Drewnowski, Ph.D., a professor in the departments of epidemiology and medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. And how you eat is as important as what you eat. A growing body of research shows that the best way to keep your metabolism revved and body-fat levels low is to feed yourself in small amounts. Eat airline-size (rather than restaurant-size) portions of meat, fish, pasta, grains and desserts. And eat every three to four hours, for a total of five mini-meals per day.
4. Enjoy food. You're much more likely to stick with a diet if your food looks, tastes and smells delicious. "Feeling deprived will ricochet you back to the eating habits that caused the weight gain in the first place," says obesity expert Barbara Rolls. Make a plan you can live with by livening up food with herbs and spices like basil, cilantro, curry and ginger; aromatic veggies like garlic and onions; and condiments like mustard, hot pepper sauce or salsa. Experiment with new foods: Tantalize your taste buds with two new fruits or vegetables at each meal. Try different cold/hot cereals and breads. Don't declare high-fat favorites "off limits"; savor them in small amounts.
5. Strive for balance. For energy, satisfaction, staying power and good health, aim to eat a healthy balance of protein (15-20 percent of your total daily calories), fat (less than 30 percent of your total daily calories) and carbohydrate (50-55 percent of your total daily calories) each day. Rule of thumb: Fill three-quarters of your plate with plant foods, leaving the rest for small amounts of fish, nonfat milk products and nuts or seeds.
Before & after diets
Why eat a low-calorie dish packed with fat and short on nutrients (see Before Diet) when, for a few hundred calories more (see After Diet), you can enjoy a nutritious, tasty meal that covers all your nutritional bases and keeps your metabolism up?
Before: One day
1/2 bagel with a bit of cream cheese and an 8-ounce carton of orange juice
Granola bar and diet soda
1/2 tuna salad sandwich on a hard roll, potato chips, a pickle, a salad with Italian dressing and diet iced tea
Fajitas (grilled chicken, onions and peppers on flour tortillas), refried beans and fat-free frozen yogurt
Nutrition Score for the day: 1,638 calories, 33% fat (60 g; 11 g saturated), 18% protein, 49% carbs, 14 g fiber.
What's wrong here? This diet falls short in all Big Six nutrients: iron, calcium, folic acid, fiber, vitamin B6 and zinc, supplying less than 50 percent of the daily requirements for calcium and zinc.
After: One day
* 1 cup oatmeal topped with 2 tablespoons chopped walnuts
* 1 cup nonfat milk
* 1 cup papaya chunks
1 slice whole-grain toast spread with 1 tablespoon apple butter
1 cup plain nonfat yogurt with 1/2 cup berries and
* 1/4 cup wheat germ
Large bowl (1 1/2 cups) vegetable soup
1 medium whole-wheat pita stuffed with 3 ounces canned salmon, 1 tablespoon each pesto and roasted red peppers
1 cup fresh fruit salad topped with chopped mint
4 graham-cracker squares spread with 1 tablespoon peanut butter
Latte made with nonfat milk
Black-bean burrito: A tortilla filled with 1/2 cup mashed or fat-free "refried" black beans, salsa, 2 tablespoons grated reduced-fat cheese, chopped tomato
Spinach salad topped with cucumber slices, shredded carrots, balsamic vinegar, 1 teaspoon highly flavored olive oil
Baked apple stuffed with 1 teaspoon dried cranberries, 2 teaspoons sunflower seeds, cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon brown sugar
Nutrition Score for the day: 1,966 calories, 27% fat (59 g; 11 g saturated), 20% protein, 53% carbs, 42 g fiber.
What's right here? In contrast to the Before Diet, this diet supplies close to or more than 100 percent of all the Big Six nutrients and is particularly rich in calcium and fiber.
*Stars indicate foods packed with the Big Six nutrients most likely to be low in women's diets: iron, calcium, folic acid, fiber, vitamin B6 and zinc.
4 dangerous diet traps
Losing weight safely requires healthy eating habits. To avoid sabotaging your metabolism and/or developing nutritional deficiencies, steer clear of these four common shortcuts.
1. Focusing only on calories. Don't base your weight-loss program primarily on how many calories you consume, with the goal being the lower, the better. Studies show that you can't meet all your nutritional needs on less than 1,800 calories a day. Research also indicates that eating too few calories causes your metabolism to slow down, so you need less food to maintain your weight. The end result: You're eating less, and your love handles aren't budging.
2. Filling up on nutritional zeros. Just because it says "nonfat" or "sugar-free" doesn't mean it's good for your waistline. Popular diet foods such as rice cakes, fat-free cookies and noncaloric beverages do little to satisfy you or provide energy for your workouts. What's more, fat-free goodies are often filled with sugar, so their caloric content can be just as high, if not higher, than that of their full-fat counterparts. Example: Three traditional chocolate chip cookies have 11 grams of sugar and 140 calories, while three reduced-fat cookies contain 12 grams of sugar and 120 calories. Not much of a savings for your waistline! Worse, you may be tempted to eat more because you think that you're eating less.
3. Increasing fiber too quickly. If you're anxious to lose weight but unaccustomed to eating lots of fiber-rich foods, you'll want to gradually increase your intake of fruits, veggies and whole grains. If you don't, you could suffer bloating, indigestion or even diarrhea, which can deplete your body of water and essential nutrients. Start slowly, adding a serving or two of beans, high-fiber cereal, fresh fruit and vegetables each week until you reach six to 11 servings of whole grains and eight to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily.
4. Choosing a plan you can't live with. A healthy diet is like sunscreen. You have to apply it every day if you want the benefits to continue. If a diet is drastic (only one food or cutting out entire food groups), complicated (requiring lots of tricky food combining) or doesn't have staying power (you're hungry all the time) it won't be good for you -- and you won't be able to stick with it anyway.
10 "big six" superfoods
Here are 10 foods that pack in the Big Six nutrients -- iron (I), calcium (C), folic acid (FA), fiber (F), vitamin B6 and zinc (Z). Work them into your diet regularly:
1. 3 ounces extra-lean ground beef (I, Z, B6)
2. 1 cup cooked black beans (I, C, FA, F, Z)
3. 3 ounces canned salmon (I, C, B6, Z plus tons of omega-3 acids)
4. 2 cups raw spinach (I, C, FA, F, B6)
5. 1 papaya (Z, C, F)
6. 1 sweet potato (I, C, F, B6)
7. 1 cup nonfat milk (C, Z)
8. 1 cup cooked oatmeal (I, F, Z)
9. 1 cup cooked quinoa (I, C, Z)
10. 1/4 cup toasted wheat germ (I, C, F, B6, Z)