No hocus-pocus here, no quick weight-loss promises from wellness guru Andrew Weil, MD. Weil sums up his philosophy in four words: "Eat less, exercise more." Weil urges readers of his several best-sellers, including the latest, Eating Well for Optimum Health, and his popular Web site (www.drweil.com) to look upon eating with a sensibility that is more Eastern than Western.
Naturally he points out that what we eat does influence our health in a big way. But he adds this caveat: Diet is only one aspect of our lifestyle, and lifestyle is only one variable in the mix of factors that determines whether we are blessed with well-being or whether we feel out of sorts.
That said, Weil claims that diet can positively impact numerous health concerns, from allergies to body odor, from ear infections to irritable bowel syndrome, from arthritis to sinusitis, as well as make it easy to control our weight. He urges readers not to seek solutions promising quick weight loss (since it will almost certainly come back) but to set realistic goals: say, losing one to two pounds a week, max -- the amount that nutritionists and most medically sponsored weight-loss programs counsel as safe, sane, and reasonable.
The science is straightforward. Weight-loss success can be accomplished, according to Weil, by properly balancing the amount and type of food we eat. The trick then is determining the kinds of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins -- the building blocks of food -- to put on our plate.
Weil's approach is somewhat similar to the recently touted Mediterranean Diet, a composite of the cuisines of Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, and parts of the Middle East. That diet does include red meat, but you can be sure that Weil isn't a fan of meat. His inclination can be sensed in how he lists red meat in the index: flesh foods.
Qualifiers aside, Weil's diet plan breaks down the three food groups this way:
- Carbohydrates. They should account for 50-60% of your calories, and as much of these as possible from unrefined grains and vegetables (higher in complex carbohydrates). These release glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream more slowly, and therefore won't as readily cause rapid spikes after meals. Good carbs include apples, baked beans, oatmeal, and stone-ground whole-wheat bread, among others. Interestingly, while low-carb diet books insist that white rice is banned, Weil contends that basmati and brown rice are acceptable because, once again, they release glucose at a reasonable rate when eaten with other foods.
- Fats. Up to 30% of calories can come from fats, as long as most of that amount is from monounsaturated oils such as olive oil and foods high in what are known as omega-3 fatty acids: oily fishes (salmon, sardines, mackerel), flax seeds, and walnuts.
- Protein. This should be limited to 10-20% of your diet, and vegetable proteins (from beans and soybeans, for example) should be substituted for animal ones as often as possible.
Weil also recommends that we eat 40 grams of fiber a day, which isn't hard to achieve if you eat fruits (especially berries), vegetables (especially beans), and whole grains in the percentages above. He tells us to avoid milk and consume limited amounts of cheese and other dairy products. That is because a great many of us -- particularly those of Asian and African-American descent -- have some degree of difficulty digesting these (usually from lactose intolerance), and others may be allergic to milk protein.
Weil argues that even without dairy products, we can keep up with our calcium needs with this diet. Ingesting too much protein leeches calcium out of the body, says Weil, so if less protein is consumed then less calcium is required. Non-dairy sources include sardines (which are usually canned without removing the bones), leafy greens, broccoli, and various sea vegetables, such as nori, dulse, and kombu. In addition, tofu, sesame seeds, calcium-fortified orange juice, and fortified soy milk can be good calcium sources.
Weil keeps it simple. You won't get a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo from his book. Instead, he presents a basic primer in human nutrition and describes how the body gets energy from food.
First off, carbohydrates, or starchy vegetables and grains, are converted to glucose and mainly used for energy. The brain particularly likes its energy from carbohydrates. But too many carbs do not make us brainy -- they make us overweight. Too few send us into ketosis, in which the body retrieves energy from fat stores. However (and here's where Weil is critical of the high-protein diets that send us into this altered state), ketosis may be detrimental to our health over the long term, principally because of a rise in cholesterol levels and calcium depletion, according to Weil. The best carbohydrates are unrefined grains and vegetables -- ones that release glucose slowly. Medically speaking, these are said to have a low glycemic index.
Second, fats and oils are more concentrated sources of energy than carbohydrates, but these need to be chemically converted into glucose to be used by the body. Although fat has a bad name in today's collective health consciousness, some fat is essential. Critically speaking, though, we need the right balance. Too much fat ... well, makes us fat, as well as sets up shop for heart disease and cancer. Not enough fat, however, and we may run into problems, such as skin inflammation, hair loss, and susceptibility to infection.
Finally, we require proteins to build, maintain, and repair the body, but they too can be converted to glucose (and therefore serve as an energy source) when needed. They are composed of 20 amino acids, 10 of which must be supplied by foods on a regular basis. Ingesting too much protein increases the workload of the digestive system and may strain the liver and kidneys. Too little will cause malnutrition, increased susceptibility to infection, and possibly early death, Weil says.
Weil cites exercise as a critical component of his program, but has little to say about the subject other than that regular exercise increases caloric output and in time can change the basic weight-loss equation in your favor -- and help you keep off the pounds over the long term.
Nutrition experts support Weil's diet as a common-sense approach that is based on well-accepted nutritional principles. His plan is a healthy one, the experts agree, because in general people who eat similar diets tend to be healthier than those who don't. "There is a vast amount of scientific evidence that shows that vegetarian diets with small amounts of animal products are the healthiest diets for lowering mortality from heart disease and cancer, and indeed, all causes," comments Michael Janson, MD, past president of the American Preventive Medical Association and the author of Dr. Janson's New Vitamin Revolution.
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) also gives Weil's diet a nod of approval. Spokeswoman for the ADA and an associate professor of nutrition at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, says she likes the overall approach he takes, blending traditional medical theory and therapies with alternative medicine. "He puts a lot of emphasis on patients' responsibility for their own health," she says, "and that is always good because you can't have somebody standing over you all the time telling you what to eat, what to do."
Among the array of popular diet writers, Weil recommends a particularly holistic approach. This means that dieters must not only watch what they eat, but also consider the level of stress in their lives, the amount of exercise they do, and other factors. It is a good, practical plan for those willing to follow the guidelines. For those seeking a list of rigid do's and don'ts or easy-to-follow formulas, this plan may prove challenging. In addition, those who are used to diets high in dairy and red meat may find this diet unsatisfying.
Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD February 2004.
SOURCES: Weil, A. Eating Well for Optimum Health, 2001, Perennial Currents. Drweil.com web site. American Dietetic Association. Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, associate professor of nutrition, Georgia State University, Atlanta. Michael Janson, MD, past president, the American Preventive Medical Association.
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