Experts weigh in on a controversial new plan that says the key to weight loss may be counting bites not calories.
By Colette Bouchez
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Forget counting calories. Don't bother calculating fat or carbohydrate grams, either. If you want to lose weight, just count the number of times your fork goes to your mouth -- and keep that count under 70 a day to lose big.
That's part of the theory behind a somewhat controversial new weight loss plan known as the "bite" diet. It's the brainchild of Miami nutritionist Meredith Luce, MS, RD, LD/N, and New York Pilates instructor Joan Breibart.
"After a very long time of blaming themselves for fat thighs and diets that fail I think people finally began to realize that the information they were being given about weight loss was by and large wrong," says Breibart. Today, she says, they have discovered the "bite" diet because it's nutritionally sound, and she says, it really works.
At first glance the eating plan appears simple: You can chow down on a variety of foods, spread out in three regular meals -- and one smaller meal -- a day, with no more than 18 bites per meal. And a bite, says Breibart is what fits comfortably on a normal-sized fork.
"You don't stuff your cheeks like a chip monk or use a serving fork as your eating utensil," she says.
But, if you're thinking 16 bites of Boston cream pie for lunch and 18 bites of lasagna for dinner, well think again. The diet requires that you eat very specific foods -- in very specific amounts -- every day. And oh yeah, not a pie, cake, or cookie in sight!
"This is a completely balanced diet, maybe not at every meal but within any given day -- and we believe that this balance is intrinsic to weight loss," says Breibart.
And, in fact, upon closer inspection the "bite" diet is a very strict 1,000- to -1,100-calorie-a-day eating plan, with very strict portion sizes.
"What it comes down to is, this is a low-calorie diet -- it's just another gimmick for getting people to decrease their portion sizes and decrease their caloric intake," says Lona Sandon, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and a professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
While the concept of eating less is a good one, she says the confines of the "bite" diet make it too hard to follow. "I think it's going to be of very limited value in terms of how many people it's going to help," she adds.
Others agree that it's not as easy as it sounds.
"Portion control and balanced meals are important, but each individual must understand how they react to food and how food interacts with their unique genetic makeup and you really need a dietician's personal advice to do that," says Noralyn Wilson, RD, national media spokeswoman for the ADA from Columbia, Md.
Dieting: More Than Counting Calories
While counting calories is important, Breibart believes the real key to weight loss lies in retraining the stomach to be satisfied with less food -- and, she says, part of the success of the "bite" diet is that it teaches us how to do just that.
"What we are doing with this plan is getting the hand and the body and the mouth and the brain to respond to very specific and smaller quantities [of food]," Breibart tells WebMD.
To show just how different the "bite" weight loss philosophy is, Breibart compares a typical nutritious diet snack -- a bowl of grapes -- to a traditional diet "no-no" -- a bowl of 12 M&M candies, both equal in calories. In the traditional diet, says Breibart, we have been conditioned to choose the grapes instead of the candy, to emphasize getting more volume for our calorie load.
The "bite" diet takes the opposite approach.
"You eat the candy and forget the grapes," advises Breibart. While the diet doesn't advocate eating candy, she uses it as an example, she says, because, it represents the choice of small over large, which she says, in the long run, is what retrains your stomach to be satisfied with less food.
To help convert our eating habits, the initial phase of the diet is 21 days -- the time that research shows it usually takes to change a behavior pattern.
To further help in this direction, the diet reinforces the theory of "sameness" -- all meals are roughly the same size, with the same amount of bites, to be eaten at the same time every day. And it's a principle that Breibart says also helps us lose weight.
"The body needs regulation and sameness to function properly," she says. The only deviation allowed: three bites of dessert, three times a week.
The "bite" diet also stresses chewing your food vigorously (to encourage better digestion), eating slowly, (to give the mind a chance to catch up with the body in terms of "fullness" signals), and avoiding all between-meal snacks. And all of this, say experts, is sound advice.
In addition, Breibart recommends starting each meal with a sweet drink to quickly raise blood sugar and take the edge off hunger -- and Sandon says even that can work, to a point.
"You still have to remember that calories still do count so the more calories in your sweet beverage, the less you have left over for the food portion of your meal," she says.
Where some experts really begin to waiver from the "bite" philosophy, however, is on the recommendation that we limit the amount of water we consume each day. Breibart suggests that water keeps digestive juices churning, contributes to hunger, and interferes with retraining the stomach to function on "empty." Barrie Wolfe, MS, RD, a dietician at the NYU Program for Weight Loss in New York City strongly disagrees.
"I have a real problem accepting that fluids between meals make you hungry," Wolfe tells WebMD. She says she frequently advises her patients to drink 6 to 8 cups of decaf coffee, tea, water, or other sugar-free drinks throughout the day, believing it not only helps with weight loss, but also helps keep our tissues hydrated.
Sandon agrees and adds: "I think if anything, drinking water throughout the day will help your stomach feel full without adding calories, and that can help control the urge to snack."
In perhaps the biggest split from traditional weight loss theory, the "bite" diet advises against vigorous exercise or any aggressively active endeavors while trying to lose weight.
The reason: "If you exercise vigorously you are going to get hungrier -- and the hungrier you get the more you are going to eat, and the less successful you will be initially at training your body to subsist on smaller amounts of food," says Breibart.
Again, Wolfe disagrees: "If they are claiming that exercise increases appetite -- well I have a real problem with that as well."
Exercise, she stresses, has many benefits including building lean muscle mass, which actually helps you burn more calories, as well as revving up your metabolism to help burn more of what you eat. And, says Wolfe, its benefits go way beyond weight loss to help maintain good health.
More Biting Issues -- and Weight Loss Concerns
As nutritionally balanced as the "bite" diet tries to be, experts say you can only accomplish so much on so few calories. Indeed both Wolf and Sandon agree that eleven hundred calories a day is just simply too low for an active adult.
"It's very difficult to get adequate nutrients on less than 1,200 calories a day," adds Sandon. If you do go on this diet plan, she warns that you must stick exactly to their meal plans and not just count bites -- or you will end up exceedingly short on important nutrients.
But even if you do follow the plan exactly, there are still some health risks to consider. Both Sandon and Wolfe say the diet doesn't provide enough fiber for men or women, or enough calcium or vitamin B for women -- something, which both nutritionists told WebMD, could be dangerous in the long run.
Experts also see the potential for trouble when consumers take the "bite" philosophy into their own hands.
"Where people may get really lost on this diet is in misinterpreting the system, and come away believing they can lose weight by just counting bites and not paying attention to what they are biting into -- you really have to eat what they tell you on this diet -- and that's not always so easy," says Sandon.
Still, experts say that you can glean some important tips from the "bite" philosophy, including the importance of portion control.
"Every bite counts -- and I like this simple approach to portion control and I like that the diet encourages balance and variety," says Wilson.
Sandon adds that the "bite" system may also make it easier to control portions in a restaurant or at a party, when a measuring cup isn't in our handbag!
"Instead of trying to guess how many ounces that steak is, you can just take your 10 or 12 bites and know that you're approximating eating 4 ounces -- it's a way to estimate food intake if you don't have a good visual of what your meal should look like," says Sandon.
The cost of the "bite" eating plan is $29, which nets you access to their web site (www.dietdirectives.com) where you will find the full diet, including menus and meal plans for 21 days, plus some helpful hints for staying on the diet. What you won't find, however, is much support for maintenance or what to do after the 21 days are up -- except to repeat the plan again.
Published Dec. 13, 2004.
SOURCES: Joan Breibart, co-developer and instructor, Diet Directives. Noralyn Wilson, RD, national media spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, Columbia, Md.; Lona Sandon, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association and professor, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Barrie Wolfe, MS, RD, dietician, NYU Program for Weight Loss, New York City.
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