There are so many diets out there: The alkaline diet, the blood-type diet, the master cleanse, the cabbage soup diet, the HCG diet. How do you know which one is right for you? For that matter, how do you know which one is actually harmful for you?
“If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is,” said Rabia Rahman, assistant professor of nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University.
“If they’re asking for a lot of money (for items other than food products), don’t do it. If they say you can eat as much as you want and still lose weight? Bogus.”
And some diets that sound as if they are scientific are equally worthless and potentially dangerous, Rahman said. The people pushing diets may use scientific terms and jargon, but that does not necessarily mean the science behind them is sound.
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The healthiest way to lose weight, and the only successful way to keep it off, is to strive for balance, variety and moderation, she said.
You should find a balance not only in the different types of food you eat but also a balance between the amount of calories you consume and the ones you work off through exercise and other activities. If you consume as much as you burn off, your weight will stay the same. If you can burn off more than you consume, you will lose weight.
Choosing a variety of foods is important because it is healthiest to eat from all of the food groups. It is a way to make sure you get all the protein, carbohydrates and fats you need to get through the day, she said. And if you eat the same foods every day, you will end up missing out on necessary nutrients found in other foods.
Rahman added that eating in moderation means “there is really nothing that you should consider bad or off-limits completely. If you want to have dessert, have dessert, but have a small portion.”
One plan that does all of this, and that Rahman recommends, is Weight Watchers. According to St. Louis Weight Watchers Leader/Ambassador Ellen Abramson, the organization looks to help its customers both lose weight and, just as vitally, keep it off.
Weight Watchers works on a system of points. Every food is assigned a number of points – low numbers for foods that are low in calories, are lean proteins or are high in nutrients and fiber such as fruits and vegetables, and high numbers for foods that are high in calories, sugars and saturated fats.
Based on their height, weight, age and sex, clients are given a target number of points to hit each day, plus a few extra points each week as a cushion, Abramson said.
By following the point system, the clients eat healthful, properly portioned foods. But that doesn’t mean they go without their favorites.
“If it’s Christmas and your aunt makes the best pecan pie ever, you can have it. But you have to have less of everything else. It’s called mindful eating. If I’m going to have pecan pie, I maybe will not have mashed potatoes,” Abramson said.
To get into the dieting spirit, I prepared several dishes from Weight Watchers’ recipes. And they were good. Not just good for diet food, they were actually good. Even the fudge.
Yes, Weight Watchers has a recipe for Chocolate Marshmallow Fudge, and it’s actually relatively low in calories.
How can that be? Well, it uses fat-free evaporated milk instead of the regular kind, reduced-calorie margarine instead of real butter and melted marshmallows to give it body and flavor. Plus, the portions are small.
It is surprisingly excellent.
Equally satisfying is what I am calling a Tex-Mex Casserole (they call it a Mexican Casserole, but I can’t in good conscience do that). You begin with lean ground beef, and then you render and drain the remaining fat out of that. You season the beef with a package of taco seasoning mix, I’m embarrassed to say, and then saute it with typical Tex-Mex flavors: onion, jalapeno, corn and black beans.
You bake this between layers of tortillas, add nonfat sour cream and top with shredded low-fat cheese. It is an perfectly balanced blend of flavors, and the portions are big enough that you won’t want anything more for dessert than a tiny piece of fudge.
For another entree, this one cooked in the slow cooker, I went with a classic Southern dish. Hoppin' John is seasoned black-eyed peas and a ham hock, and it is traditionally served on New Year’s Day to bring good luck.
The Weight Watchers’ version is made with turkey sausage and shrimp instead of ham, and it contains a lot of kale for flavor, nutrients and, to be honest, filler. It’s warming and filling, a delicious comfort food that just might bring you good luck. You never know.
No less good, but quicker and easier, was a Honey-Glazed Salmon With Wasabi. Salmon, of course, is beloved by dieters because it has a high amount of flavor while still being good for you (though salmon tends to be fattier than other fish).
This version uses a popular combination of Japanese seasonings, with a hint of honey for sweetness and a blast of wasabi paste for heat. It doesn’t take long to cook, but you will probably gobble it up faster than that.
Finally, I made Baked Spicy French Fries. One thing that diets often try to do is to satisfy the dieters’ cravings for fattening foods by attempting to replace them with a more healthful version.
Usually, that doesn’t work and the dieter winds up craving the original even more.
But these baked-not-fried fries are different. The spices adhere to the potatoes with egg whites, so they don’t need fat, and the fries go through two stages of cooking – they are first baked and then broiled. This mimics the best way to make regular fries, cooking them first at a relatively low temperature and then relatively high.
You get fries that are flavorful and crisp on the outside and creamy in the middle.
All of that, and you can feel good about eating them, too.
Chocolate marshmallow fudge
Makes 36 pieces
Recipe by Weight Watchers.
1 2/3 cups granulated sugar
2/3 cup fat-free evaporated milk
2 tablespoons reduced-calorie margarine
12 ounces semisweet baking chocolate, chopped
14 large marshmallows, chopped
Coat an 8-by-8-inch baking pan with nonstick spray.
Stir together sugar, evaporated milk and margarine. Bring to a boil in a saucepan, reduce heat to medium-low and cook 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Stir in chocolate and marshmallows. Remove from heat and stir until smooth.
Pour into prepared pan and refrigerate until firm, about 2 hours. Cut into 36 squares – 6 rows of 6 – and serve.
Per square: 96 calories; 3 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 1 g protein; 18 g carbohydrate; 17 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 7 mg sodium; 14 mg calcium.
Hoppin’ John with shrimp
Recipe from Weight Watchers.
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 pound sweet or hot Italian turkey sausage, casings removed
1 sweet onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
One 14.5-ounce can stewed diced tomatoes with green peppers, celery and onions
2 teaspoons paprika
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
One 16-ounce bag chopped fresh kale
Two 15-ounce cans black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 cup roasted sweet peppers, drained and sliced
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Heat oil in large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add sausage, onion and garlic. Cook, breaking up sausage with wooden spoon, until browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in tomatoes, paprika and red pepper flakes. Bring to boil, scraping up browned bits, if any, from bottom of skillet.
Transfer sausage mixture to a 5- or 6-quart slow cooker. Stir in kale and black-eyed peas. Cover and cook until kale is tender, 2 to 4 hours on high or 6 to 8 hours on low.
Stir in shrimp, roasted peppers and oregano. Cover and cook on high until shrimp are just opaque.
Per serving: 201 calories; 5 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; 68 mg cholesterol; 16 g protein; 24 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 674 mg sodium; 208 mg calcium.
Honey-glazed salmon with wasabi
Recipe from “Take Out Tonight!” by Weight Watchers
3 tablespoons mirin, see note below
1 tablespoon seasoned rice vinegar
1 tablespoon reduced-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, peeled and minced
2 teaspoons wasabi paste, see note
1 pound salmon fillet or steaks, cut into 4 equal pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1/4 cup scallions, thinly sliced
Note: Mirin is a sweet cooking rice wine. It can be found in the Asian specialty aisle of most grocery stores. Sherry is an adequate substitute. Wasabi paste can also be found in the Asian specialty aisle of most grocery stores.
To make the sauce, bring the mirin, vinegar, soy sauce, honey, ginger and wasabi to a boil in a small saucepan. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat until the flavors are blended and the sauce is thickened, about 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm.
Meanwhile, season the salmon with the salt and pepper. Spray a large nonstick skillet with nonstick spray and set over high heat. When hot, add the salmon and cook, turning once, until the fish is browned on the outside and opaque in the center, about 4 minutes on each side.
Spoon the sauce over the salmon, sprinkle with scallions and serve at once.
Per serving: 234 calories; 12 g fat; 2 g saturated fat; 61 mg cholesterol; 25 g protein; 12 g carbohydrate; 9 g sugar; no fiber; 702 mg sodium; 23 mg calcium.
Baked spicy french fries
Yield: 4 servings
Recipe from Weight Watchers
2 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon table salt
2 large potatoes, cut into thick fries
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and spray with nonstick cooking spray.
In a large bowl, combine all ingredients. Toss to coat the potatoes. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet.
Bake until potatoes are barely tender, about 15 minutes. Increase the oven temperature to broil; broil until crispy, about 5 to 10 minutes. Watch closely to avoid burning. Serve at once.
Per serving: 153 calories; no fat; no saturated fat; no cholesterol; 6 g protein; 33 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 343 mg sodium; 29 mg calcium.