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Is your diet making you fat?

“You may think magic is make-believe, but this little bean has scientists saying they’ve found the magic weight-loss cure for every body type: green coffee-bean extract. When turned into a supplement, this miracle pill can burn fat fast for anyone who wants to lose weight.”WHILE IT SOUNDS LIKE THE SCRIPT of a cheesy infomercial or cover feature in a tabloid at the checkout counter, these words actually came from the mouth of Dr. Mehmet Oz, the cardiothoracic surgeon-turned-celebrity whom millions of Americans consider a respected medical authority. Over 12 million people tune in to his TV show every day, and his face has appeared on hundreds of popular magazines. To many, his is the voice of truth. But it didn’t take all that long for Dr. Oz to eat his words. Only a few short weeks after touting green coffee-bean extract as a safe and effective diet aid in May 2012, an independent company in Florida had sold a staggering halfmillion bottles of the stuff. Thanks to Dr. Oz’s endorsement, which the company—unaffiliated with Dr. Oz himself—featured in its advertisements, the pills were flying off American supermarket shelves. Desperate to shed their excess pounds, hundreds of thousands of people were clamoring for the modern-day miracle that Dr. Oz, the country’s leading health and wellness guru, claimed had “helped people to lose 17 pounds in only 22 days without any dietary changes or exercise.” But not everyone was sold, including the Federal Trade Commission, which filed a lawsuit against the company for false advertising. In response, Dr. Oz decided to conduct his own clinical trial the following September—on the air.

Half of the 100 women in his audience received the green coffee-bean extract, while the other half received a placebo. Two weeks later the coffee-bean extract takers had lost an average of two pounds, a proud Dr. Oz announced on the show, while those taking the placebo had lost only one. In truth, the scientific evidence supporting Dr. Oz’s claim is weak at best. Although one study published in 2010 found that the main ingredient in green coffee beans helped subjects lose weight, another study found that it actually increased insulin resistance in mice.That’s how Dr. Oz found himself at a Senate hearing on June 17 testifying before its consumer protection panel, where he was scolded by chairwoman Claire McCaskill of Missouri. “When you call a product a miracle, and it’s something you can buy, and it’s something that gives people false hope—I don’t understand why you need to go there,” she said, basically accusing him of shilling. It’s not as though green coffee-bean extract is the first diet scam that Americans have bought into. The weight-loss industry is one in which consumers are particularly vulnerable to fraud, testified Mary Koelbel Engle, an associate director at the FTC. The agency conducted a consumer survey in 2011 and found that more consumers were victims of fraudulent weight-loss products than of any other deception studied. Indeed, it isn’t hard for most of us to relate to the burning desire to be thin or to understand how so many otherwise intelligent people can fall prey to false claims. I’m willing to bet that many AmiLiving readers are currently on a diet. I know this because according to Colorado University, one-third of all women and one-quarter of all men in the United States are currently dieting.

According to market data, more than $60 billion is spent on diet and weightloss products in the US every year. Jenny Craig promises that you can lose 20 pounds for just $20, and diet pills and potions abound. Who remembers the Slim-Fast shakes from the ’80s? They still line grocery shelves, sharing space with an array of weight-loss bars and frozen diet meals. As a society, we’ll try anything to lose weight—and I mean anything: no-carb, all-carb, grapefruit, cabbage soup, gluten-free and low-cal diets. Have you heard of the popular new Paleo diet? It’s pretty much meat, fruits and vegetables, promising weight loss caveman-style. But according to research at UCLA, despite all of their valiant efforts, up to two-thirds of dieters regain more weight than they set out to shed. A new Gallup poll indicates that despite our preoccupation with dieting, the obesity rate in the country is now 27.7 percent, the highest since 2008, when they first started keeping track of the numbers. Millions of Americans are still overweight despite spending billions of dollars to become skinny. We constantly yo-yo, bouncing back even bigger than before. Even as we purge our pantries of carbs, fats, and high GI (glycemic index) foods—whatever the fad of the day dictates—we have an inkling that it probably won’t work. Yet each time we try, we imagine that this is it. This will be the diet to end all diets, the one that will finally make us thin. The $64,000 question therefore becomes, why are we hoodwinked over and over again? The History of Hungry Many of us yearn for the good old days, when being fat was considered fashionable because it signified that one could afford to eat well. But that might be more ancient history than you think.

It was only in the late 1800s, when waistlines started expanding, that thin started to become a trend. As the economy slowly shifted from agricultural to industrial, people stopped growing their own food and began to rely on store-bought goods. Processed food products appeared on the market, and thanks to more modern methods of transportation (trains) and refrigeration (iceboxes?) foodstuffs became more accessible and convenient. It was no longer a symbol of societal status to be fat when it was a look that anyone could achieve. As soon as skinny was in style, diet fraud gained momentum. Ads for weight-loss cures and quick fixes abounded. “Weigh what you should weigh!” read an 1896 ad for a diet remedy. Some of the early diet-aid peddlers, unsure of whether or not thin would be in vogue forever, advertised that their products could help buyers put on pounds or take them off, depending on what they needed. In the late 1800s, the authority on dieting was a man by the name of William Banting, an English undertaker. According to Laura Fraser, the author of Losing It, Banting “knew too well the cost of a coffin that would accommodate a body his size, and began trying to lose weight when he reached 202 pounds and couldn’t tie his shoes.” Following a diet recommended to him by a doctor, he successfully lost 46 pounds by essentially following a low-carb regimen. He went on to publish his Letter on Corpulence, a bestseller so popular that “Banting” was adopted as the word for “dieting,” and thousands of people followed his directives. But his wasn’t the only method for melting off pounds. Horace Fletcher, a San Francisco-based art dealer, was frustrated when he couldn’t purchase insurance at the age of 40 because he weighed over 200 pounds (he was five foot seven). Figuring that prolonged chewing might keep him from overeating, he resolved to chew every bite of food that went into his mouth until it was pulverized into liquid.

Wearing a white jacket to lend him credibility, he promoted his book The A.B.-Z. of Our Own Nutrition, and Americans proceeded to “Fletcherize” to their hearts’ content. “At dinner parties, people were so busy chewing there was scarcely time for conversation,” says Fraser. It didn’t take scientists long to discover that it wasn’t how you chewed but what you chewed that was the important variable. We have chemist Wilbur O. Atwater to thank for inventing the first scientific apparatus capable of measuring the energy provided by food, i.e., calories. He discovered that fat contained more calories than protein or carbs, and thus the concept of calorie counting was born. Then in 1917, way before Weight Watchers, Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters came out with Diet & Health, with Key to the Calories. She cut back on calories, lost 50 pounds and told her two million readers—a shocking number at the time—all about it. You might be surprised to learn that the infamous grapefruit diet dates back to the 1950s, although no one knows whom to credit for that brilliant idea. By the time the ’80s rolled around, there were more than 100 diet paperbacks in bookstores, all promising the same thing: Stick to this diet, eat X, Y or Z or do A, B or C, and you’ll look great and feel wonderful. You’ll also have more friends and finally get married. Just follow these instructions and your life will be perfect. But here’s the rub: None of them work. Whether advocating the consumption of only certain foods or the use of herbs, teas or other concoctions, all of these diets promise to burn fat and raise metabolism.

Some of these aids are supposedly backed by scientific evidence. But many of the “studies” are fake and/or too small and unscientific to be accepted as legitimate by a medical journal. And while the FDA prohibits diet-aid manufacturers from making direct claims about their products, they know exactly how to get around such regulations. Rather than making blatant weight-loss claims, they use product names—Mini Thins, Trim-Maxx, Super Fat Burners—that get the message across quite nicely. Sipping Success Perhaps the biggest weight-loss aid society has bought into is diet soda. While the jury is still out on the safety of aspartame and other artificial sweeteners (the FDA maintains that aspartame is “one of the most thoroughly tested and studied food additives the agency has ever approved” and that its safety is “clear-cut”), the substance is controversial for other reasons. (Critics have claimed that aspartame is responsible for everything from killing off brain cells and causing formaldehyde build-up and frontal lobe inflammation to migraines, visual disturbances and loss of bone density. It has also been the subject of numerous hoaxes.) But diet soda isn’t just potentially unhealthy. According to the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, artificial sweeteners—get this—contribute to weight gain. Studies show that if you drink diet soda for a few years, you’ll weigh more than you did before you started. That’s because aspartame, 200 times sweeter than regular sugar, activates your preference for sweets, triggering cravings. It also tricks your body into thinking that sugar is on its way, causing you to pump out insulin, which results in more belly fat! According to one study, laboratory rats fed artificial sweeteners for a period of two weeks still managed to increase their body fat.

That’s because their metabolism was slowed down, resulting in fewer calories being burned off. In fact, diet sodas aren’t designed to help us lose weight; they’re designed to make us purchase more diet sodas. With ingredients that make us crave more and marketing imagery depicting how cool and successful we’ll be if we use their products, soda companies convince dieters to drink up. In truth, though, diet soda drinkers have a 20 percent increased risk of obesity. Big Fat Lies Which brings us to the subject of another presumed aid to successful weight loss—fat-free foods. Perhaps the biggest dietary disaster was the cultural shift that took place in the 1950s, when it was decided that fat was a food villain. It made perfect sense to the masses, who bought into the simplistic notion that eating fat makes you fat. In the past few years, several books have been written claiming that the studies upon which this radical new outlook was based were essentially faulty because the data were skewed, regardless of whether it was deliberate or unintentional. The result, however, was that the food and-diet industry jumped right in and began offering the American public a plethora of fat-free substitutes for their favorite fare. I don’t think I’ve ever purchased a jar of fullfat mayonnaise or a container of yogurt that wasn’t at least low-fat in my entire life. Why “waste” all those extra calories, right? We’ve just become so conditioned to thinking that it’s true. Lately, though, the headlines have been blaring that we simply bought into another bluff. Not all calories are created equal.

Fat does contain more calories per gram (nine calories versus the four you get from a gram of carbs or protein), but chowing down on sugar-laden “fat-free” foods hasn’t made us any skinnier. Despite our “fat-free” diets, we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic. A whopping 68 percent of adults in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. So while those cookies might be fat-free, they aren’t going to help you lose weight. In fact, most of our favorite “fat-free” foods contain sugar—a true candidate for public enemy number one. In a recent Harvard study, Dr. David Ludwig studied two groups, one on a low-fat diet, the other on a higher-fat, higher-protein regimen. Surprisingly, the low-fat dieters burned 300 fewer calories per day! What gives? Well, it seems that our taste buds have been hijacked by the “low-fat” diet industry. Having been led mistakenly to believe that we should shun fat in order to lose weight, we are now accustomed to eating sweet foods with potentially addictive properties—and our brain chemistry and metabolism have suffered. Low-fat diets leave consumers perpetually hungry because they aren’t eating the fat they need to feel satiated. They actually gain weight because the body wants to hold on to its fat to protect it from the next “perceived famine.” And what about jumping on the low-carb bandwagon? Also a mistake.

Studies show that those on diets such as Atkins end up taking in the same number of calories as low-fat dieters. Eliminating carbs means fewer options, so it’s just another gimmick for calorie reduction. But everyone winds up in the same sorry place—still fat. In fact, according to one study conducted by psychologist Traci Mann and her colleagues at the University of Minnesota, the best indicator that someone will be heavier in five years’ time, statistically speaking, is being on a diet right now. The bottom line is that these diets don’t work. Every week there is a new diet fad based on the same premise—that you can force your body to lose weight. But it is fundamentally flawed, because every time you force your body to lose weight, your body will force you to gain it right back. At best, the only thing that gets thinner is your wallet. You spent hundreds of dollars on “fatbuster” pills only to find that you still don’t fit into your new skirt? Sank some of your savings into meal-replacement shakes and still don’t like your reflection in the mirror? That’s your fault—don’t you know? The diet industry will always insist that if you failed to lose weight, it’s your own fault. You weren’t motivated enough. You cheated. You were lazy. So what’s a girl to do? According to most experts, it’s time to use a little common sense. Any diet that is too lopsided in one way or another is likely to be nutritionally unsound. And they suggest that we chuck all the artificially tweaked foods and go back to the real items they’re supposed to replace. Armed with new resolve as a result of my research, I recently marched into the supermarket on a mission to replace my snacks with chopped veggies, my sugar-laden “fatfree” breakfast cereals with…plain yogurt? Hmmm…. I may have resolved to eat more salad, but I discovered that I’ll have to forgo my favorite aspartame-laced (and therefore craving-inducing) dressing! In fact, wherever I looked, there were labels that made me question exactly what I was ingesting. It occurred to me that it’s healthier to start making everything from scratch—after work, when the kids are hungry and cranky and supper needs to happen ASAP. Yes, this is easier said than done. I guess losing weight will always be an uphill battle.

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