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“I’m Not On a Diet, I Swear!”: The Non-Diet Diet

It’s Friday night, and you’re out to dinner with your closest friends – A, B, and C. “Mmm… everything looks so good!,” says B. “Agreed,” chimes in C, “I could literally order anything on this menu!” In between chatting about the econ midterm and Channing Tatum, the waiter comes over to take your order. A orders first: “I’ll have the gluten-free pasta please.” Huh? Since when does A have celiac disease? “I’ll have a burger. But hold the bun. And definitely no cheese. Oh, and instead of fries I’ll have steamed veggies,” says B. The waiter turns to C: “Oh, just a Diet Coke for me. I don’t eat past 7pm!”

Today, more than ever, girls are making these kinds of self-imposed diet adjustments, supposedly for reasons other than weight loss. “I’ve heard gluten is bad for you,” A says. “I’ve eaten too many carbs today already,” says B. “I like to eat an early dinner so I can digest properly before going to sleep,” says C. But are these restrictions made in an effort to lose weight or to improve health? And can they actually do either? There seem to be a lot of questions regarding these “modified diets”. To get some answers, I asked Michele Weisberger, a licensed Dietician. “There are certain medical conditions that warrant a modified diet. A person diagnosed with celiac disease needs to eat a ‘gluten-free’ diet. The same holds true for someone with a lactose intolerance – or someone who needs to avoid dairy products,” says Michele. If you fall into one of these categories, then you do need a modified diet in order to stay healthy. However, it appears that many women without these conditions are imposing similar restrictions on themselves as a means of “taking control” of their diet, without having to utter the taboo phrase “I’m on a diet.” Instead, they mask their weight loss efforts with these sorts of “diet excuses.” Alternative diets, such as going gluten-free, have become “trendy” – often a new diet is adopted with each change of season, like a wardrobe. But what are the benefits to these kinds of modified diets? Better health or weight loss? “That depends on the caloric significance of the food being avoided,” explains Michele, as well as what you replace it with, if anything. Avoiding lactose by switching to soy products does little to change the overall calorie content of the diet. A cup of soy milk or an ounce of soy cheese has similar calories to the “real deal” food. But avoiding dairy products and not making a substitute means not only a loss of calories but also a potential loss of a category of food that provides great calcium, phosphorus and Vitamin D, which can be dangerous.

A true gluten-free diet (void of the protein “part” of wheat, rye, barley and other grains) is a challenge to adhere to for those who have celiac disease. If substitutions are not made, a gluten-free diet could very well be lower in calories simply by the fact that bread, most cereal, pasta and many desserts and snack foods (think chocolate chip cookies and apple pie) must be avoided. However, one also loses the nutritional benefit of whole grains, fiber, and many other nutrients that grains provide. If fiber and nutrient-rich corn, beans, and soy are substituted for wheat, again there would be no caloric deficit of a gluten-free diet. If a vegetarian diet consisted of only vegetables, grains and beans, the calorie content would be low, but with nuts, nut butters, and soy products come more calories. Simply cutting out gluten or dairy, for example, will lead to weight loss, but this comes at a cost of not getting the nutritional value you need. Replacing these foods with substitutes of similar nutritional content is an option, but if weight loss is the goal, these foods are likely to have the same or more calories as the food you’re skipping out on. So what’s the skinny on these diets? A walk through the diet book section of your favorite bookstore sums up the story. There is a diet (and a book) which promotes the benefit of avoidance of any and every food known to woman-kind. In the short-term, the elimination of a food or category of foods might create a calorie deficit (translation: weight loss). However, these diets tend to be lose-lose. When you change your food intake to stick to a diet du jour, a self-imposed “rule ” (for example – no refined carbs) can help some girls adhere to a more healthful and lower calorie diet. However, the self-imposed elimination of an entire category of food without considering the nutritional implications is a mistake. So, to quote our Dietitian, “enjoy a wide variety of food – in moderation.”


Michele Weisberger, RD

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