BU Today

Health & Wellness

Winning the Losing Game

Part seven: You are not what you don’t eat

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot like my 18-pound cat, Edward: large, lazy, and lethargic. Having just entered Week 12 of my weight loss quest, I’ve learned that long-term fitness endeavors, like many of life’s quests, are all about perseverance. There are days when I arrive for my personal training sessions at the FitRec Center positively bursting with energy. But there are just as many days when I would prefer doing anything — even scrubbing my bathroom floor — rather than go to the gym.

But while it’s possible to blow off an occasional — or more — session at the gym, blowing off the other part of my fitness quest — eating — is not an option; eating is a biological requirement. People who don’t eat don’t get healthy. They get sick. 

An Easter trip to my home state of Ohio — the state that in 2006 was named the 16th fattest by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — included one margarita, two glasses of wine, three servings of French fries, and a double-decker veggie burger from Denny’s so enormous it was held together by a giant steak knife. Upon returning to Massachusetts (ranked the second leanest state, after Colorado, by the CDC), I hosted out-of-town guests, whose visit revolved around cannolis from the North End and mint chocolate chip ice cream. These indulgences probably would not have been so damaging if I’d coupled them with regular outings to the gym. But lately my back has been hurting and my gym work is limited to simple cardio routines and low-impact core and strength-training exercises. To compensate for the reduction of activity, I am focusing on diet — which means trading the fries for salads and swapping ice cream for fat-free homemade smoothies.

Morale boosters: Edward and the
kitty shoes. Photo by Vicky Waltz

I am also using a technique I learned in Healthy Dieting, a course offered through the BU Nutrition and Fitness Center. Last month, instructor and registered dietitian Stacey Stimets introduced me to Volumetrics, a commonsense eating approach that promises weight loss through consumption of food low in energy density — in other words, low-calorie food that also makes you feel full. Developed by Barbara Rolls, a Pennsylvania State University professor of nutritional sciences, Volumetrics is intended mainly to fight hunger.

Diets fail for many reasons. Boredom and lack of variety are two of them (think Atkins and its no-carb restrictions), but hunger is the most commonly cited cause. I can certainly relate — a Healthy Choice microwave dinner or a Slim-Fast shake do not a meal make.

Rolls believes that dieters should focus not on reducing carb intake, but on eating foods that induce satiety. The nutritional principle behind those foods is called energy density. Paradoxically, she explains, foods low in energy density — such as fruits, vegetables, and soups, all of which have high water content — make you feel fuller, while foods high in energy density —  fatty meats, cheese, and crackers — pack in a lot more calories per bite. For example, for the same number of calories (263) in a single serving of whole-wheat macaroni and cheese, I could eat 110 pieces of okra.

It so happens that I like okra, but the likelihood of my eating 110 pieces is pretty slim. I like macaroni and cheese, too, and the likelihood of my eating an entire package is extremely high (which is why I typically buy it only when I’m backpacking). But by following the guidelines of Volumetrics, I can eat both. Here’s what I tried at home: after cooking some macaroni and cheese, I added several servings of spinach, grape tomatoes, and asparagus. Then I made some okra. I still enjoyed the pasta, but I did not eat the entire package, and I felt full.

After learning just how few calories there are in fruits and vegetables (for a quick reference, click here,) I’ve been eating salads most days for lunch. And to prevent boredom, I add lots of tasty extras. For example, being a vegetarian, I tend to eat nuts because they’re high in protein. But rather than risk eating half a can in one sitting, which I’ve been known to do, I count out a single serving and put them on my salad instead. Depending on what mood I’m in, I add anything from sliced avocado and oranges to blackberries, hard-boiled egg crumbles, and sunflower and lentil sprouts. The additional fiber and protein are good for me and keep me feeling fuller longer.

Volumetrics can even be applied to treats. During a recent pilgrimage to the grocery store, I impulsively purchased a chunk of aged Gouda cheese. Yum. I was ready to go home and curl up with a box of Triscuits and my Gouda when I noticed that a serving size of Triscuits consists of seven crackers, which pack a whopping 140 calories. That’s crazy. Who eats only seven Triscuits?

So instead of buying the crackers, I bought a loaf of crusty bread and some olives. When I got home, I cut up two apples and arranged them on a plate with grapes, orange slices, and olives. Finally, I added a couple of slices of cheese and a few pieces of bread. For the next two hours, my partner and I played a mean game of Scrabble while enjoying a mini portion of bread and cheese and a very large portion of fruit. And it was a lot more filling than a box of Triscuits.

While many diets advocate eliminating certain foods entirely, Stimets thinks such draconian measures are unnecessary and can be harmful. “Cutting out entire food groups also means eliminating nutrients,” she says. “And that means that your body won’t necessarily get all the energy it needs to properly function.”

In Stimets’ food universe, energies are broken up into three categories: energies you need right now, such as whole grains and starchy vegetables; filling-power foods, such as nonstarchy vegetables and fruits; and proteins, such as meat, dairy, and soy alternatives, that keep your energy levels up even hours after eating.  

When it comes to eating healthfully, she recommends following a plan called the 1+2+3 method (see diagram).  It works like this: before each meal, separate your plate into thirds, designating half of the plate for nonstarchy vegetables and fruits, a quarter of the plate to protein, and a quarter to whole grains and starchy vegetables. This separation establishes portion control. 

While everyone has a different idea of what works and what doesn’t, I’ve concluded that the key to healthy eating is moderation, rather than elimination. And that is why last weekend when I saw a huge line at the Harvard Square Ben and Jerry’s, I went home and made a smoothie with fat-free plain yogurt and frozen mango. True, it wasn’t Chubby Hubby, but it was cold and sweet, and almost as satisfying. And one other thing: there are more ways than losing weight to boost your morale. Yesterday, for example, I donned my favorite cowboy boots, and today I’m wearing a fetching pair of black-and-white cat-face Mary Janes. I may not be quite as slim as I’d like to be, but my feet sure look cute.

Look for Vicky’s final installment on May 14, 2007.

Three months ago, BU Today writer Vicky Waltz began chronicling her four-month quest for fitness. Click here to read the first installment, “One woman’s four-month fitness challenge.” Click here to read the second installment, “After an injury, changing the game.” Click here to read the third installment, “Calories in vs. calories out.” Click here to read the fourth installment, “Glimpsing the gain.” Click here to read the fifth installment, “When seeing is not believing.” Click here to read the sixth installment, “Shape-shifting — how weight training can modernize a Botticelli body.”  

Please send all diet and cute shoe inquiries to Vicky Waltz at vwaltz@bu.edu.