Auld lang sigh: No quick-fix diet books are out there -- you'll have to count calories

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We're fatter than we've ever been, but those diet books just keep on coming.

Tony Tye, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.

And we keep on buying them -- to the tune of about a half a billion dollars in 2006, the best evidence yet that in our appearance-obsessed society, hope still triumphs over experience.

As 2007 dawns, there are no wildly popular weight loss fads sweeping the country on the scale of Atkins or South Beach a few years ago, or, to a lesser extent, the Sonoma and Shangri-la diets of last year.

"You on a Diet" by doctors Michael F. Roizen and Mehmet C. Oz is a best seller, however, in no small part due to the handsome Dr. Oz's recent appearance -- wearing a surgeon's scrubs -- on "Oprah."

While Roizen and Oz speak to the reader in accessible language, some of their recommendations -- like throwing out your bathroom scale and measuring your waist instead -- have been met with skepticism by other weight-loss experts.

"Waist size is very important, but there's no easy and accurate way for most people to measure it," says Barbara Rolls, a nutritionist and professor of biobehavioral health at Penn State University and author of her own successful diet book, "The Volumetrics Eating Plan," which advocates eating volume-dense, low-calorie foods that will make you feel fuller.

"There isn't anything really new out there in terms of what they're telling people," she says. "The problem with the diet book market is that people still want a magic solution. They don't want to hear the truth about weight loss, which is about eating fewer calories and moving more, period."

There's more depressing news: We're eating less fresh food than ever, according to a new study by NPD Group, which researches consumer trends. Only 47 percent of our at-home meals contain fresh food, down from 56 percent in 1985.

On the positive side, Universal Studios in California just joined New York City in banning the use of unhealthy trans fats in restaurant kitchens, so can Pittsburgh be far behind?

Yes ... well ... let's not go there.

For those determined to make 2007 the year they finally did something about those extra pounds, here are some capsule reviews of diet books that came in over the transom in late 2006. Any one of them could be the Next Big Thing -- or not:

The Serotonin Power Diet" by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., and Dr. Nina Frusztajer Marquis (Rodale, $24.95). You probably should have had this book before Thanksgiving, because it explains why we feel so sleepy after eating turkey -- but it wasn't published until Dec. 12. Turns out that tryptophan -- an amino acid in turkey, and all protein -- isn't the sleep-inducing agent; it's the high-fat, high-carb side dishes we eat with it, from mashed potatoes to pumpkin pie. This book, co-authored by respected brain researcher Judith Wurtman, looks at the relationship between brain chemistry and nutrition and shows us how to eat in a way that boosts serotonin, which shuts off appetite and relaxes us. Users of antidepressants will also find tips on how to lose weight associated with their medication.

"How The Rich Get Thin" by Dr. Jana Klauer, a k a "Park Avenue's Top Diet Doctor" (St. Martin's Griffin, $13.95 paperback). At one point Dr. Klauer quotes the late, great Vogue editor Diane Vreeland: "People who eat white bread have no dreams!" Sounds interesting, but Dr. Klauer's advice doesn't differ that much from most other diet gurus: Get enough calcium, eat "high quality" protein, eliminate processed foods and exercise every day. Oh, and a personal chef and trainer don't hurt.

"The Fast Track Detox Diet" by Ann Louise Gittleman, Ph.D, C.N.S. (Morgan Road Books, $12.95). There are dozens of detox diet books out there, mostly calling on various forms of fasting. This book features a seven-day "prequel" of detox "support foods" -- followed by a one-day detox sipping the author's "Miracle Juice" -- spiced cranberry juice, and a three-day "sequel" "reintroducing and immune-boosting foods" into the diet "to seal in the results."

But our bodies aren't carburetors or coffee makers, benefiting from a vinegar and water rinse every month or so. They're perfectly capable of cleansing themselves if we just eat right, nutritionists say. On the Amazon Web site, several reviewers raved about this book, but one complained it made her feel miserable and cranky -- kind of like when you prep for a colonoscopy, only without the health benefits.

"The Best Life Diet" by Bob Greene (Simon & Shuster, $26). This book is a shoo-in for a sales-boosting appearance on "Oprah," because Mr. Greene isthe Daytime TV Queen's personal trainer and the man who helped her lose weight and keep it off, more or less, for a dozen years. Oprah also writes the forward to the book, which is nice, except there's actually very little mention of Bob Greene and lots about Oprah. Nothing new there.

Still, this is a sensible book that advocates making gradual changes in the way we eat rather than embracing fads. Mr. Greene, an exercise physiologist, advocates lots of physical activity in addition to consuming fresh vegetables, fruit, fish and poultry and lean meats. For control freaks, he provides detailed daily menus. For those in need of general, sensible guidelines and the latest information, he provides that too.

"Weight Loss Confidential" by Anne M. Fletcher, M.S., R.D. (Houghton Mifflin, $26). Ms. Fletcher, a Minnesota dietician and author of "Thin for Life," turns her attention to the childhood obesity crisis with this book, in which teens talk about their weight loss strategies -- and what they wish parents knew (don't be the food police; be supportive, not punitive, when they "mess up"). This books has lots of valuable insights from young people and useful information about portion control, exercise, low-carb diets, how to eat at restaurants and more. Definitely worth reading.

There are more books we could tell you about: "The Ultimate New York Diet" and "The Entrepreneur Diet" just arrived in the mail the other day, but since we a) don't live in New York and b) are not particularly entrepreneurial, we'll pass on those. However, we eagerly await the "Pittsburgh-Post-Gazette-reporter-who-sits-at-her-desk-all-day-writing-stories-about-diet-books Diet," which hopefully will include liberal allowances for chocolate and Diet Coke.

Happy New Year, good luck, and caveat emptor.


Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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