What it is
What you can eat
How it works
What the experts say
Food for thought
What It Is
No hocus-pocus here, no quick weight-loss promises from wellness guru Andrew
Weil, MD. Weil sums up his philosophy in four words: "Eat less, exercise more."
Weil urges readers of his several best-sellers, including the latest, Eating
Well for Optimum Health, and his popular Web site (www.drweil.com) to look upon
eating with a sensibility that is more Eastern than Western.
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Naturally he points out that what we eat does influence our health in a big
way. But he adds this caveat: Diet is only one aspect of our lifestyle, and
lifestyle is only one variable in the mix of factors that determines whether we
are blessed with well-being or whether we feel out of sorts.
That said, Weil claims that diet can positively impact numerous health
concerns, from allergies to body odor, from ear infections to irritable bowel
syndrome, from arthritis to sinusitis, as well as make it easy to control our
weight. He urges readers not to seek solutions promising quick weight loss
(since it will almost certainly come back) but to set realistic goals: say,
losing one to two pounds a week, max -- the amount that nutritionists and most
medically sponsored weight-loss programs counsel as safe, sane, and reasonable.
The science is straightforward. Weight-loss success can be accomplished,
according to Weil, by properly balancing the amount and type of food we eat. The
trick then is determining the kinds of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins -- the
building blocks of food -- to put on our plate.
What You Can Eat
Weil's approach is somewhat similar to the recently touted Mediterranean
Diet, a composite of the cuisines of Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, and
parts of the Middle East. That diet does include red meat, but you can be sure
that Weil isn't a fan of meat. His inclination can be sensed in how he lists red
meat in the index: flesh foods.
Qualifiers aside, Weil's diet plan breaks down the three food groups this
- Carbohydrates. They should account for 50-60% of your calories, and as much
of these as possible from unrefined grains and vegetables (higher in complex
carbohydrates). These release glucose (sugar) into the
bloodstream more slowly, and therefore won't as readily cause rapid spikes
after meals. Good carbs include apples, baked beans, oatmeal, and stone-ground
whole-wheat bread, among others. Interestingly, while low-carb diet books
insist that white rice is banned, Weil contends that basmati and brown rice
are acceptable because, once again, they release glucose at a reasonable rate
when eaten with other foods.
- Fats. Up to 30% of
calories can come from fats, as long as most of that amount is from
monounsaturated oils such as olive oil and foods high in what are known as
omega-3 fatty acids: oily fishes (salmon, sardines, mackerel), flax seeds, and
- Protein. This should be limited to 10-20% of your diet, and
vegetable proteins (from beans and soybeans, for example) should be substituted
for animal ones as often as possible.
Weil also recommends that we eat 40 grams
of fiber a day, which isn't hard to achieve if you eat fruits (especially
berries), vegetables (especially beans), and whole grains in the percentages
above. He tells us to avoid milk and consume limited amounts of cheese and other
dairy products. That is because a great many of us -- particularly those of
Asian and African-American descent -- have some degree of difficulty digesting
these (usually from lactose intolerance), and others may be allergic to milk
Weil argues that even without dairy products, we can keep up with our calcium
needs with this diet. Ingesting too much protein leeches calcium out of the
body, says Weil, so if less protein is consumed then less calcium is required.
Non-dairy sources include sardines (which are usually canned without removing
the bones), leafy greens, broccoli, and various sea vegetables, such as nori,
dulse, and kombu. In addition, tofu, sesame seeds, calcium-fortified orange
juice, and fortified soy milk can be good calcium sources.
How It Works
Weil keeps it simple. You won't get a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo from his
book. Instead, he presents a basic primer in human nutrition and describes how
the body gets energy from food.
First off, carbohydrates, or starchy vegetables and grains, are converted to
glucose and mainly used for energy. The brain particularly likes its energy from
carbohydrates. But too many carbs do not make us brainy -- they make us
overweight. Too few send us into ketosis, in which the body retrieves energy
from fat stores. However (and here's where Weil is critical of the high-protein
diets that send us into this altered state), ketosis may be detrimental to our
health over the long term, principally because of a rise in cholesterol levels
and calcium depletion, according to Weil. The best carbohydrates are unrefined
grains and vegetables -- ones that release glucose slowly. Medically speaking,
these are said to have a low glycemic index.
Second, fats and oils are more concentrated sources of
energy than carbohydrates, but these need to be chemically converted into
glucose to be used by the body. Although fat has a bad name in today's
collective health consciousness, some fat is essential. Critically speaking,
though, we need the right balance. Too much fat ... well, makes us fat, as well
as sets up shop for heart disease
and cancer. Not enough fat, however, and we may run into problems,
such as skin inflammation, hair loss, and susceptibility to infection.
Finally, we require proteins to build, maintain, and repair the body, but
they too can be converted to glucose (and therefore serve as an energy source)
when needed. They are composed of 20 amino acids, 10 of which must be supplied
by foods on a regular basis. Ingesting too much protein increases the workload
of the digestive system and may strain the liver and kidneys. Too little will
cause malnutrition, increased susceptibility to infection, and possibly early
death, Weil says.
According to the USDA, there is no difference between a “portion” and a “serving.”
Weil cites exercise as a critical component of his program, but has little to
say about the subject other than that regular exercise increases caloric output
and in time can change the basic weight-loss equation in your favor -- and help
you keep off the pounds over the long term.
What the Experts Say
Nutrition experts support Weil's diet as a common-sense approach that is
based on well-accepted nutritional principles. His plan is a healthy one, the
experts agree, because in general people who eat similar diets tend to be
healthier than those who don't. "There is a vast amount of scientific evidence
that shows that vegetarian diets with small amounts of animal products are the
healthiest diets for lowering mortality from heart disease and cancer, and
indeed, all causes," comments Michael Janson, MD, past president of the American
Preventive Medical Association and the author of Dr. Janson's New Vitamin
The American Dietetic Association (ADA) also gives Weil's diet a nod of
approval. Spokeswoman for the ADA and an associate professor of nutrition at
Georgia State University in Atlanta, Chris Rosenbloom, PhD, says she likes the
overall approach he takes, blending traditional medical theory and therapies
with alternative medicine. "He puts a lot of emphasis on patients'
responsibility for their own health," she says, "and that is always good because
you can't have somebody standing over you all the time telling you what to eat,
what to do."
Food for Thought
Among the array of popular diet writers, Weil recommends a particularly
holistic approach. This means that dieters must not only watch what they eat,
but also consider the level of stress in their lives, the amount of exercise
they do, and other factors. It is a good, practical plan for those willing to
follow the guidelines. For those seeking a list of rigid do's and don'ts or
easy-to-follow formulas, this plan may prove challenging. In addition, those who
are used to diets high in dairy and red meat may find this diet unsatisfying.
Reviewed By Charlotte E. Grayson, MD February 2004.
SOURCES: Weil, A. Eating Well for Optimum Health, 2001, Perennial Currents.
Drweil.com web site. American Dietetic Association. Chris Rosenbloom, PhD,
associate professor of nutrition, Georgia State University, Atlanta. Michael
Janson, MD, past president, the American Preventive Medical Association.
© 1996-2004 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
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