Saturday, December 16, 2017

[Quasi-] South Beach Diet - Part II


In this follow-up to my last South Beach[-ish] post, I offer reports from the trenches (my brother’s and mine); some arcana about glycemic index and glycemic load; the good news about the cool food you can still eat with this approach; some responses to a commenter on my last post; and the truth about alcohol. (I know that last bit implies that somebody has been lying about alcohol, and really nobody has, but I had to throw that in to bait you. Along those lines I will now include this phrase—what your doctor doesn’t want you to know about losing weight—because that seems a popular way to draw people in as well. Also, this weird little trick that helps you lose half your body weight in 48 hours!)

The trenches

Gosh, what a totally irresponsible metaphor “the trenches” is. Of course this is nothing like battle or real hardship of any kind. Feeling like you ought to lose weight is a real luxury, when almost 800 million people on this planet are malnourished. “I’m just not as svelte as I was in college!” Oh, boo-hoo!

Do you hate me yet? Good, good. Anybody who is doing well on a diet (or better yet, a new eating approach that is realistic for long-term benefit) ought to be hated at least a little. I love this New Yorker cartoon where two women are at the cafĂ© at their tennis club and one announces, “I’ve only been gluten-free for a week, but I’m already really annoying.” (No, I’m not going to talk about gluten in this post. That’s a whole topic of its own. Suffice to say I myself never met a glutenous mass I didn’t like.)

So far, in the eighteen days I’ve been on this diet, I’ve lost nine pounds. That’s not so bad, especially because I’ve been cheating a bit. If I did Phase 1 (see my previous post if you haven’t already), I’m sure I’d see more results. My brother, in the same time span, has lost about six pounds. He’s not doing Phase 1 either … and in fact, he’s cheating regularly because one of his kids has discovered baking and is thrusting lemon bars, cream puffs, banana bread, and cobbler at him. Believe me, I had a great time ribbing him about that. At least he’s honest with his food log, and is trying to be good (“1.5 small blueberry cobbler pieces … two small cookies … very thin slice fudge…”). Of course this is the time of year when everybody becomes a glutton, but that’s no excuse for eating whatever junk you’re offered. I e-mailed Bryan, “Do we need to get you a sign that says, ‘Please do not feed the human ... when he is given people food, his nutrition is impaired and he loses interest in hunting’?”

It is almost impossible to have dessert and be on a South Beach(-esque) program at the same time. Not entirely impossible, though:

A plum can be nice and sweet, but still good for you.  I think that’s mascarpone and mint leaves below it.

My wife is doing well on quasi-South-Beach, especially in her main goal of keeping me honest. Here is a sample of our joint food journal, from the first day back on the plan:

The first thing you’ll notice is how messy this journal is. My brother’s journal is neatly typed and available online for me to peek at whenever I want, but I’ll bet it’s not quite as complete. A paper journal that lives in the kitchen doesn’t miss a thing. The second thing you’ll notice in the above snapshot is that my wife is using the “smiley face” technique of reinforcing dietary (and exercise) principles. This is probably healthier than my shame-and-fear-based system.

Another quick note: it can be helpful to monitor body fat if your scale supports it, but such measurements are probably not very accurate. That looks a bit like 16.8% above but it actually says 11.8%. Whatever my body fat percentage really is, I expect that number to go down as I continue my South Beach(-esque) effort.

You’ll find a recipe lurking in my entry, for Mexican(-ish) rice. Here’s what you do: glug some olive oil in a pan, dice a whole onion and simmer it a while, then add some cooked, cut-up meat. I used leftover turkey white-meat from Thanksgiving because a) white meat, aka breast meat, is really good for you, and b) I hate it. (My favorite part of the bird is the skin.) Frying up the meat makes it way tastier—it’s worth the oil, I think. I shake a bunch of Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Poultry Magic on there and a bunch of ground cumin, which is like magic. I sear that mixture on high heat, then throw in a can of stewed tomatoes. I simmer that a bit, then throw in cooked rice. I use brown rice because it’s better for you—it has almost six times the fiber of white rice. (White rice is useless. Don’t eat it. I used it with this batch because it was all I could find.)

I have a burrito practically every day made with beans, this rice, cheese (I don’t skimp on this, actually), and really good salsa. Pound for pound I think the salsa I get is more expensive than heroin, but it’s much better for you. These burritos rock. The deal is, when you put rice and beans together, you get a complete protein. (Click here for details.) Also, the fiber in beans, helped out by the cheese and by the bran in the brown rice, help that burrito burn slowly. That’s good because it means you won’t snack.

Also, because a burrito is a modular food, you can control the size and thus your intake. I either use a soft-taco size tortilla or half a regular tortilla. That’s a big enough burrito even for a big guy like me who works out a lot. Of course, the flour tortilla is complete crap, nutritionally. But what good is a diet that makes you want to kill yourself? Whole wheat tortillas should be banned.

Note, in the journal snapshot, my wife’s apple, raisins, and blueberries, and the zucchini, peppers, and cherry tomatoes we both had with dinner. Of course we should have had more vegetables (we were just easing into this South Beach thing). Note also the peanut butter. Sure, it’s pretty caloric (as a commenter on my last post pointed out) but it greatly helps with a feeling of satiety. This is crucial. If you try to cut down on calories without addressing satiety you’re going to be miserable. The point here is to reduce calories while still feeling satisfied. Hard boiled eggs are also good for satiety. I eat one of them then and I’m basically in no mood to eat for many hours.

How can we tell what foods will burn slowly?

Foods burn slowly according to how hard they are to digest. Obviously. Fiber slows down digestion, so it’s great. Meat also burns more slowly. I think cheese does too (and I’m not going to fact-check that because if there’s anything bad about cheese, I don’t want to know). What’s really cool is that slow-burning foods can actually slow down digestion of fast-burning foods consumed in the same meal. So the meat and beans in your burrito make the tortilla burn more slowly. That’s why when you eat a big burrito at a taqueria you don’t need to eat again for like four days. (Damn, I just drooled on my laptop.)

Here is one of my typical burritos. You can see a bit of cilantro creeping out the front. This will keep me going all the way until dinner, even on days that I work out.

There’s a numeric scale that describes how slowly a carbohydrate source will burn. It’s called the glycemic index (click here for details). It goes from 1 to 100. Anything over 50 is bad. Anything over 70 is really bad. You can download charts from the Internet. The digestive process, it turns out, is actually pretty mechanical. Chewy stuff takes longer and delivers its energy more gradually. (This is why I allow myself to eat gristle even when I’m trying to lose weight.)

Interestingly, the glycemic index (GI) of spaghetti is 46 (not very good), but the GI of al dente fettuccine is only 32. This isn’t too bad except that it’s impossible not to overeat with pasta ... a bite or two in, your eyes roll up into the back of your head and you abandon all pretense of self-control. You tell yourself things like “They’re just love handles!” and “Fat people are funnier, like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill!” and “I would look great in a double-breasted suit!” and “I can do this, I’m an athlete!” And that’s just your average joe. Pasta is especially dangerous if you have “baggage” like I do, such as my teenage tradition of eating all-you-can-eat pasta—usually 5 or 6 plates at a sitting—once a week for years.

But consistency isn’t everything. What makes food choices a bit more complicated is that it can be hard to predict how caloric a food is. Soba noodles, for example, are made of buckwheat flour, which is somehow relatively lo-cal. Buckwheat is not really wheat ... it’s a grass. No, wait, I just fact-checked and it’s not a grass. It’s a “pseudocereal,” related to quinoa, sorrel, knotweed, and rhubarb. (What is knotweed? I don’t know, but it’s probably like knothead, and you are what you eat, so be careful!) One great thing about buckwheat soba noodles is that  they have one calorie per gram, which makes it easy to measure your intake, plus that’s 32% fewer calories than semolina noodles.

The other good news is that the Huffington Post calls buckwheat “one of the healthiest foods you’re not eating.” This statement is arch and snotty, and Hufffpost is hip and modern, so you can see buckwheat has all kinds of cred. The bad news is that buckwheat soba noodles have a glycemic index of 59, which is on the not-so-good end of the spectrum. (Still way better than a baked potato at 111.) You know those so-called “glass” noodles? They’re made of sweet potatoes and have a GI of 39-45. And they confer the same groovy Asian-ness that soba do. So they’re a better choice.

So if glycemic index isn’t everything—due to variances in how caloric one substance is over another—what else do we need to consider? Well, for what it’s worth, there’s a separate scale called glycemic load. This scale, based on some formula the food people have devised, factors in the number of calories. These numbers don’t fall in such a nice range as GI, but suffice to say anything over 20 is bad, and single-digit numbers are the best. (Again, you can download charts online.)

For example, watermelon (as you might guess) has a high GI: 72, to be precise. This would be a good food for somebody with no teeth left. But we can have all we want, because it’s practically bereft of calories. Its glycemic load is just 4. Have at it!

Prunes have a nice low GI (29) but they’re also pretty sweet, so their load is 10 (which is still rather good). Carrots have a load of 3.5, which makes them a great “closer”—that food that is still sitting in a bowl on the table after you’ve eaten your little portion of indulgent goodness and are fantasizing about having seconds. After you munch down a few carrot sticks you might decide you’re not actually that hungry, per se ... maybe you were going to eat out of boredom but now you’re bored of the food itself. Congratulations! You’re going to dream about food all night and wake up ready to go toe-to-toe with that bathroom scale!

Glycemic load isn’t everything, but it does help us put certain foods in perspective. For example, the person who commented on my last post needs to be corrected. She said to avoid nuts because “they’re ‘healthy fat’ but a handful of nuts has, like 800 calories.” I think she was exaggerating for comic effect; it’s actually more like 170 calories. Still a lot, but the glycemic load of peanuts is a mere 1. That’s fricking amazing. No wonder they’re so satisfying. Last Saturday I rode my bike 70 miles, with 6,000 feet of climbing, but (after my modest glycogen window snack, a cup of honey-sweetened yogurt and a weird persimmon cookie), I just wasn’t that hungry so my lunch was just two handfuls of peanuts and 4 or 5 prunes. (When your body isn’t all fouled up by lots of sugary calories, it can burn fat like a motherfrockle. This is why distance athletes—whose bodies get especially good at this—are so freaking thin.)

So, if we don’t want to deprive ourselves of the foods we love, we just need to work on portion control, which is doable if for every part starchy, yummy goodness you make yourself plow through two parts bulky, low-glycemic-load vegetables. Cabbage is great for that. Yeah, it’s not the tastiest stuff, but that’s kind of the point. After eating a bunch of it you’re asking, “Could I be full?” rather than “Could I push past the pain and eat even more?” (Raw cabbage, I’ll concede, is almost inedible, except perhaps on a fish taco. Cabbage is better cooked, and the smell of cooking cabbage helps you lose your appetite—a win/win!)

If we’re going to be realistic here, napa cabbage is more charismatic than regular. It doesn’t have much flavor, but bulks foods out nicely (instead of bulking us out not-nicely). A cup of nappa cabbage has just 13 calories. It’s like the perfect thing to stuff yourself with. Best of all, you can spell it with either one “p” or two ... your choice! (I mixed and matched here, just to be more Google-query-friendly.) I have actually put nappa cabbage in a burrito, just to give it that realistic heft you get at taquerias. You wanna know the glycemic load of cabbage? It’s an infinitesimal 0.58! Amazing!

So ... what can I still eat while South-Beaching it?

The good news is, you can still eat anything with this approach, once you’re in phase 3 ... at least, the way I do it (and it’s working pretty well). But you can’t eat everything. That is, you need to figure out a few indulgent, non-South-Beach foods you just can’t live without, and keep eating them—but only occasionally, as a treat, and in small quantities with gobs of vegetables on the side. Other starchy or sweet foods will just have to go—you gotta choose your battles. So as much as I go on about pasta being too irresistible to mess with, I know I can never totally give it up. But if I’m going to occasionally submit to it, I better be pretty strict about desserts, white bread (like sourdough and baguettes, which I adore), and pretty much all baked goods. Oh, and I barely get to have pizza. Maybe this summer I’ll start riding Mount Diablo every weekend like I used to, and can cheat more.

But drinking ... that’s another matter.

What can I drink?

I’ll make this simple: don’t drink anything that isn’t a) water, or b) a drug delivery mechanism. Juice is all the sugar from fruit and none of the fiber so unless you’re actually trying to get fat, just skip it. If you have a reasonably balanced diet (such as South Beach) you’re getting plenty of vitamins without needing any juice. (“Vitamin water,” meanwhile, is sugar-water for morons.) Soda should be banned, but with a special dispensation for endurance athletes.

A commenter on my last post advised that you can “add splenda to all sorts of liquids and you can guzzle diet sodas.” I totally disagree. Diet soda confuses your body and triggers an insulin response, meanwhile dulling our senses to naturally sweet food, leading to the abuse of other sweets, according to this article and others. Splenda (sucralose) has long been thought safe, but recent studies (click here) link it to changes in intestinal microbes, altered glucose and insulin levels, and possibly cancer. Sure, we could debate the veracity of these studies, but why bother? Why defend chemicals designed to fool Mother Nature, just for the sake of justifying unsophisticated pleasures? If you have a constant craving for sweet drinks, you should try to figure out why. Shouldn’t you have cast off that childish fixation long ago?

Coffee (without cream or sugar) is completely fine. Drink up. Caffeine can even be an appetite suppressant, but be careful ... don’t be tempted to skip meals (which confuses your body, fouls up your energy levels, and creates diet-jeopardizing cravings). I don’t consider coffee a food, because it’s practically calorie-free. I think of it as a drug (and a very safe, useful one).

Alcohol is also, to my mind, also more of a drug than a food. But it’s a whole different deal from coffee because alcoholic beverages are highly caloric, in direct proportion to the amount of alcohol they contain (so don’t bother trying to count the carbs in this or that beer). And calories are only part of the problem. Because alcohol is a toxin, when you drink your body shuts down its normal metabolic processes (like burning fat) until it’s dealt with the alcohol. Meanwhile, mixed drinks often involve sugary mixers or Coke, and drinking lowers your inhibitions so you might lose some of the discipline you’ve been trying to have about your eating. (Click here and here for details.)

(You think it was possible to resist that fourth helping of fries after drinking Belgian beer? It was not, nor was it possible to resist dipping the fries in mayo, Euro-style. But that was a special occasion.)

It kills me that there’s a whole website, Get Drunk Not Fat, dedicated to worrying about the number of carbs or other fillers in alcoholic beverages, when moderation alone is the way forward.

Does all this mean you shouldn’t drink at all when trying to lose weight? I don’t think so. Statistically, moderate drinkers are less likely to be overweight than teetotalers. Meanwhile, alcohol can be a great way to hide from your problems. (That was a joke.) The question of whether or not to drink should certainly involve not gaining weight, but weight is only one component of this bigger lifestyle choice. I think that where this South Beach[-esque] dietary approach is concerned, drinking should be treated like one of those carefully selected indulgences you might decide to allow yourself from time to time. But you better not allow too many of these indulgences, and you better indulge sparingly, if you’re serious about losing weight.

The result so far

Today my wife said to me, “You’re starting to get gaunt. You’re starting to look like a bike racer again.” This isn’t really a compliment. In fact, it’s almost a warning. I think the subtext was something like, “Watch yourself ... don’t do too good a job with this South Beach thing.” I’m happy to report that if things continue on this trend, I’ll be around or below 170 pounds for the hill climb bike race I have planned for January 1. Following that, I might just take my eating habits back in a more northerly direction, secure in the knowledge that I’m not at risk of becoming the next Humpty Dumpty.

For a complete index of albertnet posts, click here.

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