By Steve Jacob
Mercifully, there seems to be a diet-book truce.
Authors appear to agree on what to eat: vegetables, fruits, lean protein, whole grains and beans – with the occasional indulgence. Each author may add or quibble about a certain food here or there, but each “system” is centered on the same healthy food. So this trio of books by scientists is refreshing because they delve more into the psychology and physiology of eating.
n “The Complete Beck Diet for Life” (Oxmoor House, $24.95) serves up a heaping plate of willpower and tough love. Judith Beck, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, employs the empowerment techniques of cognitive therapy to conquer bad eating habits and negative thinking.
Her Think Thin Eating Plan means you calculate the calories you need based on your ideal weight, plan your day’s eating and don’t deviate from that. You are allowed up to 300 calories of “indulgences,” but she wants you to develop the skill of inflexible eating. Each act of deprivation strengthens your “resistance” muscle and every unplanned bite reinforces your “give-in” muscle. Choose your deprivation: passing on what everyone else is having, or living with the inability to stay thin.
Her methods are workbook-y and busy, with a lot of affirmation cards, daily weigh-ins, record-keeping, food planning and measuring. But her approach is sound and offers specific tactics to exercise willpower.
n “The Instinct Diet” (Workman Publishing, $24.95) seems like a silly and undisciplined name for a weight-loss regimen. But Tufts University nutrition and psychiatry professor and author Susan Roberts argues readers can use their biological and psychological eating instincts to ease the burden of losing weight. The goals are maximum diet suppression and elimination of dietary triggers. Roberts downplays the importance of exercise in weight loss because it often gives dieters the rationalization to overconsume. Like Beck, she contends being overweight is the result of bad eating habits, compounded by giving in to compulsions. Her research shows the best predictors of regaining lost weight are giving in to the temptation of available high-calorie choices and overeating at holidays or on other special occasions.
n David Kessler, the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration under President George H.W. Bush, digs into the reasons for expanding waistlines in “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” (Rodale, $25.95).
He interviews food designers and manufacturers, several of whom declined to be identified, on how they intentionally use the unholy trinity of fat, sugar and salt to get you hooked.
Chemically, food cues cause the brain to release dopamine, which drives us to seek out food we crave. Eating that food releases stress-easing opioids that provide temporary emotional relief. Those two chemicals conspire to create a cycle that is repeated immediately or soon thereafter.
Eating is strongly associated with emotions, so food marketers attempt to associate their products with celebration, fun and love rather than nutrition. Kessler’s solution to breaking the bonds of overeating is virtually identical to Beck’s: Plan what you are going to eat and don’t eat more, and limit your exposure to what you crave so it will break its iron grip on your will.