‘The Diet Fix’: How to fix your broken diet… with chocolate

Bariatric physician Dr. Yoni Freedhoff felt so compelled to write a book on dieting that, on a momentous day in 2009, he holed himself up in a 500-square-foot shack in northern Ontario with no Internet, no cable television, and no cell phone reception. Forty-eight hours later he’d written 30,000 words of which he used to craft a book proposal for what would become the beginnings of The Diet Fix: Why Diets Fail and How to Make Yours Work (to be released on March 4 and available for pre-order at Amazon now).

Dr. Freedhoff’s inspiration had come two years before, just after he’d finished writing his share of a handbook for clinicians, which he co-authored with Dr. Arya Sharma, professor of medicine and chair of obesity management at the University of Alberta. It was then that Dr. Freedhoff thought that the public deserved a book with a clinician’s advice. The Diet Fix draws from nearly a decade of Dr. Freedhoff’s clinical experience as founder and medical director at the Bariatric Medical Institute at the University of Ottawa—more than 13,500 hours, and nearly 40,000 one-on-one patient interactions.

Summing up what he’s learned over all that time about what was missing from his early days in helping patients, Dr. Freedhoff writes, “It was prescriptions for chocolate.”

In a time where more than 37,000 books currently make up the “diet and weight loss” category on Amazon, it’s practical advice based on clinical experience that sets the book apart from others. And, it’s a positive message that any food, such as chocolate, is not off the table.

The book is not a repeat of calorie-counting basics. Nor does it prescribe some foods while forbidding others. Nor does it espouse any specific “good/bad diet,” “scientific or pseudoscientific diet,” “crash diet,” “exercise diet,” “magic pill diet,” or “eat smarter diet.” The book’s message is simple: Any diet can work with the right know-how. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the actual foods people eat while on any one of a number of popular diets—be it low-fat or low-carb, vegetarian or paleo, Ornish or Atkins, mostly “processed” or “whole”. These diets (plus many others) all successfully produce weight loss, according to the scientific literature.

“At the end of the day, all diets work, every last one. Even diets with nonsensical approaches can help people lose weight,” according Dr. Freedhoff.

Why, then, do the majority of dieters fail to lose weight and keep it off? Blame it on hundreds of millions of years of human evolution that has made hunger a physiological force to be reckoned with, Dr. Freedhoff argues. Then, combine that hunger with human nature’s inherent drive to satisfy our pleasure-related desires. “We’re just not built to needlessly suffer forever,” he writes.

This self-destructive dieting behavior can cause what Dr. Freedhoff has dubbed Post-Traumatic Dieting Disorder. It’s a combination of one or more symptoms such as unhealthy body image, social withdrawal, and feelings of hopelessness, shame, failure, or uselessness. What people are missing are the skills necessary to avoid diet pitfalls, such as hunger and other sources of misery. It’s not for lack of willpower, but lack of skillpower, as Dr. David Katz calls it, that causes folks to fail their diets. The Diet Fix is designed to be the guide that helps people get to long-term weight management.

Debunking Diet Myths

Dr. Freedhoff tells me that he decided to start the book out by debunking common diet myths before giving advice because: “Before getting into what works, I wanted to explain what doesn’t, and equally important, why not.” Besides, a lot of these myths can perpetuate recurrent traumatic dieting.

One of the most common myths that set people up for failure is that people don’t have the willpower. That’s not true; the facts are that in our modern food environment, Dr. Freedhoff argues, “brute-force willpower doesn’t stand a chance.”

Some myths are that to succeed you must suffer. These include dieting, by definition, must be difficult and some foods simply must be forbidden. Dr. Freedhoff takes the opposite approach, regularly writing prescriptions for chocolate, cookies, chips, and ice cream.

Hunger is not your friend, he says; it was produced by more than 100 million years of evolution and has taught the human body that it has to either eat or die. This is why Dr. Freedhoff says that one of the most dangerous myths is that you shouldn’t eat unless you’re hungry.

Another pervasive, destructive myth is that if you know you’re going to have a high calorie night, you better make sure to skimp all day. Thinking this way only leads to letting hunger drive poor eating choices at dinner.

Obviously not true is the myth that there’s weight loss in that there bottle. There are no magic pills.

Another widely believed myth is that the last 10 pounds are the hardest. Although it’s true that dieting and weight loss will lead the body to burn fewer calories, causing weight loss to be slower, it shouldn’t require any additional effort.

Finally, the “one myth that rules them all” is that our weights should all be ‘ideal’. There’s a big difference between the “healthiest life you can enjoy” and the “healthiest life you can tolerate.” We’re human, folks.

The 10-Day Reset

With the 10-Day Reset, the book offers a straightforward, honest plan based on clinical experience. There are no exaggerated promises here. Dr. Freedhoff describes it this way, “It’s 10 days to reclaim a healthful relationship with food. Though, of course, it’s a person’s 10 first days on what no doubt will be a much longer journey. The scars of traumatic dieting in my experience take quite a while to fully heal.”

On Day 1, the book advises readers to gear up—because, “Guessing doesn’t work. Our eyes, honed by hundreds of millions of years of evolution, are designed to catch moving objects, not weigh them.” He recommends purchasing scales—”one for you, and one for food”. Other gear needs include a journal or smartphone app for food diarizing, groceries for the week, resealable plastic bags and plastic containers for storing leftovers, and comfortable clothing for exercise.

Day 2 is the day to diarize—a time to get used to keeping a food record in a journal or using an app. The task might start out taking up to 20 minutes a day, but with practice it can be minimized to about 5 minutes tops. Diarizing is surprisingly useful, he says, because tracking what foods contribute the most or fewest calories can help guide food choices. So can tracking the timing of meals and snacks, episodes of hunger, any triggers linked to dietary struggle, and any emotions or thoughts that are relatable to food.

Day 3 is the day to banish hunger. Some real nuggets of advice for curbing food cravings are revealed. It’s all about pre-emptive hunger-free eating:

  • Eat breakfast within the first hour of waking up
  • Plan to eat every two and a half to three and a half hours
  • Eat a bare minimum of 300 to 350 calories per meal for women and 400 to 450 per meal for men (or at least one-fifth of total daily calories)
  • Snacks should be 100 to 150 calories for women, 150 to 200 calories for men
  • Ensure at least 20 grams of protein in each meal and at least 10 grams with every snack for optimal satiety and to slow absorption of sugars
  • For every 45 minutes of sustained or vigorous exercise, add an additional 150 calories immediately before or after the workout
  • If hungry, eat more. Don’t go hungry.

Curious why there was little mention of dietary fiber or volumetrics—for example, filling up on large volumes of low-density food like vegetables—for controlling cravings, I asked why. Dr. Freedhoff said that in his experience fiber just didn’t offer the same satiety, nor was it practical. Also, while volumetrics has some proven clinical utility, he says, “it tends to fall apart in non-clinical trial living aside from dinner. It can take significantly more time to consume, which doesn’t lend well to today’s modern day frenetic lifestyles.”

Moving on to Days 4 and 5, it’s time to start to Cook and Think. This means getting to know the food that’s “going into your body” and, then, making some real changes about the way you think about your food. It’s about changing the relationship one has with food and the goal is to map out meals and “break free of society’s traumatic dieting shackles.”

There’s plenty of praise to be had for exercise on Day 6, as long as it’s understood that it will have little effect on weight loss. “You just can’t outrun your fork,” Dr. Freedhoff reminds. That facts are that losing just 1 pound a week through exercise would require most people to endure seven hours weekly on the treadmill—and that’s not realistic. But people should still get at least a “toothbrush level” of exercise or as much as possible. Dr. Freedhoff’s eight-word fitness manifesto, “Some is good. More is better. Everything counts.”

I asked Dr. Freedhoff why the book doesn’t spend much time discussing resistance training for muscle. He said he didn’t disagree that resistance training (and slow losses on a diet with sufficient protein) can help minimize the loss. But being pragmatic, he’d rather simply encourage people to find exercise that they enjoy. “If I get a person moving more by being more permissive with my exercise prescription, I’d venture that will have more of an impact on lean tissue preservation than if I inspired them to try to do something they didn’t enjoy that only lasted for a few weeks or months,” he said.

Days 7 and 8 are all about that pleasure: indulge (as in, eat chocolate) and eat out. Just plan ahead for these. Then, set goals and trouble shoot and move forward on Days 9 and 10. Be smart (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) about goals and look for ways to improve like using reminders on a smartphone to snack and diarize.

These Reset principles can be applied to any diet, so readers are encouraged to choose foods that they’re sure to like. Of course, there are some food nuances to be found, and nutritional and medical needs to considerBut the underlying message of the book is, don’t suffer and don’t go hungry. In short, what makes The Diet Fix a game-changer is the plain-spoken way that Dr. Freedhoff presents the reality that no diet can work if it makes life unbearable.

When asked to summarize his philosophy by a Twitter follower from the UK, who isn’t able to order the book yet, Dr. Freedhoff responded, “Aiming people towards healthiest lives they can enjoy with hunger prevention as cornerstone of thoughtfulness.”

Well stated, Doctor.

Published by David Despain, MS, CFS

David is a science and health writer living on Long Island, New York. He's written for a variety of publications including Scientific American, Outside Online, the American Society for Nutrition's (ASN) Nutrition Notes Daily, and Institute of Food Technologists' (IFT) Food Technology magazine and Live! blog. He's also covered new findings reported at scientific meetings including Experimental Biology, AAAS, AOCS, CASW, Sigma Xi, IFT, and others on his personal blog "Evolving Health." David is also an active member of organizations including the National Association of Science Writers (NASW), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the American Society for Nutrition, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the National Audubon Society. David has a master's degree in human nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, and a bachelor's degree in English from University of Illinois at Springfield. He also earned his Certified Food Scientist credential from the Institute of Food Technologists.

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