Once upon a time – going back to the 13th century, actually – the word diet meant much more than the food we consume. It derived from the Greek word diaita, which signified a way of life that comprised not just food but the entire gamut of healthy living, including exercise and other healthy habits. Fast forward to the 21st century, when the word diet is more popularly used as a verb and now typically refers more to the foods we don’t eat than those we do. How did this happen, what are its implications, and how can we change this mindset?
Unlike in our grandparents’ time, we live today in an age of excess, in which food is all around us all the time. We eat more and move less. And so we gain weight, plain and simple. To reverse the effects of weight gain, we occasionally restrict our food, until we lose some weight. We either meet goal or give up. Either way, we eventually resume our “normal” mode of eating, and the weight we lost soon returns, often in spades. And the cycle inevitably resumes, so that dieting becomes a yo-yo activity with no end in sight.
We (mother and teenage daughter) were caught in the same cycle, until this past year when we stumbled on a healthful eating plan based on the teachings of Dr. Joel Fuhrman, which we tweaked to suit our lifestyle and which Eliana nicknamed the “Diet Called Living” or DCL. Within three months, we both met our weight goals and now look forward to maintaining a healthy weight long term. The premise of DCL is that unless we commit to changing our lifestyle and embrace the original definition of diet as espoused by the Greek’s diaita, we risk living a life of perpetual “dieting.”
Over the course of this past summer, many friends approached us to inquire about our eating plan, and those who embarked on it quickly found similar successes. So we decided to share our experiences and insights from our DCL, especially as Yom Tov approaches, decidedly a time of lavish meals and generous portions that threaten to upend our best dietary intentions.
How Does the DCL Work?
Dr. Fuhrman developed a concept he terms “nutritarian,” namely, a diet that is nutrient-dense and plant-rich, which includes so-called “anti-cancer superfoods.” He summarizes this concept with his own “health equation”: H=N/C, where H refers to Health, N is Nutrients, and C is Calories. The formula posits that one’s health is dependent on one’s nutrient intake divided by calories consumed. The basic premise of nutritarianism is that nutrient-rich foods are almost always low-calorie foods (Fuhrman, Eat to Live Cookbook, p. 2), which allows for large, filling meals with a very high nutrient density per calorie.
For an example of how this works, say you opted for a meal made up of a generous portion of salad, consisting of leafy greens, an array of colorful veggies, a sprinkling of seeds, and a cup of chickpeas, lightly tossed with a natural seed oil dressing (see sidebar for recipe), you might be looking at a 350-400 calorie meal, and you would be very full. That same expenditure of calories would get you a much smaller portion of a meat and rice dish that would be far less filling. This is the science behind the Fuhrman diet concept and explains why its adherents avoid the diet hunger blues.
The Fuhrman diet is a fairly strict approach to healthy eating. If one adopts it completely, one will lose weight healthfully and quickly. However, it bars or severely restricts all of the following: added sweeteners (both natural and artificial), salt, oils, red meat, cured meats, fried foods, full-fat dairy, as well as white rice and white-flour products. So what’s left? A lot of veggies, both raw and cooked; fresh fruits (up to a three per day); beans and legumes (the main sources of protein); and nuts and seeds (the primary sources of healthy fats).
Practically speaking, sample meals might consist of oatmeal with fruit for breakfast; a huge (we’re talking a one-pounder) salad for lunch to which are added chickpeas and a small amount of nuts or seeds; and for dinner, a large bowl of vegetarian lentil soup, spicy bean burgers, and a side of steamed green beans.
This is healthy food to be sure, but it demands extra prep time and may not appeal to people accustomed to following a standard Western diet. What Fuhrman does have going for it, besides its healthful aspects, is the fact that there is no calorie counting involved whatsoever. The beauty of this program is that you can fill up on the “allowable” foods and are guaranteed never to be hungry – while losing weight. We went for it.
At first, we followed Fuhrman’s guidelines to the letter. We saw results almost immediately. But we soon saw that modifications were necessary, especially when it came to Shabbos and simchos.
Here are some observations from the two of us:
Eliana: The test came every week when Shabbos came around. We are frequently invited out, and our hosts serve wonderful meals (not oil- or salt-free) and creamy, delectable desserts (containing sugar, of course). And that’s when I discovered the genius of DCL. I realized that if I could maintain a level of moderation, eating dessert on Shabbos is totally fine – as is a juicy hot dog at a Sunday BBQ. If I go out with friends, I am going to have my frozen yogurt. That’s why I called this eating plan “the diet called living.” DCL is about being healthy and normal.
Adina: I agree with Eliana about Shabbos. While I enjoyed following Fuhrman’s program, and saw many health benefits in addition to weight loss, I felt strongly that I did not want to become a slave to a diet (which is what diets often demand of us). The diet needed to work for me and not the other way around. And Shabbos, with all of its beautiful customs and traditional foods, fell outside the strictest definition of Fuhrman. I quickly decided that when I am a guest in a friend’s home, I would partake of meat, cholent, challah, and whatever beautiful dish that appealed to me, lekovod Shabbos.
Eliana: In the past, I often fell prey to the lure of cold bottles of soda by the checkout counter, quick snacks on the go, and processed quick-and-easy dinners. I always saw the path to “dieting” as this giant leap over a vast chasm. One side was “anything goes,” and the other was “everything carefully measured,” and the only way across it was by setting sail into a world of calorie counting and deprivation, to be followed by a build-up of cravings and, soon, the irresistible urge to “cheat.”
I noticed that people were usually spurred to diet when facing a big moment in their lives. There would be this sudden shift from mindless snacking on junk food to living on nothing but salad and water. Whenever I contemplated this whole crazy process, I would retreat to my bag of Mint Milanos and insist, “No way, that’s not for me.” The DCL changed that. What if I built cheats into my diet? What if I followed it not perfectly but well enough? Would it work? I thought I would give it a shot.
Adina: I heard someone compare a normal, doable diet to a school exam. If you study hard, you can score 100% and get an A. But if you miss a few questions and “only” score 85%, you’re still getting a B, a pretty good grade. So, too, in this case. You can only succeed at a diet that you can maintain for the long haul. If I aim for perfection, I know I will eventually get discouraged, because it’s an unrealistic goal to maintain. But if I adopt the DCL approach, my chances for long-term success are much better.
For her part, Eliana felt she needed one daily “cheat” to give herself a sense of control over her diet, whether it was a handful of dates or a small dish of ice cream. The cheat was intentional, an integral part of the “diet.” Thus was the DCL born: a diet called living vs. a lifestyle of dieting. We adjusted the “rules” and made up our own.
Eliana: My mother approached me to join her on this journey, and I warily accepted. Going from soda and juices all the time to plain water was possibly the hardest transition. But I loved the vegetables (sautéed in water!); the colorful, crunchy salads with savory nut butter-based (oil-free!) dressings; the healthy smoothies and green shakes; and the funky black bean burgers. A whole new world opened up to me. The food was always good, and I was never hungry anymore. No longer would I finish a meal and still need more. I was acquiring healthy, natural nutrients, and I began to feel really good.
When I decided to eat healthier, I just wanted to feel good. I wanted to stop feeling lethargic and uncomfortable. It wasn’t that I was that overweight. But I knew that my Nutella and peanut butter and M&M sandwiches on pillowy white bread wasn’t going to help me feel energetic. Nor was my steady consumption of ginger ale and my refusal to drink unflavored water going to keep my frequent bouts of nausea away.
With the DCL, I lost all the weight from months of junk food binges. I now love feeling energized and am able to get things done. I went from a completely sedentary lifestyle to taking up running. I completed a 5K and, most recently, a 10K! I am confident in my outfits, and feel good about taking charge of my health and setting my own limits. And, this may be hard to believe, but I don’t even like soda anymore!
Adina: I like structure, so for the most part I follow the Fuhrman plan pretty closely, hewing to its “vegan” prescription during the week and tweaking it with mini-cheats on occasion. But others, like my daughter, who need more wiggle room have embraced her DCL plan and have found success just the same.
Eliana: There is another aspect of my new healthy lifestyle that I want to share: I learned it’s very important, and even sacred, to be mindful of what we eat. When we are about to recite a bracha on a food, we are supposed to think about what we are about to eat and understand where it came from so that we will say the right blessing for that food
I have acquired a deeper enjoyment of all the foods I eat. I now eat slowly, taking note of the flavors. I enjoy each spoonful and every bite. When I choose a “cheat,” I do so with care. I make sure it is a small portion, and when I am done, I feel like I have fully experienced every aspect of the treat. I think that is why I am satisfied even when I take so little. When I used to open up a party-sized bag of M&M’s, I would take one after the other until I felt sick, and often continued to take still more because somehow I wasn’t satisfied. Now, each bite I take is full of flavor and appreciation, which makes mealtimes a pleasure.
Adina: Eliana and I spent the summer following a diaita, not a diet. We ate healthfully, went on long hikes on the Northern Central Railroad Trail and the Loch Raven Reservoir, enjoyed the occasional fro-yo or sushi, and in general took charge of our health. We learned things about ourselves that were positive and meaningful. We shared our knowledge with others and continue to do so.
Introducing Friends to the DCL
It was inevitable that the topic of our “strange” eating would elicit conversation around our various dinner tables, and more than one friend decided to hop on this bandwagon. Without exception, every person who gave it a try was pleasantly surprised with the results. And these results did not just result in weight loss.
A chronic acid reflux sufferer found that less oil in her diet corresponded to a noticeable lessening of her symptoms. A diabetic lost weight and improved his numbers to such a degree that his doctor had to change his medication. A friend who has long been stymied by weight gain due to an underactive thyroid despite medication to treat it was finally able to jump start her weight loss.
There were also many instances of “collateral benefit.” One person would start the diet and another family member would also lose weight! It took just one person to create a ripple effect in their home that positively impacted other family members.
I recently read a thoughtful vort from Rabbi Eli Mansour entitled “Elul and the Pinhole.” In it, he asks why Chazal use the metaphor of a pinhole in the expression “Open for Me an opening like a pinhole” to explain the optimal approach to doing teshuva. We learn that when we take a small step, Hashem will enlarge that pinhole and help us to succeed. Rabbi Mansour asks why didn’t Chazal choose a different image of a hole, such as poking a finger into sand. He explains that, while a pinhole is small, it leaves a permanent mark on the fabric, unlike a hole in sand which is soon obliterated.
We learn from here that small changes are best, because they are more likely to be lasting. Gimmicky diets all eventually fail, because these are designed to be deviations from one’s normal way of eating; once the weight comes off, the “normal” way of eating is resumed. The DCL is a cute tweak to Fuhrman’s sound program, but if it works, I’m happy.
As we enter another New Year, may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life. May we each find what works for us, and may we blessed with good health, the resolve to maintain it, and the wisdom to pursue it with moderation.