Diet Trick or Treat?

Weight loss wonders and nutrition nightmares

Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD, LD on September 01, 2006

It bursts my balloon whenever I read bogus ads for "miracle" weight loss drugs or watch a commercial promoting the latest high-calorie, high-fat fast-food disaster.

You'd have to be living under a rock not to know that our nation is fighting an obesity epidemic. To the credit of many food manufacturers and restaurants, we're seeing more and more healthful changes on packages and menus. But there are also lots of companies trying to take advantage of overweight people who want a quick fix.

We'd all love to be able to lose weight simply by swallowing a pill or slathering on a cream. But if it were so easy, why would there be an obesity epidemic in the first place?

Of course, it's just not that simple. The only thing simple about weight loss is the math: Calories taken in vs. calories burned = weight gain, weight loss, or weight maintenance.

Over-the-counter pills, potions, and "miracle" cures are, at best, a Band-Aid approach to a very serious problem. At worst, they're just a way to separate you from your money.

Ghoulish Tricks

Nearly every magazine has at least one ad for a magical weight loss potion, promising to help you lose weight while you sleep or detoxify your body and get trim. The ads lure us with powerful testimonials from supposedly successful losers, even celebrities.

But remember that money, not ethics, rules this business. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Here are a few of the nutritional nightmares I've spotted lately:

  • A limited-time-only fast-food sandwich with double bacon, double cheese, and double burger -- otherwise known as a heart attack on a plate. Stick to the grilled chicken sandwich.
  • Low-carb wraps that are indeed low in carbs, but how about the 450 calories and 25 grams of fat?
  • A chicken pot pie that looks like a single serving, but its label information is for two servings. This becomes a problem after you eat the whole thing and ingest 1,140 calories and 32 grams of fat -- gulp! Read the labels before you purchase.
  • Claims that you can cure your wrinkles by avoiding foods with a high glycemic index, such as carrots. They can't be serious! If it were so easy, there'd be no such thing as a Botox party. Don't let anyone discourage you from eating super-nutritious vegetables like carrots.
  • The notion that you can't lose weight because your body is full of toxins, and a pill will solve all your problems. As long as your kidneys work and you drink plenty of fluids, toxic substances are not lurking in your body. Even if they were, they have nothing to do with weight management.
  • Diet pills that are supposed to rev up your metabolism and allow you to lose weight while you sleep. You know you must be dreaming; the only way to boost your metabolism is with exercise that increases your muscle mass.
  • Carb-controlled vitamins whose manufacturers are trying to cash in on the carbohydrate phobia that has swept the nation. Vitamin supplements cannot replace carbs. And your basic daily multivitamin is all you need for good health.

Terrific Treats

From treats packaged in 100 calorie servings to more healthful choices on fast-food menus, the food industry is coming up with ways to make it easier to control your calorie intake. Labels and many menus carry nutrition information and sometimes icons that show which items are healthy, helping us make informed choices.

It has become virtually impossible to go into a restaurant and not see at least some healthy offerings. The fast-food and fast-casual giants led the way with an explosion of grilled chicken goodies. Now, you'll find many more delicious choices with fewer calories and fat. Moving beyond America's favorite -- hamburger, french fries, and a giant soda -- is tough, but at least we have plenty of healthy choices on the menu. And menus at fast-food and casual dining restaurants have an enormous impact on what our nation eats. According to the National Restaurant Association, the average person eats a meal out 4.2 times per week and spends 53% of his or her food dollars on items eaten away from home.

Nutrition information is available on restaurant web sites and at most of the actual restaurants -- just look around for the poster or ask for a copy. If you want to plan ahead, check the web site before leaving home and decide on selections that fit your eating plan.

Here are some of the best bets at popular restaurants:

  • Salads are everywhere. But beware: some are better than others. Check the nutrition information and choose those with plenty of vegetables, beans, fruit, and lean protein. Top them off with light vinaigrette or low-fat dressing to keep calories in check.
  • McDonald's has added apple slices and apple juice or low-fat milk choices for its kids' meals. Some healthy salads are available for adults, and yogurt parfaits and low-fat ice cream are nutritious treats with less than 160 calories.
  • Wendy's has bolstered its list of healthful offerings with orange slices and low-fat milk "chugs," along with plain baked potatoes, chili, and salads.
  • Many pizza companies are offering a healthier pie with less cheese, meat, and calories.
  • Subway, Darden's Season 52, Ruby Tuesday, Taco Bell, Dairy Queen, and many others have also made menu changes to meet the needs of the health-conscious diner.

In 2004, Time magazine and ABC News held a summit on obesity -- a sort of call to arms to alter the fate of our overweight nation -- in Williamsburg, Va. The meeting was attended by health-care professionals, obesity experts, food manufacturers, and members of the media, academia, industry, and government. The meeting got us fired up and ready to meet the challenge. I believe that together, we can make a difference in the health of Americans.

As a member of the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic, consider yourself fortunate. You already know the answer to successful weight management -- a commitment to reasonable, healthy eating behaviors that you can sustain for life, along with regular physical activity.

This -- and not any pill or potion touted in clever ads -- is the true answer to our nation's obesity problem.