A few nights later, I'm overtaken by my craving for after-dinner sweets. I'd ordinarily scurry to the deli to get sugar-free chocolate chip cookies like a junkie in need of a fix, but this time I manage to resist the urge. Their sweetness comes from isomalt, a sugar alcohol, says Michael Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. Sugar alcohols—including maltitol, mannitol, and sorbitol—have fewer calories than sugar and don't raise your blood sugar as quickly as the real thing. But there is a downside. "The Atkins diet generated an enormous number of foods made with sugar alcohol, and my concern about them is that they can cause explosive diarrhea," he says darkly. I haven't had that response to the cookies, thankfully, but I learn they can also cause gas and bloating in some people, so instead of the cookies I choose a bar of dark chocolate. It delivers such a lusciously intense flavor that I'm able to stop after a few squares rather than eat the whole bar. That has to be a first for me.
This newfound moderation has been one of the most surprising aspects of my little experiment. When I gave myself permission after years of denial to eat ice cream and cheese and chocolate, I went a little bonkers. A few nights after my meal with Guiliano, I topped a bowl of strawberries with a mound of real whipped cream the size of a softball. But after about a week, my appetite naturally scaled back when I discovered that feeling Thanksgiving-stuffed every day isn't a pleasant sensation.
And now for the big question: How much weight did I gain? A mere pound and a half. (Admittedly, I have a pretty active lifestyle—I live in New York City and walk everywhere, and I hit the gym five days a week.) More interesting to me is that I have, easily, double the amount of energy I had before. Because I'm not always ravenous, I sleep better. And though I gained a small amount of weight, my stomach is actually flatter because my digestion has improved; dehydrated potatoes and extruded corn aren't exactly high fiber.
However much I enjoyed the monthlong real-food jamboree, I know I'll have to make some changes going forward. Ice cream will be a treat, not a daily occurrence. A pound and a half isn't much of a weight gain, but over the course of a year, it would add up. Still, I'll never go back to the way I used to eat. I have become so much more attuned to the freshness, color, and variety in food. And what I thought was a light feeling was actually a lack of energy. Now after I eat, I think, Wow, I feel satisfied, instead of Wow, the bag is empty.
Sometimes I backslide and have a diet lemonade, an old friend that I can't quite get rid of. But I take comfort that even my advisers aren't perfect. Young likes barbecued soy crisps, Meyer admits to energy bars, and Jacobson, "throwing caution to the wind," uses spray margarine on his air-popped popcorn. But now I live by Young's rule: "The more processed the food," she says, "the less frequently you should have it."
Meyer agrees. "It never delivers the pleasure or flavor of the real thing," he says. "I don't want to be the pope of health here, but I want to be around for a long time, because I love life." He laughs. "And part of what I most love about life is eating." Amen to that.
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