Confused about artificial sweeteners and after-dinner snacking? Dr. Michael Dansinger, the weight loss and nutrition adviser for the hit television series The Biggest Loser, answers your questions about serving sizes and diet plans.
Q: How much of each food group should you try to have while dieting?
A:The Biggest Loser Food Pyramid makes it easy to remember how much of each food group to eat daily: just think 4-3-2-1. That's at least four servings (cups) of vegetables and fruits, three servings of healthy protein (fish/shellfish/poultry breast/egg whites/lean red meat/soy/low-fat dairy), up to two servings (cups) of whole grains, and no more than one sweet treat (for example, diet pudding) per day.
Q: How many servings of protein are acceptable?
A: Three 8-ounce servings of protein is a good rule for everyone. This is much more protein than most people eat, however we want to eat more healthy protein to help keep hunger away and because our muscles and tissues need protein to maintain optimal health. In general, people aiming to lose weight need to focus much more on eating more healthy protein and much less starch. Since 8 ounces of dairy or egg contain fewer calories than meat, those choices are especially favorable for people aiming to maintain a lower weight.
Q: As a general rule, how much fat should be in your diet?
A: We recommend about 25 percent of calories come from fat. To accomplish this, aim to minimize unhealthy fat from meat and dairy. Chose the breast meat from poultry, and avoid red meat unless it is 95 percent lean or leaner. Dairy foods should be 1 percent fat or fat-free. Minimize butter and margarine. Use olive oil or canola oil for most cooking needs, and keep it to a minimum. Olives, nuts, seeds, and avocados have healthy fats, but limit these foods to 1/4 cup per day when weight loss is the goal. When eating eggs, try to eat mainly the whites, although a few yolks per week seems reasonable. Fish has the healthiest fat and is a great food for weight loss and good health.
Q: Is there anything you should cut out entirely?
A: Trans fats, which are an unhealthy artificial fat used at some restaurant chains and found in certain processed foods, should be eliminated whenever possible. These unnatural fats are clearly harmful and promote heart disease.
Q: Is it okay to have some sugar? If so, how much?
A: Sugar is okay when it is part of a natural food. The problem comes from sugar added to processed foods or when it is concentrated as in fruit juice. Eating two or more portions of fruit per day is a great way to satisfy that sweet tooth. In addition, almost everybody wants to find the right balance between eating some sweet treats and maintaining good health. Eating a low-calorie sweet treat no more than once daily seems reasonable for those who want something besides fruit.
Q: What if I'm worried about artificial sweeteners? Is there a "natural" alternative?
A: Stevia, derived from plants, is a natural alternative to artificial noncalorie sweeteners. It comes as a powder in jars or packets or as a liquid, sold at stores specializing in vitamins or whole foods or through Internet-based vendors.
Q: Is it okay to eat a few small meals and also have snacks to spread your food intake out (and avoid "the hungries")?
A: We recommend three meals and two snacks. When eating the correct foods, hunger is usually easily satisfied.
Q: Is it okay to have a snack later in the evening so you don't go to bed starving?
A: If you're going to bed hungry, then you're eating the wrong foods. A snack after dinner is fine if it is healthy food.
Q: Can you eat ice cream on a diet?
A: Ice cream, cookies, cheesecake, chips, soda and other high-calorie unhealthy foods are always going to be easily accessible or even pushed on us throughout our lives. We all need to find a balance that allows us to live a fulfilling, happy life. For some, that means avoiding such foods at all costs, but for most that means eating such foods in limited amounts and in the right circumstances. If 90 percent or more of the food one eats is healthy and 10 percent or less is unhealthy, then that reflects a reasonable balance in my opinion.
Q: How much time should a person devote to a diet in order to see reasonable results?
A: If you don't see results in the way you look and feel within a month, then what you're doing is probably not making much difference, so look for ways to take it up a notch. Many can achieve 10 percent reduction in body weight within four months and maintain or extend that result for the long term as long as they stick to a reasonably ambitious plan.