Saturday, June 30, 2012

Slimmer: The New Mediterranean Way to Lose Weight by Harry Papas (©2012)

This book has "The International Bestselling Diet Plan" emblazoned across the top of the cover, although I'm not sure if it has been previously published (or best-selling) anywhere other than Greece, where the author is located. Still, when I was asked if I would be interested in a review copy, and advised that it "doubles as a fantastic cookbook", it seemed worth a go. I like Greek food rather a lot, and Mediterranean cooking in general.

So, what does it look like?

In a Nutshell
The recipe section of this book is 87 pages out of a total of 234, which is a respectable number of recipes for something that isn't foremost a cookbook. The diet structure appears as three cycles of 21 days each, A, B, and C, although it was not easily discernible as to the differences between the cycles, the author promises that the cycles are calibrated to progress sequentially, increasing the amount of fat burning ingredients. This is not further specified. The meal plan part of the diet gives highly detailed menus to be followed for each day of each cycle, with a "free" day as the last day of each cycle. The "free" days are somewhat prescriptive, but generally gives a break from the strict cycle. This is not a calorie-restriction diet (or even a calorie-counting diet), it's more of an "eat these things and it will work itself out" diet.

In addition to the recipe section, the introductory portion discusses the various highlighted foods of the Mediterranean - olive oil, vinegar, dairy, fresh fruits and vegetables, along with the author's own story of weight loss and general enthusiasm to encourage for the reader.

There's not a huge emphasis on exercise, but that's fine with me. The introduction discusses the merits of walking (one of my favourite forms of exercise, in any event), but it doesn't blather on at you about needing to go to the gym.

The Good
The recipe ingredients are real food (mostly - see below). Snacks are included. Most of the recipes look quite tasty, and serving sizes are quite generous, although occasionally ambiguous. For the most part, while the diet has inherent limitations in that you follow the menus strictly, the recipes and menus tend to focus on those items that you can have abundantly, rather than those to be avoided.

The recipes aren't entirely fat-phobic, and even go as far as to indicate that certain vegetables are better for you when ingested with a little (healthy) fat, such as the olive oil indicated for salad dressings.

There are a lot of classical Greek items here, generally streamlined at least slightly in terms of calories and ease of preparation: Greek Chicken with Roast Potatoes, Mediterranean Chickpea Salad, Greek-Style Phyllo Calzone, Meatballs with Rice, Chicken with Orzo, and Greek-style Grilled Fish and Vegetables, to name a few. There are also Provençal recipes, Italian-inspired recipes, and lots of simple, fruit-based desserts that sound very nice.

The Bad
The extremely precise sixty-day plan (63 days if you count the "free" days) has a lot of repetition. The breakfasts are somewhat generously sized, but rather rigid, with the exception of one item that rotates - today cheese, tomorrow jam, the next day turkey sausage, etc. While I have been known to go an entire month eating sliced tomatoes on toast for breakfast (in tomato season, of course), the sameness of the breakfast menu gets a bit wearing looking forward through the next 59 days. I did try the breakfast (cheese version), but was starving by nine thirty and had to get into my scheduled snacks early, so it doesn't seem quite geared for my particular metabolism.

There's a lot of salad. My very first thought as I started to read the daily menus was that he should have called this "60 days of salad" since "large tossed salad" appears on the menu every single day. In the post-recipe section FAQ, it allows that a couple of times per week this can be substituted for two cups of steamed vegetables, lightly dressed with olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar. Still, that's a lot of tossed salad. The "large tossed salad" is not the only type of salad on the menu, either, so often you would be having two salads in a single day - not the end of the world, of course, and some of the offerings are quite creative, but there's a certain amount of repetitiveness, all the same. The reliance on salads also leads to a large number of meals that are cold. Easily done in the summer, even preferable, perhaps, but harder to work up the enthusiasm for in the winter.

The daily reliance on large quantities of fresh fruit and vegetables means that this program may be quite expensive to follow, especially out of season, when many fruits and vegetables are going to be a) imported from far away, b) significantly more expensive, and c) not generally at their best, for flavour, texture, or nutritional value. So. Timing is crucial unless you have year round access to in-season produce.

Portions are one-size fits all, which seems a little problematic: a two hundred pound person who wants to shed extra pounds is going to have very different intake requirements from a two-fifty or three hundred pound person, for example. The recipe servings are relatively generous, which leaves your appetite as the only modifying tool to decide how much you should be eating, and if your appetite mechanism is damaged or broken, that can be an additional challenge. Some additional guidance might be helpful here.

The Scary
Despite the fact that most of the recipes use "real food" as opposed to "diet foods", there are certainly some instances of reduced-fat mayonnaise, reduced fat cheese, yoghurt is *always* non-fat, and the preamble suggests that you can have three diet sodas per week, which is just baffling to me. I've been to Greece, and I get that Coca-cola and Fanta are everywhere, there, but damn! Diet soda is not food, and has no place in a healthy eating program. My general rule of thumb for reduced-fat mayonnaise, and other similar situations, is to use half the amount of the real, full-fat item if you're going to taste it, and to find something else entirely (if possible) if it is buried somewhere (e.g. in a baked dish where the flavour isn't prominent). Reduced-fat is often reduced-satisfaction. I'd rather have less of the real deal.

The rigid nature of the diet itself seems to me to be doomed to failure. Even hardened dieters who have weighed everything in their kitchens and know calorie counts off the top of their heads are likely to balk at having every meal, every snack, every aspect of their food accounted for. Now, in a setting where the food and snacks were all provided, it could be quite manageable, I suppose, but I think setting up 60 days of complete adherence is going to be a challenge for most people.

There's a sort of breathless tonal quality to the narrative as it relates to the traditional Mediterranean lifestyle that I found slightly irritating, but after that I was too busy cringing over the demand that the reader/dieter spend days or even weeks preparing for the diet by keeping a food journal (not a bad idea for other reasons, but not so much as "preparation"), getting lots of sleep, and removing stressors from one's life. It's not that any of the recommendations are bad per se, but they really have nothing to do with starting to eat more sensibly, and in the worst case scenario simply leads into putting off ever getting started.

One particularly awful paragraph explaining how to eat a serving of apple pie (in phyllo, recipe provided) which involves putting it on a pretty plate and looking at it for a while before over analyzing every painfully slow bite. I was immediately put in mind of a dog balancing a biscuit on its nose. I cannot imagine a less fun way to eat pie, and while I'm no fan of the "snarf it down in front of the telly, barely noticing what you're eating" mode, I can't imagine that this overly-conscious mode is any better. Although, I do admit that I like the pretty plate idea, and a lot of us could do with slowing down our eating pace a little.

Then there's the small section at the back entitled "The Psychology of Slimmer" which I knew pretty much right away was not for me. For one thing, much of it is written in the second person, assuming that the reader suffers from each and every mental roadblock described, and diagnosing the reader's anticipated failures up to this point, which is shockingly negative and unlikely (I hope) to be accurate. It harkens back to the old snake-oil sales-pitch that assumes you've tried all the rest, now try the best, and it leaves me feeling...icky, and somewhat depressed, although not about the things it supposes I should be depressed about.

Moving on to the food, however, which is much more appealing:

Test Recipes
What better to test than one of the salads, since there are so very many of them? The Lentil Walnut Salad caught my eye as soon as I thumbed past it, and I knew right away that this would be the first recipe I would make.

Lentil Walnut Salad
When I talk about generous servings, this salad comes to mind. It starts with a cup and a half of cooked lentils, and that's for only one person (for lunch).

1 1/2 cups cooked lentils (I chose brown lentils, but it didn't specify)
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1/4 cup finely chopped green bell pepper
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 walnuts, chopped
1 tablespoon walnut oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, crushed
salt & pepper to taste

Combine the first five ingredients in a medium bowl. Mix the remaining ingredients in a small dish and fold into the lentil mixture. Chill (covered) for an hour, or overnight.

Serve over lettuce leaves, in a bowl, and top with grape or cherry tomatoes and a few croutons.

I've made this twice, now, and I can firmly attest to the following things:

1) It is a very nice salad
2) It is better the second day, so make it ahead
3) It can take at least a quarter cup of parsley
4) For the best flavour, toast your walnuts before chopping them
5) Croutons are not really necessary
6) I will happily make this again


The next test recipe I decided to make was the Slimmer Chicken Á La Crème

This chicken dish is the very first dinner on the first cycle of the diet, so I figured it was likely to be pretty good - start with one of your best recipes, or risk putting people off of the program right away. On the confusion front, however, the menu for the dinner on Day 1, Cycle A is "Slimmer Chicken A La Creme; Large Tossed Salad", but it does not mention how the chicken is served. In the recipe itself, it suggests serving it over rice (how much?) for dinner, and to fill a half-pita for lunch the next day (the recipe makes two portions).

I am going to assume that the menu for Day 1 therefore includes rice over which to serve the chicken. In the picture below, you sharp-eyed folks will note that I chose to serve it over a small amount of egg noodles instead, because we had been having rather a lot of rice dishes lately. I also took the option from the book of substituting steamed broccoli for the Large Tossed Salad. The chicken recipe actually made four servings, as the two chicken breasts I had amounted to 420 grams, which seemed like rather a lot of chicken for two servings. The recipe in the book indicates only to use two chicken breasts, and not how much chicken is needed overall. These were large chicken breasts, and we are accustomed to getting four meals out of a pound of meat, so that's what we went for.
Slimmer Chicken Á La Crème
Serves 2 (or four, in our case)

1 teaspoon olive oil
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 cup thinly sliced white mushrooms (we used creminis)
3 Tablespoons dry white wine (we used vermouth)
1 cup low sodium chicken broth (or water)
1/2 cup low-fat evaporated milk
2 teaspoons prepared mustard (we used Dijon)
1 teaspoon cornstarch

In a large skillet, over medium heat, heat the olive oil and saute the chicken pieces until just barely golden. Set chicken aside. In the emptied skillet, saute the onion and mushrooms until slightly browned. Add the chicken back, along with the wine, and stir through. Add the chicken broth (or water), and simmer for about 10 minutes, or until chicken pieces are cooked through. In a small bowl, combine the evaporated milk, mustard, and cornstarch, and stir until smooth. Add to the simmered chicken, and stir through, continuing to cook until the sauce is thickened. Taste, and adjust seasoning as you like.

I note that we accidentally added a clove of garlic along with the onion. I genuinely thought that it had been on the list. No matter, it didn't seem to harm anything, and a little extra garlic flavour is always welcome in our house.

The dish was fairly good - not a show-stopper by any means, but it certainly didn't feel or taste like "diet food" in the sense of being a lame, deprivation version of something you actually like. There are some similarities between this dish and a smothered pork chops dish that I make, and I have to say that I like mine better - it's made with sour cream or Greek yoghurt in place of the evaporated milk, and has a tang to it that I enjoy. While we both enjoyed this dish, it won't replace our pork chop dish any time soon. I think that anyone who currently uses a can of mushroom soup to sauce up their chicken or pork would probably like this a great deal. Personally, I thought it could use a little more seasoning - a little fresh thyme, or some smoked paprika to finish it, perhaps, and if I were to make this again, I would certainly do that. Possibly more garlic, too.

Further Thoughts
The primary reason to read this book is for the recipes; the philosophy is both somewhat thin and at times oddly condescending, but the food looks wonderful and the first test recipe is an unqualified success. There are still a lot of recipes in this book that I want to make, and I plan to do so. It would be great if the recipe section had included some pictures of the finished dishes - I think recipes are more inspiring when you can see how it's supposed to turn out, especially for people who are new to cooking.

Overall, for me the strength of this book is simply as a cookbook - a tool for incorporating new, yummy, and healthy Mediterranean recipes.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Cook This, Not That! Easy & Awesome 350 Calorie Meals (©2010)

The enormously popular restaurant guidebook Eat This, Not That! has branched out into a number of related books, including this cookbook, which advocates for eating at-home ~350 calorie versions of popular dining out favourites, in order to save you calories and cash (and time) instead of going out for meals.

The authors assert that more weight loss occurs from getting into the kitchen than getting into the gym, and does a reasonable job of suggesting why that's the case: cutting calories rather than burning them, the psychology of workout/indulgence, time savings, and the simple fact that exercise need not take place in a fitness facility to count as exercise.

So, what does it look like?

In a Nutshell
This does not sell itself as a diet program (a separate book in the series may do that, although it describes itself as "The No-Diet Weight Loss Solution), but offers short, simple recipes designed to appeal in content to people who tend to frequent casual dining restaurants and national family restaurant chains.

The Good
The ingredients are real food. The authors outright and specifically reject what they call "scary food anomalies like fat-free half and half" and call for real butter, olive-oil based mayonnaise, and real cheese. In an effort to moderate portions of richer ingredients, real-food substitutions (such as whipped cream cheese instead of the dense brick style) are indicated, along with a brief explanation. I do note the appearance of low-fat swiss cheese and reduced-fat, all-beef hot dogs (in different recipes), but these are definitely in the minority, and most recipes do not depend on "diet" foods.

The recipes are also short in terms of both numbers of ingredients and steps to prepare, and are not complicated; therefore probably quite good for someone who wants to transition to spending more time in the kitchen. There's also quite a bit of variety in terms of cuisine-of-origin, and both meat and vegetarian options.

The Bad
"Meal" is apparently a relative term. A number of the dishes in this book require side dishes to be adequately considered a meal, at least in the lunch and dinner areas. I don't know about you, but I don't consider a small burger with nothing on the side a meal. Add some fries or a salad, and we're talking. The recipe may be fine, but maybe a "make it a meal" callout suggesting sides, such as the sweet potato fries (for which a recipe also included in the book) and including those calories for a meal total would be helpful.

The thing of it is, if you are going to encourage someone to cook instead of eating at these franchise-type restaurants, you need to be giving them something that looks like a meal once it's on the plate. Otherwise, it just feels like dieting. Now, it is true that you could eat two of the (recipe-version) Jalapeño Cheeseburgers (each at 360 calories for a total of 720 caloires) for less than the caloric payload of one of the cited Applebee's Southwest Jalapeño Burgers (1,110 calories), but adding a serving of the yam fries (@ 80 calories) instead of a second burger gives you a total of 440 calories, and feels like you're not being ripped off in terms of how much you get to eat.

The Scary
The comparisons cause me quite a bit of concern. While some of the recipes are straight-up comparisons (e.g. breakfast sandwich you make vs. breakfast sandwich you buy), and the comparison between calorie savings and financial savings can then reasonably be based on the numbers given. Unfortunately, not all of the "meals" in the book offer an equal comparison. For example, the recipe for Beef Stroganoff (260 calories) instructs you to serve the recipe over buttered noodles or steamed rice, but does not include the caloric payload of those items (although you can see them in the picture), nor does it suggest an appropriate serving size of pasta or rice. To therefore compare it against Bob Evans Pot Roast Stroganoff (813 calories), which includes noodles, seems a little disingenuous. Given the addition of a modest amount of noodles to the recipe (say, a cup of cooked pasta or basmati rice per serving, adding approximately 200 calories to a total of 460 for the recipe) still comes in substantially lower than the compared restaurant product. Why not include that information, then, so we can compare apples to apples?

Similarly, the Chicken Pizzaioli recipe does not include (or show) any pasta, and compares its 360 calories against Olive Garden's Chicken Parmigiana at 1,090 calories (and which includes a motherlode of pasta, going from the picture shown). This goes back to my previous complaint (see: The Bad). Who, realistically, is going to have a piece of chicken breast and sauce and consider that an entire meal? Again, adding a sensible serving of noodles or rice to the recipe brings it up to around 560 calories - which is still close to half that of the commercial product.

I do recognize that the goal of the book is to produce meals that are in the 350 calorie range, but that fails if you do not include everything needed to constitute the "meal". This problem only seems to affect a small percentage of the overall recipes, but it is one you definitely want to note, especially if you are counting calories to help you strategize your meals.

Test Recipes

I tried two entirely unrelated recipes from this book (three, if you count the sweet potato fries).

First, the aforementioned Jalapeño Cheeseburgers.

Serves 4 / Makes 4 burgers
1 pound ground sirloin
1 cup shredded Pepper Jack cheese
1 cup caramelized onions (recipe provided in book)
1/4 cup pickled jalapeños (recipe provided in book)
4 potato buns, split
salt & pepper
2 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons green relish
1 tablespoon olive oil mayonnaise

The last three ingredients there are combined to make a "burger sauce" analog (of the Thousand Island-y variety). I didn't have green relish, and couldn't locate one nearby that wasn't full of high fructose corn syrup, so I substituted finely chopped cornichons. It worked well - the sauce was tasty.

I did follow the directions to make the caramelized onions, but I used pre-sliced pickled jalapeño slices. I used extra lean ground prime rib, which was on special at my local grocery store.

I cooked the burger patties on a grill pan, topping them with shredded cheese after flipping them, as directed. I toasted the buns under the broiler. We used less than the allowable amount of sauce, because neither of us particularly loves "burger sauce", but the amount we used was plenty to keep the burgers moist and tasty. Next time, I would probably use a spicy mustard, or even a salsa instead. As you can see, the burgers were topped with the caramelized onions and the peppers. Next time, taking my cue from a totally different recipe, I plan to chop the jalapeños into tiny bits and mix them into the beef. That would be tasty!

The burgers were good enough to be considered repeatable (albeit with tweaks), which is something of an accomplishment in our house.

As you can see from the picture, we served them with Sweet Potato Fries.

Essentially, slice a medium sweet potato into wedges (for two servings), toss with a half-tablespoon of olive oil, some cayenne and some smoked paprika, salt and pepper, and bake at 425℉ for 25 minutes. We had already done this recipe previously, but we also include cumin in ours - highly recommended. You only need about a half-teaspoon of smoked paprika and the same of cumin (we like ours spicier than the recipe in the book. For reviewing purposes, we make these ones exactly per the recipe, but next time I would bump up the spices to our usual level.

The next recipe we tried was Orecchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Turkey Sausage.

That's four servings you see up there, each at a payload of only 345 calories (including the pasta, thank goodness!)

10 oz. orecchiette pasta
1 bunch broccoli rabe / rapini
1/2 tablespoon olive oil
2 links uncooked turkey sausage, casing removed
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
3/4 cup low sodium chicken stock
Freshly grated parmesan cheese

Boil up some water in a big pot. Once it is boiling, drop in the broccoli rabe and cook for 3 minutes. Remove the rabe with tongs (or a spider), and set them aside to be chopped into pieces.

Add the pasta and cook until just al dente (the book recommends a minute or so less than package directions). While the pasta cooks, heat the oil in a large skillet, and add the olive oil. Add the sausage and stir, breaking it up into chunks, cooking until lightly browned. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and saute for another five minutes. Add the chicken stock and the chopped rabe, and lower heat to low. Drain the pasta and toss immediately into the skillet with the sausage and greens. Toss the pasta with the sauce ingredients, adding a little reserved pasta water if necessary to loosen it up. Serve with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

I would recommend reducing the initial cooking time of the rabe to 2 minutes - it's so thin, that it can easily get overcooked. We found it on the edge of overcooked the first night, and the second day, simply heating up our leftovers pushed it over the edge. So, go easy on the initial cooking stage.

Further Thoughts
Despite the big complaints I have about the way information is presented, specifically in the areas discussed above regarding comparisons and inaccurate description of main dishes as entire meals, I like this book.

I like it as a cookbook - it's got loads of other recipes that I want to try, and I'm capable of doing the math if I need to add something to a dish to round it out into a meal. For the recipes that I tried, each one was simple to make, tasted good, and made me comfortably full for the balance of the evening on the first night (albeit with the addition of the sweet potato fries in the case of the burger), and in case of the pasta - on the second day, when I had the leftovers for lunch I was comfortably fed until dinnertime.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Seratonin Power Diet ©2006

With food being equated more and more with medicine, and psychology and food being inextricably intertwined, it's no wonder we're starting to see over-the-counter quasi-prescriptive diets that attempt to effect a medical improvement in the self-diagnosing general public. In The Serotonin Power Diet, published by Rodale, authors Judith J. Wurtman, PhD, and Nina T. Frusztajer, MD collaborate to assemble a diet that they claim will allow you to lose weight and regain control over emotional overeating and cravings.

The idea is that serotonin has appetite suppressing qualities that not only improve your mood in general, but make you less inclined to eat more than is required by your body. Therefore, the goal is to encourage the brain to produce more serotonin at regular intervals throughout the day, until your body re-trains itself away from the nasty negative habits that a lifetime of eating has gotten into.

So, what does it look like?

In a Nutshell

This diet is all about the carbohydrates, along the lines of a post-Atkins remedial education on the nature and benefits of carbohydrates (which, after all, along with fat and protein, one of the three basic building blocks of food), and strategies for eating carbohydrates to promote an increase in serotonin production. There are suggested, moderate calorie guidelines as well as suggested amounts for protein, fat, and carbohydrate consumption throughout the day. The diet is broken into three phases - increasing serotonin production, balancing serotonin production, and controlling serotonin production. There are almost 200 pages of recipes and more meal suggestions for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks for all three stages of the program.

The Good

It's nice to see pasta back on the general diet menu. A lot of foods that are no-nos on more traditional diets are permitted here, but the diet provides more structure to help rein in bad decisions. Make no mistake, this diet does not allow you to wallow in "forbidden" foods Primarily, there is a focus on limiting fat and protein intake along side those carbohydrates, so the jumbo platter of fettucini alfredo is still out of bounds.

The best thing this book does is strategy. It provides a lot of tips, scenarios and solutions for a wide variety of social settings, situations, time constraints, and other hurdles, while still leaving a lot of latitude for individualization.

The Bad

There are way, way, way too many anecdotal examples in the text. Between the Marthas and Marys, Larrys and Martins, my eyes were rolling back in my head, and it was frankly difficult to keep reading at times. Fortunately, this dies down after the first chapters of the book, but I found it rather tedious. We're not so dumb that things need to be explained using Patient X-whose-name-has-been-changed to provide an example.

The authors also have a proprietary product "Serotrim" which is available to help people get the "right" balance of carb/fat/protein in their snacks, and while ordinarily this would send me screaming in the other direction, the diet by no means hinges or harps on use of the product, and plenty of non-proprietary suggestions are made. I question the value of discussing the product though, if they're not trying to drum up business for it.

While the recipes tend toward using minimally processed foods, there are some exceptions, including the usual "diet" foods - light this, calorie-reduced that, fat-free the other. Can we just stop that already, and focus on the real food? Also, as discussed below in the test recipe section, the recipes do not seem to have been field tested, as there are clearly proportional ingredient issues.

The Scary

There is a strange assumption that the dieter is surrounded by unsupportive people. That may be the case for some, and some strategies for dealing with that are welcome, but it's a bit depressing of an assumption to take as a given. This assumption is underscored by the sheer number of recipes that make exactly one serving. Sure, you can double most of them, but really, if I'm going to the effort of making Red Lentil and Cauliflower Curry (and I might!), I'm going to make more that one serving, even if I'm only cooking for myself. The leftovers sound like an excellent lunch to take to work the next day, or a home made freezer-meal waiting to happen. Because quantities of certain ingredients (notably meat and starch) are varied depending on whether the consumer is male or female, it's really counter-productive to try to cook these recipes for a family, as you will need to split the difference or choose to increase the recipe based on only the women's portions or men's portions.

There is a brief FAQ-like chapter that mentions the glycemic index, which the authors wave off rather cavalierly, saying that unless you are diabetic, it doesn't really matter, given the small portions of foods ingested as straight carbs (usually as snacks). I thought that was unfortunately dismissive, and it appears to be the only place where the authors suggest that this might not be a good diet for you, if you are diabetic. It also ignores those who are simply trying to avoid becoming diabetic or insulin resistant, which is an obvious concern for heavier individuals. I found this response to a valid question about blood sugar to be handled inadequately. It should have been an excellent opportunity to talk about the need to control the amount of snacks and the timing of snacks so to keep blood sugar levels steady, but it left me wondering if the authors aren't too keen on scrutinization of the insulin issues that might arise from the plan. Because so many people who are overweight because they are emotional eaters (the apparent target audience for the book), there's bound to be a large number of them who have insulin-related concerns. If these concerns can be allayed, this would have been the time to do it - or better still, to point to a (currently non-existent) separate chapter on dealing with insulin production.

There is a restaurant guide section, broken down by cuisine, that attempts to steer you to better choices when dining out. However, some of the suggestions are a bit questionable. Black beans in a Mexican restaurant, for example, are unlikely to be available "not cooked in lard" unless you happen to be in a restaurant that is also vegetarian.

Test Recipes

I tried two entirely unrelated recipes from this book.

Meat, Rice & Beans with a Kick

Any recipe that's got a habanero chile in it is going to catch my eye. Chiles are one of the best tools a dieter has, because the amount of flavour they add, uncomplicated with fat, or significant sugars, gives you a lot of bang for your dietary buck.

Olive oil cooking spray
lean ground beef or turkey - 2 oz. women, 4 oz. men (I used 3 oz. turkey per serving)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 piece jarred roasted red pepper, chopped (how big is a piece? I used a whole pepper per serving)
1 habanero chile , chopped
brown or white rice, cooked - 3/4 cup women, 1 cup men (I used 3/4 cup cooked white basmati per serving)
1/4 cup canned white beans, drained and rinsed
1/2 cup canned diced tomatoes

The meat is browned in a skillet (coated with cooking spray), to which the onion, garlic, red pepper, and chile are added. I note here that the amount of onion is crazy. I made four servings, because I was serving two people and wanted leftovers to take to work, so that would mean a total of 4 onions, chopped, for 3/4 lb. of turkey. That is way WAY out of whack. Did they perhaps mean green onion? An amount in cups would have more clearly illustrated what the author had in mind. I used one large onion, chopped. It was a good amount, and I like onion. I did use fully eight cloves of garlic, by the way, even though it seemed a little overkill-y, too. It was fine, though, but I love garlic.

The rice is cooked separately, and, along with the beans and tomatoes, stirred into the meat/onion/peppers mixture at the end, just before serving.

I should also note that my local habanero source had dried up, so I used two serranos, and added a shot of habanero hot sauce.

The amount of food overall, portion-wise, was very good. It is a filling meal, and quite satisfying in that regard. However, there were some serious flavour issues. Salt was needed, and I'm not really an add-salt person. However, with the amount of rice involved in this dish, along with all of the vegetable mass, a little salt was needed. Not much, mind you - a half teaspoon of kosher salt would be fine for the four servings, if I was to make this again. As it was, I added a pinch to each serving after tasting. Also, the dish lacked any sort of unifying ingredient to bring everything together. Some lime juice might help, and after a couple of bites I sprinkled some ground cumin over my bowl, which helped a lot. Essentially, even with the big chile flavour, there wasn't any earthy or base notes in the dish, which made it the culinary equivalent of an orchestra of only flutes and piccolos. Next time, more cumin. I also added (after the initial taste test) cilantro, because I had some that needed using, and the dish so clearly needed something.

At the end of all of the tweaks, I have to ask myself if it doesn't make more sense to just make my favourite Mexican-style arroz (rice) dishes, just using leaner meats (and less) and little or no added fat, rather than try to fix this recipe. It wasn't bad, it just wasn't anywhere near as good as I had hoped it might be.

Indian Roasted Potato Chunks with Mint and Yogurt Dipping Sauce

Dipping Sauce (basically, a sort of raita)

3/4 cup fat free plain yoghurt
1 medium cucumber, peeled and chopped or grated
1/4 cup chopped mint
1 Tablespoon low-sugar orange marmalade
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
ground black pepper

Combine ingredients in a small bowl.

The cucumber instructions are inadequate. How much cucumber is a "medium" cucumber? Are they using field cukes, or long English? I had Long English on hand, and I ended up using about four inches, grated - about the same amount by volume as the yoghurt. Anything more than that, you don't have a sauce, you have a salad. Seriously, the amount should be given in measured quantity, not this vague "medium cucumber" nonsense that assumes I know what type and size of cucumber counts as medium. Rookie mistake, authors.

The sauce was tasty and pleasant, and did not need any additional ingredients.


Baking potatoes, cut into chunks ( 8 oz. women, 11 oz. men)
2 teaspoons canola oil
2 Tablespoons curry powder
Black pepper

Wacky amounts, again. Two tablespoons of curry powder? I used one, and had a very thorough, generous coating on my potatoes. Two is just too much. The instructions have you dumping everything into a re-sealable plastic bag and shaking to coat the potatoes, but I just through it all in a bowl, and tossed it around with a spatula to spare my fingernails from getting turmeric-stained. I also added a small amount of salt (my curry powder does not contain any).

Potatoes are turned out onto a sheet and baked at 450 F. for 1 hour. I baked at 425 F., because my oven sets off the smoke alarms if I go higher, but it worked fine.

The potatoes were delicious, and went well with the sauce. I will definitely be making this again, and I might vary the seasoning according to mood, too. Imagine a Greek version (raita and tzatziki are cousins, after all) with garlicky lemon rosemary potatoes!

This recipe was a solid win, despite the minor common-sense adjustments needed.

Further Thoughts

The main thrust of the entire program seems to be scheduling and highly specific snacking. In some ways, I'm not sure that this is really an actual diet, more of a few strategies stitched together with some extra padding (i.e. chatter about exercise, stress and other healthy living topics). However, there's a lot of useful information to take away from this book, and you don't really have to buy in completely to take advantage of the more scientific information that is presented. You just need a chisel to pry out the bits you want.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Mayo Clinic Diet and Journal (© 2010)

For years and years, various silly diets have been propagated around the globe, supposedly under the auspices of the famous Mayo Clinic. They have, however, been universally spurious, as there has never been an official Mayo Clinic Diet - until now.

The folks at the Mayo Clinic have apparently decided to assert their rights by releasing an official diet program, spearheaded by Donald Hensrud, M.D., the Medical Editor in Chief of The Mayo Clinic Diet and Journal, released in January 2010.

So, what does it look like?

In a Nutshell

This diet is a calorie and portion restriction program, (1,200 calories/day in the sample menus) that appears to focus mostly on motivation and daily diarizing of goals and keeping records of one's consumption of recommended servings of fruits, vegetables, protein/dairy, carbohydrates, fats and sweets. There are separate phases for weight-loss and maintenance.

The Good
  • Consumption of more fruits and vegetables is actively encouraged, which is a relief in the lingering haze of low carb-itis that is still dragging its heels on its way out the door. In fact, low-carb diets are discussed and somewhat debunked.
  • This book wants to be your cheerleader. There are great suggestions for staying motivated over time, realistic goal setting, and encouragement to help with those occasions where one has succumbed to temptation. There's a good chapter on how to change one's behavior, which applies to more than just dietary goals.
  • Most of the recipes are simple, and look tasty (some exceptions, see below in The Bad).
  • Useful information about downsizing portions, and switching out high-calorie foods for healthier alternatives, and recipe adaptation.
  • Some great sounding strategies, such as limiting the amount of television that one watches to the same amount that one has exercised. Even if you exercise quite a bit, keeping to this guideline should prevent excessive couch-potatoism.

The Bad
  • This diet is not really food-centric, despite the endless diarizing and checking off of circles on their food pyramid and fussing about serving sizes. It doesn't really seem to offer solid answers to the questions "What do I get to eat?" or "What do I eat when I get home late from work and I'm starving?"
  • The writing-things-down part of this program appears quite time consuming. This phase is not supposed to be lasting, but it's an off-putting amount of paperwork.
  • Very few actual recipes are included (ten pages in the main diet guide, a few more in the journal), many of which do not indicate the number of portions per recipe. A few are obvious stinkers: 1/3 cup cooked rice mixed with 1/2 cup sliced green onion, for example, which is suggested as a side dish for at least one of the dinners. I like green onion, but that does not sound good.
  • Some of the information seems contradictory. One grain/carbohydrate serving of cooked macaroni is 1/3 cup, yet one grain/carbohydrate serving of cooked orzo (a small, rice-shaped pasta) is 3/4 cup. How can these be nutritionally equal?
  • The book appears to use two definitions for the term "serving" - one being a reasonable meal portion, and one being the "servings present" in a portion (the classic example being a typical sandwich, which itself is a single portion/serving, and which contains two servings of grains/carbohydrates). It is not always clear which definition is being used, even though the book makes a point about distinguishing between the two in one of the chapters.

The Scary
  • Of the ten good habits they promote, eating "real food" (ie. not heavily processed) is buried second to last at number 9 (and comes after the five bad habits to break). Not only does this deserve far greater prominence, it is also in direct contradiction to the instances of highly processed "diet" foods found in the sample menu plans.
  • I saw little discussion of the quality of food that one is eating, and the sample menu plans include "calorie-reduced salad dressing", "fat free, reduced-calorie yogurt" and "fat free cream cheese" and other dietetic products that may be compensating for what they don't have (fat) with other undesirables (usually sugars and texturizers, and almost universally a higher level of processing). Sample menu plans refer to "calorie-free beverage", but in the absence of any discussion of the same, tacitly allow such items as diet sodas and other artificially sweetened water-flavourants. One of the sample menus suggested non-dairy whipped topping - again, without any guidance to steer people away from the nutritionally derelict offerings and toward any of the more whole-food options that are potentially available.

Test Recipe

Dilled Pasta Salad with Spring Vegetables
(no number of portions indicated)

3 cups shell pasta, medium sized
8 asparagus spears, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup halved cherry tomatoes
1 cup sliced green peppers
1/2 cup chopped green onions

1/4 cup olive oil
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 Tablespoons rice or white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons dill weed
cracked black pepper, to taste

Basically, you cook both the pasta and asparagus as needed, drain and rinse in cold water. Everything else is added raw. The dressing is simply whisked together and added to the salad at the end.

Recipe results: Very tasty combination of flavours - the amount of pasta could easily take more vegetables, which I may do next time. Maybe 2 cups of cherry tomato halves, for example. I doubled the amount of dill (I was using fresh dill), which was right for me, but your mileage may vary.

The dressing was surprisingly oily. Too much oil by half, I would say. I have since used the dressing recipe with only 2 tablespoons of olive oil, which I found to be perfect, to dress a green salad. I will make this again with the adjusted dressing.

It needs salt. Yes, I know that salt is going through a demonization period, and that some people need a lower-sodium diet. Even though I tend to have a light hand with the salt myself, I added a pinch of salt to the dressing, to help bring the flavours together. I think it was the right call, although, perhaps not if you are on any medical sodium restriction.

Further Thoughts

I find that I am turned off by diet books that promote use of "diet" foods. Can there really be no connection between the number of aisles in our supermarkets devoted to supposed diet-friendly foods and the ever-growing width of our nation's posteriors? I have far more respect for the idea of limiting fatty or sweet or otherwise troublesome (real) foods and enjoying them less frequently, than suggesting that it's okay to put diet products on our plates. I am disappointed that the Mayo Clinic's official diet appears to encourage the use of such things, and confused that the first sample recipe that I tried, which includes a homemade vinaigrette instead of the calorie-reduced versions indicated elsewhere, contains so very much unnecessary fat.

Mixed messages, but some very worthwhile ideas peppered throughout.

Thursday, February 4, 2010


Welcome to Much Ado About Diet, where we'll examine what the experts (and "experts") think we should be eating to improve our collective and individual health, weight, and overall well-being.

Coming up next - book review:

The Mayo Clinic Diet and Journal by Dr. Donald Hensrud and the Mayo Clinic team

Stay tuned!