Saturday, January 23, 2010
I really didn’t expect anyone to be paying attention to the Dollar a Day project last year, and wasn’t fully prepared for the level of scrutiny it received.
One of the more ironic aspects, in my opinion, was the criticism it received for not being healthy, especially given the typical American diet. (As one of my friends noted in an email, “most Americans eat a revolting, nutrition-free diet, and here is a dietitian parsing your diet in great detail.”)
It seemed to me that it would have made more sense to compare the diet to a typical diet rather than an ideal one; I think I actually would have come out okay on that score. The only problem with the diet was that it was limited in calories, which I think is not necessarily a bad thing for most Americans. And one of the reasons it was so low in calories is because of the ridiculous way I set it up, spending only a dollar at a time and not using anything in my pantry, which made it very difficult for me to get any kind of fats or oils, or baking supplies.
All of the criticism got me thinking a lot about what people consider “healthy” and what they consider “unhealthy” and what kinds of foods are available and what people eat and what is expensive and what is cheap.
So I started reading up on that and have been thinking about and researching nutrition issues for the past year or so and it’s all been quite fascinating and I hope to write about much of what I learned over the course of the next few months.
One of the more interesting things I discovered involves the Rice Diet Program.
My interest in the Rice Diet didn’t come directly out of my research on nutrition; it actually came out of a reference in The People’s Pharmacy column in the newspaper.
Someone wrote in with a comment about diets that help lose water weight quickly for people who are having health problems that are exacerbated by water retention. (The specific condition referenced was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).) The Atkins diet is very good at this, and this is what the letter-writer recommended; the expert quoted by the Graedons agreed with letter-writer and also mentioned that the very low-sodium grains and fruit phase of the Rice Diet would have the same effect.
In April/May, I read Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes, which more or less says that carbs are the problem and a low-carb, high-protein diet like Atkins is the solution to pretty much everything. I hope to get to a full post on that book at some point because I have a lot of thoughts on it, and I wrote up tons of notes while I was reading it, but for now I’ll just say that the idea that a high-carb diet like the Rice Diet and a low-carb diet like Atkins could be used interchangeably to address a specific problem really jumped out at me.
At the time I was having some back problems that were much worse in the morning when I got up. A physical therapist told me that that was because discs absorb water so they tend to swell overnight, which results in pressure on the nerve. This made sense to me, and I know that when I have a lot of sodium, I really retain water, so the article about how to drop water caught my eye. I’m not at all interested in trying Atkins, but fruit and grains seemed like something I could easily do for a few days.
So I thought about trying it, but for a bunch of reasons didn’t do it at that point, though I did start tracking sodium in an effort to cut back, and was surprised by some of the things that had a lot of sodium in them — Grape Nuts, for instance, and tortillas. Who knew.
I don’t generally experience a lot of food cravings, but a few months later I was having one of those days where I hadn’t eaten and I was out trying to get some work done and thinking about what I was going to eat when I was done. I was trying to decide if I should stop and pick something on the way home or go to the grocery store and get stuff or just go home and eat. It was late — past 10pm — so my options were somewhat limted. And I really needed to work before I could go anywhere, so I decided to write down everything I was thinking about eating in an effort to just get it out of my head. It was sort of a scary list, it was basically all salty or sweet carbs (mmm, Tater Tots….).
I ended up not stopping anywhere and when I got home I fixed a bowl of oatmeal that for some reason I didn’t put salt in. And I ate that and my food cravings pretty much totally went away. It was really striking.
So that made me even more interested in the Rice Diet approach, since that’s one of the points of it. Here’s what they say on their website:
“Within forty-eight hours of eating no-salt-added foods (and usually within twenty four hours) you will marvel at how little desire you have to overeat. In fact, the more overweight people are, the more they seem to experience this change in appetite or perception of hunger. We believe, after hearing this response from thousands of Ricers, that salt can best be described as a “food trigger,” or a food like refined sugar that seems to fuel a desire to overeat. When you hear people over 500 pounds, who you know were typically eating more than 5,000 calories per day to maintain their weight, say after two days on the program that they cannot finish the 1,000 calories they are being served per day and furthermore have no cravings or obsessive thoughts about food for the first time in decades, you know something miraculous is going on and needs to be shared.
Most doctors and dietitians, and thus their patients, don’t realize that this significant a reduction in sodium intake, via a no salt-added ‘whole foods’ diet will make as much difference as it does. Not only do all modifiable heart disease risk factors improve faster than any method proven, but there are testimonies of renewed health in every arena imaginable — healing insomnia, daily headaches (that had been suffered for decades despite numerous therapies), psoriasis, arthritis, depression, and general lethargy.”
So I tried it in a more structured way later, and it really does help with food cravings. I felt a lot like I did on the project, never really hungry and never really full, hardly thinking about food at all, and it occurred to me that the low amounts of salt and sugar I had on the project, especially over the first few days, were probably what allowed me to eat so few calories without feeling hungry. I think this is a good thing to have figured out.
However in addition to being low in sodium, the diet is also extremely low in fat, and I found that after a few days I was freezing cold and unable to sleep properly. This is possibly the “have more energy” aspect, and maybe I just didn’t need as much sleep, but sleeping is really one of the highlights of my life (yes, I know that’s sad, but it’s true) and I really wanted to go to sleep and couldn’t. Possibly because my legs and feet felt like blocks of ice, even under a down blanket, shoved in a down pillow, with wool socks on.
So … I remain intrigued by the concept, and it definitely works to kill food cravings and I think it would also work to lose weight, but it seems like it might be a better diet for July than January. Being freezing all the time would actually be great in July. Just not so good right now.
I hope to talk more about the Rice Diet, Atkins, and some of the other books I’ve read but I think this is enough for now.
And I still need to post info on Week Two, now that Week Three is almost over. Will get to that soon. Stay tuned…