With a new year in gear and most people making resolutions to lose weight, I've decided to do a 3 part series on the most popular diets this year. They're not fad diets, they don't require special artificial 'food', and they've been around for the last 10 years gaining in popularity.

Scientists estimate that 1 lb of fat is equivalent to 3500 calories. By creating a deficit each day of 500 in your calorie expenditure, you should see a one pound weight loss each week. This is the recommended amount for safe and sustainable dieting. Losing weight is a numbers game.

Diets, now called 'lifestyle' programs are as common to the American way of life as a slice of pizza or ordering Chinese food. My friends in France and Italy do not understand why we put ourselves through the torture of food denial so frequently. If you want to lose weight, they say, just be careful. In other words don't have the second cannolo being offered to you and skip the brie at the party. Despite the popular notion put forth by author Mireille Guiliano, (French Women Don't Get Fat), French (and Italian) women do gain weight but once they begin to eat "sensibly" all evens out. Food denial is American, as American I hate to say, as Mom and apple pie.

Sign Up for E-News

As American women, we have all either been on a diet at some time in our lives or we have seriously thought about beginning one. One new diet, or 'way of life', that is beginning to take hold is causing some controversy in the medical and nutritional circles, but those who follow it swear by it.

Last year I decided that, in order to write comprehensively about the issue of weight loss, I had to sample the plethora of diet programs out there. I chose 3 programs to sample for 2 months at a time.

The first program I decided to investigate is one that is supposed to prolong a healthy disease-free life. Living healthily well into your hundreds seems to be an effect of this  lifestyle and it has a hard-core group of fanatics made up of people who maintain a body weight of 10%-20% lower than the conventionally recommended weight, attained by following a diet that provides 10%-40% fewer calories. The religiosity with which the diet is followed by those who love it is amazing.


Enter the area of a lifestyle called Calorie Restriction. Proponents of this diet attest that it has been shown to improve health, halt or seriously hold back the aging process, reduce blood pressure and have a host of other benefits. The claim is that overeating puts stress on your body by making your organs work harder. Over a lifetime the cumulative stress of years of big meals can really take a toll on your body. Using calorie restriction, they claim, makes for a healthy, slim, and well functioning body free from illness. Hmmmm!

The way a calorie restriction diet plan works is to eat much less than your body needs to maintain your typical weight. Before I undertook this regimen I consulted with my nutritionist, Michelle Jackson, a woman I  trust and who designed a healthy food lifestyle for this chronic dieter 3 years ago. Since I'd had a full check-up a few months ago and was pronounced healthy and fit by my doctor, she told me that for the amount of time I was going to be on it, she didn't foresee any possible serious side-effects. She did warn me that long-term existence on it might present certain problems and also warned me that if I skipped my period while on this program, it was more than likely due to the caloric restriction and not pregnancy. With this information in hand I was ready to begin. I grew up with lots of fresh veggies and fruit so I thought those fillers would keep me full. All I needed was the plan which I got online and from browsing Barnes and Noble.

As with any eating program there are pros and cons and CR has its share.

The pros:
Healthier blood pressure readings, blood sugar levels, body fat percentage reduction, normal cholesterol levels, and a healthy heart rate. These benefits are healthy changes that may reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life and therefore create longer life for humans.

The cons:

Reduced bone density, (read danger of osteoporosis), loss of healthy and necessary muscle mass, anemia, memory loss, dizziness, and depression. In menstruating women, irregularity and sudden loss of periods were also seen as a sign of anorexia. Studies show that getting inadequate amounts of vitamins and nutrients may lead to serious problems such as heart failure and death.

The first few days on the calorie restricted diet were the hardest for me. There was the necessary math to learn; how many calories, fats, carbs, etc., I was allowed to consume. Since my regular diet allows more protein, even with all the vegetables and fruits I was eating, by day 3 I was feeling a bit light-headed and very hungry. I was eating though, this wasn't a starvation plan but I still felt hungry. The 3-5 ounces of meat or fish was one of the problems for me as was the limited olive oil portion. I was eating 1700 plus calories a day and I should have felt full.

Going out with friends was torture because wine is not completely acceptable and you can totally forget any chewy, gooey appetizers your friends want to share. In the ladies room, my friend Lauren tried to sneak me a fried mozzarella stick she'd hidden in a napkin. "You look hungry," she simply said. It was hard to resist, but I didn't even take a bite.

Another problem was my libido; the feeling of not being full was making my sex life not happen. I was tired, I was grumpy, and I didn't want sex.

By day 8 I noticed that my clothes were looser and I had no problem zipping up a new pair of jeans which had been slightly on the tight side. But the second week brought a problem; my stomach was producing acid build-up and I felt like I was on fire. Michelle Jackson advised me to eat the CR food plan in smaller increments throughout the day, ("Break the meals and snack into smaller portions and eat every 2 hours if you can."), to keep the acid at bay and to take Tums regularly. It worked.

The ensuing 6 weeks I put my mind into a do-or-die phase and got through the days that way. The end was near! After 32 days on this program I had lost 18 pounds and gotten that gaunt look, so prized by models, on my face. My cheek bones and nose looked sharp and defined. I didn't feel energized as the books said I would though, and my skin was drier. I looked like I'd been sick.

My need for "real" food overcame me and the day after I wrote this article, I went to dinner and had red snapper stuffed with crab meat, a glass of wine, and one half of a tartufo. The pleasure of food I like and the company of friends was worth it.

Would I recommend CR? Yes and no. Yes, if you are a regimented person who will take the time to prepare meals, go out with friends knowing exactly what you're going to eat and keeping all the math in your head, and yes if you find you really do feel better and healthier on it, sex life and all.

I would not recommend it to anyone who truly likes to eat, who finds food is a pleasure and a social gathering necessity. I would say no to anyone who was not comfortable or happy on the plan because life is to be lived and food is one of the pleasures, and no to women who want to get pregnant or any person suffering from osteopenia.

Some of the dictums of the CR I will keep such as some portion control; all diets do have something to offer. But I will increase my protein and will have pasta every other Saturday at Pasquale's. I like food and I want it to be fun not seriously controlled.

Next week: Weight Watchers.


© 2013 copyright Kristen Houghton

Follow @kristenhoughton on Twitter to keep up with her fantastic writing!

Books by Kristen Houghton:

No Woman Diets Alone - There's Always a Man Behind Her Eating a Doughnut

And Then I'll Be Happy! Stop Sabotaging Your Happiness and Put Your Own Life First 

Remember, Hetty? (An Award Winning Short Story)

Nourishing Thoughts: The Little Book of Sayings for a Healthy, Happy Life