Like Ponce de Leon, most of America is looking for that mythical place or diet that will keep us young, slim and beautiful, the Magical Diet that allows us to consume all of the bad foods that we crave so much, but when taken in the perfect proportions, allows us to burn more calories than daily visits to the gym. We all know it’s out there. It’s just a matter of finding the Magical Diet. It’s like finding the Fountain of Youth.

Of course, if you believe that, I also have some prime Oakland A’s World Series tickets for sale that are really cheap! Like the Fountain of Youth, there also is no magical diet. When it comes to nutrition, it’s one of the few sciences that 1 plus 1 actually does equal 2 and 5 minus 2 does equal 3. If you consume 1,500 calories every day, but burn 1,500 calories every day, your weight will remain the same. On the other end, if you consume 2,000 calories every day, even if those calories are from healthy choices like tofu, carrots and whole wheat pasta, but only burn 1,500 calories a day, you will put on about one pound every week (3,500 calories roughly equate to 1 pound). And likewise, if you consume 1,500 calories every day even from from butter, cream and chocolate, but burn 2,000 calories every day, you’ll lose about one pound every week. There’s no magic, just the basic ins and outs.

Fat, the Bad Boy of the Nutrition World
Like the lead singer in a rock and roll band, it’s so tempting, but you know your mother told you to stay away from them. Why? Fats are so concentrated in calories. There are nine calories in one little gram. They always seems to find their way to your waist or thighs. So stay away from all fat, right? Not exactly. Fat does have a role in the human body. For starters, there are certain vitamins and nutrients that need dietary fat to be absorbed. When we digest a meal, we produce a watery slurry of “stuff” that we just swallowed. So for nutrients to be absorbed, they first must dissolve in that slurry. What if they’re not water soluble? Like fat. Well, that’s where bile acids come into play. Bile acids play well with both the watery side and the fatty side … like a mediator. So if other fat soluble nutrients dissolve in the dietary fat, they can also go on that ride called digestion.

Dietary fat also helps us to maintain our good or HDL cholesterol levels. With HDL cholesterol, the bigger the number, the better, as HDL cholesterol has a negative relationship with heart disease. In fact if you restrict dietary fat too much, you’ll invariably lower your HDL cholesterol levels. Not good.

Dietary fat also is the main nutrient that signals the brain that we’ve had enough to eat, so fat in essence, helps us limit how much we continue to eat. And finally, flavor travels mainly in either fat or salt. A processed food that’s free of fat means it invariably contain a lot of salt (likewise salt free foods usually contain more fat).

And to further confuse you, all fat is not the same. The four flavors are polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated and trans. What you do want to flavor your food with is the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated variety. They are usually found in nuts and oils, though as an aside, the black footed Iberico Bellota pigs in Spain primarily gorge on chestnuts, so their meat contains a higher percentage of monounsaturated fat.

Polyunsaturated fats are found in fatty cold water fish like salmon, mackerel and tuna, and are better known as the omega-3 fats. The only downside with polyunsaturated fats like canola, walnut and pumpkin seed oils, are that they do tend to oxidize (rancid) easier than the other fats, so purchase smaller bottles (in darker bottles if possible) and better yet, store them in the refrigerator. Monounsaturated fats are found in olive and macadamia nut oil along with almonds and other nuts.

The fats that wear the black cowboy hats are saturated and trans fats. Saturated fats are those that are solid at room temperature like most terrestrial animal fats, and their byproducts like cheese, butter and cream. The reason they’re the “bad guys” is because they raise your LDL cholesterol or bad cholesterol, which increases your risk for heart disease. In fact, for reasons we still don’t know, dietary saturated fat raises serum cholesterol more than dietary cholesterol itself. But if you thought saturated was the “baddest,” there is another and his name is trans fat. Like saturated fat, trans fat can also raise your LDL cholesterol but it also has the tendency to lower HDL cholesterol. Increase the bad and lower the good, that’s a double whammy!

There’s no real difference in dietary proteins by itself, other than the fact that most animal proteins are complete proteins containing all nine essential amino acids, whereas most plant proteins lack or are limited by one or two essential amino acids, so that a combination of plant proteins need to be consumed to make it complete (i.e., beans with rice and wheat). The main difference is what “piggy backs” on those proteins, namely fat. The usual animal proteins contain their fair share of saturated fat where plant fats are usually poly or monounsaturated. But you can simply remove all traces of visible fat whether it’s a chicken thigh, pork loin or beef eye of round which lowers at least one meal’s dietary risks.

Carbs are looked upon as one of the “bad guys,” at least in the eyes of the Atkins and other low carb diets. Since one gram of carbohydrate only yields four calories (like protein), I think the “bad guy” image is totally unwarranted. And it’s actually not wise to eliminate all carbs since 1) your brain only functions on glucose which is the basic building block of carbohydrates and 2) eliminating all carbs requires the body to shift to fat for energy. While that might sound like a good thing, fat can’t be used exclusively as fuel since “fat burns in the fire of carbohydrate.” When your body tries to run exclusively on fat, it starts producing ketones, which doesn’t make you feel very good, and it also throws off your blood pH, making it more acidic. That’s not a good thing at all. So enjoy your carbs, whole grain and unrefined, if possible, but a cup of starches with each meal is compliant even with a diabetes diet.

Baby Steps to a Habit
OK, I know some of what I say may sound a little like preaching, but I’ll be the first to admit that I also deal with that mid-life “battle of the bulge” especially when returning from vacations. I also have my share of “taboo” foods that I refuse to give up … like French fries and potato chips. And ever since I passed the half century mark, I’ve indulged in those less-than-healthy cuts of meat like short ribs … and pork belly … and even oxtail. But I’ve tried to lessen the impact of the negative by indulging on the positive for most of the week like:

Eating healthy during the work week and loosen up on the weekends. Since breakfast and lunch on workdays are primarily meant to keep us going until the end of the workday, choose healthier choices since they’re meant more for sustenance than pleasure. The weekend meals are for pleasure. And you’re not depriving, just delaying.

Eat only until you’re not hungry anymore. Don’t eat until you’re full. If you’re not even hungry before a meal, just have a fruit and a glass of water.

Use a smaller plate for each meal. It’s harder to consume mass quantities on a small plate than a large plate.

Load half of your plate with veggies first. And try to get five servings of fruits and vegetables every day though nine servings a day would be ideal. If you do have diabetes, get more veggies than fruit.

Spoil your meal by having an apple and a glass of water 15 to 30 minutes before the meal. You won’t be as hungry and will probably limit yourself to a reasonable serving.

If you are trying to lose weight, do the 500 less per day routine by cutting back about 250 calories per day and increasing exercise to burn 250 calories per day. The net loss over one week will be 3,500 calories which translates to a one pound loss every week. And smaller cutbacks in consumption and increases in exercises make it more sustainable. The last thing you want to do is make drastic changes. While drastic changes can result in greater and faster weight loss, if they’re not sustainable, you’ll go right back to old habits and put the weight back on.

Don’t snack at work. I know every work environment has a break room with loads of goodies. JUST SAY NO! It’s easy to take a bite here, a bite there and next thing you know, you’re anywhere from 100 to 500 calories extra for that day. Now just multiply that by five times … every week, every month, every year.

Get regular exercise! It’s the one thing that doesn’t come in a pill. I know it’s hard after a long day of work. Sometimes I get home and look at my bike … and it just looks back at me. But no one can (or will) exercise for you so as Nike says, Just do it!

Just remember that any little change for the positive usually leads to more changes. When those pants feel a little looser, you’ll want to bike or run a little longer the next time. Or when your blood pressure or cholesterol drops a little and your doctor delays those medications, you’ll want to keep it up. And after about three months, those changes become a habit. A healthy habit.

The Gochiso Gourmet is a column on food, wine and healthy eating. Ryan Tatsumoto is a graduate of both the Univ. of Hawai‘i and UC San Francisco. He is a clinical pharmacist during the day and a budding chef/recipe developer/wine taster at night. He writes from Kane‘ohe, HI and can be reached at

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