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Rating Alternative Diets for Seniors

The Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy Diet for Seniors

Dr. Walter Willett, a well-known Harvard researcher, believes that the Food Guide Pyramid developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is not only wrong, it's dangerous to your health. In its place he offers his own new and improved pyramid that focuses more on plant foods and de-emphasizes dairy. He even incorporates daily exercise and weight control into the pyramid.

Quick Take

  • A plant-based diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains
  • Makes physical activity and weight control an integral part of the diet
  • Dairy products are not considered an essential part of the diet
  • Glycemic load, rather than glycemic index, dictates which foods should be included

This Diet Is Best For

Anyone who is willing to make the switch to a mostly plant-based diet, cut out most rich indulgences, and exercise daily

Who Should Not Try This Diet

Anyone looking for a short-term weight loss program. This diet requires a commitment to long-term changes that ultimately will lead to better health.

The Premise

Willett falls somewhere between the pro-dairy and the anti-dairy camps that are duking it out these days. He's not totally against dairy products but doesn't believe there's a "calcium crisis," as many experts do. In fact, he says that drinking too much milk can actually make your body lose calcium because milk is high in protein, which causes the body to excrete calcium. He advocates getting calcium from other food sources and from supplements, if necessary.

Other than that bit of controversy, Willett's diet offers up a healthy dose of good nutrition that's free of gimmicks and exaggerated promises. While the overall theme of the book is good nutrition, Willett calls weight control the number one nutritional factor for good health.

The Rationale

Control your weight, eat a plant-based diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, limit dairy foods, exercise every day, and take a multivitamin for insurance: That's pretty much Willett's philosophy in a nutshell. He also says that drinking alcohol in moderation is probably healthy for most people, though he doesn't advise people to start drinking if they don't already.

To back up his diet advice, he cites a lot of studies (he's been involved in much of the research himself) that suggest that these dietary changes are a boon to your health, reducing the risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and stroke. By eating a plant-based diet, Willett points out that you increase your intake of phytonutrients, many of which are antioxidants that prevent disease-causing damage to the body's cells. It's not about deprivation or counting calories; it's about eating more of the right foods and much, much less of the wrong ones.

While many diets admonish people to avoid foods with a high glycemic index (foods that cause a sudden rise in blood sugar), Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy offers a slightly modified version, called the glycemic load, that factors in a food's carbohydrate content, which Willett says is a more accurate representation of the impact specific foods have on blood sugar levels.

Eating on the Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy Diet

Though there is no strict diet plan per se, the book provides a week's worth of sample menus and about 50 recipes in keeping with Willett's pyramid. But you're pretty much on your own in devising your menus and tracking your calorie intake. A typical day's menu might include fresh-squeezed orange juice and multigrain hotcakes for breakfast; grilled chicken, salad, cantaloupe, and strawberries for lunch; and mushroom meat loaf, roasted vegetables, green salad, and a spiced poached pear for dinner.

Some of the sample menus have made allowances for a snack, and one even lays out the day's intake over six small meals. Coffee is allowed but sugar is not. A few sweet treats such as orange juice sorbet and rum-glazed pineapple are allowed, but there is no allowance for an occasional indulgence in fudge ice cream or cheesecake.

What the Experts Say

Though Willett's advice about dairy foods is controversial and his diet won't provide the amount of calcium currently recommended for folks over 50, the rest of his philosophy about how you should eat and control your weight is sound. He lays out a nutritious plan that will improve your health over the long term and fend off chronic diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, which become increasingly common with age.

Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy is not a plan for rapid weight loss. It's a diet designed to help you change your eating habits for good and improve your health. However, if you follow Willett's guidelines and adjust your calorie intake for weight control, you should lose weight while reaping the health benefits he promises.

Calorie quota: The sample menus and recipes provided in the book are based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day and include suggested adjustments to cut back to 1,600 calories a day for weight loss.

Yes: Following Willett's own plant-based Healthy Eating Pyramid; eating lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains; exercising daily; controlling your weight; moderate alcohol intake if you already drink

No: Following the USDA Food Guide Pyramid, eating lots of animal products such as beef and dairy, inactivity and being overweight, foods with a high glycemic load such as rice, white bread, potatoes, pasta, and sweets

Other similar diets: The Origin Diet; Eat More, Weigh Less

On the next page, learn about The Eat More, Weigh Less Diet for Seniors.

To learn more about senior health, see: