But first, the author of Diet Myths That Keep Us Fat and the 101 TRUTHS that will Save Your Waistline and Maybe Even Your Life can help with your weight.
Nancy Snyderman is not only a doctor and the Chief Medical Editor of NBCNews, she is an inveterate truth teller and myth buster. I have known Nancy for nearly two decades and in that time I have come to rely on her wisdom and insight. We first met in the makeup room at “Good Morning America” — and while I don’t remember the conversation, I do remember she was hysterically funny even at four o’clock in the morning. It was the start of a beautiful friendship. Nancy has always had a talent for explaining things. Her uncanny ability to translate often-conflicting medical reports into useful information has made her one of the most trusted women in America. So what better subject to bring her vast experience to than diet? Her new book, Diet Myths That Keep Us Fat and the 101 TRUTHS that will Save Your Waistline and Maybe Even Your Life, is a must-read for all of us who battle our weight or just want to be healthy. (Isn’t that all of us?) She is also the ultimate girlfriend — a funny, compassionate friend who is willing to share her own struggles as she helps us confront ours. I adore her. She has helped me in so many ways. I bet you’ll say the same after reading her book.
CYNTHIA MCFADDEN: So, Nancy, what was the inspiration for this book?
NANCY SNYDERMAN: Well, I’m fascinated with myths; the urban myths that hit people who are really, really smart and, frankly, too smart to be sucked into this stuff, and the myths that are passed down from generation to generation and the myths that sometimes lie entangled in normal medicine and science. I think we, as doctors, and obviously me as a physician correspondent — we sometimes just make things too damned difficult. And so if you can cut through things and make it simpler, I think that’s it. Also, because you’ve known me for a very long time, I am sort of the face of the perennial dieter. There is nothing I haven’t tried. And there is a moment in your midlife where you come to terms with your demons and your body shape and who you are. But until then, I really think we chase the elusive.
CYNTHIA: Mmm, you mean that idea of the perfect figure we see in the magazines?
NANCY: Right. Well, you and I know they’re airbrushed. You and I know they aren’t normal. You and I know that there are lumps and bumps that we can’t see. But when we’re standing by ourselves in our underwear, looking in the mirror, we sort of think, “What happened to me?” And, you know, you and I both had children. We know that that means there are parts of us that have gone east and west, and parts of us that have gone south. Nothing ever seems to go north.
CYNTHIA: Why is that?
NANCY: Why is that? I think we have these conversations with ourselves and we aren’t very nice to ourselves. So at the end of the day, knowing … if you look at diets, you have to know what’s myth and what’s fact. And frankly, I think the word diet is a four-letter word. I don’t even think it should be used anymore.
CYNTHIA: You know, you start in a really interesting place, one that is debunking the idea that “your weight is your fault.”
CYNTHIA: I think it’s hard to find a woman who won’t relate to that first chapter.
NANCY: There’s not a woman I know who isn’t feeling guilt about eating things at one time anyway. So when her weight is up, or her body’s not perfect, the average woman internalizes as if everything is her fault.
CYNTHIA: And it gets in the way.
NANCY: It gets in the way of being healthy.
NANCY: The weight is not the scale. The weight is where you feel good. You know, you and I were both lucky enough to know Julia Child. And one of the great moments in my life was having dinner in Paris with Julia. And I watched how she ordered and what she ate. And Julia was always a believer that you order real foods and eat less of it, and you don’t get sucked into the “no sugar, no fat, this, that.” She thought it was garbage. Julia led a big life and let food be her companion. I think too many of us see food as the enemy.
CYNTHIA: You say in the book, “I’m at peace with food.” Has it taken even you a while to get there?
NANCY: I’m 57. It took me a long time to get to it. I really had to think about how my mother and my grandmother lived with food. Food was put on the table and food was meant for nourishment and fuel. Food was not meant to be stuffed into a pocket or moved around on a plate. You know, it was nutritious and if you didn’t like it, guess what? That’s what was for dinner that night. And then we were kicked out of the house to go out in the backyard and play. So you and I grew up when those things were very real – real food, real exercise and the freedom to do those things. I would say that the average kid right now doesn’t have those freedoms. The schools have been raped, and physical education has been sucked out of core curricula, especially in neighborhoods of color — and fast food is everywhere. And we have pushed this Madison Avenue ideal of Twiggy and we can’t get it out of our subconscious. And all that together means that the average teenage girl, preteen girl, is already sabotaged. It’s not uncommon to hear six- and eight-year-old girls say, “My thighs are fat. Do you think I look OK?” So we, as the smart adults, who have already battled this now for a generation, have to figure out a way to say to young girls and young boys, “It’s not about fat then, it’s about being healthy.”
CYNTHIA: You really tackle a lot of these myths that are very ingrained in the culture. The book is about feeling better, being healthy.
NANCY: This is for men and women because we, as a nation now, 67 percent of us are overweight or obese.
CYNTHIA: Sixty-seven percent?!
NANCY: Of Americans.
NANCY: Sixty-seven percent of Americans.
CYNTHIA: It’s nice to be in the majority, anyway. That’s somewhat comforting. I’m joking, but oh, dear.
NANCY: Yes. But you just hit on one of the most important things – because it’s endemic now, we do tend to look at each other and go, “Oh, see, well I’m normal. I look OK.” And the problem is, everyone around us is fat.
CYNTHIA: I love what you tell us about dress sizes.
NANCY: Yeah. So I wear a size 10 dress. Well, I’m not fooling myself. I think it’s probably a 14 from 1967.
CYNTHIA: The dress manufacturers realize women don’t like to buy 14s, so they make the tens bigger.
NANCY: Yes. Exactly right. And then we feel good. You know, and it’s not supposed to be a head trip to make you feel worse. The reason we all have to care – and this is the No. 1 reason – is that we are dying at unprecedented rates from heart disease, stroke and cancer. Those three things are all linked to our waistline. So for a woman, it means that your waistline has to be 35 inches or less. And for a man, your waistline has to be 40 inches or less. And I would love to tell you that there’s wiggle room on that. But there’s not. Your waist can predict, to a great extent, whether you’re going to drop dead from heart disease. And if you do have some control over that, without the guilt — but you do have some control, that’s where we all have to aim.
CYNTHIA: Wow. And it’s not it’s not just what you weigh, but also what you’re eating.
NANCY: Oh, yeah. You and I both know skinny anorexic women, who are frankly some of the unhealthiest people we know. The whole point is to have some meat on your bones. So if you go to parts of Africa, where you and I have been, and people are somewhat plump, well that’s a sign that you’re not starving, it’s a sign of affluence. But increasingly, in the United States, skinniness is a sign of affluence. So we have, in either culture, put food as a way to size up socioeconomic status. And it is unhealthy in both places. But one of the great myths in this country is this whole need to define food by carbs, fats – you know, some day carbs are good for you, someday carbs are bad for you. So if Americans did nothing more than one thing today, they could forget all the silly diets and get back to basics. And that is – take every dinner plate in the house and store them away for posterity, and make your salad plate your new dinner plate, because that’s the size a plate was in 1965. And we ate what was on that plate, and then we were done. So portion size is the one thing that has been so insidious, and has so been a part of the American culture. It has taken us down a very, very dark hole.
CYNTHIA: Do you have any idea why … Why have our appetites gotten so big, Nancy?
NANCY: It was a fact that after World War II food got cheap, and we learned how to make crackers and not bread, and the ability to preserve foods and put them on store shelves and in pantries at home, was revolutionary. Our mothers used to go to the grocery store once a day, or once every other day, and they got things that they knew had to be eaten or they would spoil. But with the ability to preserve food – canning, freezing and keeping things from getting stale – we transformed how Americans eat.
NANCY: Then we slowly changed things in society – McDonald’s popped up. Guess what? Tasted good and it was inexpensive. Then we took away sidewalks in a lot of suburban neighborhoods. Then suddenly the automobile wasn’t a sign of status, everyone could afford one – so we stopped walking and we started driving. And it was very much like everyone taking a little chisel at a big piece of marble, and we have just watched this wonderful piece of our culture, frankly, get chipped away. But the plate size has really gone with it. In fact, one of the great stories I tell in this book is that Ikea was struggling to try to find out why a certain small flower vase was selling out in the United States. They couldn’t figure out why they couldn’t keep it in stock. So someone from Ikea came to the U.S. only to find out that Americans were mistaking this flower vase for a red-wine glass.
CYNTHIA: Oh, my gosh.
NANCY: So at that point, the Europeans realized, “Oh, my God. We have a whole new market.” So a juice box used to be four-to-six ounces. Wine was five ounces, but we now have red wine tumblers that, in other cultures are flower vases, and we’re having two or three of them over a meal. We have failed to find our off switch.
CYNTHIA: Oh, Nancy.
NANCY: It is sort of stunning. I think … Look, I get the fact that people could drop 20 pounds on the Atkins diet, but I have never known anyone a year later who has if off.
CYNTHIA: Yeah, me. Exactly. I did it.
NANCY: I’ve done it all. Done it all. And at the end of the day there’s a very simple calculation. If you have a checkbook, we all know that the idea is to have a little bit more in there than you spend. But with your body you have to spend more than you bring in. It’s calories in, calories out. Burn off what you bring in and you’re fine. I don’t believe, as you know, in denying yourself. If you want a piece of chocolate cake, have the chocolate cake. But don’t eat the whole thing. And you have to count that those calories are real. And once you figure out what you can burn off and what you can consume, you’re going to find that steady state and you’ll be fine. But the best place to start is to get rid of those dinner plates.
CYNTHIA: Your theory is that you don’t have to eliminate anything.
NANCY: Nope. I don’t believe in eliminating. If you want a piece of brie cheese, have brie cheese. Because if you crave it and you crave it and you crave it, you’re going to some day eat it. Problem is, you’ll eat the whole damned thing.
NANCY: So eat it if you see it. Just recognize it counts.
CYNTHIA: I love that the psychology went into this too, because you call the diet the “treat-yourself diet,” as opposed to everything else, which is about depriving yourself. And, you know, it’s interesting, you don’t feel looking at this … I look at this and I say, “I could do that. I could do that. Yeah, there are plenty of choices here. There are plenty of reasonable choices.”
NANCY: You know, I’ve lost five pounds over the last three weeks, just because I wasn’t feeling good.
NANCY: You know when your elbows drop to your side and all of the sudden they don’t feel good where there are?
NANCY: I basically pulled out a calendar and I just jotted down what I ate, and I allowed myself no more than 1,200 to 1,500 calories a day. And I really tried … I started to see a pattern, and I’m a big believer in pen to paper. You know, I make lists, I record stuff. It’s stupid, but it works. And if you can see how much you have and if by six o’clock at night you’ve eaten 1,400 calories, then guess what? You’re done!
NANCY: And if by six o’clock at night you have only eaten 400, guess what? You have some wiggle room. One of the great myths is that if you eat after seven o’clock you’re going to get fat. Not true. You just have to spend more than you take in. It still comes down to the equation – calories in, calories out. Now one thing I won’t do, I won’t eat low-fat cheese, I won’t eat non-fat cheese. You might as well give me a garden hose to chew on. Why bother? Just give me a little bit of the real thing. Julia somewhere is smiling from heaven.
CYNTHIA: For example, you say, low fat can sometimes be our worst enemy because we think, “Oh, well hey, it’s low fat. We might as well eat the whole box.”
NANCY: Low fat can still be a lot of calories.
NANCY: Low fat can still be a lot of sugar. And we do know, absolutely without wiggle room, that whether you’re drinking lots of diet sodas, or whether you’re drinking real sodas, that sweetness aspect goes to the part of your brain that likes sweetness and likes fat. So if you’re a diet-soda drinker and you drink one or more a day, you are more predisposed to crave sweets than someone who doesn’t drink diet drinks, because it goes to your brain that says, “Love it. Love it. Give me more.” You know what? There’s nothing better for you at the end of the day than water. And the more water you drink — two glasses before lunch, two glasses before dinner — helps fill you up. Salads really, really matter. And at the end of the day you’ve got to go back to how we grew up — those basics of good food, in season, on a smaller plate. And then, for God’s sake, eat what you like.
CYNTHIA: Here’s an interesting fact from your book: “Your taste buds get bored after the third bite.” This is a real revelation to me. Explain.
NANCY: I’m a fast eater and I think it was from years of being in residency — you never knew when you were going to eat. So, you know, we ate fast.
CYNTHIA: That and the television.
NANCY: It is television. I’m not sure half the time I ever really do taste. I think it really goes from my lips immediately into my stomach. But by the time you’ve had your third bite your taste buds are going, “Eh, yeah. Get it. Get it.” And they get bored. So if you eat slowly, not only do you fill up faster, because your stomach gets this sensation of feeling full within 20 minutes, but you sort of lose interest. So enjoy food, just savor it.
CYNTHIA: So the crème brûlée that you crave after the meal, instead of having to have the whole enormous one, which is probably too big anyway —
NANCY: Yes, I would get it. I would ask, “Who wants to split it?” I’d have four or five spoons brought, and I would absolutely have two or three bites.
CYNTHIA: You know, pushing it away is very hard. They put it in front of me, I eat it.
NANCY: The hard thing for me is an off valve. I have been known to — when I’m done and I know I want more — ruin it. I’ll put a piece of bread in it or I take salad dressing, I just destroy it so I can’t eat it.
NANCY: Yep. I will sometimes destroy a food. It’s like I destroy a food to save myself. Because I recognize that I can just keep going. Some people have great on/off switches. I am not one of those people.
CYNTHIA: I think one of the things that’s just so compelling about the book, Nancy, is that you bring not only your enormous medical understanding and insight, but also yourself to this book, in a way that is so compelling as a woman, as a human being. And, you know, you sort of … you’ve been to all the stations of the cross on this one. You’ve experienced all of the problems that all the rest of us have, and you turn yourself in. I want to talk for a minute about hearts.
CYNTHIA: Which I think an awful lot of the people on wOw care a lot about – their hearts, and the hearts of others they love. And you found out, shockingly, that you had to pay a little more attention to your heart.
NANCY: You know what? As it turns out I probably just had a viral infection that masqueraded as heart disease. But I was the typical, sort of stupid doctor/patient. I had phenomenal exhaustion, couldn’t run up a flight of steps on the subway without being short of breath and terrible anxiety. And I know that those are signs of heart disease in women and maybe even a heart attack. But I spent a long weekend in bed with such exhaustion, having this little argument with myself: “You know, this can’t be. You’re only, you know, 53. You don’t have heart disease in your family.” And the other little voice would be saying, “That stupid Nancy. You’re smarter than this.” And by Monday morning I called a doctor friend in New York and she said, “Get in right away.” And then I took, of course, a good chewing out. And she said, “What are you thinking?” And I said, “I don’t know.” And at that point she said, “We’re going to run you up the flagpole.” And I had a test, which is not a screening test, and I don’t want people to think that everyone should have this. But I did have a CT angiogram, which showed all the blood vessels in my heart, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t have three small blockages of my coronary arteries. No doubt, absolutely no doubt, the price I paid for the cheeseburgers in my youth. I think that you and I really are the first generation … I remember when the first Burger King came to Ft. Wayne, IN. I think I was there every single day.
CYNTHIA: I worked at the first McDonald’s in Auburn, ME, so there you have it. They couldn’t put me on the cash in the front because I couldn’t make change and my drawer was always off. So I had to do the fries. You’d think it would turn me off from eating those fries, but it didn’t. NANCY: There you go. I mean, I could recite the whole menu at Burger King for you. And we got it from being a Saturday treat to talking mom into every day after school. And our parents didn’t know then what we all know now. But the reality is, the food you feed [your son] Spencer now, the food I feed my kids – what you and I ate in our teen years starts to take its toll. So my looking at my heart in a very dispassionate way was a shocker. And although my cholesterol wasn’t sky high, it was a little high. So guess what? You know, everybody gets their scare in life. I started drinking the Kool-Aid. I got my cholesterol down. I dropped most meat out of my diet. And I decided that because I know, in me, heart disease can be reversed, and even though we don’t have as much science on women, I refuse to think that women aren’t the same. And so I started that day to reverse the damage I had done.
CYNTHIA: And, in fact, that’s such an important message. You know, people reading this right now are going, “OK, I’ve done so many things wrong.” It’s not too late!
NANCY: Why not start over the day you get the news? A lot of the heart disease can be reversed; a lot of the cancer risks go away. You know, the minute you lose a couple percentage points of your weight, your blood pressure drops, your heart rate drops, the bad hormones that are secreted by fat — they drop. Your body is phenomenally creative at repairing itself. You just, frankly, get out of its way.
CYNTHIA: Well, this is one of the beauties of the book. You give us information without scaring us to death. You do it so beautifully in this book.
NANCY: Thank you. I always say to people, “If all these foods were so bad, how come they’re on earth?” Just go back to the basics – good carbohydrates, good fat, good protein. Eat like our ancestors did. And when you buy prepackaged anything that sounds so good – remember, you’re just making somebody else rich.
CYNTHIA: Tell me the three or four things you want the folks reading wOw to know for sure.
NANCY: The first thing is, start today. Do this on your own terms. Don’t throw out the foods you love just because someone says they’re on a bad list. And stick your dinner plates in hibernation.
CYNTHIA: I know you’re going to change lives — and I’m also convinced you’re going to save them.