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An inside look at the official Mayo Clinic Diet, as outlined in new book

You may remember the Mayo Clinic Diet. It had something to do with eggs. Or maybe grapefruit. Was it cabbage? • Whatever it was — and over the decades there have been a few incarnations of that fad — it actually had nothing to do with the world-famous medical centers. This month, just in time for postholiday damage control, Mayo's weight-loss experts are releasing their first diet book, The Mayo Clinic Diet (Good Books, $25.99), and the companion Mayo Clinic Diet Journal (14.99). (By the way, proceeds go to support medical education and research at Mayo.) • It starts with a two-week quick-start plan, then moves on to the Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight Pyramid, which emphasizes foods with low caloric density like vegetables and fruits, moderate amounts of lean proteins and dairy, whole grains and just enough sweets to keep you from knocking over a vending machine in a sugar-deprivation frenzy. Exercise, too, is essential. The book is packed with strategies — some familiar, others less so — gleaned from medical literature and years of experience with Mayo patients. • We talked with medical editor in chief Dr. Donald Hensrud, chairman of the Preventive, Occupational and Aerospace Medicine Department at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., about the book, the science behind it, and why he sympathizes if you're feeling discouraged about this whole weight-loss thing.

The Mayo Clinic's name has been attached to fad diets for years. Why are you setting the record straight now?

Obviously there's an increasing problem with weight in this country. We decided that now there's enough scientific research and enough clinical research that we feel comfortable putting our name on a diet. We took a lot of this information and put it into a very easy to follow, simple, effective and, most importantly, healthy way to lose weight.

Why does the world need another diet book?

People don't need us to tell them to eat less and exercise more, but they need simple and effective strategies to put those recommendations in action. There's a lot of confusion and clutter out there in weight management. We think this will cut through a lot of that.

The cover of the book says you can lose up to 6 to 10 pounds in the first two weeks. Really?

That was based on a pilot program in our clinic with 50 people. Everyone who completed the two-week program lost weight; the average was 8 pounds. We wouldn't put it on the cover if we hadn't done it.

I thought you were supposed to lose weight slowly.

For many years, we told people, "Slow and steady wins the race.'' But people do want to see results quickly. Many of the quick weight-loss programs out there are not healthy, so we're recommending people change their habits suddenly in a healthful way to see what kind of results they achieve. That's why we are asking people to add five habits, break five, and then add the five bonus habits. All have some evidence supporting them, and they're all very healthy.

The first one is just "eat breakfast.'' My mom used to tell me that.

On the surface, that seems simple. But there are numerous studies that show people who eat breakfast are better at managing their weight.

I'd never seen that tip about spending no more time in front of the TV every day than you do exercising. How did you come up with that?

If you look in the medical literature, there's definitely a connection between TV and weight. Especially in kids, the more hours of TV they watch, the greater their weight. Plus, some people eat while they're watching TV, so it's a double whammy.

Do you have to stick with these habits forever to lose weight and keep it off?

No, they're just for the initial two weeks, but what we've found is that even that short time makes people much more aware of what they're doing, and that makes them able to make better choices. A man I talked to recently tried this, and sugar was an issue for him. He said it was challenging, but he stuck with it. Later, he added sugar back to his diet, but was much more aware and could moderate his intake.

We've seen so much research showing how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off. What can you say to give people some hope?

I see this every day in our nutrition clinic, the mind-set that goes along with losing weight. People come in, they're looking down at the floor, they look almost depressed at the thought of doing this. You know they're thinking, "I've got to go on a diet.'' The mind-set is negative, it's restrictive, and therefore it's drudgery and it's temporary. It's like walking uphill all the time. What we try and do is help people to change their attitude and approach it in a different way.

How is your approach different?

We start with the "Lose it'' phase, which is challenging, no doubt. It takes people out of their comfort zone. It's a behavioral change program, with sudden behavior changes, and that seems to be effective. Another thing is the restrictive nature of diets. When you limit yourself in anything, you want to do it all the more. The way we handle that is by allowing unlimited vegetables and fruit. Granted, it's not a candy bar, but there's always something you can have. People find, paradoxically, that it's easier to say no to one thing when there's something you can do in its place.

If you could get all your overweight patients to do just one thing, what would that be?

It would be to eat more — more vegetables and fruits. Maybe that sounds a little unusual, but eating more vegetables and fruits helps you lose weight. They're low in caloric density; that's why they're at the base of our pyramid. Another reason I recommend that step is that it's health supporting; those types of foods decrease your risk of cancer, lower cholesterol and decrease blood pressure. Finally, it's a positive message, to eat more, rather than deprivation.

What's the second most important thing?

Move more: We've engineered physical activity out of our lives. Formal exercise is great, but just moving more would make a huge different in people's lives.

You devote an entire chapter, the "Action Guide,'' to excuses people have not to lose weight, and strategies to address them. Some are very creative.

Those are all things I've heard from patients in the office. Everyone knows to eat less and move more, but all of the different factors that go into that seemingly simple equation are tremendously complex. Taste preference, what you grew up eating, and neurobiology — what our brain tells us, how full we get — all play into it. Virtually everyone experiences challenges in this area, but they may be very different. Some people eat in front of TV, some don't eat fruits and vegetables.

The book says this is "the last diet you'll ever need.'' So you won't have another book for us next January?

I can't guarantee we'll never come out with another book, but everything in this is grounded in science, and that won't dramatically change anytime soon.

Come on, doctor, you read all the research. Isn't there some kind of silver bullet on the way for weight loss?

People have been waiting for that for many years. And I'm not holding my breath it will come anytime soon. What we have here is about as silver as it's going to get.

Charlotte Sutton can be reached at [email protected]

An inside look at the official Mayo Clinic Diet, as outlined in new book 01/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 2:35pm]
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