In the game of weight loss, calories usually get all the attention, and surprisingly, that might be why so many people are losing their battle with the bulge.
As Indonesians continue to grow wider — about 10 percent are obese and 9 percent are overweight, according to Health Ministry statistics from 2007 — one expert says low-calorie snacks might be a cause.
The artificial sweetener aspartame, for example, doesn’t have any calories, but can wreak havoc on weight-loss efforts.
“In my opinion, diet soda is the worst thing that you can stick in your mouth,” said Julie Norton, a nutrition and weight-loss consultant who runs Body Clinic in Kebayoran Baru, South Jakarta.
“If you eat a teaspoon of honey, it takes the liver one to two hours to process,” she said. “If you eat a teaspoon of white processed sugar, it takes about three days.”
And a teaspoon of aspartame? Try three months of digestion time, she said.
“The brain doesn’t recognize it as food,” she explained. “It’s something chemists came up with to give you a sweet flavor, but your brain can’t do anything with it except turn it into fat.”
Speaking last month to a gathering of professional women at BritCham, the British Chamber of Commerce, Norton was trying to add some nuance to our understanding of dieting.
Most people focus on cutting calories, she told the crowd, but the problem is not so simple.
“The tendency to accumulate fat is a metabolic disorder,” she said. “Overeating is not the cause of the disorder, but a result.”
Many factors can slow the metabolism, including stress, hormonal imbalances and chronic diseases. But one root cause is what Norton calls “toxic” snacks, or foods filled with chemicals and preservatives.
“If you consume toxic foods and drinks, the body has a unique way of protecting itself,” she said. “The toxins must be sequestered away from the organs, so the body creates fat for the toxins to sit in it.”
The more toxic foods you eat, the more your metabolism suffers and the fatter you become.
For Norton, the second-biggest culprit after diet soda is regular soda, which often contains high levels of high fructose corn syrup.
This sweetener “affects the hypothalamus gland that regulates your metabolism,” she said. “It confuses it [the gland], so you won’t know when you’ve had enough food.”
Other danger foods include pastries, biscuits and crackers. These snacks are made with margarine and are high in trans fat, which increases the bad cholesterol LDL and reduces the good cholesterol HDL. It is also linked to higher rates of cancer, diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
If possible, Norton added, cook for yourself.
“Many restaurants use MSG [monosodium glutamate] in their sauces,” she said. “MSG is an excitotoxin. It overexcites your cells to the point of death.”
Also stay away from processed meats such as salami, hot dogs and bacon, which are stocked with sodium nitrate. “Sodium nitrate gives processed meat its great [reddish] color,” she said. “But, it leads to cancer and neurological damage.”
At this point, someone in her audience cried out in despair, “Why is it that every good food and drink is forbidden?” Her question was followed by laughter, and perhaps a few nods of concurrence.
Luckily, not all tasty treats are off limits. To keep slim and healthy, Norton recommends the French diet, which includes cheese — and lots of it.
The average French person eats almost 23 grams of cheese per day, “or 60 percent more [cheese] than Americans consume,” she said. “They eat four times as much butter and three times as much pork, but their incidence of heart disease is 28 percent lower.”
France has the second-lowest mortality rate from heart disease in the world, according to the World Health Organization. For every 100,000 deaths, only about 29 are caused by coronary heart disease.
“It’s the French paradox,” Norton said. “I believe their high cheese intake is significant [to their low rates of heart disease]. The high calcium in the cheese absorbs fat and allows the body to excrete it.”
Unprocessed varieties such as mozzarella, blue cheese and Parmesan are best.
The French also consume a moderate amount of wine in their daily diet.
“Wines have flavonoids that reduce blood pressure and contribute to heart health,” Norton said. “They also contain antioxidants that prevent cancer.”
For Indonesians who love fried foods, Norton recommends virgin olive oil, cold-pressed peanut oil or cold-pressed coconut oil, usually stored in dark glass bottles to stay fresh.
“Oil is extremely fragile,” Norton said. If it’s overexposed to air, heat or light, it goes rancid.
“You are what you eat,” she added. “Think before putting anything into your mouth.”
To find out more about BritCham’s professional women’s group, visit www.britcham.or.id.