Dr. Jahn and Your Health: Eating Smart

This article originally appeared in Classical Singer magazine. To subscribe to the print magazine, go to www.csmusic.info/subscribe.

Another column on dieting? Not really, if you think of dieting as a temporary food deprivation to lose weight. I did, however, want to share personal thoughts about eating, with the caveat that I am not a diet guru, just another middle-aged professional trying to stay healthy.

The disadvantages to excess weight are clear to every singer. Opera has always been a visual medium, but with videos and films it has become “up close and personal.” As operatic stars reach superstar status, they enter the arena of popular entertainment, and must be visually as well as vocally competitive. The health issues associated with excess weight are known to all.

First, a few facts for designing a better diet. Dr. Sears, author of The Zone diet, has made an interesting observation: for most of humanity’s history, people have been underfed. We have therefore evolved a mechanism of “saving for a rainy day” by storing any excess food — as fat. Most importantly, any excess carbohydrate is converted to fat. Today, for most of us in the Western world this mechanism has become both outdated and harmful.

Most diets today involve a great deal of carbohydrate, which breaks down to sugar. Carbohydrates trigger the release of insulin, which clears the blood of sugar and leaves us hungrier sooner. If the sugar-insulin response goes off-kilter, you’re on your way to hypoglycemia, and possibly diabetes.

So my first suggestion is to minimize your carbohydrate intake. I am not advocating a pure protein/fat type diet such as the Atkins diet — no one can live on meat indefinitely. But eat as little carbohydrate as possible. A “low-fat” food product which is pure carbohydrate is only fat in disguise. Particularly in the morning, try a low carbohydrate breakfast: yogurt with fruit and nuts, rather than cereal, bagel or donuts. You will be surprised how un-hungry you feel for the rest of the morning, and even through lunch.

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Second, eat smaller portions. While this sounds ridiculously self evident, most of us eat too much food. This is due in part to our instinct (and childhood conditioning) to “clean up our plate.” That plate, whether a portion of food bought in a grocery store or served in a restaurant, represents what someone else thinks we should eat! A restaurant may need to give you a big portion to justify their prices, but you don’t have to eat it. Share your main course with a friend, or take half of it home. My typical restaurant meal now is a salad or appetizer and a shared main course or second appetizer.

Large portions are a problem. The other pitfall is the endless small portion. When you eat party snacks (chips, canapés, etc), you lose track of the total amount, since each piece appears and disappears without a trace. The social atmosphere, conversation and music further distract from trying to keep track of our total food intake.

And, while we’re on restaurants, drink a big glass of water before your meal and get rid of the bread basket. Alcohol is high in calories, so make your first drink water (for thirst), and then, if you like, some wine. If you need an additional incentive, numerous animal studies have shown that the only diet that significantly increases longevity is one that is reduced in calories. So eat less!

Third, eat when you’re hungry (internal cues), and not by the clock (external cues). We have a built-in mechanism for signaling hunger and satiety, which we foolishly bypass in several ways. For one, we often eat by the clock. Noon doesn’t have to mean lunch time. Lunch (or dinner ) time is when you are hungry. And it is better to eat frequent small amounts of the right foods (when you are just a little hungry) than three “square” meals when you are famished.

Eating too fast is another way to “outwit” your body. You can get ahead of your appetite gauge by eating rapidly. Eating just the right amount of food is easier if you stop before you are full and let your body catch up to what you put away. Eating smaller meals more frequently is another way to adjust your food intake to your actual (as opposed to your perceived) needs.

It is often said that the only diet that works is the one you can stick with. Many habits, some instinctive and others socially acquired, have to be re-examined and discarded. The bottom line is this: Your body knows what it needs. Listen to it. Eat less carbohydrate, and eat more frequent but much smaller amounts. You may be surprised.

DISCLAIMER: The suggestions given by Dr. Jahn in these columns are for general information only, and not to be construed as specific medical advice, or advocating specific treatment, which should be obtained only following a visit and consultation with your own physician.

Anthony Jahn, M.D.

Anthony Jahn M.D. is an otolaryngologist with a subspecialty interest in ear diseases, disorders of hearing and balance, and disorders of the voice. He is a professor of clinical otolaryngology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and is a noted author of The Care of the Professional Voice. For more resources, go to his website www.earandvoicedoctor.com.