BEIRUT: As the summer months hit Lebanon, the pressure to be thin increases – even above the usual obsession with skinniness – as a tiny bikini and banging beach body become mandatory weekend wear.
Unfortunately, this pressure forces many people to resort to unhealthy extremes – all liquid or cabbage soup diets, eating only between certain hours on given days, or the fix-all promise of diet pills or herbal supplements.
Yet this need not and should not be the case, says Dr. Farah Naja, an assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the American University of Beirut.
“I see these girls that just die from hunger before July to fit into size 6 or 8, and then come the end of July they pick up the weight again. These ‘yoyo’ bodies are not something we advise,” she explains, highlighting that extreme dieting can actually change one’s body composition as people lose muscle mass but regain it in fat.
Fad diets can also cause physiological stress and the initial, fast losses are unsustainable, sometimes even resulting in weight gain ultimately.
“Our advice is, if you want to change, change slowly, and maintain,” she continues.
Naja says dieters should seek the help of a licensed, registered dietitian or a diet center, rather than going it on their own.
“Properly accredited diet centers are the best way for someone to lose weight,” she says, as dietitians – as opposed to pharmacists or even medical doctors – have special training to help their clients “initiate and maintain positive behavioral changes.”
“Sometimes people just need that little push to go ahead and change some lifestyle habits.”
Dana Moussa, a dietitian at Carla’s Good Food diet center, says many clients turn to their services after rounds and rounds of unsuccessful dieting attempts.
“We are obsessed with body image and social pressures matter so much in Lebanese culture,” says Moussa. “Many clients come to us after dieting using pills or extreme programs and not losing the weight. Some become severely depressed, because they think they are trying so hard and not losing the pounds.”
Carla’s Good Food, founded three years ago by dietitian and TV presenter Carla Habib Mourad, provides dietetic consultations and a variety of personalized, balanced meal options for its members, with an emphasis on showing that “healthy is tasty.”
“We’re trying to offer healthy food to everyone, whether you want to lose weight or you’re just a health-conscious person, whether you’re an adolescent, an adult or elderly with special food needs,” Mourad says.
“We provide meal packages for those ones who have specific needs, or you can just come in and buy a sandwich or call and order a meal or even buy from the frozen products,” she explains, seated in the comfortable, clean cafe in Corniche al-Mazraa, where they sell specialty products made onsite – even pastries and cakes – as well as those from their guaranteed suppliers.
The food at Mourad’s diet center is varied, and uses no colorants or artificial ingredients. The center opts for organic suppliers whenever possible, and uses limited sugar. The kitchen is also run and tightly controlled by another dietitian.
Memberships run for a minimum of four weeks, and allow clients to opt for five different plans depending on their schedule or budget. The minimum, which is a delivery lunch five days a week, costs $208, whereas the seven-days plan of breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner costs $612.
Following American Dietetic Association standards on balance, meal portions and calories, the meal plan is more effective than other, more frustrating diets that limit dieters or cut out certain groups of food, Mourad believes.
“People are fed up with frustrating diets like the high protein diet or the high fat diet, where there are a lot of food groups you cannot have. Whereas when you are eating something that is healthy, we’re giving everything – fruits, rice, pasta, potatoes, desserts, so you’re actually eating everything. You feel OK, you’re eating food that is tasty and you’re losing weight – what better can you ask for?”
Diet Delights, with branches in Zalka and Monnot, follows a similar, balanced but calorie-counted meal delivery service. They also provide dietary consultations, including a body composition analysis that helps identify a client’s trouble areas and ideal weight, and the client can opt for the delivery food or the dietitian’s help to develop their own, customized program they can cook themselves.
Juliette Tamer, a clinical dietitian at the center, explains that a diet center can help people really stick to their plan.
“A lot of people are more committed because they pay or they know that in two weeks they have a follow-up, so they should follow the diet and be very strict without cheating,” says Tamer, who sees consistent results in dedicated clients as soon as two weeks into the program.
By sticking with the program and including exercise, clients can lose 1-1.5 kilograms a week, which as Naja, the AUB nutritionist, says is “as good as it gets. Anything that promises more [weight loss] is a red flag.”
Tamer explains that dieting is really about learning how to eat healthily and dispelling people’s misconceptions about food.
“For instance a misconception people have is that everything in the supermarket that is ‘diet’ or ‘fat free’ means they can eat as much of it as they want. This is very wrong. Just because an item is fat free does not mean it is sugar free or has no other sources of calories.
“A lot of people also follow fad diets, like lemonade diets or diets based on only eating vegetables five days a week, which can lead to nutritional deficiencies because the diet doesn’t contain enough protein, calcium or other minerals.”
Learning healthy eating habits is also the key to maintaining weight loss, explains Layal Bitar, a dietician at The Diet Center, one of the earliest centers established in the Middle East dedicated to diet and weight loss. It was founded by Sawsan Wazzan Jabri and her husband Rifat Jabri in the early 1990s.
“We aim not just to give [our clients] a diet but to teach them the correct, healthy way to eat,” says Bitar, so that then “some people can stay with us to maintain, other people learn how to eat and move on.”
Appointments at The Diet Center – with locations in Hamra and Ashrafieh – consist of a medical history, body composition analysis and nutritional consultation during which the AUB-educated dietitians help clients prepare a diet plan to cook at home or sign them up for a 28-day food delivery program “tailored to individuals according to calorie needs, likes and dislikes and health needs.”
Meals – developed using ADA guidelines – are selected at the beginning of each week for breakfast, lunch, snack, dinner and dessert at a cost of $880.
Since food delivery programs can become pricey, a less expensive option with numerous Beirut locations is the “Sohi Wa Sarih” chain of clinics, set up by Lebanese dietitian Monique Bassila Zaarour. She has 18 years of experience, which includes presenting TV and radio shows on nutrition as well as authoring three books: “The SWS Cookbook”; “The Lebanese Kitchen: Quick and healthy recipes”; and a guide to nutrition for those with celiac disease.
“We all love food and love to eat; our mission is to help people maintain a healthy weight while enjoying food and life. We improve the lifestyle of people who visit us, taking into consideration their food needs without resorting to any kind of medicines or special foods. We give them diets that they can follow for life, based on the Lebanese cooking,” Zaarour says of the philosophy behind the six clinics around Lebanon.
SWS clinics help clients develop their own meal plans, and membership for six months of consultations and follow-ups costs $200.
No matter what diet clinic clients turn to, Naja recommends that they should exercise caution, always looking into the accreditation of those in charge and noting any warning signs such as promising outlandish results, prescribing pills or supplements, and anything that resembles a fad diet – such as a “detox” or any program that completely cuts out a food group.
“There is nothing called ‘detox,’ nothing in my science. There is a diet that you lower your intake of food, give a break to your system, decrease the amount of food or increase the amount of fruit and vegetables, but detox? These big words have no meaning in our science,” Naja warns.
Similarly, consumers should be wary of pills and herbal supplements. Dietitians are not licensed or trained to write subscriptions and, also, there is very little evidence of benefits or quality control for herbal supplements in Lebanon.
Ultimately, nothing beats a healthy, balanced diet, Naja insists. “The consumer should be aware that there’s no magic fix. Whenever somebody offers you a magic fix, this means something is not right ... You cannot go against the golden rule of a balanced diet.”