A woman with dark brown hair, a paisley-print top, and brown slacks points to a mass of words projected on a classroom wall in the Elwin Mussel Senior Center. She talks to an audience of 11 about sugar and healthy food.
“A lot of these so-called health foods aren’t even healthy,” she says. “Check the sugar, check the fat—no matter if it's organic or whatever.”
Processed foods are a gigantic no-no—organic, “healthy,” or otherwise—for Debbie Belardino, a natural weight loss consultant who’s teaching a three-month-long weight loss class through the city of Santa Maria. The class met for the first time on Jan. 13. There are two men enrolled in the class, and the rest are women. Only one person in the class is younger than 35.
During that first session, Belardino stressed that the sugar, fats, and chemicals found in processed foods don’t help when it comes to losing weight. She also talked about minerals found in sea vegetables such as kelp, referred to miso as a detoxifier, and called coconut kefir a fantastic probiotic, something that changed her life.
“I will show you how to make it,” Belardino said. “You can buy it, but it’s $20 a bottle.”
Kefir is a fermented milk drink, cultured from yeast, or kefir grains, that contains several probiotic bacteria. Health food advocates say that probiotics such as kefir are good for us and help aid in digestion as well as balance out the bacteria found in our digestive systems. Some studies support those claims, while some don’t. It’s still relatively new to the world of scientific studies.
“What does it taste like?” one woman asked.
“It tastes like sour milk,” a woman answered.
“Eeew!” was the collective reply.
Belardino laughed and changed the subject, moving on to talk about a plant-based diet, exercise, getting enough sleep, stress, emotional eating, a weight-loss plan, a good support network, and keeping a food diary. Her weight loss class isn’t about a quick fix, it’s about doing something that works for you in a way that you can maintain, a lifestyle change. The class covers the gamut because weight loss is complex and personal.
The weight loss/diet industry in the United States scraped in around $60.5 billion in 2013, according to statistics from Market Research.com. That’s money spent on weight loss systems, diet drinks and food, books, gym memberships, etc. It was projected to grow by 1.2 percent in 2014, “as the DIY dieting trend continues, more competitors appear, and diet companies try to sort out the affects of the Affordable Care Act.”
There’s the paleo diet—eat like a caveman. Herbalife—protein shakes, snacks, and vitamins. Atkins. Weight Watchers. Jenny Craig. Nutrisystem. HCG—human chorionic gonadotropin, a hormone produced during pregnancy, which can be found in a lot of over-the-counter weight loss supplements. Gluten free. No carbs. No sugar. No fat. The bulletproof diet—14 steps that include eliminating sugar, artificial anything, and gluten, as well as eating a significant amount of grass-fed meats. Fasting. Raw food.
The list is endless. The diets all conflict with one another, advocates swear by them, companies promise quick fixes and lifestyle changes, and the public continues to attempt weight loss transformation in a short period of time. Does anything work?
The short answer is there isn’t one way to lose weight and keep it gone. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, according to Shelley Wheeler, a dietician with the Weight Loss Surgery Institute of the Central Coast.
“Fad diets—it’s kind of like going to Vegas” and trying to win enough money to retire on, Wheeler said. “So a 401K is better for retirement, saving a little bit each month.”
Wheeler said telltale signs of a “fad” diet are the promise of quick results and the exclusion of one food group or thing—such as carbohydrates or gluten.
“Anybody can lose the weight, but to keep it off is the hard part,” Wheeler said. “And most of these fad diets and gimmicks provide this all-or-nothing attitude.”
All-or-nothing is pretty much an unsustainable practice. Most people can cut out gluten, carbohydrates, sugar, or whatever else for a short period of time, but Wheeler said over the long term most people revert back to where they were before they started dieting. People get bored of being limited or tired because they are lacking certain nutrients. When people lose weight too fast, it affects their metabolism, slowing it down, making it easier to gain weight back and harder to lose it again.
She also said fad diets usually exclude exercise, which is a really important part of healthy weight loss.
“With nutrition, there’s not one pill or food that’s going to make you lose weight or change your genetic code,” Wheeler said. “It’s a whole lifestyle.”
Wheeler’s office is a stop-gap measure for people on the potential weight-loss surgery track, the way point before a last resort. She works with obese patients to do everything possible, try it all, before moving onto the operating table as a necessity because of the health issues associated with being extremely overweight.
She has diet books, supplements, binders, and fliers stacked on a shelf next to a computer desk. On the small, round conference table in the center of her office is a little plate with rubber food on it. A puddle of orange carrots. A half a yellow peach. They represent portion sizes, and Wheeler uses them when she talks to people about how much of something they should be eating.
“Most people have what we call ‘proportion distortion,’” she said as she picked up the carrots. “They think an 8-ounce steak is a portion size for protein, but really a portion size for protein is 3 ounces.”
When patients sit down to chat with Wheeler, the first thing she does is listen to them talk about their lifestyle, eating habits, and what they’ve done to try to lose weight. Most of the folks that sidle up to her table have been on yo-yo diets for several years and are sick of it.
“I need to assess how motivated they really are: Do they really want to change?” she said.
They talk portion sizes and keeping track of them, nutrition labels, exercise, developing meal plans suited to likes and dislikes, and self-monitoring through cell phone apps. The one she recommends to most of her patients is My Fitness Pal, a free app that is essentially a food diary that calculates calories based on food intake and exercise. It even has a motion sensor that can track when you’re moving around.
About 60 percent of the people who sit at that round table are able to lose enough weight to not have the surgery, “but they have to be ready to do it, and motivated to do it.”
She describes weight loss options as a pyramid with diet and exercise at the bottom—think the antiquated food pyramid with the bottom layer of grains—and weight loss surgery at the very top.
Doing things like having an appointment with Wheeler once a month, and installing cell phone apps that make patients track food intake and exercise, can give people accountability and the support they need to do it.
Generally speaking, Wheeler tells her patients to try to stay away from refined sugar and/or added sugar in processed foods; eat lean protein at every meal, fruits and veggies, and 100 percent whole grain; and not consume a lot of red meat. But, as she said before, she said again—there’s not one fix, and she added that the same thing doesn’t work for everyone.
“Nutrition isn’t black and white,” Wheeler said. “It would be lovely if it could be—then we wouldn’t have this obesity problem—but it’s very gray.”
The youngest member enrolled in the city of Santa Maria’s healthy weight loss class is Fabiola Limon. She’s 27 years old and came to class on Jan. 13 in workout clothes. She said in the last five years she’s lost 85 pounds and gained back about 25 pounds.
Limon said she gained the weight back because of stress eating: She recently changed jobs, moved houses, and had very little time to take care of herself.
In her lifetime, Limon said she’s tried a lot of fad diets: She’d lose the weight and gain it back, a yo-yo dieter, if you will.
“I’ve done it all, the Herbalife, the Weight Watchers, the HCG, so now I’m looking for something different, something more,” she said.
On Herbalife’s prescription for success—protein shakes, snacks, and supplements—she lost 60 pounds, and the minute she stopped, all the weight started coming back. What she’s been most successful with is a combination of exercise and re-examining the way she eats. She has a personal trainer at Custom Workouts in Santa Maria and has for the last five years. When she started at the gym, she also started changing her eating habits.
“I did it slowly,” Limon said. “The first thing I did was stop eating out.”
Then she went home and looked through her fridge to see what healthier choices she could make there.
“And then I hit a plateau when I was at 173 [pounds]; I just couldn’t lose any more weight,” she said. “It’s a freaking process, I’m telling you. I can never recall a time when I was a ‘normal’ weight. I’ve always been overweight.”
She looks at dieting and exercise this way: Every diet or personal trainer has their own plan for you. “Nobody’s really wrong, and nobody’s completely right either.” And so she takes a little bit from everybody and tries to make it work for her.
Limon’s weight loss goal isn’t a specific weight, but is a percentage of body fat—25 percent. Currently, she’s at 35 percent body fat. Every time she meets with her personal trainer, she weighs in on a special scale that measures the percentage of water, fat, and muscle in her body and gives her a printout. (According to Wheeler, the dietician, the scale isn’t 100 percent accurate, but it’s not a bad way for people to track weight loss.)
For Limon, just looking at how much she weighs doesn’t give her an accurate enough picture of where her body is. Most people look at the scale number and their height to determine whether or not they’re overweight; a graph called the Body Mass Index is one way dieticians such as Wheeler determine if someone is overweight.
Wheeler also said that just looking at the Body Mass Index and where someone should be—for example, a woman who’s 5-foot-7 has an ideal body weight between 122 and 149 pounds—doesn’t always give an accurate reading of someone’s weight. There’s bone density and muscle mass that need to be factored in as well.
By joining the class, Limon is hoping to find natural, healthy ways to change her eating habits.
“I’m trying to do this slowly, I guess in a healthy way, a permanent way,” she said. “I’m willing to invest my money in a personal trainer now, rather that pay for diabetes medication later in life. … You know, live a long life and retire in Miami or something like that.”
An exercise plan and a diet that’s doable for each individual—long term—is Belardino’s goal for the healthy weight loss class she’s teaching. She said plant-based nutrition is key as well. Belardino is a fan of something called macrobiotics, which is essentially an organic, locally grown plant-based diet that has some lean animal protein thrown in there with red meat and dairy cut out.
“It’s not going to be a vegan-based class or even macrobiotics, because you have to see where people are at,” she said.
Belardino was born and raised in the Santa Maria Valley, moved to Japan for 16 years, and then moved back to the area a few years ago. She teaches English as a second language at a local high school, and also taught English in Japan. Overseas was where she learned about macrobiotics, which originated in Japan.
“It’s tough here,” Belardino said. “It’s a Japanese diet.”
She said the diet is all about balance and eating seasonal foods, “warming” foods in the winter such as root vegetables and soup, and “cooling” foods in the summer. For three months, she did a strict macrobiotic diet, and said it changed her life.
“And I felt incredible,” she said. “Everything was in season. … Everything was in balance. It was amazing.”
She loved it so much that she attended the Kushi Institute in Japan and in the United States, gaining a macrobiotic counseling certificate through the school in 2010. Belardino may believe wholeheartedly in the power of plant-based nutrition, but she’s also realistic in her approach to the healthy weight loss class.
“I’m not fanatical, or extremist,” she said. “And that’s why Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig are successful. They’re not extreme.”
You can’t be, she added.
“If they’re eating red meat, fine, maybe reduce the portions a little bit,” she said. So maybe instead of consuming red meat five times a week, cut it down to twice a week. The same thing with dairy: Cut down how much is consumed. She encouraged her students on Jan. 13 to start making changes right away, and not to wait until they felt they had the perfect plan in place.
Cut back on processed foods. Track your sugar intake. Buy fruits and vegetables.
She also asked her students to track how their bodies reacted to the changes in the way they ate, if they felt better or worse, lost weight or gained weight. Were they tired? The most important thing to understand about macrobiotics is that it’s all about balance.
Belardino said if your body isn’t in balance, if it’s missing a nutrient, if you’re losing weight too fast, if you’re consuming too much sugar or processed foods, it will tell you, and you should listen to it.
“You need to understand what your body is doing, and if it’s not working, you’ve got to change. That’s why I don’t believe in diets. Your body is the barometer,” she said.
Contact Managing Editor Camillia Lanham at [email protected].