October 29, 2015


Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet: Lose Up to 5 Pounds in 5 Days. By Liz Vaccariello. Reader’s Digest. $25.99.

     Pretty much all diets work. Yes, they do. It’s people who don’t work. The reason dieters almost inevitably fail to take weight off and keep it off has to do with motivation, stick-to-it-iveness, will power, whatever you want to call it. Oh, and human nature: deprivation is not something to which most people willingly attach themselves. And diets are a form of deprivation: their creators tell you what you can eat, what you must eat (most people do not take kindly to being ordered around, especially when bodily functions are involved), and what you must not eat. So the question for anyone wanting to lose weight is which yes-it-works diet he or she will follow until the deprivation and demands become too much, leading to quitting that diet, gaining the weight back, and finding another diet that will work – as long as the dieter is sufficiently dedicated and obedient, preferably for the rest of his or her life.

     This is a distinctly unpleasant scenario, and these days purveyors of diets know that a big part of what they must do in order to obtain adherents and make money from their diet books is to make a diet easy, simple, uncomplicated, and easy (yes, twice as easy is better) – and if they can make a diet fun, or at least make it seem to be fun, so much the better. Until someone comes up with a pill that magically melts fat, especially in specific body areas where people want the fat to disappear, a diet that is easy to follow and even fun is akin to the Holy Grail.

     So, yes, Liz Vaccariello’s latest entry in the grail sweepstakes will work for those who follow it. The editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest has been down this road before (The Digest Diet, 21-Day Tummy Diet) and knows the formula for convincing people that this book is the answer to all their dieting needs, the solution to all their weight woes. It does help, however, to read the disclaimers carefully. That subtitle, “Lose Up to 5 Pounds in 5 Days”? Well, “up to” could mean losing zero pounds, or half of one. That’s called the English language. And in tiny type on the back cover, attentive readers will find the eternal legalese associated with all diet books in our hyper-litigious culture: “How much weight you lose will vary depending on your gender, age, and starting weight, plus what you typically eat and how much you exercise, among many other factors. Even using the same program of diet and exercise, individual results will vary. Losing 1 pound a day is not a typical result.” Gives a whole new perspective to the words “up to,” doesn’t it?

     But just as pretty much all diets work, pretty much no diet makes it into book form without a touch of hype. Make that a touch and a half. Vaccariello’s latest is no different. Nor is it different in the inside-the-book disclaimers that, like the one on the back cover, tell readers that things are not quite as simple and not quite as guaranteed as the book's overstated title and subtitle (and Vaccariello’s cover quote, “My easiest plan yet!”) would indicate. Just how easy, flexible and simple to follow is this diet? “It’s best to eat meals approximately 4 hours apart. And try to allow no more than 5 hours between meals.” “While the plan is designed so that you don’t need to count calories, it’s best to be aware of your overall calorie intake.” “For best results, I suggest that you measure or weigh the food in your plan as frequently as possible…” “You can enjoy a 12-oz glass of beer or 6-oz glass of wine in place of a snack once or twice a week.” Get those scales, schedulers and substitution lists ready, folks – for this diet as for all the others!

     So what is different about Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet? The presentation is relentlessly perky, for one thing, and Vaccariello’s discussions and recommendations are straightforward, written in easy-to-understand language, and presented in the pithy style for which Reader’s Digest has long been known. The book has a reasonably easy-to-follow approach to weight loss: three types of meals called “kickstart” (to get things going), “steady loss” (to keep them going) and “maintain” (essentially a lifetime eating plan to use after reaching your goal weight). It has color coding that makes it easy to follow what Vaccariello is recommending: generally, columns in red are “don’t eat this” and ones in green are “eat this instead” (although some “yes” colors vary confusingly). It has side-by-side layouts of “bad” and “good” meals that make it very simple to see where your calories come from and how much you can reduce them by making different food choices – although some of the “bad” meals shown are deliberately structured to overstate Vaccariello’s case (e.g., a lunch including potato salad, deli coleslaw and a Ghirardelli Double Chocolate Brownie in addition to a hamburger on Kaiser roll with two slices of American cheese).

     What really makes the book special, though, is Vaccariello’s willingness, even eagerness, to name names. She gives specific brand-name foods and restaurant meals to eat and not to eat: one “kickstart dinner” includes Lean Cuisine Culinary Collection Herb Roasted Chicken, for example, and another uses “Marie Callender’s Chicken Pot Pie (remove the top crust),” while one snack is a Klondike No Sugar Added Krunch bar and another combines a Starbucks Chocolate Cake Pop with a Starbucks Tall (12 oz) nonfat cappuccino. Hyper-specific recommendations like these make it much easier for dieters to follow the Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet both at home and when out-and-about.

     The very best pages here, which are also the most visually striking, are the ones with “stop eating” recommendations in the left-hand column and “start eating” ones on the right. The words “stop eating” are in red, and each listed item is preceded by a red “x.” The words “start eating” are in green, and the recommended foods (many of which are pictured) are listed with green check marks. The specificity here is what makes these pages so useful. Among packaged cereals, for example, one item that Vaccariello says to stop eating is half a cup of Grape-Nuts (210 calories); instead she suggests, among other possibilities, three-quarters of a cup of Kellogg’s All-Bran Original (120 calories, 15 g fiber). Instead of Au Bon Pain Eggs on a Bagel with Bacon and Cheese (560 calories, 22 g fat), she suggests Au Bon Pain Egg Whites, Cheddar, and Avocado Breakfast Sandwich (310 calories, 17 g fat) or a McDonald’s Egg McMuffin (300 calories) – or perhaps certain specified items from Starbucks, Tim Horton, Taco Bell or Panera. By acknowledging that many people prefer to eat restaurant food (“fast” or not) and buy packaged foods, and finding ones that can reduce caloric intake without requiring people to change their food-buying habits dramatically, Vaccariello provides a real service. She recognizes that serious dieting is itself a life-changing experience, and by telling readers (and showing them through the book’s photos of meals and products) that it need not be completely wrenching, she makes it possible to attempt the Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet without feeling in advance that the diet’s demands are more than you can bear – a self-defeating attitude that rapidly leads to dietary self-defeat.

     However, a reality check: the vast majority of people who try the Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet will not succeed. This is why Vaccariello gets to write multiple diet books. Depending on which source you consult, you will find that 65% to 90% of dieters are not successful at getting to their desired weight and staying there. The time to regain varies, but the weight does come back. There are many explanations for this universally acknowledged reality, ranging from will-power deficit to genetic determinism to a failure to incorporate sufficient exercise into one’s life (this last being a recipe for all the “easy exercise” books out there). In truth, the reasons people regain weight vary substantially, and there is probably some truth to all the analyses and complete truth to none of them. This does not mean you should throw up your hands in despair if you truly want to lose weight – but neither does it mean that you should deem Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet the perfect solution to weight loss. It is not; pretty much all diets work, but pretty much all dieters fail. The most basic requirement of dieting is one that is extremely simple to state but extremely difficult to manage in everyday life: take in fewer calories than you burn (a calorie is a measure of heat as well as energy), and increase the number you burn by becoming more physically active. Ultimately, if you boost your physical activity and reduce your food intake, it does not much matter how you get to a state of fewer-calories-in-than-out – the basic approach is foundational to all diet books, including Reader’s Digest Stop & Drop Diet. If this book helps you focus on food differently so that you can succeed in rebalancing calories in and calories out, then it will be a valuable resource. If not, you can always wait for Vaccariello’s next diet book.

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