Deception diets: The Zen of Zoodle

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Now eat your cake and lose weight. Deception diets, the latest in food faddism, use optical illusion and intelligent food pairings to help curb hunger pangs
Every evening, Sheena Roy returns home to a generous helping of pasta, her all-time favourite food. She gorges on clumps of macaroni and cheese, fettuccini carbonara, spicy shoestring spaghetti, creamy ravioli, meaty noodles and overstuffed cannelloni. And yet, this is the same diet that’s helped her shed 20 kg in the past four months. Her secret? All her pasta is made entirely of raw vegetable. “I was 104 kg when I realised that I just had to do something about my weight. But ‘diets’ were not for me. I would try to eat no carbs and then suddenly find myself binging on chunks of bread in the middle of the night. I could not deprive myself of the food I love. Instead, I chose to deceive myself using zoodles. The recipe would probably make an Italian cringe but it is absolutely delicious,” says the 27-year- old Bengaluru-based software engineer.

Zoodle, an internet term coined to describe faux noodles made of vegetables such as zucchini, made its way to the top of the diet scene when pop star Beyonce included it in her list of vegan fitness secrets. “They’re affordable, easy to make, and since you are cutting out the carbs, you don’t need to cut back on the sauce. You can also be extremely creative with your recipes. I have tried mixing my zoodles with pesto, kung pao chicken, phad thai, Greek salad, red pepper alfredo and tuna mayo,” adds Roy.

Indeed, the process to make zoodles is surprisingly simple and economical, something which adds to its growing popularity. All you need to do is pick a firm vegetable of your choice. Dieticians recommend carrots, zucchini, jicama, cabbage, sweet potato, beetroot or radish. Next, you pass it through a nifty device known as the zoodler, which cuts it into different noodle shapes. There are two types of zoodlers currently available in the market: an hourglass-shaped tool for smaller kitchens that cuts vegetables into thick flat noodles, and a larger tri- blade device with adjustable thickness settings for those who want to experiment with shapes.

“I think the days of deprivation diets are gone. If you look at all the major diets of the past—Atkins (carb-free), Dukan (protein-only) or Paleo (fibre-only)— they always denied you some food group or the other. This isn’t really healthy for the body or mind because you are constantly under the stress of denial and turning away from food. Now take into consideration deception diets, where you can eat everything but in a healthy, weight-friendly manner. They work because they are built on positive reinforcement and not negative denial,” explains Dr Shikha Kumar, Mumbai- based nutritionist and dietician.

To meet the increasing demand for deceptive food, the health industry is now churning out a range of tasty junk food substitutes. So if you feel like slurping on a soda, simply mix together a pitcher of Jeltzer (a combination of fresh fruit juice and seltzer soda water). Or if you have a craving for cookies, try your luck with Dr Siegal’s Cookie Diet (which allows unlimited portions of healthy chocolate- chip, blueberry, oatmeal, coconut and butterscotch cookies). Or if you want something to munch on, why not go for a helping of cauliflower popcorn, chana crackers, baked puffed bajra, salted soybean or roasted jawar chips?

“Eating is a deeply sensory experience,” says Kumar, “So just because a food item looks like a cookie, smells like a cookie and feels like a cookie, you still cannot fool your brain into thinking that it is a cookie until it actually tastes like a cookie. For example, boiled broccoli cannot work as a cookie. But you can make a dark chocolate, bran, dried apricot and avocado cookie. You have healthy fat from the avocado, fibre from the bran, sweetness from the apricot and a bitter tang from the chocolate—it all comes together perfectly. Food substitutes have to be expertly packaged keeping in mind that half the fun of eating is in the taste.”

When Ishi Khosla decided to set up Whole Foods in 2001, she was already familiar with the psychology of those suffering from obesity. “I believe that it is important to know how to eat healthy without compromising on nutrition. Eating healthy is not about cutting out food from your diet. Instead, it is about incorporating better alternatives like whole grains, healthy fat, toasted seeds, fresh fruits and vegetables. There are smart ways of doing this today,” says Khosla. According to her people are much more conscious about eating the right food today as opposed to what not to eat. “Take for example our amaranth breakfast cereal. It is excellent for your heart and tastes delicious as well. You can add fresh fruit, honey and dried fruit to it as well. It’s a complete meal and one that leaves you feeling full and good about yourself. I am glad to see that diets are moving away from saying ‘no’ to saying ‘yes, but make it healthy’,” she adds.

In her book Skin Talk, Mumbai-based dermatologist Dr Jaishree Sharad emphasises the importance of holistic eating. “I just don’t endorse fad diets. If you cut out food or starve yourself, then you are actually harming yourself. Skin is the first sign of health. Stressful deprivation of any kind shows up as dull, lifeless skin. You need a certain amount of fat and carbs in your body as well. But they should be healthy fat and carbs—smoked fish, flax seeds, evening primrose, eggs and nuts are all excellent sources,” she says. A follower of detox and skin rejuvenation diets herself, she adds that the concept of ‘detox’ is completely misconstrued in popular culture. “Detox diets are often equated as juice-only cleanses. In reality, ‘detox’ means giving your body a much-needed break by cutting back on sugar and loading up on essential vitamins and minerals. If you find it difficult to eat healthy or if it makes you feel better about yourself, then by all means do ‘camouflage’ your fruits and vegetables as junk food,” she suggests.

Interestingly, deception doesn’t just end with food itself; it also extends to cutlery, kitchen cabinets and barware. All thanks to the Small Plate Movement (serving your meals on plates which have a diameter of less than seven inches) and Vision Diet (putting together healthy dishes that are visually appealing). Both diets are based on research which suggests that how much we eat, how often we eat and how happy we are with what we eat all belong to the realm of the subconscious. The work done by Koert Van Ittersum, professor of marketing at Georgia Tech, and Brian Wansink, director of the food and brand lab at Cornell University, as reported in the Journal of Consumer Research, shows that people under- serve themselves by 12 per cent on small plates and over-serve food by 13 per cent on large ones. Another study done by the Nestlé Research Center in Lausanne, Switzerland, suggests that if your food is not visually appealing then you tend to gain less satisfaction from it.

“Small plates, tall narrow glasses, colourful shelves lined with healthy food— your cutlery and kitchen arrangement can play a huge role in helping you eat less,” says VLCC founder-mentor, Vandana Luthra. “No one wants to eat boring boiled vegetable mush or sliced soggy fruits. You have to think of mealtimes as an elaborate theatre show; every character, every theme, every decoration has to be appealing. Think delicately steamed broccoli with ginger fish or soft whole wheat finger sandwiches with hummus and sundried tomatoes. Healthy food can be equally exciting and delicious. You just have to present it right.”

There are times however, when healthy food just won’t do, no matter how hard you try to conceal it. “The concept of a ‘treat’ has been around for a long time. The idea behind it was to give you something to look forward to and to pamper yourself. So you opt for healthy food options most of the time and then reward yourself,” says Rujuta Diwekar, Mumbai-based dietician, bestselling author, and the force behind Kareena Kapoor’s former size-zero figure. “There is research which shows that you can actually make your treat count towards weight maintenance. All you need to do is pair it with the right food,” she adds.

Enter Bulletproof Coffee, the first in a line of ‘healthy’ food pairings. Introduced by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Dave Asprey, the diet includes a 460-calorie blend of coffee, unsalted butter and coconut oil—a combination that claims to help burn fat and boost energy levels. Asprey attributes his own 36 kg weight loss to the buttery-concoction, the idea for which came to him while trekking through Nepal in 2004. “Bulletproof coffee is a variation on the Nepalese Butter Tea, made from tea leaves, water, salt and fresh Yak butter,” he says.

Similarly, researches now claim that if you want to indulge in a glass of wine, then pair it with a side of grilled fish for a bigger nutritional punch. According to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, the heart-healthy polyphenol antioxidants present in wine actually help soak up the omega-3 fats in the fish. “Why are brownies bad for you? Sugar, flour and fat is an unhealthy combination, that’s why. But if you cut out the fat and substitute the flour with fibre, then it isn’t as harmful,” says Anamika Seth, a dietician at Talwalkars Gym. “Pairing your food right is important to bring out the best of their nutritional properties. For example, if you want to indulge in beef burgers, add some rosemary to it. The antioxidants in the herb helps stop the formation of harmful carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines which form when you fry the patties. Like Romeo and Juliet, Jack and Jill, Tom and Jerry—some food pairings are just meant to be.”