So you ate a few more cookies over the holidays than you should have, and now you’re weighing in at a few more pounds than you’d like. What to do?
Perhaps you should eat more cookies.
Purveyors of several all-the-rage “cookie diets” say you can lose as much as 15 pounds a month on their programs, and they boast of a sizable batch of already sized-down cookie dieters -- reportedly including Jennifer Hudson, Mandy Moore, Howard Stern, Kelly Clarkson and former Madonna husband Guy Ritchie.
But before visions of sugar cookies (or rum balls, pfeffernuesse, gingerbread men . . .) start dancing in your head, be warned: On a cookie diet, you can’t eat just any cookies. You have to eat special cookie-diet cookies.
These cookies have been the toast of fan magazines and TV talk shows; on Friday, the granddaddy of them all -- Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet -- is opening its first full-fledged store in Beverly Hills.
“That’s where all our customers are,” says Dr. Sanford Siegal, who invented the original cookie diet more than 30 years ago. “That’s why it’s there, for their convenience.”
The basic notion of these diets -- Smart for Life, Hollywood Cookie and Soypal, as well as Dr. Siegal’s -- is to replace one or two meals a day with cookies that are much lower in calories than the meals would have been. Although the regimens vary, they are often very low-calorie diets designed to lead to rapid weight loss.
Because all the cookies are standardized in size and calorie content -- and dieters are usually told how many to eat and when -- the diets eliminate the problem of out-sized portions, generally considered a major culprit in weight gain.
James Pacella of Boston adhered to the Smart for Life diet for seven months, and the 23-year-old engineer for Procter & Gamble, lost about a third of himself -- scaling down to 225 pounds from 335.
He thought the cookie diet was as easy as pie. “It’s hard to explain,” he says, “because it just happened . . . I can’t say enough about it. I really believe in it.”
But others think the whole concept is nuttier than a fruitcake.
“It’s a classic fad diet,” says Judith Stern, a UC Davis nutrition professor and diet expert who co-directs the Collaborative Obesity Research Evaluation Team, an international board that reviews published obesity papers. “If it weren’t serious, I would just laugh. But people spend money on these things.”
In 1975, Siegal was an obesity doctor in South Florida, and his goal in devising the first cookie diet was to make his patients’ poundage plummet. He believed patients did best when their results were fast and obvious. “You go to the doctor’s office and see the weight coming off every week,” he says. “That’s a tremendous motivating factor.”
Siegal settled on 800 calories a day as the optimum number for weight loss. And he came up with a plan in which dieters got those 800 calories by eating his cookies for breakfast and lunch and then lean meat and vegetables for dinner.
He says it’s safe, under supervision -- “I’ve never seen a problem with too low a calorie diet. Staying obese, that’s the danger.” And he says it’s very effective: “No one fails on 800 calories a day, believe me.”
The trick with any diet is sticking to it, and proponents say cookie diets are highly stick-to-it-able. After all, cookies are convenient, portable and, hey, they’re cookies.
But the main reason people manage to stay on the diets, manufacturers believe, is because the cookies keep them from getting ravenous.
Hunger suppression is crucial, Siegal says. “Any diet will work if people can follow it, but they can’t follow it if they’re too hungry.”
It’s no problem to curb hunger by eating a lot of calories. It’s a lot harder if you get only 800 calories a day (or even a few hundred more as some plans allow). Manufacturers say cookie diets pull this off by using special ingredients -- including certain amino acids and soy byproducts -- or by prescribing small, frequent meals instead of three big ones, or by doing both.
A secret blend of amino acids -- known only to him and his wife -- is supposed to do the trick in Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet. Dr. Sasson Moulavi, founder and medical director of Smart for Life, says a patent is pending on his appetite-suppressing blend of amino acids, fiber and complex sugars. And Larry Turner, president of the Hollywood Cookie Diet, says the protein and fiber in his cookies make them so satisfying that people often don’t even eat as many as the diet allows.
Taking a very different tack, Soypal Cookies -- said to be the most popular diet in their native Japan -- are designed simply and literally to fill you up. Their crucial ingredient is okara, the soy pulp left after soybeans are processed into soy milk and tofu. Dieters are instructed to drink plenty of liquids with the cookies because, according to Winnie Shepardson, customer service support representative for Soypal, “When okara absorbs water, it expands two to three times its original size.”
Some of the diets also rely on the notion that it’s not just what you eat, but when you eat that matters. “Primitive man used to eat small meals many times a day -- find some berries here, go on, find some more there,” says Moulavi, who recommends that dieters eat one of his cookies every two to three hours. “The intestine was designed for small meals throughout the day.”
Turner, of the Hollywood Cookie Diet, believes cookie dieters can learn valuable eating habits. “We’re teaching people to maintain calorie balance and portion control,” he says.
Pacella says that happened for him. “It empowered me to learn how to portion out my day to have smaller meals,” he says. “Now I can stay on the same schedule, but instead of cookies, I make smart choices, like fruit.” After dieting for seven months, starting last February, Pacella has maintained his weight loss the past four months and is still using the cookies.
Nutrition experts agree that very low-calorie cookie diets, when used as directed, can make the weight evaporate. But they say research has shown that most people won’t stick with a very low-calorie diet for very long.
“People go on a rapid weight loss diet and find they get tired of it and then go back to eating the way they did before,” says James Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Denver, nationally known for its research on obesity prevention and treatment. “The key . . . is finding a way to eat and exercise that you can do forever.”
Hill also doubts that cookie diets give most people any useful practice in portion control. They’re too low in calories, he says. That is, over the long term, it’s unrealistic to expect people to control their portions that much.
“It is not a portion-control message, but rather a quick-fix message, that comes from these diets,” Hill says.
And how do the cookies taste? Four unbiased (albeit nondieting) cookie-lovers performed an unscientific taste test of four brands of diet cookies: Dr. Siegal’s Cookie Diet, Hollywood Cookie Diet, Smart for Life and Soypal Cookie Diet. None of the cookies won raves, but some were deemed not bad. Comments ranged from “Sawdust comes to mind” and “Sort of a chemical taste” to “Pretty good” and “This could pass for a regular cookie!” (See related online story for the complete taste test results.)
Cookie diet inventors have tried their products out in various settings -- on friends or patients, in diet clinics, etc. And they experimented till they were satisfied the cookies lived up to their claims.
But no one has conducted -- let alone published -- any randomized controlled trials to test these claims in a valid way. (See related story.) That’s the kind of evidence scientists such as Hill and Stern crave -- to prove whether cookie diets really are a recipe for success or just another half-baked diet scheme.
A panel of taste testers tries out several cookie diet cookies. Check out their comments and details about the diets.