The science of cookie diets

Some diets just sound like they ought to work: the spinach diet, the grapefruit diet, the cabbage soup diet.

But the cookie diet? Not so much.

It would be sweet if they did, of course. Observes Judith Stern, obesity expert and professor of nutrition at UC Davis: "Wouldn't everybody like to go on a cookie diet?"

While scientific studies of cookie diets are notably lacking, research does offer limited support for some of their claims.

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Proteins

Several promoters of cookie diets say their protein content helps to curb hunger, and two -- Smart for Life and Dr. Siegal's -- chalk this up, at least partly, to the particular amino acids they contain. A number of studies imply that this claim could be true. It has been shown that proteins can help suppress appetite and lead to weight loss, and that in some cases proteins can be more effective than either carbohydrates or fat in reducing the number of calories eaten at the next meal.

The exact mechanics of how proteins have these effects aren't always known. But proteins are formed by chains of amino acids, and some research suggests that certain amino acids may be involved. For instance, a 2006 study in the journal Science found that an amino acid called leucine, which is in meats, grains, nuts and cottage cheese, can have a dramatic effect in reducing appetite and consequent weight gain. Rats that received high doses of leucine ate about 83% as much food over the next day as those who didn't. And if they had fasted for 24 hours, those who received the leucine gained only a third as much weight back the next day as those who hadn't.

The leucine study is far from definitive with respect to cookie diets though. For one thing, it's not even known if leucine is contained in either Smart for Life or Dr. Siegal's cookies, because the companies do not make their amino acid formulas public. Besides, the rats had their leucine injected directly into their brains, near the hypothalamus, the center that regulates hunger and its satisfaction. They didn't just scarf it down in, say, an oatmeal-raisin confection.

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Fiber

With some cookie diets, it's claimed their fiber content helps to curb hunger, and a good deal of research has shown that this is feasible. A 2001 article in the journal Nutrition Reviews summed up the results of studies to date on the effects of fiber on hunger. The authors found that when calorie consumption stays constant, eating more fiber makes people feel more satisfied after a meal and less hungry later. Also, when people can eat as much as they want, they eat 10% fewer calories and lose 4.2 pounds over about four months if they eat an extra 14 grams of fiber per day. And these effects are greater in people who are overweight than those who are not.

Still, none of these studies prove anything about cookie diets. There is no official recommended daily amount for fiber, but a number of health organizations recommend from 20 to 35 grams a day. The amount of fiber a person gets per day from cookie-diet cookies ranges from 6 grams a day to 12. Of course, cookie dieters should be eating fewer calories a day than most people, and they should be getting additional fiber in the one or two other meals they eat.

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Small meals

Broad support also exists for the notion that small frequent meals can stifle hunger pangs more effectively than the standard big three. For example, two studies in 1999, one with obese men and one with nonobese men, found that such downsized dining took a large bite out of appetites. In both studies, the men were fed the same amount of food either in one big breakfast or divided into five small ones eaten at hourly intervals. Afterward, for lunch, they could have however much food they wanted. In both cases, the men who ate the big breakfast consumed 27% more calories than the men who ate the five small meals. Surprisingly, this difference was not reflected in hunger ratings.

When men ate the single big breakfast, their blood insulin levels spiked and then fell. Insulin levels rose for frequent eaters too, but not nearly so sharply, and they never dropped as low either.

One purpose insulin serves is to "open" cells and let in blood sugar to provide fuel. This lowers blood sugar levels, and that makes you hungry. But in the brain, insulin actually acts to curb appetite. Ideally, this would make you eat just the right amount, but it's easy for the balance to get out of kilter -- in the direction of eating too much. Many nutrition experts believe that the spiking and falling of insulin levels contribute to things running amok and that a steadier state of insulin levels keeps things in line.

Others believe just the opposite. They argue that frequent smaller meals lead to frequent releases of smaller amounts of insulin, and those in turn lead to frequent releases of leptin, a hormone thought to send messages to the brain that the body is full. This means the leptin is hanging around almost all the time, which might sound like a good thing, but unfortunately, the theory goes, it's not. The leptin receptors get so used to it that they no longer feel inspired to tell the brain to tell the mouth to stop eating.

That view would seem to support the rather maverick-y position Dr. Eric R. Braverman takes in his book "Younger You: Unlock the Hidden Power of Your Brain to Look and Feel 15 Years Younger." He says frequent small meals aren't all they're cracked up to be and recommends "eating large breakfasts and dinners with little else in between."

A middle course might be best, says Susan B. Roberts, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University and a leading nutrition researcher. Three meals and up to two snacks a day are a good routine for dieters, she says, and the routine part is actually important. "If you eat at regular times, your body learns not to expect food at other times," she writes in her book "The Instinct Diet."

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Related research

Although there's a dearth of cookie-diet research, a 2004 study asked 108 participants to rate their hunger and stomach fullness after eating a meal-replacement bar designed for overweight people. Hunger ratings remained significantly below a previously established baseline for five hours, while fullness ratings remained significantly above the baseline.

The authors compared these results to an earlier study finding similar changes for liquid meal replacements, but only for three hours. They noted that the bar had 30 more calories than the liquid but believed that the increased hunger-suppression time was more related to the difference between solids versus liquids.

The bar in their study had 250 calories, with 4 grams of dietary fiber, 14 grams of protein and 8 grams of fat. In terms of nutrient content per calorie, cookie-diet cookies don't have an extremely different profile for the most part. But in absolute terms, the differences in nutrient content between the bar and the cookies may be significant. For instance, the cookies have just 4 or 5 grams of protein, instead of 14.

Besides, the difference in calorie content itself is major -- with the bar providing two-thirds more than even the highest-calorie cookies, Soypal and Hollywood Cookies. (For Soypal, that's for a packet of seven cookies meant to be eaten as one meal.)

So the bar had a big advantage over all the cookies to the extent that hunger satisfaction is related to calorie consumption.

And -- alas -- that's one theory no one really doubts.

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health@latimes.com

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