Monday, September 19, 2005

Review: Curves Diet Plan: Set-Point Theory Repackaged

I'm grateful for all the help I can find in my effort to get fit and lose fat. So when a friend loaned me her copy of the Curves diet plan (thanks, Maureen!), even though it's designed for women, I dug right in.

What this plan proposes is simple: eat to alter your metabolic set-point, and exercise at least 90 minutes per week in a careful combination of aerobic and resistance training. The plan is thus intimately coupled to Curves gyms' circuit-training exercise, the "30 minutes, 3 days a week" of the book's cover balloons.

Set-point theory is a debated concept that seems to swing back again in each generation. Simply put, the idea is that your body has a memory of a comfortable metabolism setting—and obese people have this point set in a way that makes them feel hungry sooner, store fat more aggressively, and conserve resources by damping the hormone tags that make us feel good when we exercise. By managing the intake times and carbohydrate content of our diet, set-point proponents argue, we can reset this metabolism tip-point, and lose weight (fat) more easily.

The author of this diet plan, Curves founder Gary Heavin, started with a marketing concept that resonated with overweight, underfit women: package the diet and training for easy access, and open it to women only. The Curves franchise has taken off: there are over 9000 Curves gyms worldwide, according to the franchise's home page. One in every four fitness clubs in the United States is a Curves.

The women-only stricture has come under fire recently, with moves in Wisconsin and California to force the gym to admit men as members. Although Maureen said when I asked about this, "Why would men even want to come to a women's gym?" Times Herald-Record columnist Beth Quinn agrees:
It's a 30-minute exercise program in which equipment is laid out in a circle. There are 10 universals and 10 aerobics pads, and you move from one station to the next every 30 seconds. Three circuits and you're done.
   It's quick. It's painless. There's music. The price is right. Everyone is welcome, regardless of age, size or condition. And it works.
   What could be bad?
   Nothing. At least nothing could be bad if this were Curves for Men.
   But ... this is a group of women we're talking about... in every group of women, it's inevitable that there's going to be at least one person with an issue.
—Beth Quinn, "Men don't throw any curves during workouts at gym"

But I digress. The diet plan that Heavin, a 30-year health and nutrition counselor, incorporates into the membership book for Curves might be predicated on a debated concept, but it does have one thing many previous set-point preachers omitted: a real, honest-to-goodness plan. Complete with shopping list, recipes, substitutions—this is a real plan for controlling your diet. Heavin also accepts the idea that there is more than one possible trigger for obesity, so the diet first explores whether your particular weight issues are triggered by carbohydrates, calories or both.

Once you've determined which trigger is yours, you can easily modify the eating plans and shopping lists to maximize the effect. You still cut calories on each version of the diet—but fat calories are not equal to carbohydrate calories. All the diet plans start with a low-calorie week (to get you into the swing of dieting, I suspect), followed by careful tracking of your weight loss week-by-week, as you add calories to the six meals a day.

Yes, that's six meals per day. A key concept in set-point modification is side-tracking the body's hunger-signaling mechanism. Smaller portions, better food, fewer "junk" calories, and less obsessing about what to eat next, all makes for sound advice for women—in fact, for all of us—to achieve weight control.

I liked the recipes, too. The seasoning for Spicy Chili Pork Chops, for example, is useful for spicing up scrambled eggs, ground turkey, and grilled eggplant. I took a suggestion for Tuna Salad—add mustard to reduce mayonnaise—to extremes once I discovered that the mustard was enough. And I particularly liked the "Free Foods" concept, in which certain foods (spinach, onion, zucchini, and mushrooms, to name a few) don't enter into the calorie calculation.

Heavin uses other known-successful techniques for habit modification. One is goal-setting (and goal evaluation), another is record-keeping. He includes solid information for women, who are usually the household cooks, to help them feed their families while keeping to their own diets. And he tells us how to hold to your diet even while eating out—tips which I found very useful, myself.

Arguably the most useful thing in the book, however, is the clever chart, "Seven Ways to Size Up Your Portions"—did you realize that a cup of cooked vegetables is about the size of your fist, while a teaspoon of butter is about the size of the tip of your thumb? One ounce of nuts or small candies fits in the flat palm of your opened hand, and 3 ounces of meat is about the size and thickness of a deck of playing cards.

Less useful is the constant drumbeat of Curves merchandising throughout the book. A dietary shake, vitamins, and other supplements are described as if they are essential to the plan, and the author lays out the menus with the assumption that you will buy into this requirement. If you can ignore this, though, what's left is still a solid plan with plenty of good information, tasty food, and helpful guidance for anyone who desires to be fitter and lighter.

Meanwhile, a Chicago franchise hopes to hit it big using the Curves model for a men's gym. Cuts for Men offers a 30-minute circuit of strength and cardiovascular exercises for less than $40 a month at most locations, but there are important differences. At Cuts, workout machines are placed against the walls to minimize interactions (unlike the circular conviviality of Curves). The circuit also contains more strength work and less recovery time.

"We’re going after that 80 percent of male population that does not exercise at all," cuts founder John Gennaro said. He predicts there will be 70 Cuts gyms open by 2006.

Meanwhile, I'll content myself with my six meals a day. I wonder if I can fit a Snickers bar in the palm of my hand?


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Anonymous goldie said...

Diets in a Nutshell is a book just released that gives a good review of the curves diet.

10/23/2005 7:44 PM  
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