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Americans are now among the fattest people on earth. One third of the nation is obese, and between 1980 and 1994, the percentage of obese teenagers doubled. New studies report that 55 percent of American women, 63 percent of men, and 25 percent of children are overweight. Americans' sedentary lifestyle and preference for high-fat, cholesterol-laden meals expose them to numerous health risks. Physicians estimate that 300,000 Americans die annually from obesity-related illnesses, which include heart disease, gall-bladder disease, diabetes, stroke, some cancers, and arthritis. Many doctors are calling obesity an epidemic, especially among the young.

For many people "dieting" is a constant battle. Most believe that to lose weight they have to go on a low-calorie diet, often starving until the diet is no longer tolerable. Then the weight comes right back and then some. Very-low-calorie diets are doomed because they lower the body's metabolic rate, which makes losing weight even more difficult, and can lead to bingeing.

Today the most popular diet plans are based on a high-protein, low-carbohydrate regimen. The focus is on protein-rich meats, poultry, fish, and cheese, and the severe restriction of carbohydrates. In contrast, the plant-based lifestyle I recommend is based on a high-carbohydrate, low-fat, and low-protein intake. Therefore the high-protein "Zone"-type diets are diametrically opposed to every enlightened principle that I support. People who follow these diets run the risk of developing potentially dangerous side effects, because of the excess protein, fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol they consume can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney stones, and cancer. The weight loss such diets offer is immediate, but cannot be sustained over the long term.

Dr. John McDougall, founder of the highly successful McDougall Plan for Healthy Living, offers a low-fat, plant-based diet that promotes a broad range of dramatic and lasting health benefits, such as weight loss and reversing of serious illness, such as heart disease, all without drugs.

Dr. Dean Ornish, founder and director of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute, is famous for his 17-year study on reversing heart disease through lifestyle changes alone. One interesting result of the study (which uses a plant-based diet, moderate exercise, and meditation) was that the participants who followed his program also lost an average of 22 pounds in the first year, although the focus of the study was not weight loss. Equally significant, the patients who participated in the program were showing even more improvement after four years.

A popular misperception today is that pasta, potatoes, rice, and bread are fattening. Not true. In fact, while making you feel full, carbohydrates contain less than half the calories of fat. Besides, carbohydrates are called "energy foods" because the body readily burns off 23 percent of the calories in carbohydrates. Yet, just 3 percent of the calories in fat are burned in the process of conversion and storage. So a diet high in starchy foods is perfect for permanent weight control.

Fats are the most concentrated source of food energy, contributing 9 calories per gram, which is more than double that of carbohydrates and proteins. So our Enlightened cakes, brownies, muffins, and quickbreads do not make use of added fat. You'll discover throughout The Enlightened Kitchen that we keep the use of oil to a minimum. At the start of my characteristic braise, I use only a scant teaspoon or two of olive oil. Olive oil is the only oil that I use, and there are several reasons for that. The flavor is superior to other oils, but more importantly, olive oil is monounsaturated, and monounsaturated fats are thought to lower cholesterol.

On the other hand, even though vegetable oil is of plant origin, it is not a health food. Vegetable oils are fluid and are primarily polyunsaturated fat, whereas fats from animal sources are solid at room temperature, and are the major source of saturated fat. There are also trans-fats which are fashioned from vegetable oils, and are also solid at room temperature, like shortening or margarine. Hydrogenation is the darling of the commercial baking industry, because it extends shelf life considerably. When a label lists "partially hydro-genated oil" as an ingredient, that is hydrogenated oil. With chemically induced hydrogen saturation, the structure of the oil is changed, so that what was once unsaturated is now saturated. This alters the way the body metabolizes these fats, and tends to raise the level of blood cholesterol, thereby increasing the risk of coronary heart disease. In The Enlightened Kitchen we

"Just Say No" to saturated fat, trans-fats, and even polyunsaturated oils, opting instead for a very small amount of olive oil.

If you wish to succeed at maintaining weight loss, exercise is critical. It is an essential component to any healthy lifestyle. A combination of workout activities will help you achieve a slimmer, firmer, healthier body. Aerobic exercise speeds up the breakdown of fat in the body, while toning exercises and weight-lifting help firm muscles and increase muscle mass. Find the kinds of activities that you enjoy and that can fit your lifestyle. If you are not sure how to start, simply try walking; you don't need to join a gym to work out and there are many "walking clubs," where a group will meet on a regular basis, perhaps a few times a week.

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