Placebo Dieting


January 23, 1993|By HAL PIPER

Doctors describe a ''placebo effect'' that may sometimesresult when a patient gets better without treatment, so long as he thinks his condition is receiving medical attention. Placebo dieting has been my strategy for years.

We who enjoy, er, robust health fall into two groups, one of which is actively dieting. I am in the other, the control group. I don't actually do anything about my physique, but perhaps secret shame, reinforced by the unremitting mockery of my children, will produce a placebo effect. Actually, I think this is the diet strategy most people follow most of the time. It is essentially similar to another of my favorite techniques from ''The Music Man,'' Professor Harold Hill's ''think system'' for learning to play musical instruments without practice.

And it has worked fairly well. Most years I gain only a pound or two, three at most. Any number cruncher will confirm that this trifling variation, amounting to less than 2 percent of body weight, is not statistically significant.

Last year something strange happened, but puzzlement yields to the patient application of mathematical principles.

Consulting my runner's diary, I find that I ran 583 miles in 1991, but only 331 last year, a consequence of tender hamstrings. We know that running burns 100 calories per mile. We know this from elementary chemistry, learned many years ago at Towson High School under the gimlet gaze of Mr. Deuber, who subsequently abandoned his name and vocation and went on to fame and fortune as the affable Channel 2 sportscaster Jack Dawson.

Well, then, at 100 calories times the 252 miles not run in 1992, we determine that I burned 25,200 fewer calories last year. Divide that by 3,600, the number of calories above or below baseline that will cause you to gain or lose one pound, and you see why I gained 7 pounds.

(Actually, I gained eight, but the eighth pound is not statistically significant.)

As Karl Marx said, it is not enough to understand the world; we must change it.

But how? How do we downsize by seven pounds? Running 583 miles won't do it, for in 1991 that only maintained a steady weight (omitting statistically insignificant variations). To lose seven pounds by running, I would have to clock 835 miles this year -- 583, plus the 252 deficit miles of 1992. My geriatrician is unlikely to sanction this, to say nothing of my hamstrings.

It is time for a patient application of nutritional principles.

When my little brother had to make weight as a wrestler in college, he swore by celery. It had negative calories, he said: Chewing it up and processing the roughage used up more energy than the celery gave you.

I don't know how much calorie deficit there may be in a stalk of celery, but it can't be a whole lot, or somebody would have cashed in with a best-selling Celery Diet book. To make the math easy, let's say negative-10 -- that is, eating a stalk of celery burns 10 more calories than the nutrition in it. Then to lose one pound you would have to eat 360 stalks of celery; to lose seven pounds in a year, you would have to eat 2,520 stalks of celery, or seven stalks a day.

This probably would work, if only because eating seven stalks of celery a day should depress the appetite marvelously. But my solution is better: the martini diet.

Martinis consist of two elements, gin and vermouth, to which is added a twist of lemon peel or an olive. Or, in my case, two olives. This is because I got my martini recipe from my colleague Theo Lippman Jr., whose martinis are rather copious. (He is quite slender, by the way, proof that martinis themselves are not fattening.)

My diet martini consists of four ounces of gin, omitting altogether the empty calories contributed by the ounce of vermouth in a Lippman martini. And it substitutes a twist of lemon for the two olives, which surely saves a few more calories.

The calculator now testifies that we can indeed lose seven pounds on a martini diet:

Diet martinis50 calories less per martini than Lippman cocktails x 365 martinis = 18,250 calories saved in one year. Divided by 3,600 calories per pound = 5 pounds lost.

The other two pounds aren't statistically significant.

So here's mud in your eye, Jack Dawson. If this doesn't work, I can always go back next year to the placebo diet.

Hal Piper edits the Opinion * Commentary page.

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