"The Sonoma Diet" - The Diet Channel Interviews Author Dr. Connie Guttersen

Tuesday, October 24, 2006 - 1:34pm

For many people, The Sonoma Diet sounds ideal—there is no starving yourself, eating weird prepared foods, or counting calories. Instead, this eating plan combines the most succulent culinary themes of southern Europe and northern California into a diet chock full of olive oil, fruits, berries, whole grains, and—perhaps most importantly—wine. Author Dr. Connie Guttersen (yes, she lives in wine country) has put together a diet that embraces the cuisine gourmets love to eat. While non-gourmets must adjust to a diet that excludes fast-food burgers and fries, in many ways this is the weight loss plan for which food lovers have been waiting many years. Thanks to Dr. Guttersen for agreeing to chat with The Diet Channel.

You describe The Sonoma Diet as the combining of the old world and the new world, the Mediterranean and Sonoma. Explain:
Today, modern medicine is confirming the ancient wisdom of traditional diets such as those of the Mediterranean, Asia, and Latin America which prevent obesity, inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, certain types of cancer, as well as increase longevity.

The Mediterranean diet and The Sonoma Diet share the same philosophy of taking time to savor delicious meals, often with a glass of wine. They both emphasize balancing minimally processed refined foods, wholesome grains, fresh vegetables, fruits, seafood, lean meats, and healthy fats such as almonds, nuts, avocado, and olive oil.

However, The Sonoma Diet is different in that it is also a plan to lose weight. It is a lifestyle approach to gaining health and losing weight while eating delicious foods. Also, it incorporates more of a wine country cuisine that incorporates the flavors of Asia and Latin America in addition to the Mediterranean flavors.

The “way you eat” is also an important component to the Sonoma Diet. It’s important to experience pleasure, relaxation, and eat mindfully. These are all important lessons we can take from these traditional cuisines.

What role does portion control play in The Sonoma Diet?
Calories count, but on the Sonoma diet you will not have to count them. The Sonoma Diet plate and bowl concept is an easy way to keep tabs on portions and smart food combinations to boost your weight loss and maximize your health.

No need to be obsessive in counting points, grams, or even measuring everything. Instead follow the guidelines which soon become second nature and result in a mindful balance of foods. There are weeks of meal plans which fall exactly according to the plate diagrams so that quickly you can visualize this. The plate guidelines are easy as taking a nine-inch plate dividing it up for 50% veggies, 30% lean protein or dairy, 20% whole grains. The other alternative is a nine-inch plate equally divided up by lean meats or dairy, whole grains, fruit, and veggies. The menu plans incorporate smart combinations of foods within each group. For example, one of my favorites is the Grilled Sicilian Tuna Steak with tomatoes, roasted bell peppers, capers and olive oil accompanied by a wild rice salad and grilled asparagus. The menus and recipes keep the food interesting, easy, and delicious.

The Sonoma Diet embraces the flavor of foods and the enjoyment of cuisine. How does your work with the Culinary Institute of America influence that thinking?
Living and working in California’s wine country opened up an entire different approach for me when it came to sharing my nutrition knowledge. Having previously worked for 20 years on medical side of obesity, I never really addressed the enjoyment side of “diets”. The past 10 years working at the Culinary Institute of America has immersed me in an environment where the science and the senses can come together. I was able to find the language which brings science together with the pleasure of eating. That language is FLAVOR. Delicious and easy ways to capture flavor in vegetables, grains, lean meats, and fruits with simple techniques featuring herbs, spices, marinades, and many more ingredients.

Working with chefs at the CIA has also taught me that you don’t need to prepare difficult recipes or spend hours in the kitchen to have great tasting food. The Sonoma Diet reflects many ideas to make our life easier when it comes to preparing meals.

To be healthy and lose weight you must love to eat. So many diets today fail because they do not understand that if the food does not taste good, regardless how healthy it is, nobody will be able to stay with it long term. You often end up at the table eating something entirely different than everybody else. A life of deprivation and diets is not a way to live.

Since the book is named Sonoma, what role does wine play in the diet?
A glass of wine a day with your meal is part of the healthy way of eating and lifestyle of the Sonoma Diet. You eat slower, relax, savor and perhaps, even eat less. Scientific studies have found that women who drink wine in moderation tend to be at healthy body weights and in some cases slimmer. The scientific literature has proven that a glass of wine a day can increase longevity, provide protective nutrients to decrease risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Wine also adds pleasure and compliments the different flavors in the foods. For many this is another way to enjoy a meal. Of course, wine is optional; without it, one will still successfully gain health and lose weight on the Sonoma Diet.

You come from a family of physicians. How does your background affect your views on nutrition?
Coming from five generations of physicians, I appreciate that obesity or even carrying those extra 15 pounds around our waist is more than just a cosmetic problem. It is perhaps one of the most important risk factors for heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, inflammation, and perhaps cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

Nutrition is a dynamic science, always growing and becoming more sophisticated. To take advantage of this knowledge you need to put it into a plan, the science alone is only one piece of the puzzle. Exercise, time and stress managements, the “way we eat” and delicious satisfying foods are other pieces to address.

My goal is to put the recent science into an easy to follow plan with delicious foods. The science must be translated in order to really make a difference and teach people how to eat and live healthy.

For 10 years you counseled people struggling with obesity. What insight can you provide regarding the current “obesity epidemic”?
The biggest challenge in fighting this epidemic is putting what we have learned from science into a plan that results in a healthy lifestyle, and not just look at it from a “diet perspective”. A diet is something you follow for a set amount of time and then return to what you where doing before. It is often associated with eating different foods than everybody else, deprivation, and poor tasting foods.

The obesity epidemic is not just a cosmetic problem; it is a primary risk factor for many health problems including heart disease, inflammation, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s. It is necessary to not just “diet” with fad diets to address weight loss. Instead, people should focus more on the best foods to improve health. Many fad diets offer quick weight loss with false promises. My advice is to look for healthy eating plans that are designed by registered dieticians so that family members will also benefit from the lifestyle approach.

You are a big proponent of “power foods”. You even list your Top 10 in the book. What are power foods and how does one make the Top 10?
The Sonoma Diet’s 10 power foods are a group of very healthy foods which contain a variety of protective nutrients, such as antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber, and healthy fats. They serve as a core group which is combined with other healthy foods to achieve “dream team” food combinations that maximize health, boost weight loss, and prevent health problems.

The Top 10 foods include heart healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil and almonds), antioxidant rich foods (blueberries, strawberries, and grapes), nutrient rich foods (colorful tomatoes, bell peppers, spinach, and broccoli), and fiber rich whole grains. Sonoma Diet Power Foods are easy to find regardless of where you live. The best part is you learn to eat them in many different delicious ways so you will not get tired of eating just from a list.

Eating out is a big part of modern life. How does your book address this reality?
Eating out and making smart choices is very important. The Sonoma Diet provides guidelines and education for ordering and understanding menu concepts from many different styles of restaurants. The plate and bowl concept is also very helpful for portion control and balance of foods when ordering.

What differentiates The Sonoma Diet from the gaggle of diet programs currently on the market?
With so many diets today, you are counting the days until it is over so that you can start another one or go back to what you where doing before. The Sonoma Diet is different. It is a way of eating that becomes a lifestyle you can’t imagine giving up. I learned an important lesson from my 20 years as a registered dietitian working in the medical side of obesity and 10 years teaching nutrition and healthy cooking to chefs at The Culinary Institute of America: Regardless how healthy the food is, if it does not taste good, or is not easy or “real food”, nobody will eat it. So a key difference is the flavor! It also includes easy recipes and recipes designed for days when you don’t have time to cook called “Sonoma Express.” They provide great ideas for putting together a meal in less than 10 minutes.

The Sonoma Diet is about losing weight and gaining health with flavorful foods that the entire family can enjoy. There are no counting points or obsessive calculations. Menu plans and recipe ideas are coordinated with the plate and bowl concept which provide a visual tool to teach portion control. Also, there is a core group of foods that ensure you are always eating the best foods. And from day one you are eating breads, such as whole grains, wild rice, brown rice, and oatmeal.

The Sonoma Diet also addresses eating styles and habits, as well as taking time to enjoy your meals (since this often dictates what we choose to eat). Stress can contribute to risk factors which promote obesity and related health disorders. The Sonoma Diet provides a balance of foods to target the damaging health effects of stress. On the 11 th day of the Sonoma Diet, a glass of wine each day with your meal becomes part of the healthy way of eating.

Another point is that there are few diet books written by nutritionists with R.D., Ph.D. credentials, who are also culinary experts. It was important for me to create the Sonoma Diet so that people would feel great about finding a plan that works and didn’t make them feel deprived of food or like they were living on a “diet”.

The Sonoma Diet may be the diet to end all diets because it is a lifestyle; it is not about deprivation; it is a CELEBRATION of FOOD.

To what degree is The Sonoma Diet geared towards people seeking a heart healthy diet option?
The Sonoma Diet takes into account the most recent scientific evidence related to healthy hearts. The information clearly shows that rather than focusing on just the amount of fat we eat, the emphasis should be placed on the type of fat we eat. There are the good, bad, and the ugly fats. The healthiest fats found in foods such as almonds, olive oil, olives, nuts, walnuts, avocados, and omega three fatty acids from cold water fish, reduce risk factors that increase heart disease and provide protective nutrients which are beneficial to health. Trans fats from partially hydrogenated oil (found mostly in processed foods), are virtually eliminated and saturated fats moderated. Whole grains, lean meats, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are also key players in this approach since they provide antioxidants, fiber, and specific nutrients know to provide heart health. Heart health today reflects decreasing the related risk factors such as inflammation, type II diabetes and high blood pressure.

Another important concept for healthy hearts is related how you lose the weight. Weight loss must be healthy so that you feel energetic and can then be motivated to exercise. The Sonoma Diet combines a balance of foods to target the excess weight around the waist first, as these are the pounds which increase the risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and Alzheimer’s disease. This measurement today is referred to the waist to hip ratio.

Inflammation and stress are two areas which increase the risk factors for heart disease. The Sonoma Diet way of eating, where at least one meal is eaten slowly, sitting down, along with menu plans that use key foods such as whole grains, olive oil, and almonds in smart combinations are examples of how to reduce the risk factors of inflammation and stress.

Besides losing weight, what other benefits should a person following The Sonoma Diet expect to derive?
Losing and gaining health with the Sonoma Diet shifts your body into a new gear. You experience increased energy, well being, and satiety. By losing weight in this manner you can decrease the primary risk factors for heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, and Alzheimer’s. Other benefits include a greater appreciation of delicious foods and wine. Many have said, “I am feeling my best and enjoying food more than ever”.

What role does exercise play in the diet?
Exercise is very important because it boosts the beneficial effects of a healthy diet. Exercise promotes energy, improves sleep (which we know to be important for reducing stress and weight gaining hormones), wards off depression, improves bone health, increases weight loss and increases metabolic rate. Exercise can be achieved by walking, hiking, swimming, and dancing—just to name a few examples.

The Sonoma Diet provides an ideal balance of whole grains, healthy fats, lean proteins, and plenty of fruits and vegetables to deliver an ideal fuel for exercise and to prevent the drop in metabolism which occurs as a result of so many fad diets. Carbohydrates from whole grains, beans, legumes, and vegetables are a preferred fuel for exercise, any “diet” which eliminates them would be placing one at a huge disadvantage for health and weight loss. Exercise with the Sonoma Diet also helps to accelerate blood sugar control which is important for preventing and reversing type II diabetes.

How would you describe the impact of all the low carb/high protein diets on the average dieter’s health in the past 10 years?
Low carbohydrate diets/high protein diets are not the healthiest way to lose weight. They have lead to great confusion for “what is the best way to eat or lose weight” and they are why so many diets fail. Several of these low carb approaches have actually been dangerous despite their initial rapid weight loss results.

Our bodies prefer carbohydrates as their primary fuel. Without them, it is difficult to maintain a healthy and positive mood, an exercise routine, and—in some cases—healthy sleep patterns. Moreover, if you’ve ever followed one of these diets, you know that the moment you stop eating high protein diet, you gain weight very quickly.

What are the best/worst trends you currently see in the average American diet?
The best trends are more healthy eating options on restaurant menus. The food industry has made great strides to include more whole grains on menus, to replace trans fats with healthier options, and to explore ways of reducing the sugar in many foods. In addition, we have more great snack ideas and quick meal ideas which feature healthy ingredients. Many people are also including more dark greens into their diets and going beyond iceberg lettuce, as well as more fruit-based salsas, interesting grain and bean medley salads. Another positive trend is the drive to improve food label information (which will possibly lead to healthy portion sizes and clearer health messages). I also see a positive trend to bring back the enjoyment of eating.

The worst trend is the large portions for a better bargain price, eating on the run, stress and comfort foods emphasizing high calorie snacks. I feel that over emphasizing supplements, powdered drinks, and pills in place of eating whole foods may not bring us to a better understanding of what it means to eat healthy.

As a health expert, which foods do you simply refuse to eat due to their negative impact?
Foods made with partially hydrogenated oils, such as most fast food fries. I also do not eat “diet food”, which includes fat free, sugar free, imitations of real food.

You get to be queen for a day. As part of being queen, you get to mandate three changes to the American diet. What are they?

  1. An elimination of the use of trans fats/partially hydrogenated oils.
  2. General public recognition that not all carbohydrates, fats, or calories are the same. I’d also like an emphasis on the quality of the foods within these categories.
  3. That pleasure and enjoyment of meals can be synonymous with healthy eating; that when you go out to eat, the menu reflects a wide spectrum of choice from the celebration of foods, to healthy and delicious, and even healthy indulgence. There would be no need for those symbols on food packages which indicate “heart healthy”, “low cal,” etc. The children’s menu would also reflect these improvements, extending beyond chicken nuggets, cheese pizzas, and hot dogs.

The name Sonoma sounds like something for adults only. Is the diet applicable for children?
The Sonoma Diet is a great way for children to develop good eating habits. It encourages mindful eating, introduces a variety of fruits and vegetables, and exposes them to interesting flavors. Children need more than 10 exposures to a new food before it becomes a regular item they’ll eat. Don’t give up on their taste buds. The habits they form at an early age will be the ones they keep as adults. The idea of sitting at the table as a family rather than in front of the TV can make a huge impact on their eating habits. I have two small children and they love many of the recipes such as the Greek pizza, tomato salads, grilled marinated flank steak,and sweet potatoes.

What are your thoughts on the “childhood obesity epidemic”?
I am very concerned. Schools, health professionals, chefs, and writers must come together to express a strong message. Adults must create environments which foster healthy eating habits, meals with choice and variety, and explore ways to simplify the American lifestyle so as allow for healthier eating habits and more active lifestyles.

So much of the stress and time management issues we deal with every day get translated into the way our children eat. I really like the Sonoma Express meals for those busy days.

What’s the best success story you have personally encountered where someone has lost weight on The Sonoma Diet?
A family that followed the Sonoma Diet—a mom, dad, and their two children: Beyond their excitement for the weight loss, was the improved blood sugar control in the mom’s diabetes, the children’s enthusiasm for eating together, growing a garden, and for the first time liking vegetables. The daughters improved self esteem which came from losing weight and now participating in sports, and of course, the overall change in lifestyle to a healthier one. As one family member said, it is not just about the weight loss, it is the lifestyle change that brings so many other great benefits.

Fun question: The best part of being the author of the latest best selling diet book is:
To believe that The Sonoma Diet can make a difference in how America eats and thinks about food. I enjoy reading the many wonderful letters from individuals who have experienced weight loss, improved health, and a true appreciation for great food that their entire family enjoys.

The other part of this question has to do with overhearing my five- and nine-year-olds talking to their friends about The Sonoma Diet, and hearing them explain why it is important to eat healthfully and listening to them persuade their friends!

Learn more about The Sonoma Diet