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December 2003 Issue
Soup, soup, the magical meal; the more you eat, the lighter you feel.
by Michael Fick
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Oh, come on … soup? … any old soup? … helps us manage our weight? How can adding a glass of water to a casserole or to a thick stew and calling it “soup” have any more effect on our calorie intake than drinking that same glass of water with the stew or casserole? Sounds more like baloney than soup.

But it is the hot soup season, people have asked about soup, soup tastes great simply because we can make soup from almost any favorite food, and it’s great hot in the winter and cold in the summer, so let’s humor the rumor, wipe that cynical smirk off our collective face, and examine soup impartially. The hypothesis is that eating a soup course before a meal, or a bigger bowl as a light meal, rather than drinking a glass of water with the same quantity of food, will fill us up on fewer calories and thus help us manage our weight.

(Before we dive into bowls of generic soup, let’s slay one specific soup dragon right here and now: the cabbage soup diet touted in the waiting room magazines is a crock … and not of soup. It takes off weight, all right … but primarily because it gives us diarrhea. Do you REALLY want to lose 17 pounds in one week … on the toilet … and then put it right back on as soon as you start eating actual food again? If this makes bulimia stories seem like walks in the park, maybe the cabbage diet could be called runs in the park. Any diet that drives your friends and dog from the room has to go unless you have a truly warped sense of humor.)

What can we say from past lessons about the soup hypothesis? Three questions and three facts arise immediately. The questions:

  1. Could this be true?
  2. If so, how does it work?
  3. Can “they” prove it, to establish its credibility?
The facts:
  1. Weight gain or loss is simple arithmetic: if we eat more calories than we expend, we gain weight.
  2. Water has no calories.
  3. That glass of water takes up the same volume in our stomach whether we drink it from the glass or in the soup.
Before we examine the evidence … if there is any … let’s bounce the soup idea off the fad (bunk) diet red flag list:
  • Omits entire food groups.
  • Promises quick weight loss, >2 pounds per week.
  • Encourages bizarre eating habits.
  • Claims certain food combinations hoard or release stored fat.
  • Requires taking special "$upplement$".
  • Claims certain foods or supplements will "cleanse" or "detoxify" our bodies or burn fat.
The cabbage soup diet raises almost all those flags, but soup in general raises none of them. That eliminates some of the negatives, so let’s look for specific positive support, beginning as usual with peer-reviewed and published research. The October 1999 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition published the results of the Pennsylvania State College of Health and Human Development research on what the college calls the science of satiety. It confirmed what we might expect: quantity, not calorie count, makes us feel full. This allows us to eat more yet weigh less, the holy grail of most people in this overweight nation, as long as our diet relies heavily on low-calorie-density foods. I.e., we fill up on pounds, but gain weight on calories, so food with a low ratio of calories to pounds may let us fill up and stay slim or even lose weight … for real.

Bet you’re still reading!

The food component lowest in calorie density is water. Mother Nature packs a lot of it in fruits and vegetables, so we can eat as much of them as we want without getting overweight. This “new” science of satiety science simply reinforces the ancient Mediterranean diet, so far. The question is whether man can extend this principle by adding water to other foods rather than drinking water with them, since the latter idea has failed to work as hoped. Add enough water, and it’s called soup. Add that water in the form of vegetables, and it’s called a heartier and tastier soup. But does it work?

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