Health & Fitness

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?

Don’t misunderstand. This approach doesn’t defy the number one rule of weight management: weight control is about calories in vs. calories out. It just takes advantage of another fact associated with this research: our satiety and thirst mechanisms are essentially independent. Water slides down our throat and stomach unnoticed by our satiety sensors. This explains why soda pop or fruit juice can be inordinately fattening; our bodies recognize them as water, not food, so their calories go unnoticed until they show up on our waist. Milk, and probably other protein-containing liquids, are recognized as food, and help us achieve and recognize satiety. Drink water for thirst, eat fruit rather than juice for hunger.

These findings were sufficiently significant that the professor leading the research, Dr. Barbara Rolls, wrote a book about them. Much of the book emphasizes fruit and vegetables’ naturally low calorie density, but a whole chapter focuses on soup research (honest!), which concluded that adding water to the food we eat helps reduce calorie intake. Women who ate a bowl of chicken soup felt fuller than those who ate chicken casserole plus a glass of water, even though both meals contained exactly the same ingredients and quantities. The soup-eaters also tended to be less hungry, and ate fewer calories at their next meal, than those who ate the casserole and drank the water separately. Energy density seems to apply during ingestion, not just in the stomach (otherwise, drinking the water on the side would work the same as thinning the casserole into soup).

Well, knock me over with a bullion cube! Soup works!

What’s good for soup is also good for smoothies; if both are based on relatively low-calorie, low-saturated fat ingredients. Sausage’n’Haagen Dasz smoothies and chicken-skin’n’cheddar soup don’t help. Choose broth or tomato-based soups, not Bluto’s Cream of Lard. To help keep your first-course soup dish under 100 calories, consult the nutrition labels and charts on your soup’s ingredients … or just make it from veggies.

Soup also helps us stay hydrated, which we need even if we do eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. We’re not talking thinning foods to a bullion consistency. In fact, adding water in the form of vegetables is an even better way to reduce its calorie density while improving its flavor, nutrition, texture, and “fill factor”. Just as good cooks learn to improve flavor with spices and herbs, any of us can learn to mix and match vegetables to enhance the soups we build.

“Build”? Yes; it’s easy and rewarding to start with a canned soup or foil-packed dry soup package, and then add veggies to suit our own tastes. This approach is a great way to prepare a one-dish meal when camping out, or to feed a stream of house guests or neighborhood kids on a chilly fall afternoon. When the pot runs low, add more ingredients and keep serving. Run out of beans? Add stewed tomatoes next time the pot runs low and call it chili rather than bean soup. Or just say, “Have some soup”.

The book presenting this research to the public establishes that eating low calorie density foods, including “pouring water in the casserole and calling it soup” – my phrase, not the authors’ -- really does help us lose weight. Go figure! The hardback version is "Volumetrics, Feel Full on Fewer Calories"; the paperback version is “The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan: Feel Full on Fewer Calories”. For professional and buyers’ reviews on the book, click here. Even if you assume the Amazon staff reviews are intended to help sell books, many other sources, including Health magazine, also commend the book.

Dr. Rolls emphasizes that Volumetrics is not a rapid weight loss program, and is definitely not a gorge-yourself-on-celery-and-water eating plan. It’s part of an overall weight management approach for people who enjoy eating and want to maintain a healthy weight. Eating soup before a meal tends to make women eat about 400 fewer calories per day while feeling just as full. And it does not conflict with the Mediterranean diet, repeatedly shown to be the healthiest diet known for people without abnormal food restrictions. It’s too bad so many people have been hoodwinked into the belief that avoiding carbohydrates is the correct path to lightness, because what’s soup without a slab of hot bread?

Soup. It’s what’s before dinner.

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