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My Flat Belly Diet Q&A with Prevention editor Liz Vaccariello

Through the help of the SparkPeople.com Flat Belly Diet team members,  I sent off some questions about the diet to Prevention magazine editor and Flat Belly Diet author Liz Vaccariello. Here's the Q&A:

Q. Is there a point at which adding the MUFAs raises the percent of fats too high? Nutrition guidelines suggest your fat  intake be something like 20% to 30%. When I follow the diet I seem to be  consuming almost 40% or more of my calories from fat....Of course I'm trying to  eat less than the recommended 1,600 calories so maybe my fat ratios are too  high.

LIZ: Well, first of all, I must congratulate you on your  interest in nutrition! For women over the age of 18, the recommended intake of  total dietary fat is between 20% and 35% of total calories, according to the  Institutes of Medicine, but studies have shown that diets can be healthy if they  contain up to 40% calories from fat, especially if the fat sources are  healthful. On average the Flat Belly Diet provides about 35% of calories from  fat, mostly in the form of heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs,  which have been shown to help reduce the risk of many different types of  disease. Consuming more of this healthful fat as part of your daily calories can  actually help you stay on the plan because fat keeps you feeling full and  satisfied in between meals.

In regards to your  last note — that you're consuming fewer calories than the diet recommends — I would  discourage this. It is very difficult to fulfill all your nutrient needs on a  diet containing 1500 calories or fewer, and it's even harder to get enough MUFA.  If you are cutting portion sizes of carbohydrates and protein, your fat ratio  will indeed be higher. If you are absolutely certain that 1600 calories is too  much for you to lose weight safely, I'd advise cutting a snack pack in half,  rather than trying to shave calories from individual meals. It's easier to  maintain the correct balance of nutrients that way.

Q. I am curious  about other nutrients. Should we try to get in high fiber, or protein, etc. as  well?

LIZ: Overall, the program is designed to provide about 25 grams of fiber a day, but this of course will vary depending on which meals you choose. It also provides about 20% calories from lean protein and 45% calories from carbs (most of which are whole grains, fruits and vegetables). Cynthia Sass, the registered dietitian who created the plan for Prevention, modeled the diet after the Mediterranean Diet, which has been long revered for its healthfulness.

Q. Does this diet have to be 1,600 calories? According to my nutritionist, 1,600 calories is my maintenance level. I've sort of dabbled with adding the MUFAs into my diet, but in smaller amounts.

LIZ: Cynthia designed the diet to be about 1600 calories because that's the amount of calories that a woman over 40 of average height and build with an average activity level needs to get down to her ideal body weight. If a registered dietitian has calculated that this is definitely too many calories for you, I would again advise splitting a snack pack in half rather than trying to shave calories from individual meals. Also, before you dabble by adding MUFAs to your current diet, I'd suggest following the diet exactly for at least 28 days, so you can get accustomed to the portion sizes. MUFAs are high-calorie foods, so adding them directly to your current diet, without following some of the other Flat Belly Diet rules—such as making sure each meal is around 400 calories—could result in weight gain, not loss. Finally, the online subscription service flatbellydiet.com allows you to customize the Flat Belly Diet to your activity level and height, so if 1600 calories really is too much, flatbellydiet.com can help you determine the correct amount.

Q. Am I supposed to be getting a certain amount of MUFAs per day as far as grams go? I have been following the diet pretty closely an I have had great results; I have lost 8.9 lbs in about 28 days, I definitely am not going hungry and although I have hit the gym a few times, I am not doing anything over the top in the exercise area.

LIZ: Congratulations!!! I love to hear from people who have had success with this plan—it warms my heart to know that we at Prevention have really helped you achieve better health. As far as getting a certain amount of MUFA: We wanted to make the diet easy for people to follow. I don't know about you, but I don't think counting fat grams is easy. I have enough to worry about every day than how many grams of fat were in my burrito. So instead of requiring people to consume a certain number of grams of MUFA per day, we focused instead on teaching people how to eat a certain amount of MUFA foods a day. We just thought that was easier! And so that's how the rule of one MUFA per meal came up.

Q. Is it OK to only have 50 calories from a MUFA at one meal and 200  MUFA calories at another meal?

LIZ: Hey — I'm not a drill sergeant, but it's only OK if you're not interested in following the Flat Belly Diet! Seriously, the serving sizes of MUFA foods were carefully developed to ensure a certain percentage of MUFA in each meal. This amount of MUFA — about 120 calories, depending on the MUFA you choose — helps ensure that the meals are satisfying and healthful. In many cases, the MUFA also helps you prepare the meal. For instance, a tablespoon of canola oil may be used to stir-fry shrimp.

Q. What's the best  way to eat the Flat Belly way at restaurants and fast-food places?

LIZ: I travel a lot — I'll be home just ten days this month! So I know how hard it is to find healthy food on the road. We are actually working on a follow-up book — shhhh!!! — to help dieters like you when you're eating outside the home. If you've just started the plan, I'd suggest make every effort to eat as many meals as possible at home (or to eat foods you prepare yourself) for at least 28 days (32 if you're starting with the Anti-Bloat Jumpstart phase of the plan). The first four weeks are critical to ensuring you understand the rules of the plan and making sure you're familiar with portion sizes and meal components.

If you're a Flat Belly veteran, there are, thankfully, a number of strategies you can employ. Step one: Never leave home without your MUFA. I usually travel with a container of almonds and a few plastic baggies tucked into my suitcase, so I can add my MUFA to any meal. Step two: Order smart. Look on the menu for a healthful salad, soup or vegetable-based dish. Order the salad with vinegar and oil on the side so you can measure your olive oil MUFA yourself. Just say no to creamy, cheesy sauces that may bump your calorie intake out of whack. Choose lean proteins—seafood, skinless chicken and beef or pork tenderloin, for instance. Go for whole grains like barley or whole wheat pasta. Tell the waiter not to give you a bread basket, and skip the alcohol.

But hey — if this sounds too restrictive, just do the best you can. If you want a glass of wine to participate in a festive toast, I'm not going to track you down! The following day, just get right back on the Flat Belly Diet bandwagon.

When it comes to fast food choices, I must confess, there aren't a ton of options. Few fast food restaurants provide the necessary ingredient information to allow us to evaluate whether their food is Flat belly Diet-appropriate. But we do provide a small list of meals from a variety of establishments, including McDonald's, Jack in the Box, and Au Bon Pain, that can be turned into Flat Belly Diet meals simply by adding a MUFA. Wendy's chili is acceptable, and so is Taco Bell's Ranchero Chicken Soft Taco, when ordered "Fresco Style". Just remember: Each of these items needs to have a MUFA added to it.

Q. Is there a  grab-and-go food out there that has the perfect Flat Belly ratio of  nutrients?

LIZ: We haven't found it yet, unfortunately! However, there are a number of meal replacement bars — like Larabar brand chocolate-coconut bar or Clif Brownie bars — that can be instantly made into a grab-and-go Flat Belly Diet meal simply by adding two tablespoons of almonds, Brazil nuts or macadamias. But I will keep this in mind: maybe the world really is ready for a Flat Belly Diet restaurant chain, line of foods, and drive thru!