When bread is not an affliction

‘We were brainwashed to believe that carbohydrates are the enemy’ Olga Raz.-Over the years, Americans have embraced all manner of diet trends: from Dean Ornish’s low-fat diet in the 1980s, to the Atkins all-protein diet in the 1990s, and most …

‘We were brainwashed to believe that carbohydrates are the enemy’ Olga Raz.-Over the years, Americans have embraced all manner of diet trends: from Dean Ornish’s low-fat diet in the 1980s, to the Atkins all-protein diet in the 1990s, and most recently the South Beach diet’s program of controlled carb consumption.

In the meantime, an Israeli nutritionist has been successfully helping her Hebrew cohort lose weight by eating sandwiches every three hours. Yes, you read correctly. Sandwiches every three hours.

Developed by clinical nutritionist Olga Raz at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, the ‘Bread for Life’ diet espouses small, regular meals of high-fiber breads, pastas, and beans, together with plenty of vegetables, and some protein and fruit.

Raz’s staff report that thousands of patients have successfully lost weight with the method. A book in Hebrew outlining the plan has sold 50,000 copies in Israel, making it a national bestseller and turning Raz into a celebrated media figure. Now the book has been published in English by Stewart, Tobori & Chang, a division of Harry N. Abrams, where two staff members claim to have lost 32 pounds combined following Raz’s technique.

“We were brainwashed to believe that carbohydrates are the enemy,” Raz told the World Jewish Digest. “But starches and dietary fibers are our friends. They raise the serotonin level which makes us feel happy and satisfied, and [makes us] stop craving chocolate and sweets. They make us feel full. People in America ask how it is possible to lose weight by eating so much bread, but in Israel they reacted the same way at first and the diet worked.”

‘Bread for Life’ is based on scientific data which show that when people eat proteins, their serotonin levels decrease, while eating bread raises those levels. Serotonin is a chemical which produces feelings of contentment and well-being. Speculating that eating bread regularly could help people, especially women (whose serotonin levels are lower), feel full and satisfied throughout the day, Raz developed a program in which patients eat small portions of complex carbohydrates, accompanied by generous portions of vegetables, at regular intervals.

Although the sandwich gimmick is novel, ultimately ‘Bread for Life’ may not be as radical as it sounds. At heart it follows the same diet principles that have been espoused by dieticians for years: eat lots of whole grains, lean proteins, some ‘healthy’ oils, and plenty of vegetables and fruit.

At 1,300 to 1,800 calories per day, and including lots of vegetables and other high-fiber foods, ‘Bread for Life’ actually fits the guidelines of many popular and doctorapproved diets such as Weight Watchers and South Beach. The point of ‘Bread for Life’ is not to stuff oneself with rugelach and potato kugel – like virtually all contemporary nutritionists, Raz warns against eating processed sugar and other foods that raise one’s insulin levels too quickly.

Dr. Arthur Agatston, creator of the South Beach diet, told the World Jewish Digest that depending on what kind of bread is used, ‘Bread for Life’ could in theory constitute a healthy lifestyle.

“Strategic snacking stabilizes your blood sugar and insulin levels,” he said. “If [Raz] is talking about whole grain bread, vegetables, fruit, and proteins, then I’m in agreement with her.” (Raz’s diet technically does allow some simple starches, but they are highly discouraged.)

Agatston pointed out that in recent years, all new diet books have followed the same guidelines, packaged in different ways. “The diet debates are really over,” he said. “There is incredible agreement today on the principles of a good diet. You can be high-carb if it’s the right carbs. And you can be high-fat if it’s the right fat. The real challenge is not the principles, but how to apply them.”

In the first week or two on ‘Bread for Life’, one eats sandwiches made of ‘light’ bread (defined by Raz as wholegrain, low-sugar bread containing 35-45 calories per slice) or one slice of ‘regular’ bread (80-90 calorie per slice), with a small amount of spread such as peanut butter, hummus, or turkey slices.

Each sandwich is accompanied by a generous serving of salad or vegetable soup. After this first stage, one may substitute bread with legumes, brown rice, whole-grain pastas, and certain breakfast cereals. A serving of lean protein is allowed a few times a week. As on most diets, Raz also recommends drinking plenty of water, exercising, and eating slowly and thoughtfully.

According to Raz, ‘Bread for Life’ is a suitable program for almost anybody, except “people who don’t like bread, or who are truly satisfied with three meals a day.” She added that the system also will not work for people who have untreated hormone imbalances, such as hypothyroidism or polycystic ovarian syndrome.

Raz – whose last name resembles the Hebrew word for ‘slim’ – was born in Russia, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology. After immigrating to Israel in 1973, she studied nutrition at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

She has been affiliated with the Sourasky Medical Center for 22 years and is currently the head of the nutrition department there. After participating in a study on serotonin in the early 1990s, she started advising her clients to eat 8-16 slices of bread per day.

“People would say ‘a week’? and I would say ‘no, a day,’” she remembers. As she tweaked the program to make it more balanced, her patients became more successful at weight loss, and soon her entire staff was advocating the system.

Over the next decade, almost 10,000 of the Sourasky patients lost weight with the program; according to an internal hospital survey, more than a third of the patients kept the weight off after two years – many more than on most other diets.

Raz’s name became synonymous among Israelis with Eat Bread and Get Slim, the name of her 2001 book. Available in Hebrew and Russian, the book became a national hit and led to a 2004 sequel, Getting Slim with Olga Raz. Soon, Raz was making regular appearances on Israeli television, and recently hosted a reality show in which 20 obese contestants lost a combined total of 900 pounds in eight months by following ‘Bread for Life.’

For the English version of Bread for Life, Raz spent two years adding additional explanatory chapters as well as nutrition statistics that correspond to American food brands. So far, said editor Debora Yost, “upward of 20,000 copies” have been sold in the US in the weeks following the book’s release. “It’s still in the stages of initial buzz,” she said.

“Raz’s diet is scientifically based, works, and has been shown to be good for you,” said Yost. “She is well-credentialed with an incredible CV, not just some fitness nut who is doing a diet because she’s famous. Other publishers didn’t want to touch it because it is high-carb. I know from my background of writing about health that those [lowcarb] diets are not a panacea.”


(This article first appeared in the December 2005 edition of the World Jewish Digest and is reprinted with permission.)