09.22.10

The Crazy Baby Food Diet

Gwyneth Paltrow and Lady Gaga have been linked to this diet trend popularized by controversial trainer Tracy Anderson. Is it not only kooky, but unsafe? Gina Piccalo reports.

The baby food diet—as in pureed peas and carrots in lieu of real meals—has been the bizarre celebrity diet trend for the last few seasons, linked to a whole constellation of svelte luminaries from Jennifer Aniston and Gwyneth Paltrow to Lady Gaga and The Hills star Stephanie Pratt.

But lately, some fashion mavens and movie stars have cast the diet as freakish even by their often neurotic standards. Aniston and Marcia Cross last spring both publicly denied reports that they had tried it, laughing it off as absurd. “I've been on solids for about 40 years now," Aniston quipped to People. This month, Twitter was humming with baby food buzz after Pratt, who is no stranger to fad diets or eating disorders, announced she was giving it a try. She gave it up a few days later, but not before fashion publicist and reality-TV star Kelly Cutrone sounded off in response to Pratt, calling the endeavor “crazy.” “It makes me waaah for the future,” Cutrone lamented.

Baby food—or as the diet’s devotees say, “pureed” fruits and veggies—is nothing new as a weight-loss trick. Fitness junkies have slurped the stuff to drop pounds for years. This latest surge in interest came from controversial celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson, a toned and tanned self-promoter who is known to periodically stoke her Google hits with novel ideas. (Her short-lived treadmill dancing method comes to mind.)

Anderson, whose clients have included Aniston, Paltrow, Madonna, and Lady Gaga, debuted her “TA Baby Food Cleanse” last November with a tasting at her Los Angeles area studio. In May, she touted her “baby food cleanse” to Marie Claire U.K. as a way to “eliminate toxicity, break bad habits but still have your digestive system going.”

But this week, her publicist Jennifer Carlino told The Daily Beast that despite all evidence to the contrary, Anderson does not have a baby food diet. (Anderson declined through Carlino to be interviewed for this article.) Instead, Carlino pointed me to Anderson’s new book, which details the pint-size trainer’s new “30-day method.” No baby food on this one. In a video on her website, Anderson touts it as “3,000 moves and there are no gimmicks, no tricks and no bikini dieting.” But, she adds, this endeavor will “start the journey to your teeniest, tiniest point.”

“She probably feels a little silly now,” Cutrone told The Daily Beast. “I would too. … I thought it would be really bad role-modeling. Could you imagine being an 8-year-old and coming home and having your mom eating baby food?”

Nutritionists are divided over the whole baby food enterprise. Some say it’s potentially dangerous. But others say it's a safe short-term option for weight loss. “There is no danger in cutting back in calories unless you begin to cut back excessively and sacrifice nutrients doing so,” said nutrition expert Oz Garcia. “With the Baby Food Diet you are not sacrificing nutrition.”

On the surface, the diet is a simple, easy way to lose weight. It requires substituting traditional meals or snacks with jars of 80-calorie baby food. Anderson’s version requires pureeing your own 14 daily servings that constitute about 1,000 calories, plus one real meal. Other variations suggest baby food as a healthy snack.

It’s easy to digest. (Perhaps too easy.) It’s portable and requires no cooking. It’s relatively affordable. A 12-pack of Earth’s Best dinner variety, for example, costs about $15. And if followed to the letter, eating baby food can lead to weight loss.

“On the pro side, the government has really strict standards on what companies can put in baby food,” said registered dietician Joy Bauer, the nutrition expert on NBC’s Today show. She added, “It would be much more cost efficient to just steam a big bowl of sugar snap peas or eat a fresh apple.”

Anderson custom-made a week-long cleanse for E! personality Catt Sadler just before the Emmys. The diet included about 10, three-to-five ounce plastic containers filled with pureed gazpacho, edamame, sweet corn, and cauliflower. The following week, Sadler ate a protein-rich diet per Anderson’s direction and in total, she says she lost about five pounds.

For some, eating liquefied fruits and vegetables all day can lead to explosive diarrhea.

“I had more nutrient rich food going into my body than I ever had,” says Sadler. “The assumption is that these girls are starving themselves! It was the opposite for me. Everything I ate was packed with vitamins. My energy was up the whole time.”

But when Sadler tweeted about trying the diet, even her friends were confused about what it involved. “One of my girls said ‘I just went to Ralphs and bought baby food and I said, ‘Are you crazy? That’s not what I’m doing,’” she says.

Common sense dictates that baby food won’t properly nourish an adult, even short-term. Bingeing is a certain risk. And then there’s the fact that some jarred baby foods are sweetened with sugar-rich concentrated grape fruit juice.

“It’s highly risky for many reasons,” says Joseph Gonzales, a registered staff dietician for the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “These baby foods were designed for babies and they don’t have the nutrient power for adults. It lacks a lot of fiber and fiber makes us feel full.”

Then, there is the taste factor. The jarred baby foods can be cloyingly sweet or just plain nasty. And for some, eating liquefied fruits and vegetables all day can lead to explosive diarrhea.

Take health writer Liz Neporent’s baby food diet diary on thatsfit.com, for instance. “Turns out the prunes aren't the only flavor that result in a biohazard situation,” she wrote in April. “The three containers [of pear, strawberry granola and peach] have run through me like Olympic sprinters.”

Neporent, a New York-based health journalist and author of 15 health books, is a regular diet-tester who in the course of her job has dieted on charcoal, cabbage soup, and foods of a certain color. “On this one, it’s the simple trick of portion control,” she told The Daily Beast. “The problem is that on any 1,000-calorie-a-day diet, it’s not enough to get adequate nutrition for an adult. Some of them have a decent amount of Vitamin C or Vitamin A or calcium. But you’re not going to be able to add it up for an adult-size portion.”

Neporent lasted just a day on Gerber Graduates. She chose mostly fruit, hoping it would be “like eating applesauce all day long.” She found the blueberry yogurt had a texture like “mashed cat food.” Ultimately, headaches, dizziness, and diarrhea sent her diving into a pizza. “Truly,” she wrote, “I would rather not eat anything at all than take another bite of that stuff.”

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.