08/14/2012 02:43 pm ET Updated Oct 14, 2012

Beyond Cabbage Soup for Weight Loss

The tomatoes at the farm stand were soft and misshapen. As my hand roved over the adjacent partition, the guy running the stand (was he really a farmer?) said, "They are great for gazpacho or just cold tomato soup." His suggestion made my taste buds wake up and, after filling a bag with the squashed tomatoes, I headed home, turned on the computer and printed out a half-dozen soup recipes that started with a couple of pounds of tomatoes.

As a relatively sloppy cook when it comes to measuring ingredients, I love making soup because it is so forgiving. The end product may not resemble the recipe precisely, but as long as it has the main ingredients and isn't over-salted, you can pretty much eyeball amounts rather than using scales, cups and measuring spoons. Soup has additional virtues not associated with other home-cooked foods. It can be made ahead of time (and often tastes better that way), many soups can be served hot or cold, the soup pot is a willing receptacle for vegetable and main course leftovers, and it is a covert way of getting those with impaired vegetable affection to ingest them without a struggle. Plus soup is cost-effective to make since its main ingredient is water.

Do you remember the cabbage soup diet? It is rumored that it was started by a group of farmers who had an abundance of cabbage, but that may be just an urban myth. People swore by it and did lose weight, although it is not clear they did so because the calorie content of a watery cabbage soup was so low or because their subsequent bloated tummies made eating other foods unpleasant.

Although the cabbage soup diet fad has pretty much passed us by, soup as a diet aid should be taken seriously. It is much easier to eat only the amount of food allowed on a diet when the main course is preceded by a bowl of soup. Indeed, don't we often say, "I'll skip the soup because it will fill me up too much?" Yet filling up with a low-calorie soup is exactly what the dieter should be doing, especially when dieting conflicts with his tendency to eat everything on his plate, regardless of portion size. Soup also slows down the meal so eating takes place over a longer time. After having soup as an appetizer, by the time the main course is served, digestion has begun activating physiological mechanisms that will shut off hunger. And if crunchy, almost fat-free oyster crackers or crusty French bread accompanies the bowl of soup, serotonin made after the carbohydrate is eaten will also turn off the appetite.

Not all soups are calorically equal. It is possible to add enough cream, butter and cheese to a soup so that it is as fat-laden as a milk shake. Low-calorie recipes use water or broth (preferably low salt) as a base with vegetables and perhaps small amounts of lean meat or chicken added for flavor. Some soups migrate from first courses to main courses and, if they do, then they can be more calorically dense. Chowders containing fish, corn, potatoes, onions clams, and even small amounts of bacon for seasoning obviously have more calories than spinach soup, but as a main course their calories are acceptable.

Soups easily merge into a main course stew if their vegetable, chick pea, meat, pasta, rice or chicken contents are served with little or no broth. A too-busy-cook-and-mother forgetting to check on the level of broth in a soup will also turn your recipe into a stew, and you can claim you had intended this all along.

A food processor will speed up soup preparation. Use it to slice and dice the vegetables prior to cooking and afterwards to purée soups like cold potato. Puréeing a portion of the soup in the blender and then putting it back in the pot also thickens it. For those of us who to tend to slurp and spill thin broth-like soups, a thicker liquid that stays on the spoon, rather than on chins or shirts, is a benefit. Remember, the Japanese heartily and sometimes noisily enjoy the udon, soba or ramen soups as a compliment to the chef.

Finally, eating soup, unlike many other foods, leaves us feeling virtuous rather than guilty. Is it because many soups are full of vegetables, or because, in the case of chicken soup, we are doing good things for our soul as well as our weight?

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

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