The most ridiculous diet I've ever undertaken has to be the one where I let a woman slather a plaster cast around my torso and agreed to eat only papaya for a week. What -- never heard of that one? Well, it was all the rage in Mexico when I was living there and working as a reporter. I lumbered around Mexico City in the giant cast, which reached from just below my armpits to just above my hips, and became quite adept at sticking the TV rabbit ears down my back to relieve the torturous itching.
At the end of my ordeal, I'd lost an inch or so from around my waist and about six pounds in water weight. That is, I lost them long enough to look good as I accepted a top journalism award at a fabulous ceremony I'd been invited to in New York. The pounds rolled back on with a vengeance once I began eating solid foods again.
That was about six years ago. Over the years, I've tried dieter's tea, the Atkins diet (all the red meat and fat you want, but no fruit or bread), and that gel they advertise on TV that's supposed to melt away the fat wherever you place it on your body. Sometimes I ordered the products out of morbid curiosity and rationalized that maybe I'd do a story on diet scams one day, but always there was the hope that one of those gimmicks just might work. It would take me several more years and many more ill-fated forays into the multibillion-dollar diet industry before I'd be able to wrap my mind and body around one simple fact: Losing weight requires changing the way you eat.
Time for change
For the longest time I figured it wasn't me who needed changing. After all, I wasn't like other overweight people. Nope, there'd been some kind of mistake with me. If I could just find the trick that would take away those 10 to 15 extra pounds I'd carried around since high school, I thought, I'd be able to maintain my naturally thin figure from then on. Intellectually, I understood that one loses weight by burning more calories than one consumes. I knew also that a person's metabolism slows down a bit each decade, so I needed fewer calories each day than I did in high school. But emotionally I was not ready to give up my chocolate and cheese habits and break out my running shoes.
Then, one day last spring, I literally sneaked into my first Weight Watchers meeting. I told no one what I was doing and purposely chose a locale far from my home, so I'd be sure not to run into anyone I knew. Many well-intentioned friends and family members had suggested these types of programs to me before -- along with Weight Watchers, there's Jenny Craig and some others -- and I had fiercely rejected the idea. "You mean I'm supposed to PAY someone to weigh and humiliate me each week and tell me what I should eat?" I protested. "I can do THAT by myself."
The turning point came after a longtime girlfriend, someone I'd never considered overweight, came to visit and told me she'd lost 10 pounds on Weight Watchers. Laura had relearned how to eat, she raved, drastically increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables she consumed (five servings a day minimum) and cutting back on her portion sizes in general. "I always thought I had the God-given right to eat four greasy quesadillas for dinner every night!" she'd exclaimed. "Hmmmm," I'd thought, "greasy quesadillas sound pretty good."
I suppose it was a combination of Laura's story and the fact that my "extra 15" had crept even higher that led me to my first WW meeting. The crowd was surprisingly mixed -- old and young, male and female (though mostly women), large and small. I was further surprised to find that so many things the group leader said that day resonated with my own experience. Valerie is a fortysomething Italian-American mother of two and Brie cheese fanatic from San Francisco. I'm a single, thirtysomething chocolate addict from Iowa. Yet when it came to the demons of weight control, I realized I had more in common with the people in that room than I did with my own sister.
"You know who kept me from joining Weight Watchers all those years?" Valerie quipped that first day. "My mother. And you know how she did it? She said, 'You should go to Weight Watchers.'" I laughed despite myself. My mom probably couldn't be more different from Valerie's. Nonetheless, the fact that she (or anyone) had suggested the program to me had made me resist it even harder. It was the first of many little personal revelations I would have while listening to Valerie speak over the coming months.
The diet plan was much easier than I'd expected. I'd been envisioning weeks of cottage cheese and melba toast, but WW's plan allowed me to tailor the diet to my own likes and lifestyle. I didn't have to buy special food or become a culinary genius. I still eat quesadillas, for example, but I now use nonfat tortillas (the Tortilla Factory brand is very good) with only one ounce of cheese (instead of four), and then I bulk it up with yummy sauted (in nonfat cooking spray) vegetables like red bell pepper and zucchini. I tried the low-fat cheeses, but they taste like plastic, so I opted to make do with less.
WW's "Winning Points" program assigns point values to all foods based on calories, fat, and fiber content (high-fiber foods have fewer points). Depending on your weight and activity level, you may be allotted anywhere from 23 to 37 points a day. An apple counts as one point, a Big Mac about 15 (sorry, that does NOT include fries), and my famous quesadillas (in the version described above) weigh in at 5 points each. You write down everything you eat and its point value in a food journal, which keeps you honest about other things, too, such as how much water and how many servings of fruits and vegetables you're consuming. Knowing that I could budget a 7-point Snickers bar into my day if I wanted to (as long as I still ate all my veggies) made the diet seem a lot less like punishment -- and, because it would use up so many of my points, that candy bar became a lot less appealing.
During meetings, people shared ideas about how to get used to drinking so much water (six 8-ounce glasses a day), how to avoid the temptation to eat your children's leftovers, how to alter favorite recipes, and how to handle the buffet dinner you have to attend next week. Soon I was taking my WW Points Calculator -- which allows you to determine points values by checking nutrition labels -- with me to the grocery store.
I felt a bit self-conscious at first, pulling out the slide rule in the ice cream aisle, but it taught me to measure which foods were really worth the points they were going to cost me. Of course, I could have counted calories, but this was a simpler way. Was that pint of Ben and Jerry's ice cream worth a whole day's points, or could I maybe make do with the frozen yogurt version of the same flavor (Chocolate Fudge Brownie is delicious!) and convince myself to save half the container for the next day?
The weekly weigh-ins became less painful, especially as the pounds started to come off. Of course, there were weeks when I gained a little or lost nothing, but Valerie always stressed that we couldn't beat ourselves up over gains. "Give yourself credit for being here today and concentrate on what it is you did right this week, what you've learned about yourself," she'd say. "It took you many years to learn your bad eating habits, and it's going to take you time to unlearn them."
I didn't think I'd be one to revel in my WW awards -- a bookmark for each five pounds you lose, a key chain when you achieve a 10 percent loss of your original body weight, and other symbolic tokens as you work toward your ultimate weight goal. Being recognized for an investigative piece of journalism seemed appropriate, but being recognized for taking off weight I never should have gained in the first place seemed a little silly. But I surprised myself by basking in the group's applause with each tiny reward. I realized I deserved every one of those bookmarks (I have four so far), and I knew that everyone in that room could appreciate the work that went into getting them.
After all, we weren't just there to shed some quick pounds, we were there to relearn how to eat. Six months later, I've learned how to recognize when I'm full, how to dine out without overeating on the huge portions restaurants typically serve, how to allow myself indulgences without bingeing, and how to savor great salads and long, slow runs. I started running one mile three times a week, and I've worked up to four miles three times a week. I've lost 23 pounds and wear a size 8. I'm still a few pounds short of my ultimate goal, and I sometimes become frustrated with how slowly the weight is coming off now that I'm near my goal. But I have no doubt that I will get there eventually. And, more important, stay there.
Time mag: www.time.com/time/magazine/intl/article/0,9171,1107991025-33696,00.html
Weight Watchers written material and meetings