When The New York Times hired me to write about science and health 52 years ago, I was 40 pounds overweight. I’d spent the previous three years watching my weight rise as I hopped from one diet to the next in a futile attempt to shed the pounds most recently gained.
No amount of exercise, and I did plenty of it, could compensate for how much I ate when I abandoned the latest weight loss scheme. I had become a living example of the adage: A diet is something one goes on to go off.
Even daylong fasting failed me. When I finally ate supper, I couldn’t stop eating until I fell asleep, and sometimes awoke the next morning with partly chewed food in my mouth. I had dieted myself into a binge-eating disorder, and that really scared me. Clearly, something had to change.
I finally regained control when I stopped dieting. I decided that if I was going to be fat, at least I could be healthy. I made a plan to eat three nutritious, satisfying meals every day with one small snack, which helped me overcome the temptation to binge in response to deprivation.
Much to my surprise, a month later I had lost 10 pounds — eating! Eating good food, that is, and plenty of it. I continued the regimen without difficulty because it was not a diet. It was a way to live and a healthy one at that. And I continued to lose, about two pounds a month.
Two years later, all the excess weight was gone. I never gained it back and never again went on a diet. (Even with a twin pregnancy, I gained only 36 pounds and lost them all when my sons were born at 6 pounds 13 ounces each.)
The greatest challenge to lasting weight loss, especially for someone like me with a food addiction, is the fact that no one can give up eating. Rather, one has to learn a better — and permanent — way to handle food.
I eat everything I want, in moderation. My meals — mostly homemade — are heavily loaded with vegetables, and I choose calorie-controlled snacks like popcorn at 35 calories a cup, a graham cracker at 59 calories for two squares, and ice cream (really ice milk) at 100 to 150 calories a half cup. No seconds!
My weight maintenance secrets are simple: I read nutrition labels before I buy anything in a package, I practice portion control, and I exercise and weigh myself every day to stay within a two-pound range appropriate for my height. If the number on the scale begins to creep up, I may walk, bike or swim a little more and eat a little less for a few days.
In a recent issue of JAMA, Dr. Eve Guth, an internist at the Jesse Brown Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Chicago, basically endorsed my approach. She wrote: “Successful long-term calorie reduction is most likely to result when patients decide for themselves which dietary changes to make and when. Essential to any effort is a clear understanding that dietary change is a slow process that requires ongoing vigilance” which, she admitted, “is not a popular concept in a world now accustomed to immediate results.”
Perhaps no one knows this better than Angelica Divinagracia, a fitness specialist in Los Angeles who at 53 still looks as good or better than she did as head cheerleader at UCLA. In a posting in mid-January on Facebook, she wrote: “The diet and nutrition business is a billion dollar industry because it’s designed for failure. When the diet ends, which ultimately it will, you go right back to where you were. Then you start another. …”
Divinagracia said: “I don’t believe in diets or any particular products. I believe in learning how to create a healthy lifestyle, and the formula is simple.” The most salient points of her well-practiced advice are these: 1) Stop eating crap, 2) Eat good food that is real, not processed, 3) Avoid drinking your calories, 4) Know what one serving is and do not eat more than that in a sitting, 5) Move your butt every day — even just walking is better than being a couch potato, and 6) Stop making excuses.
Guth warns against numerous pitfalls, like being swayed by package claims of “low fat” or “low carbohydrate” instead of reading the facts on the nutrition label. “These foods do not necessarily have fewer total calories than the original version of the food,” she wrote, because sugar is often used to compensate for flavor lost, for example, when fat is reduced. Fruit juice may be fat-free but it is not low in calories because it contains large amounts of sugar, she noted.
She also urges closer attention to add-ons and condiments. “A beef patty has definite food value but after adding a large bun, dressing and extra cheese, the total calories (535) will far exceed the caloric content of the meat, pickle and tomato (240),” she wrote, adding that using butter, margarine or mayonnaise on a sandwich adds far more calories than mustard.
I don’t count calories, but I have a working knowledge of the approximate calories in nearly everything I eat. If you need to lose weight, I urge you to download a comprehensive calorie chart of common foods to help you make substitutions that will cut about 500 calories from your daily diet. You can do the same with an exercise chart, keeping in mind that the caloric cost of any activity depends on how strenuously you do it and how much you weigh.
Although most of the Jan. 16 issue of JAMA is devoted to studies of bariatric surgery, which offers the best route to permanent weight loss for some people, Guth pointed out that surgery is likely to fail too “if a patient is unwilling to make appropriate changes in food choices.”
She, like me, endorses Michael Pollan’s diet mantra: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” And like me, she notes that slow, steady weight loss suggests that you’ve made sustainable changes in your diet and exercise habits that can become second nature and last a lifetime.