the thing I never write about

Something I don’t understand: why there is such a huge industry devoted to dieting (pills, books, tapes, plans, whatever) and yet no restaurants, fast or otherwise, devoted to healthful food. Well, “no” restaurants is probably pushing it. There are a few, if you search hard enough, but even with those you might be assured vegan food or vegetarian food or whatever, and not necessarily low-fat, low-calorie food. As for fast food? Forget it. Sure, some of the chains are grabbing onto some particular fad diet and claiming to make food that fits the niche, but Subway’s “low-carb” ranch dressing has 22 grams of fat in a serving, so that really doesn’t help me.

Why is it that there is so much money to be made in the diet industry and none of the actual food service industry? Is it because people are willing to read about diets but not actually change their eating habits? Is it because people are tempted by fad diets and not by real long-term changes, so any restaurant that wanted to be successful would have to offer food related to a new fad diet every month, rather than just offer quick, great-tasting, low-fat foods? Are these foods so hard to produce?

I don’t know. All I know is that while eating healthfully is simple, it is also very hard. It requires you to think about food nearly all of the time. You have to plan ahead. You cannot be caught hungry without an assortment of healthy choices. You cannot have a hectic, busy day without quickly heated, or possibly handheld options stashed somewhere. You can’t come home from work after a long day and have only ingredients which require three hours of preparation and cooking. It’s exhausting.

But I don’t want to just talk about food, I want to talk about me. And when I say “me”, I mean Kirstie Alley. Not her show exactly, but what seems to have been her honest obliviousness to her own weight problem. I read an interview a few months ago where she said that she wanted to do this “Fat Actress” show as an exaggeration — like sure, compared to all those waifs in Hollywood she’s overweight, but really she’s just normal-sized. And it was only when she saw herself in the show that she realized that she was much heavier than she had realized. She had absolutely no idea. Last week, I was reading the introduction to this cookbook I have, and the author was saying that sure, he knew he wasn’t skinny or anything, but he had no idea just how fat he was until he saw pictures of himself. And then he went to the doctor and found out that he weight 308 pounds.

This is one of the many problems with weight. You don’t go from 125 to 165 overnight. The weight creeps up slowly. You look the same from one day to another. Until one day, your clothes don’t fit. Or you look in the mirror naked and realize you look different. I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend a lot of time admiring my naked self in the mirror. And by then, you’re facing a huge uphill battle.

Supersize Me was on the other day and I came in at the part where the doctors are telling him how much weight he gained over the 30 days and how much his cholesterol shot up. Why is it that you can gain so much weight by eating McDonald’s for 30 days, but you won’t lose the same amount by not eating McDonald’s for 30 days? Or even by eating only the healthiest diet imaginable for that period?

Weight management is this mystical magical thing with secret combinations and hidden answers. Eat early in the morning. Don’t eat late at night. Have a carbohydrate only with a protein. Eat fruit only by itself. Eat bananas and milk for seven days. Don’t eat any bananas, unless you are also eating tomatoes. This just can’t be right.

I never learned about what I should eat when I was growing up. It seems so obvious. How can I say I didn’t learn it? But I had no idea. The only vegetables I knew existed were from a can. Have you ever eaten canned brussels sprouts? They make you question your belief in God. Would a loving, caring God create such a thing and require us to eat it to remain healthy? No. No, I don’t think so.

It’s not just that I didn’t learn how to make healthy choices, it’s also that I never felt the need to. When you’re young, you don’t think about things like cardiovascular health and long-term stamina. You think about how you look. I was pretty skinny. (Well, I thought I was pretty skinny. I am just under 5′ 4″ and weighed about 115, maybe 120 pounds all through high school and college. However, I was watching the episode of America’s Next Top Model last night where they weigh all the girls, and many of them were 5′ 10″ and 114 pounds, so maybe I wasn’t skinny after all. P. last night: “You’re not allowed to watch this show anymore.”)

I ate fast food every day. I had no concept of healthful food.

But metabolism can be cruel. It can trick you, lull you into a false sense of security. Forsake you with no warning. I noticed my weight creeping up as I said goodbye to my twenties forever. But I was busy. We’re all busy. I had too many things on my mind to find room for something as trivial as gaining a few pounds. And it was always a few pounds. You don’t gain 10 pounds overnight. You might notice you’ve gained two pounds, but you’re trying to pay the mortgage and keep your job and save your marriage. The last thing you’re worried about is two pounds. Even when those two pounds creep up every month.

So, one day, I woke up and realized that I had gained about 30 pounds. Wait. How did this happen? Where did this come from? I vowed to lose weight. I meant it. I cannot tell you how much I meant it. How much I wanted it. I barely recognized myself. I realized how quickly I tired out when I went hiking or kayaking or anything at all that required stamina and endurance. So, over the course of the next year, I started working out. I researched diets and nutrition and went to a nutritionist and read the South Beach Diet and joined Weight Watchers and joined a pool at work where we all weighed in every week and put our weights into a spreadsheet and paid money if we gained. I gained an additional 10 pounds.

I had no idea how to lose weight. And what I learned from this failed experiment is that no one miracle diet exists because every single person is different. And while there may be some ideal for healthful eating, you have to find something that you can actually live with forever. And that’s different for everyone.

Originally, I made the mistake of wanting to know everything. I wanted to know exactly what foods were best, when I should eat them, how the diet thing worked exactly. I compared nutritional content of vegetables. I wanted to optimize my eating experiences. It exhausted me so much, I gave up entirely. And all those stops and starts only bumped up my weight. I have realized that I need to do this thing gradually. Start small. Don’t worry about eating the very best vegetable. Start by eating any vegetable at all.

I’ve experimented (obviously with a lot of failures before any successes) and am starting to figure out what works for me and what I can’t commit to long term. Because the other thing I learned is that I can’t think of this as a diet. It has to be the way I eat. Always. So, if it’s so hard I can’t stand it for a week, there’s no way I’ll be able to stick with it my entire life.

Fat-free milk? Good. Low-fat soy milk? OK, but only vanilla, and only in my coffee. Low-fat cheddar. As good as the original! But it’s a slow process.

I love to cook. I like learning about how to make the dishes I cook taste as great as possible. I like combining ingredients and flavors. I love discoving new wines. The idea that I would have to give up two of my favorite pastimes was unpalatable to me. So, I instead decided to use my knowledge of ingredients and food and put it to use making low-calorie, low-fat foods. I found that drinking two glasses of wine with dinner five nights a week is 17.5 Weight Watchers points, but one glass of wine three nights a week is only 6 points. I started figuring out balance.

I’ve lost 15 pounds so far. I’m finally below where I was when I started dieting. And I am finally to the point where I feel like this is how I eat, and not that I’m on a diet. And I’m losing weight even though I had avocado eggrolls Saturday night and the absolute best cheese ravioli in butter cream sauce the week before.

P. will be happy when I’m back to a weight that feels comfortable to me. I’m sure he’s tired of hearing every day, “I only lost a half pound in two weeks! Why??” And, “how fat do I look, really?” And I’m hoping that the longer I do this, the more the habits will be ingrained in me so I don’t feel like I’m thinking about my weight all the time.

Today for lunch, I popped out to the grocery store deli and got a baked potato with BBQ chicken. And drove right past the siren called the McDonald’s drive-through. Hey, it’s progress. Little by little, I’m getting there.

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