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Author Plays Numbers Game With Calories--and Comes Out a Winner : Her Book, 12 Years in the Making, Calculates Food From A to Z

July 06, 1989|NANCY McKEON | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — There's the candy machine, just outside the door to my little windowed office. Long ago, I covered those windows with posters and had the maintenance crew turn my desk around. But still the machine beckons.

Let's see: Baby Ruth, 289 calories. Snickers, 280. Too much, too much. How about plain M&Ms, 232 calories for the 1.68-ounce bag? That's better. Wait: Twizzlers Strawberry Twists. No fatty chocolate, so they've got to be lower in calories. But at least they're still candy, and that's the only thing my mind will respond to at the moment.

Look 'em up. The 2-ounce package isn't listed. Only the 1 1/4-, 1 3/4-, 2 1/8- and 5-ounce packages of the long, supermarket-size Twizzlers are. But there--Margo Feiden's "The Calorie Factor" (Fireside-Simon & Schuster, $19.95 paper, $29.95 cloth) says the strawberry-flavor Twizzlers are 100 calories per ounce (as opposed to 110 for the chocolate-flavor). So, 2 ounces is 200 calories, and the 10 sweet, chewy strips become the winning snack. And I can get back to work. For a while.

The Truth About Fatness

Did Feiden get up every day at 4 a.m. for 12 years to compile the 675 pages of data in this book just so people like me could do this maniacal arithmetic? You bet she did. Because people like me are just like her, or at least the way she used to be. They think they're overweight because they eat far too much. Well, here's Feiden, in print, on that subject: "Fatness is not a condition maintained by overeating. Fatness is a condition brought about and maintained by eating a few too many calories, consistently."

And here, down from New York and happily ensconced in a suite at the Madison Hotel, is Feiden in the flesh. As compulsive about her book as she once was about her eating, she has come to Washington because I couldn't go to New York. A telephone interview? Not good enough for the surprising things she wants to show and tell.

The first surprise is that Feiden isn't skinny. She's half the 300 pounds she used to be, but that has left a lush, statuesque body. Womanly, one might say.

The second surprise explains why she devoted more than a decade to this book that has more numbers than words: "Only a 300-calorie difference a day will cause a person to gain 30 pounds a year."

Do the arithmetic yourself, and you'll see she's right. Three hundred calories a day times 365 days is 109,500 calories. Divide that by the 3,500 calories that constitute each pound and, yes, you get 31.285 additional pounds in a year--even worse than Feiden says, worse yet in a leap year.

Yeah, but that's eating 300 calories over and above the number of calories required simply to maintain your current body weight. Every day. I mean, that's a lot.

"That's a bagel," she answers. "That's a small bagel."

Oh.

"Twenty-five pounds a year is a glass of milk and a cookie a day. That's not what I call overeating."

As I sit there listening to the dark-haired New York art-dealer-turned-diet-pro, my gustatory future is starting to seem very bleak indeed. But Feiden's not through.

"Conversely," she says, "if you can find a way to cut back on 250 or 300 calories a day, you can lose 25 or 30 pounds in a year. Simply by making choices--substitutions that are equally delightful and inviting to eat. You don't have to suffer."

Now that's more like it.

There Was No Detailed Source

But before you can cut out those 250 or 300 calories, you have to know where they're coming from. And when Feiden began counting calories, there wasn't any place that could tell her.

Not really. Ever use one of those paperback calorie books? Do they tell you that a chef's salad has more calories than a McDonald's Quarter Pounder--with its bun? (About 700 to 418.) Do they tell you how many calories are in a baked potato--including the skin? (183 calories for a 7.1-ounce long potato, or 25.8 calories per ounce, based on data Feiden got from Canada.) And what's an average cantaloupe anyway?

Back in 1974, while I was busy putting back on the 60 pounds I had taken off as a member of Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, Feiden hit 300 pounds and decided to count calories.

"That first day, I wouldn't eat until 5 o'clock and then went out and bought myself a chicken," she recounts. "I came home and carefully cut and weighed 4 ounces. Then I went to my calorie book. It said, 'Chicken, 6 ounces, 150 calories.' So you'd think all I'd have to do was divide. But wait a minute, was that white-meat chicken? Dark-meat chicken? Did that include the skin? Was that weight with the bone? So the number meant nothing.

'I Was in Trouble'

"That's when I knew I was in trouble. I started eating only those things I could figure out. But it closed an entire scope of food. So, I started writing to manufacturers, writing to the USDA. I started getting all this information--and a lot of surprises. And I thought, 'What are other people doing?' "

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