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First Person

The Low-Fat-Free, Diet-Food-Free Diet

March 13, 2002|EMILY GREEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

I have long suspected that the best way to lose weight was to eat rich food in moderation, not diet food in abundance. During the last 52 weeks, I put that idea to the test.

And I lost 52 pounds. To my knowledge, not a single low-fat food passed my lips. Nothing beginning with those dread syllables non-, un-, de- or low-. No "nonundelows."

I did not use diet shakes or a point system or desiccated stuff marketed as diet food. Dieting, I found, can be done quite successfully without consuming little pots of no-fat yogurt or watery no-fat milk.

My diet did not involve signing up with Jenny Craig, consuming nothing but protein, or taking powdered supplements or soy powder energy drinks. I did not blame my genes. I never lifted a measuring cup or weighed a chicken breast.

Dieting, I confirmed, can be done eating whole milk and farmhouse cheese, chewing the fat on a grilled lamb chop and emptying a bottle of red wine as you do it, provided you don't do it too often.

Before crooning further, a precautionary note: I am a food lover and an ideologue, not a nutritionist or physician.

Do see a doctor if you are seriously overweight. I did, along with a diet counselor at the YMCA, whose utterly disgusting advice about low-fat foods I ignored, but whose equally disgusting advice about bran I followed and benefited from.

Back to my glorious success. Losing 52 pounds suggests that I got fat in the first place. You might well be asking: If I'm so smart, why did I become so overweight? The answer is greed. That, and the fact that my self-image was five years out of date.

I was slim and sporty in my 20s and 30s, but after turning 40, I didn't seem to appreciate that I could not eat the way that I used to. And I used to be voracious. My gut was a pro. For close to a decade, I was a restaurant critic for the Independent newspaper in Britain. I can recall road trips to the provinces where I ate lunch once and dinner twice in a day.

One trip, when I wanted to polish off the menu to file my report the next day, I ate two main courses and four desserts in one sitting, which included Lancashire hotpot and sticky toffee pudding.

I was such a good eater, I became too snobbish to enjoy my own food: a critic who didn't cook. But eating food that someone else made, anyone else made--that was a different matter.

Here in L.A., I got in the habit of eating low, middle and high. Monday was doughnuts; Tuesday was a burger and thick fries with mayonnaise and slaw at the local bar; Wednesday was Domino's pizza and television or a trip to Versailles for garlic chicken and custard pies; Thursday was sandwich night at Campanile; Friday was margaritas, guacamole and chicken wings at El Cholo; Saturday was--with luck--a barbecue at my brother's place followed by a cake made by my sister-in-law; Sunday was some humble steaming bowl of pasta with Gorgonzola sauce.

When I discovered a new food, I liked to eat it repeatedly, the way someone else might play a new CD. When I discovered fish and chips at Tony's, a seaside place in Tomales Bay, I ate there four nights running. (I still like learning food by repetition, only in slightly smaller quantities.)

Other contributors to my expansion, as if I needed them, were probably metabolic changes that attend turning 40, a move from a place where I'd walked everywhere to a place where I drove everywhere and quitting smoking. My doctor assures me that kicking that habit guarantees a 15-pound gain. About 16 months ago, wheezing and worried about my lungs, not my girth, I promised myself I'd lose the 15 pounds along with the considerable existing store of blubber "later."

"Later" arrived by February, almost exactly a year ago, as I was standing in line at a drugstore checkout, staring at other customers in the security video, and found myself marveling that the fat lady ahead of me was also buying Nicorette. Then I realized that the fat lady was me.

On an even more piercing note, I found myself smitten by a fella whom I saw as a prospect. It didn't work out. He saw me as no more than a drinking buddy who, to his amazement, could out-drink him. "They say it's body fat," he said.

These were such rude shocks that all my eating and drinking personalities were summarily called to a bargaining table. I was on a diet, and, like it or not, they were, too.

Some vices had to go. Some could stay, the nonnegotiable pleasures. Habits like doughnut-, cookie- and candy-eating were banished completely. Candy allowance: one bar of Valrhona dark chocolate a month.

Then the bargaining became tough. Pasta was eliminated. Bread was rationed to one hot roll a week (slathered with butter at a Saturday lunch in a favorite Santa Monica restaurant), half a bread basket at Campanile (where bread is worth the calories) or garlic bread at my lunch place.

Half a bottle of wine at night was cut to one glass. Two jiggers of Jameson's were permitted, or a bottle of beer, but no mixed drinks. Those sugary margaritas at El Cholo were right out.

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