My doctor looked at me, shook his head and declared that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my thyroid gland. Why I had gained an embarrassing 16 pounds in three months was as much a mystery to him as it was to me.
But he said he had a solution. I braced myself for that awful word I had heard many times before in the past decade. It's the worst four-letter word in the English language for someone who loves the taste and texture of good food and writes about it for a living -- D-I-E-T.
This time the discipline was a low carbohydrate/high protein regimen that must be carefully monitored under a doctor's care. Because carbohydrates were limited, all the foods that I craved the most were taboo -- pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, even fresh fruit.
The word diet wasn't always part of my vocabulary. In high school I weighed 115 pounds and ate just about anything the other kids could eat. But almost as soon as I turned 30 and became a food writer, I could just look at a recipe for chocolate mousse and gain 3 pounds. And, like many other aging baby boomers, the older I get, the less I can eat. Now at 41, when I eat more than 800 calories the food goes to my hips about as quickly as Madonna changes her image.
Unfortunately, those people who have normal metabolisms are sure that all of us who are overweight spend a good part of our lives sitting in the closet stuffing ourselves with Hershey Bars and Haagen-Dazs. Often overweight people are considered out of control. Maybe some are, but for others it takes more hard work and sacrifice than for others. In fact, studies of twins published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that our weight may depend more on what's in our genes than what we put in our mouths.
But these kind of medical studies offer little solace. Most of us have done it all before. The litany could be reported like a mantra from a confess-it-all Weight Watchers meeting -- Stillman, Atkins, Pritikin, Scarsdale, liquid protein, Nutri-System, Jenny Craig. We suffer. We take it off. We exercise. And it comes right back on in less than a year. The sad truth: Only 3 percent of those who take it off will keep it off.
What we have to do, they say, is change our eating habits for the rest of our lives. And that can be really depressing and impossible unless we, too, can get a formula for eating food that will keep us in shape. And, although each new diet book seems to discover different evidence to support its theory, most weight control experts these days agree on one general rule: It's the fat we eat that makes our bodies fat.
For some of us, doing all the right things is not enough. Many of us have incorporated all the eat-for-health ideas into our daily diets -- more chicken and fish than beef, lamb and pork, skim milk, low-fat yogurt, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. And we still gain weight.
So what do you do when you have been doing most of these nutritionally correct things and your doctor says it's not enough? How can you stay on a strict diet when the doctor says you can eat only broiled, baked or steamed chicken and fish with no added fat except the spritz that comes from the nozzle of a can of vegetable or olive oil spray? What if the doctor is limiting carbohydrates to 25 milligrams a day when most Americans consume between 200 and 300 mg. a day?
When my slim doctor, who just happens to be a marathon runner, gave me his pronouncements I cringed. Most of the diet cookbooks on the market are useless because they break his rules, depending on at least a tablespoon of olive oil for flavor, including nuts for texture or unsweetened apple juice for sweetness. My first trip down the aisle of the supermarket was overwhelming as I passed all the foods I couldn't eat. How could I survive without any psychological satisfaction from food?
I have survived and lost 18 pounds so far. And so can you. First, the six basic rules of a low-fat survival kit. Then the recipes that I have developed that may just keep you low-fat and happy at the same time.
Rule 1: Get the right equipment. Remove as much frustration from this diet as possible. A dieter's best friend is a non-stick broiler pan so you don't have to waste time scrubbing with metal soap pads. You'll also need a steamer, non-stick frying pans, food processor or blender.
Rule 2: Stock a dieters' pantry. Search the supermarket, gourmet shops and ethnic food stores for high-flavor prepared seasonings and condiments that can boost flavor without boosting fat. Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce makes a great basting sauce for chicken or fish. Dijon mustard and a touch of soy sauce gives an interesting twist to broiled chicken breasts. Flavored vinegars (cranberry, tarragon, blueberry, balsamic) or sun-dried tomato bits add interesting flavor to plain steamed veggies.