Rethinking Thin To Diet ort Not to Diet? That is One Tough Question

June 02, 1991|By A.M. CHAPLIN

Every diet story starts with a success story, and why should this one be different? So here is the success story of nurse Jean Antonello of Minneapolis:

Jean Antonello's moment of truth came the summer she realized she'd gained back every one of the 20 pounds she'd lost by dieting the six months before her wedding. She was not pleased by the knowledge. In fact, it made her depressed. It made her desperate. In her opinion at the time, anybody who weighed more than 120 pounds was fat, and here she was, checking in at 155 big ones.

So she did what she thought she was supposed to. She went on a diet -- a rigorous diet. She also worked out, running several miles a day, sometimes twice a day.

And, at the end of two months, she had lost nothing. Zip. Zilch. She was still checking in at 155 big ones, though she looked like a wrestler from all that working out.

"I went into a real crisis," says Ms. Antonello. "I thought, 'My God, how can my body do this? If this didn't work, then my body is just hell-bent on making me fat.' I said to myself, 'I can't go on living like this.' "

And "like this" didn't mean weighing 155 pounds, she says; it meant "dieting." Jean Antonello had had it with dieting.

"I began to search for a cure, a solution. I had two problems. One was my weight problem, and one was my relationship with dieting. And my second problem was by far my biggest problem."

Next to that, she says, being 35 pounds over what she wanted to weigh was nothing. Nothing.

WAIT A MINUTE, YOU'RE SAYING, wait a minute.

Wasn't this supposed to be a diet success story? So, where's the success? This Antonello woman is left out there floating in porkland, 35 pounds from the border. Aren't diet success stories all supposed to end with "and she lost every one of those pounds plus a few more and lived happily ever after in a size 6 dress, just like Julia Roberts in 'Pretty Woman' "? And where are the before-and-after photos, with the one showing a blimp and the other a babe? What is this?

Well, this is a story about alternative ways of thinking about dieting.

It's a story about how maybe it's not a good idea to diet.

It's a story about how maybe dieting can make you gain weight as well as lose it.

It's a story about how many of the people who do diet don't really need to diet.

It's a story about how maybe your objective should be not so much a lower weight as making peace with your body and yourself.

Which brings us back to Ms. Antonello, who is now the author of a book called "How to Become Naturally Thin by Eating More." The story of her hungry summer is a success story, not because she lost weight but because she began to realize that for her dieting wasn't the solution, it was the problem. And that next to it her weight problem was no problem at all.

THESE ARE TWO OF THE MAJOR ASsumptions of the alternative thinking about dieting: Dieting itself can be the problem, and sometimes weight isn't.

This is exactly the reverse of the way just about everybody -- just about everybody female -- thinks about it. Ms. Everybody thinks about it this way: "The problem is that I don't wear a size 6 like Julia Roberts. The solution is Optifast."

So Ms. Everybody goes on a diet -- OK, in the wake of Oprah's return to plumpness maybe it's not necessarily a liquid diet, but it will be some form or another of caloric deprivation -- and everything is fine, except for one little detail.

Which is, according to the alternative thinking about dieting, that diets don't work.

That is, diets -- especially the fast and restrictive ones that are the most popular -- work for a while, but not for the long term: Just like Ms. Winfrey, dieters lose the weight, but most of them put it back on again within a year or so, if not sooner. Usually it's accompanied by a few extra pounds that weren't there the first time around. Some people stop there. They say the hell with this, and buy one-size-bigger slacks. They're the lucky ones. The others -- women, for the most part -- go back on a diet and lose again. Then they gain again, diet again, gain again, diet again -- and voila! that miserable creature, a yo-yo dieter, is born.

Often the yo-yo-er is also a binge eater: She will end a day of stringent dieting with a night of gorging, or cap a week of starving by a weekend of stuffing. When she isn't eating, she's thinking about eating, and she has probably annoyed you at many a meal with her tiresome litany of "oh, I can't" and "oh, I shouldn't" while she enviously ogles your leftover french fries.

But her predicament is not a funny one. "Society's obsession with weight and with dieting has turned millions of us into food junkies or compulsive eaters," says New York psychotherapist Carol H. Munter, co-author with Jane R. Hirschmann of "Overcoming Overeating." And in many cases, says Baltimore psychiatrist Harry A. Brandt, director of the Mercy Center for Eating Disorders at Mercy Medical Center, it has led to the dangerous and sometimes fatal extremes of anorexia nervosa and bulimia.

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