A Non-dieter's Story: Something To Chew On

June 02, 1991|By A.M. CHAPLIN

ALTHOUGH I HAD NEVER seen any anti-diet books till I wrote this article, in many ways my own experience with getting into and breaking away from the diet-binge cycle seems to me to confirm the ideas the books express. Here it is:

I went on my first diet at age 13. I lost 10 or 15 pounds over one long, hot summer and was very pleased with myself. But when I weighed myself a few months later, I found that I'd gained back about half the weight I'd lost. I was horrified and promptly went back on a diet. I remained on a diet -- through thick and thin, you might say -- for the next 25 years.

I found, as do many chronic dieters, that the more I dieted, the harder I needed to diet in order to lose weight: Although on my original diet I had lost weight eating about 1,500 calories a day, I eventually needed to drop below 600 a day in order to get anywhere near the same goal weight. To add to my misery, a few years after my first diet, I began binge-eating as well.

This continued till I was more or less in my middle 30s. I wish I could say at that point I suddenly had a great, transcendent insight into the error of my ways, but it wasn't like that. It was fTC more like a wearing out. I just got tired of beating my head on the wall. Even through the dense fog of compulsive behavior, I couldn't help seeing that dieting wasn't making me thinner, binge-eating wasn't making me happier, and the whole damn thing was just about as dumb as it could get.

So I decided the hell with it, I wasn't going to diet any more, and I didn't care what I ended up weighing. Of course I did care, tremendously, but at the same time I felt that anything, even being really and truly fat, was better than my present existence.

(I should add that at no point, even at my heaviest, did I have elevated blood sugar, high blood pressure or other medical problems associated with excess weight. Nor do I have a family history of such disorders. If I had, I might have had to make a choice different from the one I'm describing.)

Now I know if you've read this far, you probably are another dieter-binger just like me, and now you want me to tell you how great it was once I'd seen the light and how the pounds just melted off me. But sorry, I don't want to b.s. you the way diet books do. My experience was not great, and although it was "easy" in that I was allowing myself to eat more on a daily basis, it was hard in other ways.

It was slow, for one thing, and at no point did I feel any conviction at all that I was doing the right thing. Mostly I felt guilty for actually allowing myself to put food in my mouth, nourish myself, take care of my needs. Just about everything I'd learned from the culture and my upbringing told me that such behavior was self-indulgent, unfeminine and fattening. So just about every time I let myself eat, it felt wrong.

That's why I edged away from dieting so slowly, and that's why it took me a few years to break myself completely of the habit. And I certainly didn't drop a bunch of pounds right off the bat: I gained a few instead. But as I dieted less, I binged less until eventually I stopped binging entirely. My weight evened out: Instead of shooting up and down, it stayed in one place. That became my goal: a stable weight -- any weight, but a stable weight.

And, after a year or so, that stable weight itself began to drop -- slowly, two or three pounds a year. Yes, a year. Sounds like

nothing, doesn't it? But it was real weight loss, not the untrustworthy weight loss of my dieting days. It didn't come right back on if I ate half a cupcake or a second helping of meatloaf.

In fact, although I was eating more on a regular basis than I ever had before, the weight loss continued for a few years down to my present weight of 111 to 114. I'm 5 feet 2 inches tall, so that weight is too high for a model's ultralean figure, but it's nowhere near pork city, either. According to the Dietary Guidelines, in fact, my weight is a couple of pounds too low for my height and age.

My weight stays at this level on about 2,030 calories a day, as computed by Baltimore dietitian Katherine Boyd. (Actually, it could be a couple hundred calories more than that, since I forgot to tell her one or two items.) This is more calories than I've ever seen recommended for maintenance of 112-114 pounds; I think the usual for a moderately active woman of that weight is around 1,500-1,600 calories a day, which I regard as starvation rations.

In part I can enjoy this bounty because I exercise: I swim (slowly) or walk (moderately slowly) almost every day. But if I'm going to say that, then I should also say that I used to exercise far more strenuously and regularly when I weighed 125-130. So although exercise may be part of the picture, it's not the whole picture.

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