Thinking thin, ever vigilant

April 28, 2004|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Louise A. Masano's credentials as a certified thin person shouldn't be questioned, considering the fact that a total stranger once stopped her on the street to ask her something along the lines of: "How exactly do you stay so slim?"

Mind you, this was in Manhattan, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where it appears the city enforces a maximum body-mass index for locals. You see an overweight person in Manhattan you know you're most likely looking at a tourist or a Metropolitan Opera soloist.

If this overexposure to human slimness were not enough to inspire Masano's contemplations of the subject, she worked for a while on advertising campaigns for weight-loss products. The work involved focus groups: people sitting around talking about eating and not eating.

Masano worked these experiences and many years of personal observations of thinness into a slim, lighthearted book that makes modest, sensible, if unscientific, claims. How Thin People Think (1stBooks Library, 2003, $14.50) gives the Cartesian maxim a twist for these weight-obsessed times: I think thin, therefore I am.

She says her observations over the years tell her "there's an eating behavior" rooted in a way of thinking about food and your relationship to it that results in thinness. If you understood that thinking, Masano figures, you would get clues about how people stay slim.

"I don't want to tell anyone what to do," says Masano, who spent her career in advertising. "I don't tell anyone to `listen up.' I'm not a doctor or a nutritionist. I'm saying let's listen in" to how thin people approach their eating day to day.

Masano understands there are those among us blessed with the sort of metabolism that allows them to be all-you-can-eat regulars at the Golden Corral without gaining 2 ounces. This book is not about those people. It's about people of no extraordinary genetic attributes whose habits of eating and exercise appear to support a relentlessly slender waistline.

The 46-year-old Masano, for instance, stands 5-foot-6 and weighs nearly 125 pounds, putting her well within the "normal" weight category of the body mass index, if you put much stock in that calculation. Alas, it was not always so.

She tells how she became nearly 20 pounds overweight in college at Boston University, "eating late into the night, hanging around the dining hall. ... After college I just started to buy my own food, and started to take control."

Decades later, there she was at 84th Street and First Avenue in Manhattan finishing an afternoon yogurt snack when along comes this woman, this total stranger, asking how Masano manages to stay so thin.

"That was the sign," says Masano, that maybe she should pull together all these little notes she'd been scribbling for years and publish a book. She also did the illustrations, by the way.

The book puts particular emphasis on the notion of "control," broadly applied to portion sizes, food choices and habits of mind. The "Thinking Thin," as Masano calls folks in this group, wake up mindful of their eating and stay that way all day. If you find them indulging today in a scoop or two of ice cream, tomorrow you're likely to see them cutting back on one thing or another, perhaps exercising more.

The price of thinness is not monkish deprivation, Masano says, but eternal vigilance.

Hint No. 11: "The Thinking Thin practice `conscious consumption.' (They are aware of everything they eat)."

Hint No. 28: "Most Thinking Thin can't even get the words `Super-size it, please' out of their mouths."

Hint No. 74: "The Thinking Thin know God did not build the human body to survive predominantly on `meal substitutes.' The Thinking Thin enjoy meals."

Hint No. 292: "The Thinking Thin know two of the best things they can do for their bodies are free - take a walk and drinks lots of water."

The tips are not the result of nutrition research, but a couple of nutritionists say Masano's approach is not so far afield of what they would recommend.

Weight Watchers senior nutritionist Maria Walls hasn't read the book, but after hearing a few of the tips she says the advice seems a part of a weight-loss and maintenance strategy, if not the whole story. Some people, for example, have a very difficult time limiting portions of a favorite food, and hunger satiation signals may vary considerably from one person to the next.

The "Thinking Thin" person Masano describes "sounds like our members after they've been through" the Weight Watchers program, says Walls.

Given a sample of Masano's tips, Dawn Jackson, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association in Chicago, says the book seems to describe a sensible alternative to crash weight-loss advice.

"People think they have to be on a diet or off one," says Jackson.

Masano recommends the middle ground.

"The Thinking Thin never go on a diet," she writes, "but they never go off one, either."

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