It was the diet to end all diets. About a year ago-15 years after my first diet-I decided to break my perpetual need-to-shed-pounds lifestyle to do something radical: eat what I wanted, when I wanted. Call it the "no diet" diet. It's the hardest thing I ever did.
See, the first time I went on a diet, I was 12. I was hardly plump, but there was no hiding my two stomach rolls in the black Betsey Johnson spaghetti-strap dress I bought for my bat mitzvah. And on Manhattan's Upper East Side, where I grew up, dieting is as much a rite of passage as your first period.
Through my teens and into my 20s, I went on and off a variety of diets, from Weight Watchers to Atkins to Cabbage Soup, until finally seeing a nutritionist I couldn't afford who had me eat four meals a day and diligently record each morsel in a journal. I hit the treadmill because it supposedly burned more calories than the bike. All this, and I was never really fat. Two years out of college, I was just 3 pounds shy of fitting into the Citizens of Humanity jeans I deliberately bought one size too small. But those 3 damn pounds wouldn't come off.
Oh, I tried. I ate salads and fruit, skinless chicken and broccoli. I craved the pancakes but ordered egg whites and learned to drink my vodka on the rocks. Except, of course, for all those times I didn't. The problem is, I love food: the smell, the taste, the experience of sitting down to a three-hour dinner with a bottle of cabernet and close friends. I love Italian peasant bread dipped in olive oil and a little sea salt; I love braised lamb shank over roasted fingerling potatoes; and I love, love molten chocolate cake. So when I say I tried, I really did, following all those meals with calorie restriction and exercise, questioning whether the gourmet food had been worth it.
Until one day, several years into this crime-and-punishment back-and-forth, I heard a very skinny friend call herself fat. If she could think she was fat, I wondered when, if ever, I would be satisfied with the way I looked.
That's when I said to hell with it and resolved to live guilt-free and eat what I wanted, when I wanted. I'd seen other people do it, and they were trim. But still, I knew I would need guidelines so I wouldn't revert to my deprivation ways-or gain weight.
First, I had to sit down to a meal on a plate at a table. Second, I had to take small bites and chew thoroughly to teach myself what it's like to eat slowly-and also learn to stop when I was full. Finally, I'd quit weighing myself. I shouldn't look at the scale if I'm not supposed to care.
Simple enough, right? Wrong.
Before I could actually enjoy a meal, I had to unlearn more than a decade of weight-loss brainwashing. I had to teach myself to look at turkey, avocado, and bread as a delicious sandwich instead of nutritional parts to be worked off later. I had to rediscover how much I could even eat, since up to now, my intake was either "strict" or "cheating."
The first time I tried this at dinner with friends, I ordered a salad with goat cheese and dressing that I ate with bread, a medium-rare steak, a glass of cabernet, and finally, oozing chocolate cake. It's not that I'd never ordered that way before. It's just this time, I didn't allow myself to feel bad about it. It was liberating-that night, anyway.
The next day, I passed on the after-lunch brownie I was offered, unsure of the damage I'd done the night before. But then I remembered I was missing my own point. I went back for the brownie and fought the urge to feel bad the rest of the day. On the third day, I freaked out. Suddenly, my jeans were tighter, so I spent the next few days eating egg whites, fish, and vegetables (no carbs!) and working out-until I got the balls to step on the scale and saw that I hadn't doubled my body weight (and remembered that my jeans had just come out of the wash). I snapped out of it-that time. But I'd repeat this cycle for six months.
Determined to leave food guilt in the past, I tried an experiment. I would weigh myself every morning for two months to see how each day's intake affected my weight. Maybe one indulgent meal-or six-didn't ultimately make a difference. It was enlightening: When I ate Chinese, it was 2 pounds up. When I drank a lot of water, it was 1 pound down. If I ate five holiday-type meals in a row, the scale jumped 3 pounds. But once my life went back to normal, the scale rebalanced. Many times, nothing happened-even after three cookies and a piece of rugelach.
Along the way, I learned how I eat. I discovered I really did like richer Häagen-Dazs better than the pseudo ice cream I'd been eating for a decade. But I also learned that when I ordered Chinese chicken with string beans, I preferred brown rice instead of white. And I actually do love steamed broccoli with sea salt. As for pancakes, a bite is enough. I prefer the savory eggs.
It took me a year, but I've finally become that girl-who-can-eat-whatever-she-wants-and-never-gain-an-ounce-and I don't even need to think about my rules. Instead of writing a food log, I spend more time writing in my journal and doing active things, like running or rock climbing. And, of course, once I shed the desperation and guilt, I dropped those 3 pounds too.
ARE YOU DONE WITH DIETS?
The newest wave of diet-book authors thinks you should be. Here's what they say works now:
THE BOOK: The Writing Diet, by Julia Cameron
THE PROGRAM: Cameron believes "a steady diet of self-reflection soon regulates overeating," because she's seen overweight people slim down without intentionally dieting when they wrote stream-of-consciousness journal entries every morning.
THE BOOK: The Beck Diet Solution Weight Loss Workbook, by Judith S. Beck, Ph.D.
THE PROGRAM: To change your weight, you need to change how you think about food, says this renowned therapist. That means spending the first two weeks of her program not dieting.
THE BOOK: Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?, by Peter Walsh
THE PROGRAM: Organize your priorities and your kitchen, and you'll stop overconsuming. Walsh's tips include restructuring your kitchen and asking not "What do I want for dinner?" but rather, "What do I want from dinner?"