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November 5, 2012

The Dieter's Dilemma

Can you navigate your diet without turning into a complete social killjoy? Geraldine Campbell learns how to just say no — most of the time.

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Photo Credit: Levi Brown/Trunkarchive

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My boyfriend, Ian, a chef, cooks almost everything in master fat, a flavor-packed mélange of bacon grease, rendered beef fat, and whatever residual drippings result from his daily culinary endeavors. It's one of the things that made me fall in love with him — well, not the master fat itself, but the fact that he cooked for me: chicken-and-dumpling soup that could cure even the worst head cold, fried pound cake à la mode.

I felt loved and cared for in a way that I hadn't in years — and how could I say no to that kind of affection? Not surprisingly, I put on 12 pounds over the course of six delicious months.

Ian is fine with the fact that his TLC makes me fat. In fact, I think he prefers me with a little something extra. I, on the other hand, am less thrilled with the snugness of my skinny jeans and my math-teacher arms (extra jiggly).

But, I've never been very good at dieting. In high school, I stopped eating fat entirely. In college, I went dairy-free for nearly a year. And a few years later, I had a brief go at the Atkins diet. None of these lasted very long (with Atkins, I was sneaking carbs inside of three days) and none had lasting results.

And it's not just me: 96 to 99 percent of dieters who lose weight gain it back within a year, says nutritional psychologist Marc David, founder of the Colorado-based Institute for the Psychology of Eating.

Diets are largely unsuccessful because we're working against our environment: an office that encourages eating at your desk or a social life that revolves around dinner with friends. As much as I disliked being on a diet, I hated being that girl who eats only salad or picks at her food, feigning fullness. In other words, no fun.

It's exhausting to constantly say no, and ultimately, it's not sustainable. "When we deny, deny, deny — we swing the other way and we binge, binge, binge. It's a predictable behavior," says David.

Determined to lose the weight without falling into the pattern of past diets, I sought out New York — based nutrition counselor Natasha Uspensky, a former opera singer whose approach — enjoying food rather than turning it into the enemy — made me feel like I might be able to lose weight and keep my boyfriend.

Sadly, saying yes didn't mean a diet of croissants, full-fat ice cream, and red wine. Not that these are entirely off-limits, but Upensky posits that if we fill our lives with healthy foods and behaviors, we won't even want the bad stuff. If I had a nutrient-packed berry smoothie instead of skipping breakfast, I wouldn't feel tempted to raid the office kitchen with all its animal crackers and chips. I wasn't convinced, but I was ready to give it a try.

Under her guidance, I cleaned my kitchen of unhealthy foods (including, yes, a jar of master fat) and filled it with leafy greens, brown rice, almond butter, a few bars of dark chocolate.

I started cooking more, preparing meals like quinoa and black bean salad. It didn't taste overly healthy (by which I mean bland and cardboard-like) and I found (truly) that the better I ate, the less I craved meaty, cheesy dishes. I felt empowered by my healthy choices, and I was bounding out of bed at 6:30 a.m., hangover-free and ready to face the day. But I wasn't sure I'd be able to stand up to the temptations when it came to making plans with friends.

After a few evenings spent watching back-to-back episodes of The Wire, I knew being a recluse could never be a long-term solution. Instead, I took one of David's suggestions and tried to mold my environment to suit me. Rather than meeting friends for indulgent meals out, I suggested going for a walk or seeing a movie. But my friends, it turns out, aren't that into long walks.

My social life, then, became a series of careful calculations: If I had dinner plans, I'd eat a small lunch and run a few extra miles. If I went out for cocktails, I'd keep it to one Negroni, a perfect sipping drink. And I gave myself nights off, too — when I'd happily indulge in carb-heavy, guilt-free meals over a bottle of Barolo. Most of the time, I felt smug and superior as I had just a bite of blueberry crumble. Other times, I felt discouraged. It turns out that saying yes to farro and healthy goodness can sometimes feel like saying no — especially when your boyfriend cooks for a living and has a pint-of-ice-cream-a-day habit and a marathoner physique.

I approached the Ian issue cautiously, trying to maintain that, while I loved his cooking, my stomach couldn't keep up with his. We talked about my fear that abstaining from his decadent feasts might make him think me a killjoy. It wouldn't, he assured me.

It's been a few months since my first meeting with Upensky, and I have yet to reach the point where I don't want a slice of comforting pie on a cold night. I don't think I ever will. But the calculations that initially felt exhausting have become almost second nature.

I've also lost — and kept off — much of the courtship weight without feeling deprived. To celebrate, I let Ian make me a bison burger with cucumbers and Feta — hold the master fat, please.


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