The Rest-of-Your-Life Diet

Early in 2004, I realized that over the course of my life as a dieter, almost 40 years, I have lost roughly 1,000 pounds. Half a ton.


In January 2004, I weighed approximately ten pounds more than I did in the above photo.

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This is what I looked like on September 20, 2005 — and I have NOT been “on a diet.”

(This is easy, for most dieters: gain ten pounds and lose eight pounds. Gain 20 pounds and lose 15 pounds. Repeat until enormous. As my husband is fond of saying, if you want to gain weight, go on a diet.)

At my absolute fattest (in 1993), I was 5'5.5" tall and weighed 264 pounds. When I had my stunning realization, roughly 18 months ago, I was 5'5" (age shrinkage) and weighed approximately 225.

On September 20, 2005, I have lost more than 55 pounds, and I have NOT been dieting!! During my first year on the rest-of-your-life diet, I lost weight at the rate of a pound every ten days. Today, after about 16 months, I'm losing a pound roughly every three weeks. I figure it will take me at least another year, probably two years, to reach my goal. Some days my progress seems frustratingly slow — until I recollect that my major goal is to be healthy enough to live another 50 years. What's another 12 or 24 months compared with 50 years?

The secret to losing weight is simple:

(1) Decide how much you want to weigh for the entire rest of your life.

(2) Design an eating plan that both includes all your favorite foods AND will support you at your ideal weight.

(3) Follow that eating plan FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Realize that diets work just fine — while you are on them. The problem is, (a) you don't want to be on a deprivation-type diet for the entire rest of your life (a 90-year-old on the Atkins diet is such a sad image, isn't it?), and (b) you do want to eat food for the entire rest of your life.

My local newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, is currently running a column by a sports reporter who wants to lose weight. He's doing well so far; he has lost about 25 pounds since July 1, 2005 (as I write this, it's late September 2005). I wish John the best luck in the world, but I am dubious about his long-term prospects. He writes about “choking down” healthy foods, and you can hear the love and longing in his author's voice as he writes about the favorite high-calorie foods that he's not allowed to eat until after he has reached his ideal weight. He says he's on 2,200 calories a day, and if the figures he supplies are accurate, 2,200 calories a day will keep him at 160 to 170 pounds for the rest of his life — a perfectly fine weight for a medium-height man. But how much will John weigh in five years' time, after he has gone off his diet and resumed eating the foods he loves?

How Much Do You Want to Weigh?

Do you want to be a living skeleton when you're old? Do you want to look like the Michelin Man's human twin? Jack Lalanne or Orson Welles? Joan Collins or Conchata Ferrell? If you don't want to be a fat 90-year-old, you won't want to be a fat 80-year-old. Losing weight won't be any easier then than it is now — in fact, it'll be harder, since your metabolism will have slowed. And you won't want to be a fat 70-year-old, or a fat 60-year-old, for the same reasons. (And you won't want to be a fat 50-year-old, I guarantee. It's humiliating.)

Perhaps you don't want to think about following an eating plan for the entire rest of your life, even if it's a plan you design yourself (very important) that incorporates all your favorite foods. In that case, I recommend the second prong of my strategy: Develop a vision of the Ideal You. The Ideal You is radiantly healthy, brimming with vitality, and the perfect weight for you given your age, your natural physique (no one can turn a Campbell's Soup Kid into Twiggy), how much exercise you get, and what you do for a living. The Ideal You eats all your favorite foods — but the Ideal You knows that you don't have to eat the entire carton of ice cream in one sitting. It'll taste just as good tomorrow.

The Ideal You

I cannot overemphasize how important positive mental imagery is. Many people are unaware of this fact: The human brain tends to filter out negatives. Quick, do NOT think about a green elephant. See what I mean? If a wife says to her husband, “Don't forget X,” in most cases his brain will screen out the word “don’t” and he will obediently forget whatever it was she wanted him to remember. (Ditto with kids and class projects, or church newsletters for that matter. Always prefer “Remember” to “Don't forget.”) Remember the old saying: Whether you think you can do something or you think you can't, you're probably right.

The cliché is that it's easier to catch flies with honey than it is to catch them with vinegar. The truth is similar: A steady diet of “I can do anything I set my mind to” is easier to live with than “I am a fat, disgusting, loathesome pig with no self-control.” If you say to yourself, “Don't eat X food, it's ‘bad’” — hey presto, next thing you know, you're eating X.

So, find an image for yourself, your Ideal-You. It may help if you pick an actor who already looks the way you wish you could look when you grow up.

"A Touch of Brimstone," 2/19/66

Here's mine: In the middle 1960s, there was a popular British TV show called The Avengers, and for roughly two years the female star was Diana Rigg, playing a character called Emma Peel. (The writers chose that name because they wanted men to find the character sexy — M-Appeal, get it?) In one episode, Emma is kidnapped and drugged. Her kidnappers dress her up as a quasi-dominatrix, and then put her up for sale at a sort of 18th-century sex club. The camera pans up her body in a long, luscious take, starting at her feet, and even drugged and dressed like something out of Xaviera's Secret, Emma is hot hot hot.

I want to look like Emma Peel when I grow up. Not Diana Rigg, who is still beautiful 40 years later — Emma Peel. Forget that I'm already close to twice Emma's age, I don't care. I want the camera to pan slowly up my body, and have every man watching go into a stupor of lust.

Still not sure who's the Ideal You? Pick a star who looks sort of like you, but who's buff. Bruce Willis, not John Goodman (who, in my personal opinion, is far sexier). Zach Galifianakis, the guy who played “Davis” on Tru Calling: gorgeous, even if most people would call him the teensiest bit overweight. Amber Benson, a stunningly beautiful young woman who has been called fat because she's not 30 pounds underweight.

The absolutely vital point is to have a goal, a mental image of how you want to look for the rest of your life. If you don't know what you want, how will you get it? Or, how will you know if you've gotten it?

Here's another trick that works for me: I plan what I'm going to wear and how I'm going to look when I'm the guest star on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. I have no idea how I'm going to achieve this lofty ambition — but I have a very clear idea of how I'm going to look and what I'm going to say.

Design an Eating Plan

Once you know what you want to look like, design an eating plan for yourself that you will enjoy following for the entire rest of your life. This “diet” will include all your favorite foods. After all, you-at-90 are going to deserve to eat well. You-at-90 are also going to deserve good health and contentment — not high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, mental impairment, liver disease, foot problems, ankle problems, knee problems, etc., etc. Scientific studies have proven that self-designed diets are far more effective than even the best "professional" diet (Weight Watchers, TOPS, Overeaters Anonymous, South Beach, whatever).

I eat whatever I want to eat, whenever I want to eat it, and I do not flog myself with self-hatred if I make a poor choice at a given moment. After all, what's one indulgence compared with another 50-odd years? I do not scorn myself, or call myself unpleasant, untrue names. (Would you call your best friend any of the hateful names you call yourself when you can't do the impossible with ease? Or would you be afraid your B.F. would haul off and slug you? What good does contempt do anyone, including you?)

I have been on all the diets there are, and every darn one worked just fine. I started out with Metrecal, back in the '60s, and the Air Force diet. Atkins, in the '70s (I once ate 12 hard-boiled eggs in one sitting. Oh, boy). Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, O.A., you name it. In 1987 I lost almost 100 pounds in six months on a program called NutriWorks that was basically Optifast (the program that was so successful for Oprah in the '80s) under a different name. I swore I'd never be fat again. Three years later, my father died, and a few months after that I was once again enormous. The problem was not with dieting, and the problem was not with will power. The problem lies in NOT dieting — that is, the problem lies in making a distinction between “I'll eat this way just for a few weeks, until I look the way I want to look”and “I'll eat this way forever.”

If you don't have a lot of experience with dieting — and I prefer to call the rest-of-your-life diet an “eating plan,” to escape the unpleasant associations — there are numerous “maintenance diets” out there. I'd suggest starting with the Weight Watchers maintenance diet and fine-tuning it to fit your own tastes and preferences.

I cannot stress how vitally important it is for you to design your own eating plan. Take ownership of your life! Take ownership of your body! No one tied you up and forced food and drink down your throat; you look the way you do today because you ate what you want to eat, with no thought about what the Ideal You wants to eat.

There are dozens, probably thousands of good “maintenance diets” out there. Pick one. Then adjust it to fit your preferences. If you hate grapefruit and love salted peanuts, then include salted peanuts — just don't eat the entire can in one sitting. (I've done that, by the way.)

Follow Your Eating Plan

Once you have designed an eating plan to support the weight of the Ideal You, follow this diet. FOR THE ENTIRE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Change your mind, and eventually your body will catch up with it. It's that simple. And usually, it's that easy.

I have two affirmations that I use several times a day. One is, “I eat slim, I drink slim. I act slim, I think slim. I AM slim!” The other is, “I am slim and graceful and I LOVE to exercise.” That last, incidentally, is a total lie. When I was a child, my mother was constantly harping at me to get my nose out of my book and go ride my bicycle. As the (skinny) kid who was always picked last for any sports team, I learned to hate sports.

Eat What You Love

When you're on the “Rest-of-Your-Life” diet, anything goes. In the early 1970s, Weight Watchers required participants to eat liver once a week, and that eventually broke me — unless it's paté, liver and I are not as one. When you're confronted with the temptation to revert to the eating habits you've acquired in the last two (one, three, four, whatever) decades — and you will be — ask yourself: Is this a food item that the old you wants, the one who got you fat, or is it a food that Ideal-You wants?

The old saying goes, Discipline is remembering what you want. When I catch myself daydreaming about raw chocolate chip cookie dough, or headed for the refrigerator to see what I can snack on, I stop and ask myself, “What do you want?” My reply is, “I want to be slim.” Your own reply may be money, fame, a trip to Greece, political sanity in Washington, DC [har!], love, respect, whatever. The point is to stop yourself before you act and make sure that a snack is what you really want. Usually, it won't be.

Never skip breakfast. Seldom skip lunch. As a general rule, it's better to eat a hundred calories every few hours than it is to starve yourself. If you're so hungry all you can think about is food, you'll probably end up eating something that you've trained yourself to think of as “bad.” Then you'll call yourself self-loathing names, then you'll give up on yourself — and console yourself with an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's or an entire case of beer.

Do NOT set a time-goal for yourself! If you're like me, it took you at least 20 years to achieve your current shape. It's going to take a lot more than 20 weeks to change the way you think about food. During my first months on the rest-of-your-life diet, my eating habits weren't nearly as healthy as they are now. I want to weigh 144 pounds when I'm 90 years old. My metabolism is going to be slower than it is now, and I'll probably want to exercise even less than I want to now. I'm trying to eat an average of 1,440 calories per day, give or take 200 calories. Back when I weighed 225, I needed approximately 2,470 calories a day just to stay “even.” So when I lost one pound every ten days, simple math tells me I was eating about 700 calories a day of “bad” food — in my individual case, chocolate candies, those wonderful, individually wrapped bite-sized treats people give out to trick-or-treaters. If I had flagellated myself, calling myself hateful names and treating myself with contempt for being "bad" and "failing" to stay on my diet . . . I'm pretty certain I'd still be enormous, and I'd still be full of self-loathing.

Here's a true story: A couple of months ago, I was standing in front of my house talking to a friend when a neighbor who hadn't seen me in a while came walking down the street. She did a double-take. “Are you the lady who lives here?” she asked me. Yes, I said, I'm still me. And my neighbor began ranting about how wonderful I look, and how I look 20 years younger. What an ego boost! Mind you, I don't believe for a moment that 17 months ago I looked like a woman in her 70s, and I do believe I'm going to look even better in 2008 than I look today. But still, every now and then I will turn to my husband and announce, delightedly, “I am The Lady Who Lives Here!”

Food is to your body what gasoline is to your car. Think of it as solid energy. If you don't want to restrict calories as much as you'll need to to become Ideal-You, you'll have to add exercise. Choose a form of exercise that you'll be able to do for the rest of your life. U.S. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black once said, “When I was 40, my doctor advised me that a man in his forties shouldn't play tennis, and I could hardly wait until I was 50 to start again.” That is the kind of exercise you want to add to your life — the kind that you'd resent being forbidden to do. And if you just can't do it, if the Thighmaster is gathering dust and the stationary bike is invisible under a mountain of clothes, don't worry, and don't flog yourself. You probably won't feel like using your Thighmaster when you're 90 any more than you do today. Just accept that less exercise means fewer calories. If you skip your daily walk, skip your daily beer (or glass of wine, or slice of cheesecake, or whatever).

Weigh yourself as seldom as possible. It is distressing but true that once your body has acquired a fat cell, you've got it for life. When you lose weight, your fat cells will shrink in size, but they will never go away. This means that for the rest of your life, you will see wild variations in your weight. Last February, I visited my endocrinologist four days after visiting my internist, and I weighed six pounds less. One pound is approximately 3,500 calories, which means I ought to have weighed about a third of a pound less at most — because I certainly didn't eat 21,000 fewer calories than I needed. (It took 12 weeks for me to lose those six pounds “for real,” incidentally.)

Drink rarely. Alcohol is wonderful, and I can't imagine a life without it. However, alcohol isn't just empty calories, it's empty, expensive calories. Most foods are roughly four calories per gram. Fat is nine calories per gram. Alcohol is seven calories per gram. One jigger of liquor is about 100 calories. One jigger of a liqueur, like Kahlua, is about 160 calories. One six-ounce glass of wine is about 105 calories. One bottle of beer (12 ounces) is about 160 calories. (“Lite” beer is about 110 calories.) None of this is intrinsically bad or good. If you're a middle-aged man who wants to weigh about 170 pounds when he's 90 years old, you'll probably end up living on roughly 2,000 calories a day. Plenty of room for alcohol every now and then! But while you're in the first year or two of your rest-of-your-life diet, be aware that alcohol will cause your fat cells to plump up again. Like fat, it goes right to where it's needed most — and where you want it least.

Remember how I wrote earlier that my weight loss has slowed in the last few months, even though I'm eating more sensibly overall? It's because I drink now and then. Five days ago, I drank two glasses of wine. Three days later, when I had one of my quarterly “official” weighings at my internist's office, I weighed two pounds more than I thought I would. I have learned over the last 16 months that this is not a coincidence, it's a pattern. Decide how much of a wino you're going to be when you're 90 years old, and stick with that, or a little less than that, today.

There's an amusing commercial where the young man is planning to propose to the young woman of his dreams, and to prove his love, he plans to buy her a Trane brand something-or-other, because “I'm in it for the long haul.” If you “go on a diet” temporarily, planning to resume your love affair with ice cream, pork rinds, or Dove dark chocolate as soon as you reach your goal weight, you are setting yourself up for yet another failure — yet another opportunity to flog yourself for your supposed weakness and moral inferiority.

Be "in it for the long haul." Plan on reaching the age of 90 and being the same Ideal-You weight you've been for just years and years and years. Plan on being 90 and either still able to fit into the evening clothes you bought when you were [your age two years from today], or when you got married, or when you graduated from high school. In fact, plan on reaching age 90 — rather than dying young from some overweight- or fat-caused disease, like diabetes.

Last, and most important: Lay off the self-hatred. If you have tried and tried to lose weight, and failed and failed, if you use words and phrases like "weak," "worthless," "stupid, stupid, stupid," and "fat oaf" about yourself, you simply set yourself up for failure. You became overweight for good reasons. Perhaps you overate comfort foods because you needed comforting. Perhaps your overweight protected you from situations that you found threatening. Your overweight gave you an ironclad excuse not to do whatever it was that you were afraid of (like dating someone you considered out of your attractiveness range) or not really into in the first place (like killing yourself trying to look like a professional model). Perhaps, like me, your overweight was one strategy in your lifelong battle with your mother. Whatever the reason you gained it, your fat was your friend. You are a good person, and you do the best you can at any given moment, in any given situation. There is nothing wrong with you. You do not deserve scorn.


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