Dead Dieter Walking

I don’t recommend watching this entire clip, but it’s all I could find on YouTube. A 90-second glimpse is enough to paint the emotional picture of the dread that’s coming. In spades. A clear sense that someone’s life, in no uncertain terms, is on the verge of being brought to an end.

Uncountable times, I’ve lived this dread. Perhaps not quite to the excruciating extent that Sean Penn portrays so brilliantly, but I’m familiar with the soul-sucking rhythms of the ‘dead man walking’ ritual.

It’s the pre-dieting rite of passage that’s every bit as bitter as it is sweet. Card-carrying dieters…you know what I’m talking about: the last meal. Or, more accurately, the last good meal we’ll ever have…a passionate good-bye kiss to the foods we actually enjoy eating.

Because it’s all about extremes, isn’t it? What else is there? What is this thing known as the middle road? I couldn’t be trusted with food. So lockdown was imposed. The ironic thing about brute force is, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t reform prisoners and it doesn’t cure dieters of what truly ails them.

The groundwork for extremes was laid early for me – at age 10 when I was put on my first official diet, courtesy of our family doctor, whom I’ll refer to as Dr. No. My father loved Dr. No’s philosophy because, in addition to a strict, nearly fatless diet, he prescribed a two-day binge to precede the part where we’re stripped of dignity and personal freedom. I lost track of how many times my father and I jumped on and off the Crazy-Wheel. But the bulging paper grocery bags we’d haul home after a visit to Dr. No’s office were filled with the building blocks of our two-day farewell feast. Things we promised (more adamantly each time) we would never eat again: pork chops, potatoes with butter, creamy cascades of Stouffer’s chipped beef over toasted white bread, chocolate marshmallow ice cream, crowned with a fluffy head of Cool Whip.

48 hours later, the menu did a 180: dry string beans and a soft boiled egg for breakfast; tuna splashed with cider vinegar for lunch; and a dinner of poached chicken breasts and iceberg lettuce. Halfway through the day I was dazed with both hunger and depression.

Why hasn’t anyone been more vocal about stating what’s obvious? That diets are just plain mean?

I could recite a laundry list of why dieting hasn’t worked for me, but probably the biggest clue that they’re a monumental set-up for failure is the way they begin: with a ‘life is over’ implication that’s about as appealing as being led to the execution room.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that this method (that is still inexplicably embedded in our collective psyche as a viable answer) is really the definition of futility. If dieting could have killed the part of me that loves food, is drawn to it, wrings pleasure from it, dieting would have done it…the first time around. It wasn’t until after my second 100-pound gain-back that I decided I would not be going back for more. That was in 1990. Not knowing what else to do, I did what I always did when I wasn’t dieting. I ate. A lot. True, I got bigger each year, but not having the schizophrenic agony of the crazed ‘in and out/off and on’ cycles to contend with brought a welcome sense of peace.

So no one is more surprised than I am that this past year saw a torrent of personal transformation that included dropping 130 pounds. This time though, I did it through listening to the intelligence of my body. It’s probably hard to believe, but I actually forgot that my body is intelligent. I also did a lot of listening to Diamond Dallas Page of YRG Fitness (www.yrgfitness.com), Terri Lange, an amazing woman who has kept her weight off for 8 years, and nutritionist Bernadette Saviano of Atlanta, Ga.

I get asked lots of questions now about how I did it. And last week someone wanted to know if I had a ‘last supper.’ When I began this new way of eating, this new relationship to food, that didn’t even occur to me. In my mind, it would have been too much of an implication that I was beginning a diet. So there was no burgeoning banquet table awash in ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’ sentiment.

That’s because the foods I love have all been invited along for the ride. Yes, I’ve relegated them to a different position in the pecking order…downgraded their ticket, if you will. But they’re still in the picture. It’s a full picture now that includes exercise, feeling the feelings, experimenting with new flavors and textures (mashed rutabaga is actually really goooood), and respecting who I am: someone who loves fried chicken. There I SAID it. Man, it feels good to be out of the closet.

This one is for Great Lakes Collagen: