A New Diet Design
One day last year, 10 new pounds mysteriously joined the 10 I’d previously planned to lose. I don’t know how it happened, but suddenly the waistbands of all my sit-below-the-waist pants were sitting snugly at my waist, crowned by a rubbery roll of flesh. The menopause metabolism-slowing demon had come to live at my house.
I tried the South Beach Diet, the Atkins Diet, the no-white-foods diet, and the being-careful-about-everything-I-ate diet. After six months, nothing had worked and my choices were (1) to buy a new wardrobe or (2) to join Weight Watchers. (Everyone I knew who had lost weight and kept it off had done it with Weight Watchers.)
So on a gray Monday morning, I went to my first meeting, on the second floor of a cinder-block office building in a rundown strip mall. I took off my shoes, socks, sweater, belt, and earrings and weighed in, crestfallen that the scale said I was three pounds more than I’d weighed naked at home a half hour before. I took my seat in the circle with 15 other women, nearly crushing a toddler hiding under my folding chair. When the group leader handed me an "I’m a Loser!!!" sticker, I knew I was in the wrong place.
After the meeting, I sat in my car for a long time. Was I just too big a snob to follow a proven program? Then, the lightbulb. What if I recruited a group of women — friends, peers, friends of friends — and we began our own support group, holding meetings in a nice restaurant where we could weigh in, exchange dieting tips, share our successes and failures, and then eat lunch together?
I called my longtime friend Mary-Catherine Deibel, co-owner of the UpStairs on the Square restaurant, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and proposed the idea of a weekly group that would meet at her restaurant. Mary-Catherine was on board instantly. We dubbed the group Down@Up — thinking it a sufficiently cryptic name (one that wouldn’t be obvious on a day planner) — and limited the membership to 12, a number that would fit comfortably around a lunch table. We found a leader with 10 years of experience running diet programs and paid her in advance, $150 per person for 10 weeks. Her job was to orchestrate the meetings: run the weigh-in, moderate the discussion, and give feedback.
Mary-Catherine and I e-mailed friends and, within days, had assembled our charter group. It resembled a casting call for our neighborhood: an architect, an artist, a pediatrician, a corporate headhunter, a marketing director, a college professor, a graphic designer, a photographer — all successful women, all frustrated by their weight.
The First Weigh-In
We’re all nervous at the first meeting. Women rarely tell even their best friends what they weigh; here we are, airing our baggy, stretched-out laundry in public. We line up for the weigh-in with our leader, who enters our weights in a log. Then we gather at the table, introducing ourselves and saying something about our goals.
Most of us are looking to lose 20 or so pounds (our pants are too tight, but we still remember when we could wear them comfortably). Some have never worried about their weight until now; others have gotten so accustomed to being fat, they’ve given up imagining themselves thin. "My doctor told me to either lose 30 pounds or look for another doctor," one member confesses. I share my fear of diabetes, the disease that took my sister three years ago. Sandra whispers, "I’d rather not take cholesterol pills for the rest of my life." Another member estimates that over the course of her adulthood, she has lost and gained enough weight to be twins.
The group is a little stiff and formal, but the seeds of intimacy and trust are here. When Blue tells us that she can’t even say "the D word," we laugh. "I’ll tell people I’m not eating red meat or white flour, but I’ll be damned if I’ll tell them I’m on a diet," she says. One member, who’s leaving on a trip in a few weeks, says her new mantra is "Would I rather eat Italian or wear Italian?" We all crack up.
After the introductions, the group leader slaps a deck of playing cards on the table. "That is a serving size of animal protein," she says. "Keep a pack in the kitchen at home to calibrate portions." Sobering. Three or four ounces, less than half the size of a typical restaurant serving. Mary-Catherine asks a few of the chefs to come upstairs so they can get a sense of what they’ll have to do to make meals that are within our caloric budget. "If that’s all the protein we’re allowed to serve, we’re going to have to put lots of vegetables on the plate," one of them says. Exactly. "And no butter, no cream either?" asks another. The challenge is on.
Now comes the fun part: lunch. We eat with gusto, knowing we’re in a diet-friendly place. Instead of a bread basket, there are crudites with a yogurt-dill dipping sauce. Instead of creamy dressings and cheesy toppings, there are bright vegetable purees. I notice that during lunch, although we talk about food and restaurants, none of us talk about diets.
The Needle Starts to Move
We’re pumped for our second meeting. Buoyed by the support of the group, we’ve each lost a little. Both Susan and Blue have lost three pounds. Susan, one of the more disciplined members, has upped her water-aerobics classes from three to four a week and banned Diet Coke from her life (she’s heard that diet drinks increase sugar cravings). Blue, who has a teenage son and a very tall husband, says she’s being careful not to divide family dinners into three equal parts anymore. Others have made smaller adjustments — drinking a glass of water before and after meals and switching from whole-milk lattes to nonfat-milk cappuccinos. My friend Sandra’s secret is eating one small piece of high-quality dark chocolate every day: "If I have one treat, I can cope," she says. Another swears by eating chunks of watermelon for the munchies.
We share tips for buying and cooking foods that make less seem like more: real oatmeal, not instant; huge salads bolstered by crunchy fresh veggies, such as jicama and celery, that provide enough mouth action to make a skimpy meal satisfying. We’re all cooking at home more, making soup or batches of quinoa, barley, and brown rice so there will always be a healthy, high-fiber starch in the house.
At the first Down@Up lunch, the chefs selected a few of the lighter entrees from the regular menu and did the obvious things: shrank the portions, put sauces in ramekins. But this week we have a menu of dishes created just for us: spicy chicken on steamed kale and Swiss chard, lamb tenderloin salad with whole wheat tabouleh, salmon with fennel puree. (Who needs hollandaise when you can have this much flavor and so few calories?) The average price with beverage and tip is $20.
The Group Gels
As the weeks pass, we’re becoming more open about our struggles with weight: We sympathize, empathize, and mostly just listen to one another. One member with a chronically ill adult son says that she always gains after a visit with him. Another says she’s not up to weighing herself, because the night before, after she dropped her high-school-senior daughter off at the train for a college tour, she returned home and ate four thick slices of bread and butter. We know that guilty feeling.
Between meetings, the e-mail circuits sizzle with our ups and downs, plus articles from the New England Journal of Medicine and the New York Times.
Two months into Down@Up, we’re planning active excursions to see the Decorators’ Show House or a new museum exhibit, going for walks, goading one another into joining a seven a.m. exercise group. We’re trading books and dining at one another’s houses — conferring on menus that are fancy but not diet-busting, like a fabulous pesto sauce on top of spaghetti squash instead of pasta, or combining cooked cauliflower with potatoes for mashed potatoes lite.
Our meetings have changed from our first, very structured conversations. More of us have things to say, and it’s become a little difficult for the leader to maintain order. She comes to each meeting with a discussion topic: how to break the clean-plate syndrome, how to manage social situations at which food and drink are at the center. (She suggests leaving the table before dessert is served, but that won’t work for many of us who do business entertaining. Our consensus is that she’s a tad militant.) She stresses that weight control is a lifestyle, not a diet — we can always eat less tomorrow if we overdo it today.
Stuck on Heartbreak Hill
Two-and-a-half months along, Susan, in keeping with her discipline, has lost the 17 pounds she had hoped to before taking off for a two-month sabbatical. Most of us have lost, but almost all of us have hit plateaus.
Our leader sends an e-mail to boost us over Heartbreak Hill. She explains that it’s natural to get stuck in neutral for a few weeks or fall off the wagon occasionally. "This is a years-long personal journey, not a one-week boot camp," she writes. "Try to come to meetings even when you have only 15 minutes. It’s amazing what just a little group contact and support can do." She’s right. A couple of us who’ve missed a few meetings because we were dispirited with our progress return to the fold.
As the weeks pass, the lunch part starts to feel more helpful than the meeting part. We are developing friendships, and we begin to save our more intimate conversations about our weight problems for the table. We have stopped caring if other members know our weight; we are all struggling together. Plus, the lunch menus are getting better every week. Often other diners look over at our table and say, "I’ll have what they’re having."
At the end of 10 weeks, several members have reached their target weights and left the group. I’ve lost eight of my 10 pounds (with a little seesawing around my daughter’s graduation), and I want to keep going. So do most of the rest of the group. We recruit a few new members.
Being committed to the group seems to give us confidence that our lifestyle changes will help us lose weight and keep it off. Many of us now wear pedometers and make walking dates. Some of us are becoming one-day-a-week vegetarians. We take food with us when we travel. (See more weight-loss tips on page 3.) We sign the leader up again, but most of us feel that it will be the last go-round with a leader running the group.
Many of us nursed the fantasy that we’d lose weight automatically just by joining the group. Now we know there won’t be a quick fix. So as we work to become sylphs, we continue to meet for lunch each Wednesday to bolster our vigilance and our sense of humor. We expect to be ladies who lunch wisely for a very long time.
Weight-Loss Tips: Winning at the Losing Game
Members of Down@Up pooled their top tips for eating out without blowing a calorie count.
- Don’t let the bread basket even touch the table. Ask the server to bring a bowl of crudites instead.
- Order an Aunt Bess: sparkling water, bitters, and lime. It looks and tastes festive.
- Before you get your entree, ask the server to put half in a to-go box.
- For your entree, ask for a sampler plate of all the vegetable side dishes on the menu.
- Drink two glasses of water or a large glass of skim milk before you go out so you’re not starving.
- Pick a restaurant that serves tapas or a tasting menu, or order a salad and an appetizer instead of a main course.
- Go vegetarian. Often those beautiful vegetarian entrees (but not pasta or risotto) are terrific and have fewer calories than the protein entrees.
- There’s no reason not to taste the salad dressing or the entree sauce. Just ask for it to be served on the side, and dip your fork before every bite.
- Call the restaurant ahead of time to ask for a special meal — something very low calorie, poached, steamed. Most chefs like the challenge and will happily oblige.
- Order nonfat cappuccino after a meal and put two packets (40 calories) of Sugar in the Raw on the foam to form a crust. Sweet and satisfying, it will make you feel as though you are having dessert.
Originally published in MORE magazine, March 2007.