One night over dinner, we were discussing the expansion of NATO, Kantian epistemology, and the likelihood that the universe is composed of tiny superstrings that stretch across ten dimensions. No, actually, we were not. We were busy contemplating the bread basket, trying to decide which had more calories--the corn bread or the sourdough. In other words, we were talking about a subject we know by heart: dieting.
That night, we stopped mid-calorie-count to consider the subject. We computed that over the last twenty years, we had lost a combined total of roughly 23,000 pounds, gained roughly 23,001. We had spent 40-60 percent of our waking hours and 60-80 percent of our sleeping hours consumed by thoughts about our weight. We had been Low-Fat/High-Carbohydrate; High-Fat/Low-Protein; High-Everything; Low-Everything. One us had even been on the All-Artificial-Baco-Bit Diet (by the way, it didn't work). We realized that we could recite calorie counts the way many men could recite batting averages (and they say women don't like math!). We couldn't recall the plots of most movies we'd seen, but we could definitely recall whether we'd eaten popcorn while we watched and whether it was buttered or not. We knew which pair of pants to wear if we were five pounds up or five pounds down. We could stay up all night comparing artificial sweeteners.
We were diet geniuses.
And so are most women. It was a pity, we thought, that all this knowledge wasn't in the public domain. We resolved not to write a "diet" book touting our Revolutionary Plan
("Only eat foods beginning with letters in the first half of the alphabet and only on days of the month that are divisible by three!"). Instead, we wanted to compile the folklore and wisdom of women who care about their weight. We decided to talk to as many people as possible, starting with experts. Then, we would move on to those who really know something about losing weight: people Who've Done It. We held a series of lunches--we dubbed them The Skinny Lunches--with our friends and their friends and their
friends to trade secrets, tips, and strategies we'd all picked up in the field.
We weren't looking for magic (though it would have been nice). After all, weighing less is basically a function of eating less and exercising more (as the diet books say); but that
is not so easy to achieve (as the diet books forget to mention). Over the years, we had developed our own methods to psyche ourselves into losing weight, or at least not gaining. We perfected the "Make It Look Big" technique of preparing a small amount of food to make it look bulkier. We brush our teeth soon after dinner to prevent late-night snacking. When traveling, we call ahead to the hotel and request a room without a minibar. We hoped to collect many more tricks like these.
We wanted to find out what really works, not what diet books tell you works. Those books, written by doctors, nutritionists, biochemists, and diet gurus seemed full of scientific theories that contradicted each other. Protein was the key to weight loss one day, glucose the next day, brown fat after that. We were also bored by magazine diets that rehashed the obvious: "Take the stairs instead of the elevator." "Drink eight glasses of water a day." "Try to cut back on fats." We already knew not to consume lard. We were seeking answers to more advanced questions. Tight jeans or loose jeans? Breakfast or not? Should you weigh yourself? How many pounds can you lose by breaking up with a boyfriend?
The Skinny Lunches were the tastiest part of our research. Of course, organizing a meal to talk about not eating presents challenges, especially in our hometown, New York City--the Eating Capital of the Country. It would have been cruel to hold the Skinny Lunches over a marbled sirloin at Peter Luger's Steak House or anywhere within sight of The Little Pie Company. But fortunately, New York's excess of restaurants includes some that have low-caloric dishes on the menu: The Four Seasons with its spa cuisine, Orso with its lean tuna and grilled vegetables, and Coco Pazzo with its cod poached in broth.
Still, there was the problem of diplomacy. Lest anyone interpret our invitation to a Skinny Lunch as a message that we considered her overweight, we overcompensated with abundant praise: "You know, you're very trim.... I bet you're the trimmest person I know.... I've actually always wondered how you stay so trim.... Of course, you're probably one of those people who is naturally trim, right? Oh, gee, it just occurs to me that I'm writing a book about trimness. By any chance, are you free for lunch Thursday at one o'clock?"
To our surprise and delight, nearly every woman we approached felt she had a lot to say about the topic of weight. "I'd love to come," was the typical response, "but of course, I'll be the fattest one there." In fact, the only people who seemed to be offended were those we had regarded as too nonchalant about their bodies to participate in a Skinny Lunch. "I can't believe you don't think I'm neurotic enough to attend!" one friend complained to us, running through all the oddball diets she had tried in her youth.
The lunches were enlightening and a lot of fun, and not only for those involved. Toward the end of one lunch, a woman at the next table stopped by before leaving the restaurant to tell us how much she had enjoyed eavesdropping on our conversation. Waiters typically lingered after serving our food, listening in on, for instance, our theories about why dogs always choose Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream over steak (this preference was a "fact," according to one woman, whose father had experimentally proven it in his kitchen). We collected all sorts of advice, ranging from the sensible--"If you are dieting and have kids in the house, buy cookies you don't like."--to the, well, inspired--"Put ice in your water because cold water burns more calories than lukewarm water."
Not everyone at our lunches considered herself a dieter, at least in the cottage-cheese-and-half-a-grapefruit sense of the word. But just about every woman had devised over the years a particular system of eating and exercise to maintain some control over her weight. For some, the rules are rigid ("Never eat before three-thirty in the afternoon."); others are kinder to themselves ("No alcohol, except beer doesn't count as liquor and, on special occasions, neither does wine."); and still other women had rules so relaxed they hardly qualified as rules ("I make sure I never deprive myself of anything.").
So what works? We concluded that losing weight is a very individualized enterprise. The women we heard from at the Skinny Lunches, in buffet lines, on the StairMaster beside us at the gym, and long ago during late-night talks in our dorm rooms had all gathered bits and pieces from many conventional diets and cobbled them together to form something personal. The one-size-fits-all-diets found in diet books do not work for everyone in the world, we were told again and again. What really works is a more mix-and-match approach. The methods and motivations of the women we talked to were various, and often, so were their goals. In the following pages, you will find their insights and recommendations, along with quite a few of our own that we have picked up on the road to losing our 23,000 pounds.The Skinny On--CreedWe Believe That Women Who Diet Know More Than the Doctors Who Study Them
Come up with any theory about how to lose weight and there is already a diet book to prove it--and still another to disprove it. The more diet literature we read, the more we become convinced that doctors and nutritionists as a group know very little, though they express it with absolute certainty. Year after year, one fad replaces another until there are no fads left and they have to repeat the cycle. Hence, The Royal Canadian Air Force Diet
goes away and comes back reincarnated as the Stillman Diet
which then returns years later as the Diabetes Solution Diet
. In 1972, millions of Americans read Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution
and ate hamburgers, eggs, and cream. In 1997, even more Americans read Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution
and returned to hamburgers, eggs, and cream. But a version of those diets had already been promoted in 1863 by a Mr. William Banting, undertaker for the English royal family, whose Banting's Letter on Corpulence
encouraged a diet with little or no carbohydrates.
On the other hand, there are the women who have been out in the field, doing research, as it were. These are the women who travel to third world countries to drop a quick 8 pounds. (See The Skinny on Travel
.) The women who steer their dates to expensive restaurants because there, the food tends to be less fattening. (See The Skinny on Eating Out
.) The women who deal with sudden urges to overeat by painting their fingernails so they can't put food into their mouths. The women who swallow hard-boiled eggs whole to fill themselves up. (See The Skinny on Oddball Tips
.) The women who know how to look skinny in a photo even if they are fat. (See The Skinny on How to Look Skinny in a Photo [If You're Not Skinny]
.) These are the women who have the answers.We Believe That Your Values Are Not Our Business
We're not going to lecture you. Unlike other writers of diet books, we don't pretend to be your physician, your therapist, your shaman, or your mother. We won't tell you that in order to lose weight, you positively must transform your lifestyle, raise your self-esteem, keep a food journal, heal your soul, or find God. We are not going to push sensible eating
down your throat. We're not going to force you to exercise. We won't even discuss your health. Most of our tips are quite healthy, but we will let you in on a few that are not. For instance,...