Author Plays Numbers Game With Calories--and Comes Out a Winner : Her Book, 12 Years in the Making, Calculates Food From A to Z

The Washington Post

There's the candy machine, just outside the door to my little windowed office. Long ago, I covered those windows with posters and had the maintenance crew turn my desk around. But still the machine beckons.

Let's see: Baby Ruth, 289 calories. Snickers, 280. Too much, too much. How about plain M&Ms;, 232 calories for the 1.68-ounce bag? That's better. Wait: Twizzlers Strawberry Twists. No fatty chocolate, so they've got to be lower in calories. But at least they're still candy, and that's the only thing my mind will respond to at the moment.

Look 'em up. The 2-ounce package isn't listed. Only the 1 1/4-, 1 3/4-, 2 1/8- and 5-ounce packages of the long, supermarket-size Twizzlers are. But there--Margo Feiden's "The Calorie Factor" (Fireside-Simon & Schuster, $19.95 paper, $29.95 cloth) says the strawberry-flavor Twizzlers are 100 calories per ounce (as opposed to 110 for the chocolate-flavor). So, 2 ounces is 200 calories, and the 10 sweet, chewy strips become the winning snack. And I can get back to work. For a while.

The Truth About Fatness

Did Feiden get up every day at 4 a.m. for 12 years to compile the 675 pages of data in this book just so people like me could do this maniacal arithmetic? You bet she did. Because people like me are just like her, or at least the way she used to be. They think they're overweight because they eat far too much. Well, here's Feiden, in print, on that subject: "Fatness is not a condition maintained by overeating. Fatness is a condition brought about and maintained by eating a few too many calories, consistently."

And here, down from New York and happily ensconced in a suite at the Madison Hotel, is Feiden in the flesh. As compulsive about her book as she once was about her eating, she has come to Washington because I couldn't go to New York. A telephone interview? Not good enough for the surprising things she wants to show and tell.

The first surprise is that Feiden isn't skinny. She's half the 300 pounds she used to be, but that has left a lush, statuesque body. Womanly, one might say.

The second surprise explains why she devoted more than a decade to this book that has more numbers than words: "Only a 300-calorie difference a day will cause a person to gain 30 pounds a year."

Do the arithmetic yourself, and you'll see she's right. Three hundred calories a day times 365 days is 109,500 calories. Divide that by the 3,500 calories that constitute each pound and, yes, you get 31.285 additional pounds in a year--even worse than Feiden says, worse yet in a leap year.

Yeah, but that's eating 300 calories over and above the number of calories required simply to maintain your current body weight. Every day. I mean, that's a lot.

"That's a bagel," she answers. "That's a small bagel."

Oh.

"Twenty-five pounds a year is a glass of milk and a cookie a day. That's not what I call overeating."

As I sit there listening to the dark-haired New York art-dealer-turned-diet-pro, my gustatory future is starting to seem very bleak indeed. But Feiden's not through.

"Conversely," she says, "if you can find a way to cut back on 250 or 300 calories a day, you can lose 25 or 30 pounds in a year. Simply by making choices--substitutions that are equally delightful and inviting to eat. You don't have to suffer."

Now that's more like it.

There Was No Detailed Source

But before you can cut out those 250 or 300 calories, you have to know where they're coming from. And when Feiden began counting calories, there wasn't any place that could tell her.

Not really. Ever use one of those paperback calorie books? Do they tell you that a chef's salad has more calories than a McDonald's Quarter Pounder--with its bun? (About 700 to 418.) Do they tell you how many calories are in a baked potato--including the skin? (183 calories for a 7.1-ounce long potato, or 25.8 calories per ounce, based on data Feiden got from Canada.) And what's an average cantaloupe anyway?

Back in 1974, while I was busy putting back on the 60 pounds I had taken off as a member of Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, Feiden hit 300 pounds and decided to count calories.

"That first day, I wouldn't eat until 5 o'clock and then went out and bought myself a chicken," she recounts. "I came home and carefully cut and weighed 4 ounces. Then I went to my calorie book. It said, 'Chicken, 6 ounces, 150 calories.' So you'd think all I'd have to do was divide. But wait a minute, was that white-meat chicken? Dark-meat chicken? Did that include the skin? Was that weight with the bone? So the number meant nothing.

'I Was in Trouble'

"That's when I knew I was in trouble. I started eating only those things I could figure out. But it closed an entire scope of food. So, I started writing to manufacturers, writing to the USDA. I started getting all this information--and a lot of surprises. And I thought, 'What are other people doing?' "

As she worked on her years-long calorie project, Feiden also was building her gallery business in New York's Greenwich Village. She has represented the theatrical caricaturist Al Hirschfeld for 20 years, and that association put her in constant contact with accomplished actresses, lawyers, Pulitzer Prize-winning writers. "They were all successful except with weight." As Feiden's own weight began to drop, they would ask her secret. "I have no secret. I count calories," she would reply.

Small surprise that some people thought she was holding out on them. The diet mode of that moment was Drs. Atkins and Stillman, the high-protein, low-carbohydrate, eight-glasses-of-water-a-day guys. Calories, we were being told, didn't count.

"Calories go in and out of fashion," Feiden acknowledges, "but we've always really known that calories are the bottom line."

She's right, of course. After all, calories are merely a measure of energy. Food contains it, and the body burns it to maintain itself. Take in extra energy, extra calories, and the body stores it for future use, as fat. Take in less than your body requires, and the body gets what it needs from those fat stores and you lose weight. Simple, right?

But Feiden doesn't for a minute pretend that overeating is simply a matter of slovenly arithmetic. "People who are overweight believe that they are overweight because they eat. In my experience, people eat in order to maintain the overweight." Which means, of course, that the eating, the overweight, are the symptoms, not the causes. Losing weight, or stopping compulsive eating, simply lays bare whatever fears a person might have. You have to give yourself permission to gain the weight back, Feiden theorizes, in order to keep that eventuality from paralyzing you.

Peanut Butter on a Rice Cake

The fear of the food itself and of its power doesn't disappear with the weight, either. "That started to happen much later," Feiden says. "I've counted calories for 15 years, but it's only in the last five years that I've allowed myself to eat breakfast. The first time I did, I was terrified. If I was eating at 8 o'clock in the morning, what might I be doing by evening? But at the end of the day, the calories came out the same." Now it's peanut butter on a rice cake most mornings.

There are also new activities that replace eating for Feiden. "It's all 'incorporating,' " she surmises, "taking things in." Now, instead of taking in yards of cheese and tons of tacos, she walks the aisles of Bloomingdale's.

Feiden takes enormous pride in the exactness of her caloric calculations. They are, after all, the only secret her book contains. "Calories are a precision instrument," she explains. "They're not a guess. There are other things like that: Water will freeze at a critical temperature, not one degree above."

And what does that have to do with overweight?

"If you're trying to stick to 2,000 calories a day and you have a calorie book that says an apple is 120 calories, then you walk in and choose a big apple and you think that it's 120 calories when really it's 150, that's 30 calories. If you make that kind of choice consistently enough, you're counting erroneous calories.

"You think you're at 2,000, but you're really at 2,400 or 2,300. A 300-calorie difference doesn't matter so much on a 1,200-calorie diet, because you'll still lose at 1,500 calories. But if you think you're eating 2,000 and you're really eating 2,300, you're not going to lose weight. Then you're going to think, 'Oh my metabolism, oh my this, oh my that,' when the fact is you just don't know how to count calories."

With Feiden's book in hand, you will know the calories in thousands of foods, generic and packaged, in such exotica as frogs' legs, halvah and tahini. Foods are divided into the usual food groups, plus such extra perks as chapters on baking ingredients, fast food and airline meals. Each category has its tables of calories and carbohydrates (generic foods also have breakdowns of fat and fiber) and a preface that includes sections titled "How to Eat Salty Snacks" and "How to Eat Sausages & Cold Cuts."

Candy Is a 'Crave Food'

Here is Feiden at her most lyrical--and useful. In considering "How in the World to Eat Candy," she proposes that fruit can actually be a satisfying substitute for candy. Yes, she continues, candy is a "crave" food, but what exactly are you craving?

"Fruit and candy both are sweet. Fruit and candy both are finger foods. You eat them from hand to mouth without the intervention of a fork or spoon. If you're eating candy because you want something to do with your hands, what about cherries or grapes? You know that pound of cherries you've always wanted to eat but haven't because you've been told that cherries are fattening? Well, here's your chance. Cherries may not be a good substitution for a cantaloupe, but they're a great substitution for M&Ms.; M&Ms; are 138 calories an ounce; cherries are 19.9. And of course," she adds, "you get a lot more food for that."

Before checking into the hotel, Feiden had called ahead. She wanted fruit in her room. Yes, madam. She wanted a 4-inch-diameter apple and a 3-inch-diameter apple. Right. Also, a peach. You get to eat the peach "for free" if you eat the smaller apple instead of the larger one. And a pound of cherries so she can contrast that with the pound of M&Ms.;

That wasn't the end of it. She stopped off at a Giant on the way from Union Station so she can demonstrate what a quart-size party bowl of Fritos corn chips means in contrast with a quart bowl of Chee-Tos puffed cheese-flavored snacks. The Fritos mean 544 more calories, that's what they mean. "And I can't imagine that you're going to be less satisfied with a whole bowl of the cheese curls than with the corn chips," she says. "That's why the book measures chips and things by the quart as well as by the ounce."

The book also goes to, shall we say, great lengths to display its appreciation for variety. For instance, there are 595 different caloric values for different amounts and weights of plain, barnyard chicken--and I may have lost count at one point. And the figures for grapefruit, which might take up, say, two lines in any other calorie book, take up 3 1/2 pages in Feiden's, starting with "Grapefruit, grown for eating: Grown in Arizona and California, Marsh Seedless--As purchased (refuse: peel, membranes, and handling loss, approximately 57%): 1 medium grapefruit (approximately 14.1 ounces, 3 3/4-inch diameter, size 40; packed 40 grapefruits to a 7-10-bushel container, net weight approximately 35 pounds)." Whew. Oh, yeah, it's 76 calories.

Compulsive? Yes. Obsessed? Sure. But Feiden took the obsession for eating food and replaced it with an obsession for manipulating it, for dealing with it. And she lost weight--not till she was skinny but until she had achieved a weight and size that allowed her to be happy.

There are no secrets in Feiden's "The Calorie Factor." She didn't title the book "The Last Diet Book You'll Ever Need" or even "No More Excuses." The subtitle is simply "The Dieter's Companion," and it promises to be just that.

Feiden hasn't become a food Nazi. She isn't even suggesting that anybody lose weight. But she is empowering those who want to to operate with all the necessary information.

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