The Low-Fat-Free, Diet-Food-Free Diet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

I have long suspected that the best way to lose weight was to eat rich food in moderation, not diet food in abundance. During the last 52 weeks, I put that idea to the test.

And I lost 52 pounds. To my knowledge, not a single low-fat food passed my lips. Nothing beginning with those dread syllables non-, un-, de- or low-. No "nonundelows."

I did not use diet shakes or a point system or desiccated stuff marketed as diet food. Dieting, I found, can be done quite successfully without consuming little pots of no-fat yogurt or watery no-fat milk.

My diet did not involve signing up with Jenny Craig, consuming nothing but protein, or taking powdered supplements or soy powder energy drinks. I did not blame my genes. I never lifted a measuring cup or weighed a chicken breast.

Dieting, I confirmed, can be done eating whole milk and farmhouse cheese, chewing the fat on a grilled lamb chop and emptying a bottle of red wine as you do it, provided you don't do it too often.

Before crooning further, a precautionary note: I am a food lover and an ideologue, not a nutritionist or physician.

Do see a doctor if you are seriously overweight. I did, along with a diet counselor at the YMCA, whose utterly disgusting advice about low-fat foods I ignored, but whose equally disgusting advice about bran I followed and benefited from.

Back to my glorious success. Losing 52 pounds suggests that I got fat in the first place. You might well be asking: If I'm so smart, why did I become so overweight? The answer is greed. That, and the fact that my self-image was five years out of date.

I was slim and sporty in my 20s and 30s, but after turning 40, I didn't seem to appreciate that I could not eat the way that I used to. And I used to be voracious. My gut was a pro. For close to a decade, I was a restaurant critic for the Independent newspaper in Britain. I can recall road trips to the provinces where I ate lunch once and dinner twice in a day.

One trip, when I wanted to polish off the menu to file my report the next day, I ate two main courses and four desserts in one sitting, which included Lancashire hotpot and sticky toffee pudding.

I was such a good eater, I became too snobbish to enjoy my own food: a critic who didn't cook. But eating food that someone else made, anyone else made--that was a different matter.

Here in L.A., I got in the habit of eating low, middle and high. Monday was doughnuts; Tuesday was a burger and thick fries with mayonnaise and slaw at the local bar; Wednesday was Domino's pizza and television or a trip to Versailles for garlic chicken and custard pies; Thursday was sandwich night at Campanile; Friday was margaritas, guacamole and chicken wings at El Cholo; Saturday was--with luck--a barbecue at my brother's place followed by a cake made by my sister-in-law; Sunday was some humble steaming bowl of pasta with Gorgonzola sauce.

When I discovered a new food, I liked to eat it repeatedly, the way someone else might play a new CD. When I discovered fish and chips at Tony's, a seaside place in Tomales Bay, I ate there four nights running. (I still like learning food by repetition, only in slightly smaller quantities.)

Other contributors to my expansion, as if I needed them, were probably metabolic changes that attend turning 40, a move from a place where I'd walked everywhere to a place where I drove everywhere and quitting smoking. My doctor assures me that kicking that habit guarantees a 15-pound gain. About 16 months ago, wheezing and worried about my lungs, not my girth, I promised myself I'd lose the 15 pounds along with the considerable existing store of blubber "later."

"Later" arrived by February, almost exactly a year ago, as I was standing in line at a drugstore checkout, staring at other customers in the security video, and found myself marveling that the fat lady ahead of me was also buying Nicorette. Then I realized that the fat lady was me.

On an even more piercing note, I found myself smitten by a fella whom I saw as a prospect. It didn't work out. He saw me as no more than a drinking buddy who, to his amazement, could out-drink him. "They say it's body fat," he said.

These were such rude shocks that all my eating and drinking personalities were summarily called to a bargaining table. I was on a diet, and, like it or not, they were, too.

Some vices had to go. Some could stay, the nonnegotiable pleasures. Habits like doughnut-, cookie- and candy-eating were banished completely. Candy allowance: one bar of Valrhona dark chocolate a month.

Then the bargaining became tough. Pasta was eliminated. Bread was rationed to one hot roll a week (slathered with butter at a Saturday lunch in a favorite Santa Monica restaurant), half a bread basket at Campanile (where bread is worth the calories) or garlic bread at my lunch place.

Half a bottle of wine at night was cut to one glass. Two jiggers of Jameson's were permitted, or a bottle of beer, but no mixed drinks. Those sugary margaritas at El Cholo were right out.

My milk, yogurt and cheese consumption were all left alone. Fish was raised to two sushi lunches a week; red meat was cut down to my brother's barbecues, a T-bone on Christmas Eve, leg of lamb at Easter, a monthly dinner of lamb or pork chops--and one spicy Italian salami a month, to serve as weekend snacks on heavy gardening days or treats with olives when friends came by.

Much of my protein, I decided, would come from chicken and eggs. Fruit and vegetable consumption would exceed protein by a ratio of no less than two to one. Olive oil would be used generously to dress vegetables.

A typical weekday's food now begins with a breakfast of bran cereal, the kind of granary floor sweepings that pass as breakfast cereal and pack about 80 calories a cup. This is dressed with Straus Family Creamery whole-milk yogurt, thick Greek-style stuff that is quite simply the best on the market, spiced with a teaspoon of honey and topped by a diced banana and a diced apple. To drink: a mug of coffee with whole milk and orange juice squeezed from two oranges.

Midmorning, there is a foaming latte. For lunch: sushi or a chicken Caesar salad with garlic bread and iced tea. For dinner, a two-egg omelet with goat cheese, steamed broccoli dressed with olive oil, lemon, chile flakes and garlic, green salad and more fruit dressed with more whole-milk yogurt. Not just "some" fruit but a pint of blueberries or strawberries. Ah, and wine. On weekends, add two slices of salami, some olives, a square from a bar of Valrhona and another glass of wine.

Fruit has become a great passion. Fruit used to rot in my house. Now I run out. I easily eat three apples, two oranges and a banana a day. The packing-house stickers are becoming a bother in my compost. The apple, I find, is in a renaissance in California and Washington. Fujis, Pink Ladies and Galas are all full of flavor this year. Duff specimens used to be the rule; now they're rare.

In the spring, I eat Oxnard strawberries from the Santa Monica farmers markets by the pint. In summer, blueberries are wolfed down with the same kind of glee. Straus yogurt goes on both of these. I gorge on plums six at a time, with a towel as a bib. Peaches, which tend to ripen all at the same time, are also eaten by the bagful.

Salad, too, is a standard with me--not as a side dish, but as a meal. One bag of pre-washed spinach or arugula with goat cheese and a sliced Hass avocado, dressed with good olive oil, red wine vinegar and sea salt is a regular dinner.

I've always loved vegetables, so eating lots of them isn't a new habit. But in California, we are equipped with quite the steadiest supply of glorious rough stuff that I have ever seen. I love spinach, particularly from farmers markets, and eat it as fast as I can wash it. I can eat asparagus by the pound, artichokes till my fingers bleed. I adore beets. In season I steam them and serve them hot with nothing but good sea salt. On omelet nights, I eat entire bundles of broccoli that are meant to be family-sized.

Seasonings are important. Nothing improves an omelet like grainy Dijon-style mustard, good coarse sea salt, freshly ground pepper and plenty of herbs. Cottage cheese is a good, fast hunger-buster, if you douse it with olive oil to give it some flavor.

I've always been picky about olive oil and keep a low-grade "extra virgin," the $5-a-bottle stuff, for greasing the omelet pan, and I indulge in the really good stuff for dressing salads and steamed vegetables. I do not measure it; I just pour the amount to dress the food without leaving it swimming in grease.

Two luxurious favorites with distinct tastes are the flowery and relatively mild Alziari Provencal oil and greener, strong and delicious Tuscan Laudemio. Both are sold at Surfas in West Los Angeles. Note: Once you open oil, it begins to go rancid. No matter how decorative the bottle, store it in a cool dark cupboard or it will turn in the heat and light.

For me, the result of this diet was not simply weight loss, not simply fresh delight in rediscovering good, simple things; it was vigor. My eyes are brighter, my skin is better and--to the astonishment of my neighbors--I now bound out of the house in the morning wearing a sweatsuit.

Which brings the story to the exercise part. I didn't lose weight just by eating all this good stuff and tossing back Pinot Noir. I lost weight eating good, nourishing food that gave me energy to exercise.

This started with cycling six miles to work and then home. As the weather got hotter, I began stopping at the Y for a swim and a shower. When I can't cycle, I do 20 minutes on the cross-trainer. I am now a dedicated lap swimmer and do at least 20 and often 30 or 40 lengths in the pool five days a week. A pleasant byproduct is that the swimming reduces stress. My insomnia is gone.

The most pleasing transformation brought on by all this activity has been at the table. Food tastes better than it ever did. After a cycle and swim, a slab of Colston Basset Stilton, a few oatcakes, a watercress and endive salad, California Pink Lady apple and a Samuel Adams beer is a princely reward. A year into the diet, I am not only 52 pounds lighter, but eating the best food of my life and enjoying it the most.

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