(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, May 7, 2003)

As I begin writing this article, I'm watching another "Dr. Phil" show on the issue of fat. In several recent episodes, the Guru of Candor has discussed with audience members, both large and small, the ways in which society discriminates against obese people, the reasons some people are overweight, and changes that calorically challenged people must make to really lose weight and keep it off.

Like Dr. Phil McGraw, I see both sides of the issue. I've fought the battle of the bulge since I was twelve years old, a problem that has always been aggravated by the ongoing--and largely untreated--medical conditions that continue to affect my life after five decades. At the same time, I've tried to educate myself about nutrition as much as possible. Finally in the mid-1990s, after three decades of acquiescing to Jim's insistence on a family diet that tended toward unhealthy habits, I convinced him that we must control the type of food that comes into our house so that we can improve our health, if not our waistlines.

And that's really the final word on the issue of fat. The only way you can make the lifestyle changes necessary to lose weight and keep it off, and especially, to enhance your health, is to control the environmental factors that encourage you to be overweight.

The most important factor in losing weight and keeping it off is not so much which diet regimen you follow, but how well you stick with the program. Most diets are effective, to some extent at least, until the dieter stops following the plan. In order to stick with a diet, you have to set down some simple but binding rules--and follow them!

CONTROL THE TYPE OF FOOD THAT COMES INTO YOUR HOME. If you don't see those donuts, then you're not going to eat them. That doesn't mean you're going to stop craving them, but at least you have time to sit down and talk yourself out of going out to buy them.

HAVE PLENTY OF HEALTHY FOOD ON HAND. If you have something that is both tasty and satisfying to eat in its place, then you're going to get past that donut craving even faster. Heck, you might even begin craving the carrot sticks you eat instead. Or not!

STOP PATRONIZING THE RESTAURANTS WHERE YOU USED TO ORDER ALL THOSE "UNHAPPY" MEALS. If you do eat out, limit yourself to places that serve tasty dishes that are on your program, and never order anything that is not on your approved food list. This requires a little more control than you need at home, so find a tool to help you be good. For instance, prepare a list ahead of time of the food you plan to order, including the serving sizes and amounts you're limited to. That way, it'll be easier for you to say, "That's it, no more!"

MAKE A LIST AND STICK TO IT WHEN YOU SHOP AT THE GROCERY STORE. And have a snack before you make that trip so you won't be tempted to do any "impulse" buying.

AVOID PEOPLE WHO MAKE YOU FEEL BAD ABOUT YOUR WEIGHT AND YOUR ATTEMPT TO LOSE IT. Instead, surround yourself with people who are positive about you as a person. Too often, the people closest to you have a lot to do with your weight problem. When you start losing, they try to punish you for your success. They might be relatives, or you might call them "friend," but if they're treating you badly, they don't really love you. But, hey, that's another column. I promise to tackle that subject in the future. For now, tell those negative people to get lost, then find someone to hang with who actually does love you for yourself, fat or thin.

GIVE YOURSELF PERMISSION TO "CHEAT" ONCE IN A WHILE, with the understanding that you'll get right back on that "horse" and ride it to your goal weight. I do this myself when I'm having a particularly bad day, but I have such a limited selection of things on hand to be "bad" with, that I'm really not doing much harm to my body or my program. Even better, since giving up meat, Jim and I have discovered that we can fill up with smaller portions now. We're now satisfied with as little as one or two low-fat cookies for a between-meal snack, for instance. That way, we get the satisfaction of taste without all the fat and calories.

SET A REALISTIC WEIGHT GOAL. If you must have a number to shoot for, consult several different weight charts and set your first goal from the chart that allows the highest range of weight that's normal for your height. Then when you get close to that range, you can reset your goal to a lower number.

CHECK YOUR HEIGHT, AND CHECK IT AGAIN LATER. Depending on how heavy you are when you start, if you're more than, say, 50 pounds overweight, you might recheck your height as well as your weight after you lose each half-a-hundred pounds. You might actually be able to stand straighter without all that extra stress on your frame. Or if, like me, you're getting on in years, your height and weight goals will be different than it was when you were younger.

NEVER GIVE YOURSELF A TIME GOAL. You won't lose weight at the same rate all the time. Those last ten or twenty pounds are usally harder to shed than any of the weight you lost before them. You're not losing weight to be skinny for a short period of time but for the rest of your life, so just stick with the weight goals and don't give a single thought to how long it takes you to get there.

CELEBRATE THE SMALL GOALS. Every time you lose another ten pounds, do something nice for yourself. An extra low-fat cookie after dinner might do it, but you're better off making it something that has nothing to do with food, like getting a facial or a massage. You'll feel better about yourself, and you'll definitely look forward to reaching your next itty-bitty goal.

SUPPLEMENT YOUR DIET REGIMEN WITH EXERCISE THAT YOU ENJOY. Find a physical activity that you won't get bored with, like walking or swimming with a friend, and do it on a regular basis. It'll increase your weight loss and your energy level, and more important, it'll make you feel better about yourself.

ATTEMPT SOMETHING YOU'VE ALWAYS WANTED TO DO BUT WERE AFRAID TO TRY. While you’re working on the old avoirdupois, take an art class or join a writers group. Go to the library and check out some books that tell you how to get started with a new activity. Give that thin person inside of you something to come out for.

As I've explained in previous columns, Jim and I have improved our overall profiles since we became vegetarians. We've lost weight without even trying, just by avoiding meat and meat byproducts. That might improve if we also eliminate dairy products, but at least we consume less of them now than we ever did before, and much of what we do eat now is lower in fat than what we used to consume. We do even better when we have plenty of "live" veggies. Those nice big salads I'll throw together when I'm up to it are a complete meal for us now.

The most important thing about our regimen is that we feel better. After years of struggling with diabetes and heart disease, Jim's blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure are completely normal now. Though I'll probably always feel the effects of the lupus I've had since my teen years, many of my symptoms are easier to tolerate with my meatless regimen and lower weight.

If you really want to lose weight and keep it off, do the research and choose a program you can stick with forever. That's how long you'll have to depend on the maintenance plan, if you expect to enjoy a very long and healthy life.


Debbie Jordan