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Diet Is a Four-Letter Word

by Rose Madeline Mula

Diet is a four-letter word, the first three of which spell something many people would almost prefer to do rather than deprive themselves of the four basic foods: pastry, pasta, potato chips, and potent potables.

Have you wondered why obesity is such a huge (so to speak) problem in America despite the proliferation of diet books? Maybe it's because of the proliferation of diet books that have spawned a whole generation of diet-a-week fanatics. I'm one myself. Every Sunday I read about the latest miracle program, resolve to start it the next morning, and then spend the rest of the day gorging, convinced it's perfectly okay because, after all, I'm beginning a diet tomorrow. Oh, the pounds we gain on Sunday in anticipation of the diet we're starting on Monday.

We've become so addicted to stuffing our faces that even the most virile of men, if given a choice, would have a hard time deciding between the Playgirl of the Month or the Dessert of the Day. And women are just as bad. I, for one, would choose an hour with Richard Gere any day over a dish of rocky road ice cream, but if the ice cream is perched on a big slab of devil's food cake and swimming in hot fudge sauce, no contest. Sorry, Richard.

Why is it so hard to diet? It's partly Webster's fault. He made it painful by defining the word, "to eat sparingly or according to prescribed rules." This immediately conjures up only negative images, severe hunger pangs, and a mad impulse to break those prescribed rules. If Webster had given us a break and said "diet" means "to eat nutritiously and achieve a youthful face and body, and an exciting sex life," Baskin Robbins would have to retire its gazillion flavors because everyone would be clamoring only for low-fat vanilla yogurt.

But, in all fairness, Webster isn't solely responsible. Dieting has had bad press forever, which is a shame because creative advertising could have convinced us that starving is fun. It's not so far-fetched. Look what power PR did for smoking all those years. No one actually enjoyed that first cigarette, what with all the gasping, choking and throwing up. But most people stuck with it and forced themselves to get used to it. Why? Because the ads made it so glamorous. They never pictured any unattractive, scrawny, sickly smokers — or any accountants or shipping clerks, for that matter. On the contrary, they had us believing that all male smokers were handsome, macho six-footers who spent their days puffing a Marlboro while riding the range or closing billion dollar deals and their evenings making passionate love to gorgeous young women — who, of course, always had a cigarette dangling from their perfectly manicured fingertips. The subliminal message was that if you smoked, you too would be one of the beautiful people (instead of one of the dead ones).

So why can't dieting, which is good for us, be made as appealing as was smoking, which is bad for us? One problem is that cutting calories axes your social life. Everything we do today revolves around food and booze: "Meet me downtown for a drink. . ." "Let's get together for dinner next week. . ." "How about coming over for a game of Scrabble?" (which you'll play if you can find the board under the plates of goodies on the table).

You go to visit friends; and before you have your coat off, a martini has been shoved into one hand and a potato chip dripping sour cream dip in the other — presumably to give you enough energy to make it to the sofa and sit down, smack in front of the coffee table laden with cocktail frankfurters, mini-pizzas, liver pate, a variety of cheeses, and enough assorted nuts to supply all the bars in five counties for a month. Mind you, these are just the "appetizers" to start your digestive juices flowing for a seven-course meal, topped off by seven-layer cake, and a choice of seven after-dinner liqueurs. And you must consume it all or risk insulting your hosts. Naturally you have to reciprocate (or is it retaliate?) by inviting them to your place next week and matching their menu calorie-for-calorie. God forbid they should think you're chintzy.

Invariably, after a long period of such binge eating, I go to the other extreme. My diets make Mahatma Ghandi's fasts look like Henry VIII's feasts. I become holier-than-thou about food. Not only am I obnoxiously (and ostentatiously) conscientious about what I eat, but I feel compelled to announce the caloric content of every morsel that passes everyone else's lips. Furthermore, I can't resist the urge to comment loudly on how difficult it is to find sophisticated styles in size four — as if it matters. I'm still letting out the seams in my tens. Invariably, I soon weaken, and when I can no longer control my will power, I become a closet eater. I have the irrational feeling that if no one sees me scarfing down that platter of fettuccine Alfredo, I won't get fat. Who am I kidding? I know very well that the Great Calorie Counter in the Sky totes up every milligram and sees to it that the balance is deposited on my hips, with interest, by dawn.

Nevertheless, I can always find excuses to break my diet: There's a terrible storm, thunder makes me tense, and tension makes me eat. . . I'm so relieved when the weatherman reports that the worst was over, and relief makes me hungry . . . I'm working hard and must eat to keep up my energy. . . I'm on vacation, and you can't diet while on vacation (doesn't it say so in the Bill of Rights?) . . .

And when I dine out during my off-the-wagon periods, I always proffer lengthy explanations to my companion, the waiters, and even strangers at the next table: "I think I can have the stuffed pork chops, potatoes au gratin, and pecan pie a la mode — I had just a tiny blueberry Danish for breakfast and a smidgeon of lasagna for lunch. . ." But if I'm feeling really guilty, I'll opt for the salad bar instead because everyone knows that "salad" and "diet" are synonymous. Well, this may have been true back when salad consisted of a bowl of crispy greenery moistened with vinegar and a hint of vegetable oil. But today when you help yourself from a massive table that offers (in addition to the crispy greenery) huge wheels of cheese, plump rounds of salami, beans of all description, relishes, croutons, crocks of Roquefort dressing that you can slather on by the dipperful, and boards bearing a sinful variety of hot breads, accompanied by slabs of butter by the pound instead of the pat, that's not "salad," my friends — that's Fat City.

And it's not much better for me at home, unless I keep the cupboard and refrigerator bare. There is no way a gallon of ice cream or a blueberry pie can ever have a long shelf life (like, say, fifteen minutes) in my house. I don't even have to be hungry. Until it's all gone, I won't rest. After the first helping, I don't even enjoy it, but I keep devouring it. Why? Because, like Everest, it's there. I don't know which is worse — the guilt or the nausea.

Then how I rationalize during my daily weigh-ins! You wouldn't believe what I go through to convince myself I've lost half a pound, even though the scale is screaming "Liar!" and blabbing that I've gained three: My attire this morning (my birthday suit) is heavier that what I wore to the scale yesterday (my ski suit). . . I haven't had time to digest my last meal (dinner fourteen hours ago) . . . the scale is wrong (it obviously broke since yesterday when it correctly registered a loss) . . .

Men are equally adept at practicing such self-delusion. A friend of mine was dieting recently and doing quite well. When I saw him a month later, it was apparent that he had regained the pounds he had lost, and more. "What happened?" I asked. "I had a terrible accident," he moaned. I was all sympathy, picturing him in traction, getting no exercise, and being force-fed high-caloric milkshakes to provide enough calcium for his bones to knit. "Turnpike?" I asked. "Kitchen," he replied. "I slipped and fell in front of the refrigerator, the door flew open; and before I could save myself, a pound of pastrami and a quart of chocolate ice cream fell into my mouth. Then I blacked out. I have no memory of the last few weeks."

Just listening to him made me hungry; so as an antidote I immediately picked up a magazine whose cover touted the latest "painless" diet. Unfortunately, it was one of those publications where you need a table of contents to find the table of contents; and before I located the diet article, I had drooled my way through a ten-page, full-color spread of the most luscious-looking desserts since Satan invented strawberry cheesecake. It was all over — again.

I headed for the refrigerator. . .

But it's okay. I'm starting a new diet tomorrow.

 

Editor's Note: Rose Mula's most recent book, The Beautiful People and Other Aggravations, is now available at your favorite bookstore, through Amazon.com and other online bookstores, and through Pelican Publishing (800-843-1724), as is her previous book, If These Are Laugh Lines, I'm Having Way Too Much Fun.

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