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Most women in this country, no matter what their weight, live in a perpetual purgatory of diet vigilance. We count every calorie, pass up enticing treats and deprive ourselves of entire segments of the food pyramid. But what would happen if we stopped denying ourselves? Would we really feed on nothing but pizza and candy bars? Would we agonize over our indulgences? Would we enjoy meals more? Most of all, would we end up two sizes larger?
To find the answers, we asked three chronic dieters to do the unthinkable: eat whatever they wanted for a full month, in any quantity, without worrying about calories, carbs or fat grams. Also forbidden: weighing themselves. Here are their journals -- and the surprising results.Lisa Yakomin, 33, part-time writer
Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey Married; three children, ages 6, 4 and 14 months Stats: 5'2", 125 pounds
Lisa describes herself as a serial dieter: Since high school, she's tried almost every diet program once. "I was always looking for 'the answer,'" says Lisa. "Initially, I'd lose some weight, then that would slow down and I'd start getting frustrated, and pretty soon I'd be bingeing. There was no middle ground."Week 1
It feels really good not to be on a diet. I went to a kids' birthday party this week and was the only woman who helped herself to the make-your-own-sundae bar. (Several of the dads did, too.) Stepping out of my dieting mind-set has made me notice other people's behavior -- like a friend who announced that he was going on Slim-Fast the next day, and then ate a huge dinner.
This week I'm eating breakfast at the same time the kids do, which is usually when I'm hungriest anyway. I used to skip it altogether because I didn't feel right about eating carbs. But now I have a bagel when I want one. And I've had some real pig-outs -- pizza and potato chips for lunch, then later, ladyfingers with whipped cream. I didn't feel guilty after that splurge so much as nauseated. My body is letting me know when it's had enough.
I hadn't realized how much time I spent thinking about food and planning what and when to eat. Until now, I would often eat something healthy, even if it wasn't really what I craved, and then I'd just keep snacking because I wasn't satisfied. Now there are times when I don't even finish a real treat like hot chocolate. That never used to happen.Weeks 2 and 3
I used to say I'd eat pasta every day if I could, and now I do! Oddly, I don't have negative thoughts about eating things I never allowed myself. I used to start planning my late-night snack while I was still cleaning up from dinner. But since starting my diet rebellion, I've sometimes forgotten about the snack entirely.
There was one moment during the second week when I was dying to step on the scale. It was right before a party -- I had a habit of weighing myself before special events to gauge how much I could safely eat.Week 4
I've been wondering whether I'm going to pay for all this rich food later. I eat dessert whenever I want to (and sometimes I pass it up because I'm too full, which is pretty unusual for me). I've savored butternut squash ravioli, Chinese dumplings and potato-and-bacon soup. Interestingly, I'm working out a little less, too. Because I'm not going hungry, I have more energy and I feel I'm being more active even if I don't go to the gym.Results
I lost two pounds! That seems amazing, considering how much I ate. Now I know that strict diets will never work for me. I still want to take off a little more weight, but I'm just going to increase my exercise level, without cutting out the foods I love. The best part is that I feel good about myself because I'm not this dieting person. It doesn't rule my life anymore.
Larchmont, New York Married; four children, ages 10, 9, 7 and 3 Stats: 5'6", 127 pounds
An avid exerciser, Lisa describes herself as aware of-and cautious about-every bite. "I'm very careful, for instance, about breads and pastas," she says. "And if I start feeling heavy, then I start counting everything: calories, fat and carbs." In college, Lisa weighed 25 pounds more than she does now, and she still can't shake the fear that her weight might balloon again one day. And yet, after years of self-denial, Lisa is ready to chuck it all and rediscover her natural appetite.Week 1
I almost felt like chickening out at first, and I confess that I tried to lose weight before the month started, just so things didn't get out of hand. But I'm eager to let go of my old thinking and perhaps undo some of my weird habits with food.
Right away, I have noticed that there are days when I wake up not even thinking about what I'm going to eat, which is unusual for me. And on the other end, I'm not as hungry at night. My husband has noticed that I'm not bringing cereal or cookies (formerly my only starchy indulgences) to bed. Suddenly, I also feel okay about having macaroni and cheese with the kids at dinner.Weeks 2 and 3
I'd always imagined that if I let myself eat whatever I wanted, I'd have bagels and cream cheese, and, sure enough, I do. One day I ate a bagel and a half! I've also indulged in buttered popcorn at the movies, bread with butter or olive oil -- previously a no-no-and appetizers like chicken wings with sour cream. I usually have fish for dinner, which I do enjoy, but now I'm also eating steak on occasion and loving it.
One real surprise: When I was going out to dinner with friends one night, I didn't count calories earlier in the day to make room for it. I ate a bagel and tuna salad for lunch, and at the restaurant I had an appetizer, a veal dish and dessert. I think nothing of grabbing a handful of potato chips if they're on the table, or getting a muffin from the cappuccino place. I used to beat up on myself if I ate forbidden things, thinking I was being a pig, but not now. I just ask myself: Am I hungry? What do I feel like eating?Week 4
There was a day this week during which I definitely felt like I was fat and was not very hungry. I was honestly in the mood for vegetable soup at lunch and a salad and chicken for dinner, so that's what I had. I wonder if this is the normal way our bodies and minds work to maintain a healthy weight.Results
I gained two and a half pounds. I wasn't thrilled about that, but I knew it was water weight (I'm at that point in my cycle), which will go away. In all, I think this break from obsessive dieting has opened up a new direction for me. I can trust myself to eat well without feeling guilty. I want to enjoy different kinds of foods and not deny myself things like meat and pasta. This month has made me feel I can live without the diet mind-set.
Albuquerque, New Mexico Married; three children, ages 18, 13 and 8 Stats: 5'2", 134 pounds
Mary, short and small-boned, has always struggled with her weight, but this is the heaviest she's been in years. "It's a combination of reaching my forties and starting a new job that gave me less time to work out and be careful about what I ate," she says. "I tend to either be really good or exactly the opposite."Week 1
Instead of being obsessed with eating the right thing, I've been obsessed with being able to eat anything! It took me forever to decide what to have for breakfast the first day. I ended up making scrambled eggs with Cheddar cheese and salsa.
At first, I felt panicky that I would gain weight this month. But I'm finding that I'm eating more the way I did when I was thinner; that is, moderately and healthfully. For instance, I love to bake, but I never do it when I'm trying to lose weight because I'd lose control and gorge. This week, however, I baked low-fat brownies and enjoyed them without feeling I might down half a batch at one sitting.
I've been eating sandwiches and even fajitas for lunch. Before, that would have seemed indulgent. I love chocolate, but in the past if I let myself, I'd eat half a bag. This month, I've been perfectly satisfied with two or three Hershey's Kisses or a handful of Junior Mints.Weeks 2 and 3
I'm tempted to try on skirts that were a little tight before, as a sneaky way of measuring without stepping on the scale. Interestingly, though, when I went clothes shopping, I found myself wanting to buy things that fit, rather than outfits a size too small in hopes that I'd be able to wear them eventually.
On the other hand, junk foods aren't as appealing anymore. One Sunday, after starting the day with a cinnamon roll, I felt tired. I've been eating more oatmeal, bean burritos and pasta salads, and grazing on fruit and crackers. It's as though I've freed myself from craving the indulgences.Week 4
I've been more motivated to exercise and eat right just to feel better. I've been really wanting to eat fruit; again, not to lose weight, but because my body desires it.Results
I lost one pound! This experiment has shown me that denying myself certain foods was only making me binge. Now I plan to stick with healthy foods that I really enjoy. I think I'll be a much more sensible eater, but I'll still eat chocolate! --Michelle Stacey
Michelle Stacey is the author of Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate, and Fear Food (Touchstone Books, 1995).