The very serious business of dieting

The first time I thought about losing weight was immediately after graduating from law school in 1973.  Three years of cooking my own food for the first time in my life had not been an improving culinary or dietary experience. There was an adage at law school that in the first year they scare you to death, in the second year they work you to death and in the third year they bore you to death. By the time I had reached third year at law school I was spending a good deal of time with my cronies at the Piccadilly Tavern where I regularly ordered quart-sized bottles of beer and afterwards contrived to absorb the liquid by eating sandwiches made of thick brown oatmeal/molasses bread and Cheese Whiz.

This sort of “diet” contributed to my enlargement to what was then a record 210 pounds.  When I subsequently began my articling job on Sparks Street, Ottawa my new diet was cigarettes, raw vegetables and bicycling about 100 miles per week. There was no booze (primarily because I had no friends to drink with) and all my food came from the nearby By Ward Market which in the summer brimmed with fresh produce (which was cheap enough for me to sustain on my articled clerk’s salary of $4,000 per annum). I lost a lot of weight, reducing to something like 150 pounds.

Later in my career, when I ran my own law office in Almonte, I began indulging and bulging once again.  Whiskey (which by the way is loaded with sugar) was a favourite of mine and pasta was about the only meal I knew how to cook other than steak and potato (with tons of sour cream and butter naturally). When my weight threatened to force me out of my tailor-made suits I desperately embraced the Atkins Diet which was then the rage.  A fat friend of mine had tried it and lost weight.  My conviction was unparalleled.  Within a matter of days I had removed every carbohydrate from my larder and instead stocked the fridge with filet mignon, pork chops, chicken, sausage, bacon, fine cheeses and some token fresh vegetables. I drank vodka martinis to wash it all down. I even drank bacon fat – though not without some nasty results (my hands swelled and my rings had to be cut off at the hospital with industrial clippers). But I lost about thirty pounds.

Eventually the protein diet lost its attraction (even vanity has its limits) and I imperceptibly retreated to my old eating habits. In 2007 I had open-heart surgery. That too prompted me to consider eating something different.  No more ritual breakfast visits to the Superior Restaurant for three eggs, bacon and sausage! Gawd I loved that stuff!

Although I lost some weight after my heart surgery, I never exercised much control over what I ate (though I imagined I was eating a more “balanced” diet because I wasn’t obsessed with any regime in particular).  My weight continued to climb little by little. Even though I haven’t had a drop of alcohol since December, 2013 (coinciding by design with my 65th birthday) my weight has stabilized but not gone down.

Last year when we began our five-month sojourn on Hilton Head Island we discussed the matter of losing weight.  We didn’t however make any headway (nor of course any changes to our habits).  This year we have renewed our effort to lose weight.  This time we are being decidedly more strict about what we eat.  And our steadfastness is more visible.

There are of course some simple rules of eating.  For us the most obvious threat is sweets.  We both nurtured the habit of celebrating something or other – anything really – by getting things like donuts, pecan pie, lemon squares or frozen yoghurt (complemented by maple syrup – which in a pinch I could drink from the bottle). These treasures are a challenge to ignore when for example our favourite haunts on Hilton Head Island include Low Country Produce Market & Café which makes its own glazed yeast doughnuts


and Signe’s Heaven Bound Bakery & Café famous for its lemon squares.


Even when not exposed to such obvious temptation I satisfied the sugar craze through peanut butter and granola.  Nor was it entirely foreign to spoon from the can condensed milk (that gooey, sweet substance with a caramelized flavor and a light brown colour).  Belgium chocolates were rationalized as a sophisticated treat (and somehow miraculously healthful).

My most recent introduction to cautious eating was last year when I heard from the Shouldice Hospital that they would not consider me as a patient for inguinal hernia surgery until I lost 45 pounds. The Shouldice Reducing Diet #4 is essentially lots of vegetables, some fruit and protein, no bread, pasta or sweets. Because I tried the diet for a short period – and it worked – I have been drawn to it as a formula for success.  It wasn’t however until we actually landed on Hilton Head Island this year that my effort began in earnest.  The last time I had a sweet was the night of our arrival when I had – and very much enjoyed – a Key Lime pie for dessert at the Salty Dog Café. Since that night it has been a fairly steady stream of vegetables and fruit.  I have occasionally indulged my appetite for raw nuts (cashews, walnuts and almonds) and I stock plain yoghurt as an after-dinner treat (usually complemented with fresh blackberries or Golden berries but pointedly no sugar, honey, maple syrup or Agave).

My usual breakfast is sliced green apple, blackberries and – wait for it – prunes. I sometimes add wedges of Mandarin oranges.  I have strong, black coffee with that course.  Afterwards it’s slices of ham, 2 thin slices of Vermont cheddar cheese and one or two eggs fried in a bit of olive oil. I garnish the eggs with tomatoes or diced green onion. I may even have a stick of celery or carrot.

Though we sometimes go for lunch at Sea Shack, normally we skip lunch (not because we’re restraining ourselves but because we haven’t the appetite for it).  For dinner I have been having a Greek salad, Caesar salad, Gazpacho soup or just a plate of raw vegetables, normally followed by grilled plank salmon, filet mignon or chicken.  Dessert is yoghurt with fruit (blackberries or Mandarin orange wedges) and perhaps some raw nuts. Once I had half a sweet potato; I also enjoyed some special crackers.  But for the most part I have avoided starch, bread, pasta and rice.  Even when we occasionally dine out we either dismiss the need for bread or, if it is delivered to the table, we leave it and the butter there, a blunt and unfortunate ignorance.  We don’t even ask about the dessert menu. I certainly no longer stock either peanut butter (which I used to eat from the jar with a spoon) or granola (which I ate by the bowlful). And English muffins, croissants or bagels are right out along with butter, strawberry jam, honey and butter.  The only things remaining in the cupboard which are on the Shouldice list of “Forbidden Foods” are canned corn and beans and their life-expectancy is limited.

Though I initially overlooked saying so, I hasten to add that we bicycle almost every day.  My average is only about 12 miles and there is nothing frightfully energetic about it, just rolling along at sea level from here to Coligny Park and back again.  But it satisfies the prerequisite for exercise in addition to dieting. We bicycle regularly in Canada as well.

We have been on Hilton Head Island for four weeks.  Several weeks ago I bought a cheap ($14.99) weigh scale at Coligny True Value Hardware store.  If the device is to be believed we have both lost some weight in the past month.  The decline (whatever it may be) is most certainly not precipitous but I am nonetheless encouraged to imagine that we are on the right path. If nothing else we can say that we subscribe to the oft-repeated maxim to “watch what you eat”, a simple enough prescription yet one which nicely captures the plain truth about the very serious business of dieting. It at least avoids the gimmicky models of dieting; there are no drugs involved; there is moderate pain; little cause for regret; and apparently an incremental though glacial amortization of weight.

The really horrible feature of this business is that it is a business.  There is no escaping the employment of thinking, planning and execution.  There is naturally a degree of deprivation.  One must accept that certain foods must be abandoned. Even toying with the so-called occasional treat is playing with fire and has its undeniable repercussions.  In my lifetime I have quit smoking and drinking both of which I “seriously” enjoyed. But those habits, like my eating habits, were killing me. There is a psychological struggle rejecting indiscretion absolutely but it is equally manifest that even the smallest transgression can precipitate an avalanche of disadvantage. As cavalier as one may be, as entitled as one may feel, there comes a time when one admits that on balance the risk isn’t worth it, that the pay-off is too little, that the opportunity may be lost.  Maintaining such a clear-headed approach is all the more difficult if one dares to question whether this – or anything for that matter – is really worth it.  It’s not as though I have a lifetime ahead of me. And I’m certainly not doing this as part of a beauty pageant rehearsal.  But there are immediate health benefits from losing weight even if the cosmetic reward is missing. The trick is not to see the action as a forfeit or as a loss, just tedious prudence. It also helps to remind oneself that the former eating habits were no more dynamic than the new ones. Repetition is by definition an accident of any habit.  So it makes sense to opt for the least harmful routine.

In the end I don’t suppose anyone cares how sylph like you look in your coffin. But on that theory there isn’t much purpose in doing anything resembling reason.  Nothing matters eventually.  There is however the possibility that there yet remains time to enjoy the moment without having to contaminate it. And if all else fails, the fact of the matter is that I do not intend to fail. I have made up my mind that this is going to happen.  I won’t say I’ll never revert to my old habits but I am determined to see this through!  So hang onto your hat!

This is after all a very serious business!


Post Scriptum

Upon further deliberation I have resolved that if I should be so lucky as to have the date or time of my death predicted within reasonable certainty my Dying Wish is to have several toasted English muffins slathered in Gay Lea salted butter, Kraft creamy peanut butter (not too much) and Billy Bee honey (just a dribble).  With a glass of milk of course.  And if I still have time – and the appetite – a crusty baguette smeared with Kraft mayonnaise, Gruyère cheese and some Romaine lettuce.  And a glass of milk.

As compelling as I obviously find this to be I am not in the meantime anxious to trespass upon the dietary impropriety.  I already know the consequences (which is what I am attempting to avoid) but I also know the unsurpassed delight. Besides everybody needs a Dying Wish.