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How a foodie enjoys his salad days 

Seven months ago, the sad fact of the matter became apparent: My foodie lifestyle had become a hazard to my health. This wasn't just a matter of clothes not fitting, or lagging self-esteem, but rather a look at mortality through the lens of medical statistics. Overweight men closing in on 40, with a family history of heart disease, with moderately high blood pressure, have a shockingly high likelihood of dropping dead.

I was visiting Dr. Judy in regard to back trouble when she filled me in on the scary figures. I knew we weren't talking about a short-term diet; what was required was a significant change of lifelong behavior. Usually, affecting that kind of change requires a serious wakeup call, like a car accident or a heart attack. But numbers persuade me: I have three little kids whose kids I would like to one day meet.

A year ago, everybody did Atkins. Now, it's South Beach. I had seen the low-carbohydrate approach take weight off a few friends, and figured that limiting carbs would be a component of my sad, new lifestyle. But several things were troubling about those name-brand approaches. First, there is the rebound effect, the seeming inevitability of putting weight back on when the resolve to maintain those diets wanes. Second, how could I, of all people, not eat bread, noodles, or potatoes? And third, the idea of not balancing at least some of all types of food seemed unhealthy.

So I limited starchy carbs --- potatoes, pasta, rice, and bread --- to one meal per day. Fruit stayed, perhaps became a bigger part of my diet (fruit, goddammit, is good food). I did not accept the Atkins acceptance of fats, but I didn't avoid them either (so, bacon stayed, but not as a staple). I stopped eating between meals, especially after dinner, and limited myself to small portions of occasional desserts. I almost completely stopped drinking soda.

The biggest adjustment was to learn to connect overeating with how overeating feels afterward. People who eat well naturally do this, but many of us don't. When full, I would look at food and believe that the pleasure of eating more would outweigh the discomfort. Eating less on a consistent basis, I felt better after meals. Soon, the connection felt real, and now I want to stop before I get full.

Three months in, I'd lost 25 pounds, and wanted to write about it. But a conversation with some women gave me pause. Many dieters are women who have been on and off diets for much of their adult lives (how society influences intelligent, educated women to act with this sort of self-loathing is a sad subject for a different writer). So I write about dieting with trepidation, knowing that I have little in common with chronic dieters. But perhaps that's instructive.

Medical records show that I gained weight steadily for more than a decade, from 185 in my mid-20s to a high last year of 257. That gain had been obvious, and I certainly didn't like how I looked or felt. But diets, statistically, almost always fail. If the dieter loses weight, she usually puts it back on. I knew that to lose weight and keep it off required, again, a long-term, permanent change of behavior.

And this all goes back to motivation. Want to lose weight? Get in touch with your mortality and get scared. My mother's death two years ago helped with my motivation. My desire to know my children as adults is extremely strong, and I don't want them saying that they just wish that grandpa could have known their kids. This is not vanity speaking, and it's not socially-constructed pressure. It's real impetus to change.

The other key factor has been maintaining the joy of eating. Food is my passion, and I couldn't maintain a diet that felt like punishment. At the three-month mark, Dr. Judy suggested one slight modification. I'd been eating tiny breakfasts (a banana), very early, and not eating anything else until lunch. I spent the morning very hungry, and she thought I would eventually rebel against that. So, now I have a small snack in the middle of the morning.

Dieting is easier if you like everything; you have more options. Loving salad helps tremendously. Many days, I'll spend 20 minutes or more making myself a salad, including excellent olives and cheese from Vince Giordano's shop, Freshlink salad greens, thin slices of meats leftover from earlier meals, blanched vegetables, and always a fresh dressing. Made lovingly, a salad feels special. I snack on a bite of sausage from the Swan Market: low quantity, but high appeal.

What are the losses? Well, I miss pasta and noodles, but still make the occasional trip to Ming's or K.C. Tea and Noodle (though I seldom finish the massive portions). I miss potatoes. When French fries appear, my stomach practically crawls out of my body to get at them. So I have a few (pommes frites at Max, please).

To date I've lost 45 pounds. My systolic blood pressure has dropped 20 points to a safe level, and my back --- thanks to an exercise routine from my ace physical therapist --- is doing much better. My "diet" has become my lifestyle, and I don't see stopping. Food is still a blast, and I have no trouble reviewing restaurants under these guidelines (a worry at first). So, where do I sign up to write my diet book?

Food tip

With Obaid Ansari opening the Pakistan House, yet another country is represented locally. It's in the former Chen's Garden location, 2411 West Henrietta Road (427-8797). Chen's Garden is now near 12 Corners on Monroe Avenue.

--- Michael Warren Thomas

Michael Warren Thomas can be heard on WYSL 1040 AM. Tune in Saturday mornings for gardening, restaurants, and travel and Sunday mornings for Toronto restaurants and wine. Or listen on the Web: www.SavorLife.com.

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