For those of you keeping score at home, I started my FRONTLINE diet on Jan. 2, 2004, when I tipped the scales at 210 pounds -- an official weigh-in recorded for posterity by a prying camera crew. Two months later, on March 5, I returned to my doctor's office, the scene of this mortifying event, to see what progress I'd made in losing weight on a low-carb diet fortified by increased physical activity -- mainly daily walks with my new dog. I had managed to shed 15 pounds by then, only to learn that I was still overweight for my height of 5' 11". Still, I was down to the last notch on my belt buckle, I looked and felt better, and my doctor encouraged me to persevere. The trick, as everyone in the diet world knows, is not just to lose the weight, but also to keep it off.
So, here I am nine months later, on the eve of a FRONTLINE rebroadcast of my "Diet Wars" documentary, back in my doctor's office, and the needle on the scale hovers and stops at ... 194 pounds. No dramatic weight loss, but no weight gain. I am holding the line. Plus my blood pressure is down from high-normal to normal-normal.
You were expecting miracles? Or perhaps you recall that in my last story for this Web site, I had set my sights on getting down to a svelte 180 pounds, placing me comfortably within the "normal" or "ideal" weight range, at least according to the draconian Body Mass Index (BMI) chart. Well, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson never took me up on my challenge to see which one of us could reach 180 pounds first, so I lost my competitive drive, and frankly, 194 pounds doesn't seem too bad to me, now that I've sharply steered away from the medical definition of obesity. People who've known me for years keep commenting about my reduced waistline. What more do I need? Anorexia never appealed to me.
Steve Talbot is the correspondent for "Diet Wars" and the series editor of FRONTLINE/World.
+ Confessions of a FRONTLINE Dieter
Correspondent Steve Talbot tells the story of his "cold panic" after getting the phone call from FRONTLINE's executive producer about going on an "on-camera" diet for FRONTLINE in order to report on America's "Diet Wars."
I also read that the 5' 11" (and three-quarters!) President Bush added five pounds this past year -- "all muscle," insisted White House press secretary Scott McClellan -- and we now share the same weight. In terms of that BMI chart we are virtual clones. And no one thinks of Bush as fat, even if doctors say his extra weight makes him more prone to heart attacks.
Our health-conscious, dirt-bike riding president is said to run three miles, three times a week, despite bad knees. I confess that I don't run much. Hell, I barely jog, unless I am engaged in our annual family Thanksgiving "Turkey Bowl" touch football game, which I am pleased to report I survived again this year with no more than a jammed and swollen finger. (Note to other 55-year-old males trying to relive those glory days on the gridiron: Before the game, take one aspirin, apply Bengay to those hamstrings, and stretch like a rubber band.) But thanks to Dr. James Hill of America on the Move, I did take up regular walking, encouraged by his handy gadget, the pedometer, which measured how many steps I was taking. The long, daily walks up and down San Francisco's hills definitely improved my cardiovascular fitness and helped me lose weight.
The trouble is -- attention all Freudians -- the moment I finished working on "Diet Wars," I lost my pedometer. I searched everywhere, but couldn't find it. The device I'd worn every day for more than three months simply vanished. My wife thought I was hiding it.
I felt bereft. That pedometer had been my salvation. Losing my pedometer felt like losing my religion, as that R.E.M. song goes. The lyrics haunted me.
That's me in the corner
That's me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
"Losing my pedometer," I muttered as the tune played out in my head.
Trying to keep up with you
And I don't know if I can do it
Oh no I've said too much
I haven't said enough
"Where's that thing you used to wear on your belt?" friends asked me. It was embarrassing. "I lost it," sounded like a pathetic excuse. The documentary was over; I was about to slide back into sloth and inevitable weight gain. Here comes the rebound effect, I thought. How would I explain this? I was already "choosing my confessions."
I realized I hadn't bothered to re-order a new pedometer.
But I kept walking. Despite losing my pedometer, I maintained my exercise schedule, burning those calories. There was always my wife to remind me, and my ultra-fast, fence-jumping dog to demand that I take him out for some exercise. By now I'd come to enjoy it, even depend upon it. If I missed walking on a given day because of work demands, foul weather or an occasional lapse into laziness, I made up for it with a binge of walking that maintained my average number of steps in a week. That's what Dr. Hill recommended anyway: Don't obsess over steps per day, as long as you really make sure you go the distance week after week.
What lessons have I learned? That whenever my local PBS station re-runs "Diet Wars," I should expect strangers to stop me in the market, stare at the contents of my shopping cart, and brazenly inquire, "Are you allowed to eat that?"
So much for the professional anonymity of writing and producing. Once you've gone on a diet on national television, people feel entitled to stare at your stomach and offer all manner of advice. And honestly, that may be part of the explanation for my relative success in maintaining my reduced weight: Who am I to disappoint millions of FRONTLINE viewers?
And this is, of course, a very serious issue. There are far too many overweight and obese Americans, jeopardizing their health and straining our medical system. And as National Geographic reported in a cover story last August, this is now an international problem: "In a historical first, there are now as many overnourished people as undernourished around the world."
As I walk and take the BART train to work -- driving less tends to slim me down -- I worry about all the teenagers I see who are hefty and out of shape, breathing heavily as they climb the stairs. I fear that this epidemic of fat may also become a new class divide with the more prosperous among us having access to nutritious food and the leisure to exercise, while the poor consume cheap, calorie-saturated fast foods and attend cash-starved schools where physical education programs have been eliminated.
On a personal level, my advice remains the same. It's common sense. Use whatever reasonable diet you can find to achieve that exciting, initial weight loss. It's inspiring, especially when you "lose belly fat first," as my low-carb diet advertised. Amazingly, they were right. Then, get active. Do something you like, anything -- even windsurfing, unless you want to win a presidential election. I lost weight, at first, by giving up certain foods -- bread, potatoes, rice, soft drinks, tortilla chips -- but I found I could not forsake bread forever. I like it too much. And as a poster in my local bakery says, people have been eating bread for thousands of years without becoming obese. Of course, I usually stick to whole-wheat or rye. But these days I find I can eat almost anything I want as long as I control the size of the portions, and I keep exercising.
Before Christmas dinner, I'll be playing touch football again -- our other annual game for family and friends. I'll huff and bluster and try to march my motley, co-ed team down the field (dreaming of Joe Montana). I'll come home muddy and exhausted, and then I'll be able to enjoy that slice of walnut pie.
Incidentally, it's turned cold in northern California, and when I pulled my old heavy leather coat out of the closet and put my hand in the pocket, guess what I found? That's right, the pedometer. I hadn't worn that jacket since March. But I'm still not wearing my pedometer. I'm just walking.