I Had Heard About This Thing Called Dieting


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In 1970, when I was thirteen, I was the heavyweight on the school wrestling team. I weighed in somewhere between 170 and 180 pounds and was a good six inches shorter than the eventual six-footer I would grow into. By any standard, I was overweight and probably obese, although my parents never advised me to reduce my daily intake of Oreos.  When my mother took me shopping for clothing, we invariably ended up in the Husky aisle, where boys my size could find a comfortable fit. Lucky for me, puberty soon kicked in. I shot up. I thinned out. And two years later I was wrestling at 148 pounds.

I wasn’t overly self-conscious about my weight, but fourteen years of chubby tends to leave its mark, especially if those fourteen years are among the most formative in one’s life. The F-word had a very different meaning for me. In my world view, you either were or were not.

Over the next two and a half decades, I did a good job maintaining a reasonable weight through exercise. Running and racquetball were my go-to sports, although I dabbled in golf and swimming. Of the former, I was terrible, and of the latter, I was bored. I was, however, for many many years burning lots and lots of calories. I was svelte. I was fit. I ate anything I wanted, regardless of nutritional value, and was never concerned I would outgrow my jeans.

All of that changed when I reached 40 and became a long-distance commuter. The two hours a day I dedicated to exercise was then spent switching lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike. What was once a daily obsession turned into an intermittent pleasure. With every passing year, my jeans got just a little bit tighter until, sadly, I turned them in for the next size, then the next size, then the next size.

I had heard about this thing called dieting, but I never considered reducing my caloric intake to compensate for all those hours I was no longer exercising. There was no reason to stop enjoying all the things I enjoyed eating simply because I no longer burned an extra 1,200 calories a day.

Twenty years later, I made the awful mistake of stepping on the bathroom scale. Okay, that’s a lie. If there’s a scale in the bathroom, how does one not get on it? I had been getting on and off scales ever since scales went digital, but I rarely paid attention to the numbers above my toes.

And then I did. And then I did the math. And the math told me that from the time I began commuting to the time I mentally processed the digital numbers above my toes, my body grew by a whopping 23.7%. Holy F-word! That’s a lot of apple-cider donuts over the years. What’s a husky man to do?

At first, I thought about that dieting thing. With so many diet plans to choose from, how could I fail? I looked at all the people I knew who had been on a diet to gauge their rate of success. One woman, a childhood friend of my wife’s, drastically changed her eating habits more than 25 years ago. Today, she looks amazing, and recently she put her husband on the same plan. He looks great too. They are dear friends, but honestly, it’s people like them who are the problem. Every other person I know on a diet, who had initially lost significant weight, had gained it back and probably more. Statistically speaking, the odds were against me.

And then, of course, there is the happiness factor. Am I happier eating a hot dog or an apple? Would I rather have fried chicken or grilled tofu? Barbecued chips or baby carrots? I think the answer is obvious. I want it all. I want bad-for-you but delicious food and the waistline of a marathon runner.

The good news is that Covid put an end to all those wasted sedentary hours when all I could do was sit in my car and watch some guy or gal pass me on the highway going 85 miles per hour while I was doing 75 miles per hour and the speed limit was 65. The commute was dead. Long live remote. And it also helped that I retired.

With a fresh infusion of time, I was able to exercise as much as I wanted. Now, nearly three years later, I’ve lost 11.2% of the person I used to be. Do I aspire to lose the other 12.5%? I do, but when it’s 1 o’clock in the morning and I’m bingeing the latest Star Wars spin-off with three episodes to go and  the only thing between me and sleep is a pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream, it’s easy to convince myself that I’ll exercise just a little bit longer in the morning. With the wind at my back and the sun on my shoulders, it might just keep me a mere 12.5% above my optimal weight.  

I think I can live with that for now. And no, I have zero plans to reveal my true weight. That’s between me and the digital numbers just above my toes.

Richard Reiss’ writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newark Star-Ledger, The Literary Review, as well as the anthologies, Upstart Crows II: True Stories, and Modern Love: 50 True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit, and Devotion. He is the author of Desperate Love: A Father’s Memoir, published by Serving House Books. He can be reached at rpreiss63@gmail.com.