Category Archives: Food for Thought


Last night, I watched the first two parts of the excellent Frontline‘s four-part series on the financial crisis. No one does it like Frontline, where they tirelessly lay out the facts and put them together in a way that is comprehensible and enlightening. Last night was no exception even for someone like me, who is not exactly clever when it comes to money and math.

Frontline traced the origins of the crisis to a meeting in Florida in the early 1990s where young financial “geniuses” got together to figure out how financial institutions could avoid risk and make more money. From there, the law of unintended consequences, combined with greed and stupidity, kicked in, and some very powerful people came mighty close to wrecking the world’s economy and causing a world-wide depression.

It is beyond the scope of this post (and perhaps this writer) to lay out exactly how the financial crisis happened. I would encourage readers to watch this special and learn for themselves. I’m even seriously considering buying this documentary so that I can watch it and learn at my own slow pace.

But I do have a couple of thoughts. First, the people and firms responsible for this misery have not paid restitution. Just the reverse. They are as rich and as powerful as ever, and they continue to stack the deck, via laws and regulations, in their favor. In my opinion, all the financial institutions involved should have been forced to pay a financial crisis tax, large enough to do some good, to in turn help states deal with the shortfalls that came as a result of this crisis. I also think the individuals leading these firms needed to make restitution, not by going to jail, but instead by paying hefty—and I mean hefty—fines that could also go to alleviating some of the harm they caused. Hours and hours of community service would also have been appropriate. None of this will happen, but it should have, and it galls me that it hasn’t.

Second, and almost as galling, is that we are all part of this horrible system. There is no way we can opt out. Even the most avid, green back-to-lander is somewhat dependent on the money that comes from Wall Street. It might not be directly, although it is the rare family that will not rely on pensions or benefits funded from investments. But the dependence on Wall Street is there all the same.

For example, let’s say we have Joe and Josephine, alternative farmers, who grow, make, and barter pretty much everything they need. Such people are rare, but they do exist. (Often in a farming family, one person works outside the home to bring in a steady income and health insurance, and the other person tends the farm.) To continue with our mythical couple: The money Joe and Josephine need for operating expenses comes from the products they sell, and it really seems as though Joe and Josephine should be able to thumb their noses at Wall Street and the rest of the world. Yet, Joe and Josephine are still a part of the system because they are dependent on the rest of us, whose jobs, at various levels, depend on the financial system. Without us to buy their products, there would be no Farmers Joe and Josephine.

Perhaps I’m being cynical. Maybe by buying local and second hand, by reusing and recycling, we can at least slow down the system and do some good. I don’t know. What I do know is that it is both frustrating and scary that the shadowy men and women of the financial world should have so much power to ruin so many lives, not just in our country but also around the world.

I wish the Occupy Movement the best of luck. They are going up against formidable and dangerous opponents.



I love animals and I have for as long as I can remember. Dogs are at the top of my list and so are horses, but not far behind come cats. I also like chickens, goats, pigs, sheep, and cows. Wild animals are a source of beauty and wonder for me, and I even have sympathy for the little creeping creatures that sometimes make their way into my house. Then there are birds, those fluttering beauties who grace the woods, the fields, and, best of all for me, my backyard.

Here’s a funny thing: I am quite claustrophobic, and I hate being squeezed in by people, which means when I go to the movies, I am not comfortable unless I sit in an aisle seat. However, I have no problem being squeezed by the dog and the cats, and often times, when I am reading on the couch, I’ll have a cat in my lap and a dog pressed up against me. Somehow, this feels cozy and comforting.

So, how does someone who loves animals so much eat them? Especially the ones who live miserable lives on factory farms, which are not only bad for the animals but are also bad for the environment? I’ve asked myself this over the years, and I have come to the conclusion that I am a very queasy carnivore who has more than once considered becoming a vegetarian. As a result of this questioning, last year my husband, Clif, and I resolved to eat mostly vegetarian, with meat added once or twice a week for a treat. We would, however, continue to eat some dairy and eggs.

I am happy to report that we stuck to our resolution, and our meat consumption went down tremendously over the year. Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian has been a tremendous help as have my Moosewood cookbooks. In the process, Clif and I discovered what we really already knew: There are so many wonderful vegetarian things to eat, and this variety means we don’t miss meat—at least not too much. But we both like meat—there’s no point in denying this—and we enjoyed our twice-a-week meat indulgences.

However, even this reduced meat consumption still made me queasy, and not long ago, I asked myself the question: What would you be willing to kill to eat?

I started at the bottom with clams, which I have happily dug without one twinge of conscience, and scallops, mussels, and other bivalves fall into the same category. Shrimp are a little higher up, but it would not bother me to catch and eat them. The next level includes crabs, lobsters, and fish, and here things become a little more equivocal. I’ve cooked lobster and have eaten fish that I’ve caught. I don’t enjoy the process, but I can and have done it. What about chicken? No. I’ve seen my father kill them, and I didn’t want any part of the process. Sheep, goats, cows, rabbits? Not unless I was literally starving to death.

After reviewing what I would be willing to kill to eat, I came to the next question: Is it ethical to eat food you wouldn’t be willing to kill yourself? For me, the answer has come to be no. If I’m not willing to kill it, then I shouldn’t eat it, even though I have for many years. My love and sympathy for animals stop me from going too far up the food chain when it comes to killing.

The time had come, I decided, to go to the next level, to only eat and cook what I would be willing to harvest or kill—mostly vegetarian with the occasional fish, bivalve, or crustacean added for variety. I discussed this with Clif, and he was willing to go along with this scheme, albeit not quite as completely as I am. For example, when eating out, Clif might still order a meat dish, but he said he would be perfectly happy to eat this way at home. Fair enough. We all have to make our own decisions.

I want to conclude by noting that even with this new eating regime, I don’t plan on applying for sainthood anytime soon. I still have plenty of gray areas in my life. The cats and dog eat food with meat, and that’s just the way it goes. They are carnivores. I still plan to eat eggs and dairy. The eggs come from Farmer Kev, whose chickens live nice lives, and the dairy is either organic and/or local. And, yes, I realize that to keep the eggs and dairy coming, some killing is often involved, however indirectly. But I just can’t give eggs and dairy up yet.

So onward I go, thinking about food as well as cooking and eating it. Will I ever become a vegan? Only time will tell.






“If we are going to have better for ourselves, we have to find it in things that are not vulnerable to collapse—in beauty and community, in the pleasure of good work and family, in things that are low-cost, simple and available. We’re going to have to find a new definition of better.”
—Sharon Astyk

I couldn’t agree more, and it seems to me that our whole anniversary weekend exemplifies the above quotation by Sharon Astyk. Accordingly, I’d like to share a picture of another gift we received last weekend—a very snazzy tote bag that Tim—Farmer Kev’s father—gave to me when I went to pick up two dozen eggs.

I’ll be carrying it proudly.

And stay tuned for Farmer Kev T-shirts.



In the New York Times, there is a piece by Julia Moskin about being a ghost writer for cookbooks. As I read her descriptions about what it was like to work for various chefs, I thought, “There is no bloody way I would want to do that.” Many of the chefs she worked with were rude, difficult, egocentric blokes, and one even had a wife who was so insecure that she didn’t want Moskin’s name on the cover of the book. Why do writers do it? Because it can “be a gateway to better things.” (Sounds a little bit like a drug, doesn’t it?) Regardless of the “gateway,” most cookbook ghost writers don’t last very long in the job.

But perhaps the most damning statement is that in some cases, the chefs don’t even supply and test their own recipes. “At the most extreme level, a few highly paid ghostwriter-cooks actually produce entire books, from soup to nuts…One recent best-selling tome on regional cooking was produced entirely in a New York apartment kitchen, with almost no input from the author.” Makes you want to run right out and buy a chef’s cookbook, doesn’t it?

But even more curious, at least to me, was the following: “The authors most likely to write and thoroughly test their own work are trained cooks who do not work in restaurants, like Molly Stevens, Deborah Madison and Grace Young, and obsessive hobbyist cooks like Jennifer McLagan and Barbara Kafka.” (The emphasis is mine.)

The obsessive part I get. Many cooks are food obsessed—I plead guilty to that charge—and cooking can be a natural extension of that obsession, especially when you can’t afford to eat out very often. It’s the “hobbyist” part that brought me up short. Cooking as a hobby? I had never considered something so essential as cooking to be a hobby. To me, a hobby is a slightly frivolous albeit enjoyable pastime such as collecting stamps or flying model airplanes.

Cooking, on the other hand, is what you do to ensure that your household has meals that both taste good and are good for the body. In addition, what we eat influences not only our health but also the health of the planet. (Pesticides, hormones, industrial animal farming with its manure lagoons. You know the drill.) When we buy local, when we buy organic, when we buy eggs from hens that have been treated humanely, we go beyond the personal to a larger way of thinking that can have profound effects on our society and even the world.

Cooking as a hobby? I don’t think so. Cooking is far too important to be reduced to a hobby.







As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I am what might be called a homebody. For me, home is best, and traveling, however broadening it might be, is not my thing. I love the rhythm of home life—the writing, the puttering, the cooking, the community, and I am willing to be as frugal as can be so that I can stay home.

When one writes such a retro statement, qualifications are immediately in order, and I will duly note them. First, I realize that not everyone is a homebody, and I respect that. To paraphrase Jane from Pride and Prejudice, we are not all alike. Some people, indeed many of my friends, need to be out and about with other people. Simply put, staying at home, day after day, mostly alone, would drive them nuts. So out they go, and out they should be.

Second, some people have a passion for their jobs. My friend Alice, who works with hearing-impaired folks, feels this way about her job. She thinks she is making a difference, and that is indeed a good feeling. I expect many in the service professions—teachers, nurses, social workers, fire fighters, to name a few—feel this way, too, and they are doing exactly what they should be. Lucky are those who love their jobs, especially when those jobs fall under the category of right livelihood, which Alice’s certainly does.

Third, most people need to work to earn money. Few of us are independently wealthy, and for many families, two incomes are essential. (Try supporting a family on two jobs that pay $10 an hour and see how lavish the lifestyle is. In Maine, at least, there are many families who fit this category.) Most people need to earn money by working outside the home.

Therefore, while respecting the choices that others make—sometimes by necessity, sometimes by choice—I am so grateful and happy to be able to do what I love—stay in my own cozy home and write and cook and putter. I would also argue that by staying home, I save as much money as many low-paying Maine jobs provide. Because I stay at home, my husband and I only need 1 car. This is a huge savings. My wardrobe can be very basic—blue jeans are perfectly fine—and I can fill in with thrift store finds. By cooking so much from scratch, I not only save money but I also make mostly vegetarian meals that are so much healthier than their processed counterparts at the grocery store. Because I am home, I (mostly) don’t have that rushed, frazzled feeling that so many working families have, when it seems far easier to get takeout than to cook a meal at home.

Finally, but just as important, because I stay at home, I have time to be involved with my community—to volunteer at the food pantry, to be a trustee at the library, and to to be on the town’s green committee. To my way of thinking, a vibrant community is essential to the health of a village, town, or city, and volunteers play a crucial role.

So while it might seem a little poky to love being a homebody (and, by extension, a homemaker), there are lots of benefits, and as oil becomes less available and more expensive, those benefits will be even greater.

It’s my guess that in the upcoming decades, more of us will become homebodies. We can either complain that we are “stuck” at home with no place to go, or we—men as well as women—can turn our creative energies toward our homes and our communities.



In a recent post, I wrote about my friends John and Beth Clark and how by scouting and scrounging for used books, they have enhanced a very small Maine library and have provided children’s books to their daughter’s classroom in the Bronx, where she teaches. I noted that the lesson of creatively reusing resources could be applied to many other aspects of life, in particular, cooking.

Last night, I made a tomato soup that falls right into this creative reuse tradition. From meals from the past few days, I had saved the water from steaming broccoli and corn, which I knew would make a good base for a soup. I had leftover white beans and leftover pasta. Naturally, I also had “new” ingredients to add: canned tomatoes, carrots, celery, garlic, onion, and rosemary.

Before I even started the soup, a choice had to be made, and I left it up to my husband, Clif. Should I blend the tomatoes in the food processor, thereby leaving the soup a little chunky with the vegetables, or should I simmer everything—except the white beans and pasta—and use an immersion blender to get an extremely smooth soup? Clif opted for the smooth soup with the immersion blender.

What a great choice! After the vegetables, the rosemary, the tomatoes, and the water from the broccoli and corn had simmered for an hour, I put the stockpot in the sink, and blended the mixture until it was smooth. Then I added the pasta and the white beans to the soup, returned it to the stove, and brought it all back to a gentle boil.

“What do you think?” I asked my husband, Clif, as we ate our soup.

“Pretty darned good,” came his Yankee reply, which is extremely high praise. Normally, I get a “not too bad” from Clif.

He even elaborated. “It’s smooth and creamy yet tangy, and it doesn’t have that acidic back-kick that tomato soup often has.”

Clif was right. My guess is that blending the carrots and celery into the soup helped neutralize some of the acidity of the tomatoes. And who knows? Maybe the broccoli and corn water helped, too.

Whatever the case, this tomato soup makes a great base for a variety of ingredients. I had white beans and pasta. Rice and mushrooms would have been good, too.  Or barley. And, to really spruce up this soup and make it a company meal, cooked shrimp or sausage could be added to the soup. If you’re feeling really extravagant, then both.

But the white beans and pasta were perfect for a simple week-night supper. I made corn bread to go with the soup, thus compounding my husband’s happiness.

The following is the recipe for the basic tomato soup, with the understanding that a variety of leftovers or ingredients could be added to the soup. I have given a few suggestions, but obviously they are just suggestions. Use your creativity and your leftovers.

Tomato Soup Base

1 28 ounce can of diced tomatoes, including the juice
3 cups of water, ideally from steamed or boiled vegetables
2 carrots, diced
3 stalks of celery, diced
2 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons of dried onion (See note)
Two sprigs of rosemary
2 tablespoons of oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a stock pan, heat the oil and add the carrots and celery, cooking and stirring occasionally until the vegetables are fairly soft. Add the garlic and let it sizzle for a minute or so with the carrots and celery. Add the tomatoes, the water, the dried onion, the sprigs of rosemary, and let it all simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Blend it smooth, using whatever device you might have, and then add the pasta, beans, rice, etc. Whatever appeals to you. Salt and pepper to taste.

Note about the onion: Unfortunately, my digestive system has an extremely hard time with onions. Over the years, I’ve discovered dried onions are an acceptable, if not ideal, substitute. The advantage is, they don’t make me sick. For readers who don’t have this culinary handicap, which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, it would be easy enough to substitute a medium onion for the dried onions. Chop that onion, add it to the celery and carrots, and let them cook on a very low heat so that the carrots are soft but the onion doesn’t burn.








Last Saturday, we visited with our friends Beth and John Clark in Hartland, about an hour from where we live. They had invited us over to their home for dinner and afterwards we went to a community play in a nearby town. Before dinner, we sat in their cozy living room, made even cozier by a pellet stove, and John told us about his new book-selling venture as we ate cheese and crackers.

A bit of backstory first: John is the town’s librarian, and while there are volunteers, I believe he is the only paid employee. Hartland is small and poor, and not surprisingly it doesn’t have much of a budget for the library. Has this deterred John? It has not. He has a knack for acquiring inexpensive books and DVDs, which he either adds to the library’s collection or sells online so that he can then buy something for the library. He acquires the books and DVDs in a variety of ways—through donations and through scrounging at the town’s transfer station (aka the dump). John has become so well known at the transfer station that the workers now set aside books they think he will want. At a very low price, John also acquired the collection of an entire library, which was closing, but that is a whole story in itself, and I won’t be going into it here.

Because of John’s resourcefulness, Hartland library has a decent collection of books and DVDs, and the library has become a real hub in a community that has seen more than its share of hard times. (John has also made the library a welcome place for people just scraping by, who need his help in a variety of other ways.)

After years of scrounging and selling second-hand books for the library, John has decided he likes it so much that he has started a little part-time book-selling business for himself, which he will expand when he retires. (I want to hasten to add that John is still devoted to the library and does all that he can to enhance its collection. He has plenty of energy for both himself and the library.) For his own business, he and Beth go to thrift shops and book sales, looking for items to sell online through Amazon. They make a great team. John has acquired the knowledge of what sells and what doesn’t, and Beth is organized and methodical and conscientious. John has such faith in Beth’s abilities that he gives her money, and on Saturdays off she goes by herself to sales to scout for books while John is working at the library.

Now, the point of this piece is not to brag about John and Beth, although I am very happy to do so. The point is to illustrate how creative resourcefulness, hard work, and team work can enhance the life of a community and a family, and, by extension, the world. (In their thrift store/book sale forays, John and Beth even find children’s books for their daughter Lisa, who teaches in the Bronx.) It shows how one might thrive in a world of finite resources and an ever-growing population, in a world of peak oil and “peak everything.”

Books and libraries are just one example, but John and Beth’s approach can be applied to other aspects of life. Let’s take food, one of my favorite subjects. In a household, a frugal, creative cook can do a lot with basic ingredients and scraps saved from previous meals. I have used the bones of barbecued chicken to make a mostly-bean soup with a zesty broth. Last night, I saved water from cooking broccoli to use as the base of a soup that will include leftover pasta, tomatoes, white beans, and rosemary.

On a broader scope, there is gleaning of fruit and vegetables that would go to waste. On a walk this fall, I went through a little apartment complex with an apple tree, and there, on the ground, were bunches of rotting apples. Perhaps they weren’t good eating apples, but they would have made good jelly. Another way to conserve resources is to make use of slightly outdated food that is still good. There is plenty of room for improvement here, which I have discussed in previous posts. Despite our country’s hard times, we are still a wasteful nation. However, my town’s food pantry and the Hot Meals Kitchen does use food that would otherwise have been thrown out. And, yes, I admire the dumpster divers, who retrieve perfectly good food.

To my way of thinking, the heroes of the 21st century are not people like Steve Jobs, however admirable he might have been. Rather, they are people like John and Beth whose careful and creative use of resources show us an alternative to heedless waste and consumerism. They show all of us that there is a better way to live, and we would do well to follow their examples.



In my past posts On Being Fat, I have briefly explored our country’s current history of obesity, and I outlined my struggle with being overweight. I covered—again briefly—the ups and downs of will power and the reaction an obese person’s body has to losing weight. Now the time has come for the cherry on the sundae, so to speak, where I write about a diet regime called Controlled Cheating, which was created by a man named Fats Goldberg. I came across this regime in a very roundabout way.

Fourteen years ago, my friend Barbara Johnson and I went to the Brunswick Library’s book sale, which is renowned in central Maine for the high quality of its books. People get there long before the doors open, and first in line are the second-hand booksellers, who snarl at each other as they jockey for position. When the doors open, the crowd stampedes for the books, and woe to anyone who falls in the rush.

Fortunately for me, the section I am drawn to—the pinhead literary section—is not one that attracts the booksellers, and I was able to browse freely without fear of having a book snatched from my hands. Even then, I had long been a fan of the New Yorker, and when I came across Calvin Trillin’s American Stories, into the canvas bag it went.

American Stories is a collection of Calvin Trillin’s essays, and most of them were originally published in the New Yorker. Many of the essays are quite dark, detailing the rather sordid underbelly of American culture. But not all of them focus on “crimes and misdemeanors,” and one of them profiled Larry “Fats” Goldberg, a friend since high school. Trillin jokingly refers to himself as Fats Goldberg’s Boswell, and indeed Trillin seems to get great pleasure from following Fats Goldberg around and recording what this legendary eater could dispatch in a single sitting. (A lot!) But for me, the really interesting thing was not how much Fats Goldberg ate—although I admit I was somewhat in awe of his Falstaffian appetite—but rather how Fats Goldberg managed to stay slim and yet eat so much.

Apparently, it wasn’t always this way with Fats Goldberg. When he was in high school, Goldberg weighed over 300 pounds, and even then he was a legendary eater. When he was a young adult, one day, for no particular reason he can recall, Fats Goldberg decided he had had enough with being fat and decided to lose weight. He devised a system called Controlled Cheating because he noticed that sooner or later, most people cheat on their diets, and when they do, it is a downward spiral until all the weight that has been lost is regained. (How right he is about that!) Fats Goldberg reasoned, if everyone cheats on their diets, why not build it into the system? And this is what he did. Six days a week, Fats Goldberg ate so well that he would have made Alice Waters and Michael Pollan jump for joy. Goldberg’s diet included the usual things people eat when they want to lose weight—fruit, fresh vegetables, lean meat, all in limited amounts. Then, on the seventh day Fats Goldberg would rest, allowing himself to eat anything he wanted and as much as he could hold. These days came to be fondly known as “cheat days.” However, there is a qualifier that must be added: an hour of vigorous exercise every day. No exercise, no cheat day.

Not only did Fats Goldberg managed to shed half his weight with controlled cheating, but he also kept it off for over 40 years until he died at age 69 from complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

After reading Trillin’s essay, I was impressed with Fat’s Goldberg’s method and success. As an adult, I had had spotty success with dieting, losing weight and then putting it right back on. A few months of dieting wer all I could really manage before I fell off the wagon and began cheating my way back to what I weighed when I started. I had tried all sorts of methods, but never Controlled Cheating. “Why not give it a shot?” I asked myself. “What’s the worst that can happen? You won’t lose weight. Nothing new there.”

So I tried it, and it worked. I lost about 60 pounds and was the thinest I had been in a long time. I biked and walked. My blood pressure was that of an athlete’s, and my blood sugar and cholesterol were equally as good. I was trim, and I felt great. Six days a week I was a virtuous eater, and I allowed myself 1,500 calories a day. Like Fats Goldberg, my noncheat diet consisted mainly of fruit, vegetables, and low-fat protein. My cheat day was Saturday, and it was the day I lived for, planning it in exquisite detail—donuts, fish and chips, chocolate, ice cream sundaes. What a day!

During my noncheat days, whenever I felt myself flagging, I would picture cheat day in all its glories, and I was able to press on with my diet. However, despite the success of this method, it required a lot of mental energy and constant vigilance. On noncheat days, there was never a time when I could just relax and not monitor what I ate. I had to be on guard all the time, and I had to exercise faithfully for an hour every single day. I was hungry most of the time, and I always thought about food.

For two years, the longest I have ever stuck with a diet, I was able to keep the weight off using this method. But, as I mentioned in a previous post, life took an interesting turn. My husband and I began publishing a literary magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, and it had a full-time staff of one—me.  While I enjoyed working on the journal, it sapped both my time and my energy to the point where I could no longer focus so intensively on my diet and exercise. Slowly the weight came back on, until I gained every bit of weight I had lost.

Two years ago, my husband and I stopped publishing the journal. I still write regularly, but my duties are nothing compared to what they were when we were publishing Wolf Moon. Nevertheless, I continued to overeat. Last May, when I went for my physical, I was alarmed to find I had gained 13 pounds over the winter.

The doctor didn’t lecture me, but I lectured myself. “Keep this up, and you’ll be a candidate for the show Heavy.” (Hugely obese people are shipped to a spa where they diet and exercise until they are ready to drop.) Time to return to Controlled Cheating, which I did not long after that May physical. Because I am post menopausal, I’ve had to go to 1,200 a day to lose weight instead of the 1,500 of my younger years.

Since last May, I have lost 45 pounds and feel so much better. I have dropped two sizes and hope to go down another size or two. People tell me how great I look, but it’s hard for me to judge. I look at myself and see a fat person lurking underneath. (Fats Goldberg mentioned a similar phenomenon, and this seems to be quite common for people who have been overweight.) In truth, I think I look relatively “normal,” although by modern American standards I am plump and probably always will be.

But to heck with modern American standards. If I can get down to a size 14, I will be content.

Just as it was when I went on Controlled Cheating for the first time, every noncheat day is a struggle. I am constantly hungry; I’m always thinking about food. Gum is a lifesaver. So is fruit and peppermint tea. And that shining day, cheat day, is always just around the corner, that one day when I can relax and eat whatever I want.

One more day to go.



“Nobody wants to be fat. In most modern cultures, even if you are healthy…to be fat is to be perceived as weak-willed and lazy. It’s also just embarrassing.” –Tara Parker-Pope, the New York Times

Over the holidays, I met with a friend who has struggled with her weight for nearly as long as I have. Right now, she is close to her ideal weight, and she has worked hard to get there. As we were talking about weight and dieting, she told me about an article in the New York Times“The Fat Trap” by Tara Parker-Pope. (I started this On Being Fat series by linking to it.) My friend also mentioned how discouraging the article was, but that she was going forward with an optimistic attitude about her own weight, and I said I would be doing the same with mine. (I’ve lost about 45 pounds since May.)

This is exactly what we should do, but let’s face it, the odds aren’t in our favor. My friend and I both have a long history of losing weight and then gaining it all back, and we aren’t alone in our struggle with fat. According to MSNBC, “more than 80 percent of people who have lost weight regain all of it, or more, after two years.” My own patterns of gaining and losing certainly verify this, and the same is true for many people I know.

Why should so many of us who really and truly want to be trim gain weight back after losing it? Parker-Pope provides some answers in “The Fat Trap.”  In brief, studies indicate that genetics and hormones make it difficult for many people to lose large amounts of weight permanently. It seems our bodies don’t like shedding pounds, and when an obese person loses weight, his or her body pumps out a hormone called ghrelin, which stimulates the appetite. At the same time, the dieting body will produce less of peptide YY and leptin, which suppress appetite.  “A cocktail of other hormones associated with hunger and metabolism all remained significantly changed compared to pre-dieting levels.”

Parker-Pope notes: “For years, the advice to the overweight and obese has been that we simply need to eat less and exercise more. While there is truth to this guidance, it fails to take into account that the human body continues to fight against weight loss long after dieting has stopped.”

She movingly recounts how her mother struggled with being overweight, and how, as her mother lay dying, “[i]t was her great regret that in the days before she died, the closest medical school turned down her offer to donate her body because she was obese.” In turn, Parker-Pope struggles with her own weight, and by her own admission, she is at least 60 pounds overweight.

Parker-Pope then goes on to describe some people—the happy few—who have indeed managed to keep their weight down for many years. Readers, I have bad news that will come as no surprise to those of you who have a history of dieting. It takes constant vigilance and will power for a formerly obese person to maintain a healthy weight. Such people can never not think about food, how much they have eaten and how much they will eat. It also requires exercise—at least an hour a day, seven days a week.

Is it any wonder people just give up? I have done so many times in the past when I have just plain gotten tired of always monitoring every bit of food that has gone into my mouth.

However, I do have some good news. I have found a system that has made losing weight and keeping it off a little easier. (Not easy, mind you. Just easier.) I stumbled across it by accident fourteen years ago, and I had more success with this method of losing weight than I have ever had with any other system. Unfortunately, after keeping off the weight for two years, I gained it back, and the reason is fairly simple. My husband and I started a small literary magazine called Wolf Moon Journal, which occupied so much of my day that I couldn’t focus on keeping track of everything I ate, and I no longer had time to exercise.

Two years ago, we stopped publishing the journal. Over a year ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and was told not to diet during radiation treatment, and it was open season on chocolate and sweets, my weaknesses. Last May, after radiation treatment was over, I went for my yearly exam, and I found I had gained 13 pounds over the winter. I was at my heaviest. Yikes!

The time had come to take another shot at losing weight, to return to the system that had worked so well for me 14 years ago. That system is called controlled cheating, and in my final post On Being Fat, I’ll describe the system and the roundabout way I came across it.


When it comes to weight, there are various types of people. First, there are the people who are naturally slim and have been since they were children. They can eat like truck drivers and never put on a pound. My sister-in-law, Rose, falls into this category, and she is as pretty and as trim now as she was 20 years (or so!) ago when she married my brother. I sincerely hope that naturally slim people start each day giving thanks that they don’t have to worry and obsess about every single mouthful of food they eat. They hit the jackpot with body metabolism, and while I don’t exactly begrudge these people their good luck—all right, I’m a little bitter—I’m certainly envious.

Then there are the people who have small appetites. Somehow, they just don’t want to eat that much. They get full very fast, and their bodies seem to have an internal gauge that prevents them from overeating. These people are a complete mystery to me, and I have watched in astonishment as small-appetite friends have left half their desserts uneaten. (Guess who often eats the other half?) People who have small appetites don’t appear to struggle with portion control. It just comes naturally to them, and like their sisters and brothers blessed with fast metabolisms, I hope those with small appetites start each day giving thanks for this gift.

Next come the people with will power. They like to eat, but they are firm with themselves. One friend, in particular, comes to mind. She is well into her 60s, and what a terrific figure she has. She likes to cook, she likes to eat, and she has a good appetite, but she knows how to say no to herself. It’s not that she won’t eat dessert or chips; she just doesn’t eat them very often. I view this friend with something like the awe that I would reserve for a Zen master.

Finally—and I know the above list is not all inclusive—there is the majority, I think, people who love to eat and who have bodies that love to put on weight. Will power is touch and go; sometimes we have it, but often we don’t.

What’s up with will power, anyway? In the New York Times, just in time for the new year, John Tierney wrote a piece called “Be It Resolved.” The piece is about New Year’s resolutions in general and will power in specific, and there is good news and bad news. I always like to begin with good news: Those who make resolutions are much more likely to “make improvements than someone who hasn’t made a formal resolution.” It seems that a statement of intent really does make a difference. Here’s the bad news, which will come as no surprise: “By the end of January, a third will have broken their resolutions, and by July more than half will have lapsed.”

It all comes down to will power, to staying on course and not giving up. But according to Tierney, here’s the fascinating thing: Social scientists have come to believe that will power is not just a metaphor but rather “a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.” And “ego depletion” is what happens when you “exert self-control” over an extended period of time. In other words, you just plain get tired. (Doesn’t anyone who has ever dieted instinctively know this? You just plain get tired of keeping track of every single thing that you eat and of constantly saying no to yourself.)

But there are ways to deal with flagging will power—“ego depletion”—and Tierney suggests “that the way to keep a New Year’s resolution is to anticipate the limits of your willpower.” It seems that people who  have the best will power arrange their lives so they are not constantly tempted by their favorite things. “They play offense, not defense, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises, conserve their energy and outsource as much self-control as they can.”

As Tierney notes, this is especially relevant for dieters. The more people diet, the less glucose they have in their systems, which, in turn, affects their will power. It really is a nasty cycle.

Tierney goes on to list a series of strategies to deal with the problem of will power, and, among other things, they range from setting a clear, single goal to precommitting yourself to finding ways of rewarding yourself when you reach a goal.

Tierney’s article is thought provoking, and it illustrates why people often fail to achieve the goals they really and truly want. Even for those who have never struggled with such things, the article is insightful, and I highly recommend it as I have only touched on its key issues in this post.

As for me and losing weight—I have adopted a strategy that instinctively takes flagging will power into consideration. But before I describe “my” system—actually it was developed by a man named Fats Goldberg—in the next post On Being Fat I want to write about another pitfall of dieting that science has recently shed light on—that is, how the body doesn’t like losing weight.