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.