My doctor looked at me, shook his head and declared that there was absolutely nothing wrong with my thyroid gland. Why I had gained an embarrassing 16 pounds in three months was as much a mystery to him as it was to me.
But he said he had a solution. I braced myself for that awful word I had heard many times before in the past decade. It's the worst four-letter word in the English language for someone who loves the taste and texture of good food and writes about it for a living -- D-I-E-T.
This time the discipline was a low carbohydrate/high protein regimen that must be carefully monitored under a doctor's care. Because carbohydrates were limited, all the foods that I craved the most were taboo -- pasta, bread, potatoes, rice, even fresh fruit.
The word diet wasn't always part of my vocabulary. In high school I weighed 115 pounds and ate just about anything the other kids could eat. But almost as soon as I turned 30 and became a food writer, I could just look at a recipe for chocolate mousse and gain 3 pounds. And, like many other aging baby boomers, the older I get, the less I can eat. Now at 41, when I eat more than 800 calories the food goes to my hips about as quickly as Madonna changes her image.
Unfortunately, those people who have normal metabolisms are sure that all of us who are overweight spend a good part of our lives sitting in the closet stuffing ourselves with Hershey Bars and Haagen-Dazs. Often overweight people are considered out of control. Maybe some are, but for others it takes more hard work and sacrifice than for others. In fact, studies of twins published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that our weight may depend more on what's in our genes than what we put in our mouths.
But these kind of medical studies offer little solace. Most of us have done it all before. The litany could be reported like a mantra from a confess-it-all Weight Watchers meeting -- Stillman, Atkins, Pritikin, Scarsdale, liquid protein, Nutri-System, Jenny Craig. We suffer. We take it off. We exercise. And it comes right back on in less than a year. The sad truth: Only 3 percent of those who take it off will keep it off.
What we have to do, they say, is change our eating habits for the rest of our lives. And that can be really depressing and impossible unless we, too, can get a formula for eating food that will keep us in shape. And, although each new diet book seems to discover different evidence to support its theory, most weight control experts these days agree on one general rule: It's the fat we eat that makes our bodies fat.
For some of us, doing all the right things is not enough. Many of us have incorporated all the eat-for-health ideas into our daily diets -- more chicken and fish than beef, lamb and pork, skim milk, low-fat yogurt, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. And we still gain weight.
So what do you do when you have been doing most of these nutritionally correct things and your doctor says it's not enough? How can you stay on a strict diet when the doctor says you can eat only broiled, baked or steamed chicken and fish with no added fat except the spritz that comes from the nozzle of a can of vegetable or olive oil spray? What if the doctor is limiting carbohydrates to 25 milligrams a day when most Americans consume between 200 and 300 mg. a day?
When my slim doctor, who just happens to be a marathon runner, gave me his pronouncements I cringed. Most of the diet cookbooks on the market are useless because they break his rules, depending on at least a tablespoon of olive oil for flavor, including nuts for texture or unsweetened apple juice for sweetness. My first trip down the aisle of the supermarket was overwhelming as I passed all the foods I couldn't eat. How could I survive without any psychological satisfaction from food?
I have survived and lost 18 pounds so far. And so can you. First, the six basic rules of a low-fat survival kit. Then the recipes that I have developed that may just keep you low-fat and happy at the same time.
Rule 1: Get the right equipment. Remove as much frustration from this diet as possible. A dieter's best friend is a non-stick broiler pan so you don't have to waste time scrubbing with metal soap pads. You'll also need a steamer, non-stick frying pans, food processor or blender.
Rule 2: Stock a dieters' pantry. Search the supermarket, gourmet shops and ethnic food stores for high-flavor prepared seasonings and condiments that can boost flavor without boosting fat. Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce makes a great basting sauce for chicken or fish. Dijon mustard and a touch of soy sauce gives an interesting twist to broiled chicken breasts. Flavored vinegars (cranberry, tarragon, blueberry, balsamic) or sun-dried tomato bits add interesting flavor to plain steamed veggies.
Rule 3: Think assertive flavors. Fat is a cheap, easy way to get flavor. But it takes the strength of fresh herbs (like basil, dill and sage), fresh ginger, garlic, uncooked green onions, soy sauce and roasted red peppers to pep up foods without fat.
Rule 4: Change the definition of sauteing. To most of us, when we saute we throw a little butter or olive oil in a pan and soften onions or cook meat. The low-fat way is to spray a non-stick pan with olive oil or vegetable oil spray and proceed as usual. Or you can use 1 tablespoon or 2 of other liquids, such as vinegar, defatted beef or chicken stock or even a small amount of wine.
Rule 5: Think trim. Closely trim all exterior fat from beef, lamb or pork to avoid migration of the exterior fat into the lean of the meat while cooking. A recent study commissioned by the National Broiler Council, a trade association, showed that the calorie and fat content of a roasted chicken breast are the same whether the skin is taken off before or after cooking. But remember to remove the skin before serving.
Rule 6: Don't give up on finding a good-tasting, diet salad dressing. Technology has come a long way and manufacturers have come out with some flavorful low-cal, low-fat options. After trying several brands, I found the following winners -- Featherweight Oriental Spice Healthy Recipes Dressing (20 calories per tablespoon and 2 grams fat), Hidden Valley Ranch Take Heart Blue Cheese Dressing (12 calories per tablespoon and 0 grams fat), Weight Watchers Italian Style Dressing (9 calories per package and 0 grams fat) and Weight Watchers Caesar Salad Dressing (6 calories per package and 0 grams fat).
The following recipes can help keep you on a low-cal, low-fat diet and will be good enough to become a regular part of your meal planning in the future.
Balsamic vinegar and onion sauce Makes 2 to 3 servings.
spray olive oil
1 white onion, quartered and separated
1 cup balsamic vinegar
1/4 teaspoon each onion and garlic powder
Spray non-stick frying pan with olive oil and heat on high until hot. Use 1 tablespoon of the balsamic vinegar and saute the onion until soft, about 3 to 4 minutes, on medium high heat. Add rest of balsamic vinegar, onion and garlic powder and mix well. Bring to boil; then turn heat down to simmer and reduce to about 1/4 cup. Use as a sauce for broiled dish such as flounder or orange roughy.
% Creamy dill sauce Makes 4 servings.
1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
1 tablespoon skim milk
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 -- Tabasco sauce
fresh dill, for garnish
Put all ingredients together and puree in a blender until ingredients are mixed. Serve over grilled fish and garnish with fresh dill. This sauce is good on almost any kind of fish from smoked trout to salmon and swordfish.
% Asian spicy sauce Makes 4 servings.
1/4 cup soy sauce
3 green onions, chopped, including some of the green part
1 drop sesame oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
green onion, cut diagonally for garnish
Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl with a wooden spoon. Brush on chicken or fish before broiling and once during the cooking process. Garnish with green onion.
! Lemon chicken Makes 2 servings.
2 boneless and skinless chicken breasts
salt and pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh basil, chopped fine
-- Worcestershire sauce
pinch prepared mustard
lemon slices and fresh basil leaves, for garnish
Season chicken breasts with salt and pepper and place them on a non-stick broiler pan and cook about 4 inches from heat for about 6 minutes per side.
Meanwhile, mix all ingredients together in a small bowl and baste on chicken a couple of times while it is cooking. Garnish with lemon slices and fresh basil leaves.
$ Nouvelle chicken red pepper puree Makes 4 servings.
spray olive oil
3 green onions, sliced, white part only
2 large garlic cloves, chopped fine
1 jar roasted red peppers, 14 ounces, drained
1 tablespoon dill or fresh basil, chopped
1/2 cup water with chicken bouillon cube or 1/2 cup defatted, low-salt chicken stock
Spray non-stick pan with olive oil and heat on high until hot. Saute onions and garlic on medium. Meanwhile, drain the red peppers and puree in a food processor or a blender. Add puree to the frying pan and add dill or basil, chicken bouillon or stock and heat to boiling. Continue to stir and cook on medium low for about 2 to 3 minutes. Serve as a topping for broiled chicken.
Although wine is not a diet ingredient, you can get away with it if you use small quantities and only on special occasions.
& Oven-baked chicken with French accent Makes 2 servings.
olive oil spray
salt and pepper, to taste
2 chicken breasts
1 cup homemade defatted chicken stock or 1/2 cup water with low-sodium chicken bouillon cube 1/4 cup white wine
2 tablespoons herbes de Provence (see note)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a non-stick pan with olive oil and heat until hot. Season chicken breast on both sides with salt and pepper. Turn heat down to medium high and saute until chicken is browned.
Put chicken stock and white wine in an oven-safe pan with a tightly fitting lid. Mix well. Crush herbs in a mortar and pestle to release their aroma and increase flavor. Place chicken in the pan topped with the herbs. Cover tightly and cook for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Note: Commercial mixture of thyme, savory and an anise-flavored herb such as fennel, and perhaps with some sage, rosemary and bay leaf. Usually available in specialty food stores.