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A Consuming Interest The holidays, with their visions od sugerplums, are a yearly struggle for people fighting weight gain. Babs Nelson is here to tell them they are not alone.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Judgment Day.

They trudge in, these sinners, filled with guilt, remorse and pumpkin pie. They are sheepish and humble. They are ready to confess.

I know I gained.

I ate a piece of cheesecake.

The mashed potatoes got me.

This is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and these women -- they are all women -- have arrived on the 22nd floor of the St. Paul Plaza for their weekly Weight Watchers meeting.

They are soldiers in Mission Improbable. They want to lose weight during the Triple Crown of Caloric Temptation: Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukkah. Cookies and cakes and pies -- oh my!

Like most people who struggle with extra poundage, these soldiers believe in moderation. They want big, heaping helpings of it.

They have one chance to survive the holidays.

Her name is Babs.

"How's everyone doing?"

If the name Babs suggests a perky, hyperenthusiastic cheerleader, then you'll know why this particular Babs prefers that name over Barbara Nelson.

Babs is bubbly. Babs is relentless. Babs believes in you and the Weight Watchers program. Babs is going to pull you through the torment of holiday eating if she has to come to your house and chop up your vegetables.

She's smiling. It's the first Tuesday after Thanksgiving, and Babs is smiling. Doesn't she know how hard this is? To step on the scale -- no getting out of it, it's required -- when you know that you have sinned and have undoubtedly gained weight. That's why everyone walks in with a well-rehearsed, pre-emptive confession.

Babs smiles because she knows. She's been through this before. She's 59 and has taught Weight Watchers classes for nine years. She knows what will happen when they step on the scale.

I don't believe it.

I lost?

Are you sure?

They haven't sinned after all. Add it up. It's true. The 31 people who attended this Tuesday-after-Thanksgiving meeting have lost a total of 32.6 pounds from the week before. Not everyone lost weight, but most did.

"What I am hearing here is excitement," Babs tells the group. "I'm hearing, 'Oh, I lost.' And it surprises people."

She points to her head.

"Up here we get a conversation going with ourselves. We think we have overeaten and we think we have gained beaucoup pounds and that is not the case at all."

A woman approaches her.

"How did you do?" Babs asks.

"Stayed the same."

"Are you happy?"

"Yeah."

"Stayed the same," Babs repeats. "It's as good as you can get sometimes. Staying the same during a holiday is, to me, the same as weight loss.

"Why do I say that? Why do I say that?

"BECAUSE WE DID NOT GAIN!"

Another woman weighs in and takes her seat.

"How did you do?" Babs asked.

"I gained one."

"How did you feel about that?"

"I didn't like it," the woman says, "but I had a piece of cheesecake. I couldn't resist it."

Now Babs does something interesting. She doesn't say, as the woman might expect, "You ... you ... pig!" She is resolutely nonjudgmental. To Babs, the glass is always half-full -- with skim milk or, better yet, water. Healthy diets require much water, you know.

"Everything has a price," Babs tells the cheesecake eater. "But one pound might have been two pounds if it wasn't for the program."

See how it works? Only Babs has the ability to make you feel good about gaining a pound. It could have been worse. You could have gained two.

Another woman raises her hand.

"I lost 2.2 pounds."

Applause.

"Get outta here!" Babs says, clapping. "You know what I just found out? You guys are listening."

But that's not the best story on this Tuesday after Thanksgiving. Eunice Gray owns that. A Baltimore lawyer, Gray has attended Weight Watchers meetings since June 1997. She has lost 26 pounds and, more importantly, kept them off.

Gray's Thanksgiving plans included a visit to her mother's house in Norfolk, Va. "I was in a panic," she says. "I knew mama's sweet potato pie was waiting for me."

When she arrived, Gray's job was to make the cinnamon loaf and fresh rolls from scratch. So, while they were baking, she pulled out her mother's treadmill and worked out for 25 minutes right in the kitchen.

"I lost a half-pound," she says.

"Fantastic!" Babs says.

Babs knows. This is the hardest time of the year by far. The temptations are everywhere, from office parties to weekend buffets.

"And we are programmed our whole lives to eat all the goodies," she says after the meeting. "I know what it's like. I have sat in those seats. I've been there. Nobody can be perfect all the time."

In the fall of 1987, Babs joined Weight Watchers and lost 30 pounds. When you're 5-foot-5, that's a lot. Her dress size dropped from 16 to 8.

She kept the pounds off and became a Weight Watchers group leader. She now runs the Annapolis center and leads nine meetings a week throughout Maryland.

"When I do meetings, it's like therapy for me," she says. "I guess I get high on it. I love people and I understand what they're going through."

The Weight Watchers program is called 1-2-3-Success. No longer do clients lug food scales and measure every morsel. Now, foods are assigned points -- the more fattening the food, the more points it is assigned. Depending on your size, you are allowed to eat so many points a day.

"People today are so busy, they want to lose weight, but they want something that will fit into their lives," Babs says.

The Baltimore meeting begins with weigh-ins at 11: 45 a.m., followed by a group discussion and some quick tips from Babs, done in her cheerful Babs-like style. Think of a very encouraging kindergarten teacher.

"Try to be as good this time of year as you can be," she tells the group. "Get some people in your life to help you with some of the errands you need to do. If they don't all get done, there's always another year.

"Concentrate on your healthy eating. Do not skip meals. You see where I'm going, don't you?"

Eunice Gray does.

"She's so enthusiastic all the time, and you need that when you're going through a program like this," she says. "And I know she cares."

That's right, Babs cares. She knows how much you want that chocolate-covered Santa Claus-shaped cookie that your co-worker just brought in. She knows how hard it is to resist a candy cane when it's sitting on the tree, just begging you to eat it. She knows the pang dieters feel when they hear the words, Hey, it's the holidays. Splurge.

Go ahead. Babs would tell you to have the cookie and the candy cane, if you must. Just don't go overboard. Eat one piece of peanut brittle, not a bucket full.

But Babs knows not all soldiers get through the holidays unscarred. She knows some of you will crack.

Some of you will eat the cheesecake. All the cheesecake.

That's why attendance at Weight-Watchers soars in the first two or three weeks after the New Year. That's why resolutions were invented.

Never fear. One person will be waiting for you. She will be smiling.

"The struggle," Babs says, "never ends."

Barbara 'Babs' Nelson's Top Five Tips for Holiday Eating

1. Just remember: This is not the only holiday you'll ever have. You don't have to eat everything you see. ("It's not like it's the Last Supper.")

2. Take a different approach. Don't give in to what's-the-use? thinking. You can eat healthy during the holidays without depriving yourself.

3. Take the steps instead of the elevator. Walk. Keep active. It will help relieve the stress you feel during the holidays -- stress that many people relieve by eating.

4. Enjoy yourself. "Don't be a martyr." If you must have a Christmas cookie, have it. Just don't eat a dozen.

5. Eat more fruits and vegetables. "Fiber foods make you feel full."

Pub Date: 12/17/98

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