Nichole Battle, 38, has everything: a beautiful 3-year-old daughter, an architect husband who will do the dishes, an interesting job as a project manager for a nonprofit company and a coming trip to China to complete her executive MBA program at Loyola College.
She also has a sweet tooth and 35 pounds she wants to lose by August, when she leaves for the Far East.
"I can't go over there fat," she said.
Battle is far from fat, but she doesn't always eat as healthfully as she could. And she would enjoy having more energy and being closer to the weight she was when she had time to exercise regularly.
"If I work out," she said, "I lose weight. I belong to Lynne Brick, but I'm just giving them money." With her job, family and school on the weekends, there's barely time to walk Logan the dog, let alone go to a club to exercise in the morning.
I went with Robin Spence, a registered dietitian at Union Memorial Hospital and the voice of authority in our monthly Make Over My Meal series, to meet with Battle at her downtown rowhouse. She had just gotten home after picking up her daughter, Kayla, from day care. She and her husband are renovating their three-story house, as if they didn't have enough to do.
Battle was frank about her love affair with good food. She had a specific "before" meal she wanted us to make over - a rib-eye steak cooked in butter - but she had several nutrition questions jotted down on a yellow legal pad she wanted to address first.
"I eat a lot of veggies and fruits," she said. "I just have a thing about sweets. I grew up with a baker, my grandmother."
She takes her lunch to work, but doughnuts and other treats at work can be a problem.
"Carry things like carrot sticks," Spence said, "to sort of cut it off at the pass."
In most cases, Battle eats well. She often shops at Whole Foods and Trader Joe's, buying fresh and organic foods when they are available. On the other hand, time is usually of the essence.
"What dictates shopping for me," she said, "is milk. If Kayla runs out of milk in the morning, there's hell to pay."
Her breakfast is often Eggo whole-grain waffles with fruit. Spence approved of them as a fast breakfast; but Battle also loves King Syrup, which she heats in the microwave to make it go farther. Just 1 ounce provides her with about 80 calories, which would take her roughly 10 minutes of jogging to work off.
"How can I wean myself off sweets?" she asked Spence.
Battle is convinced that she can't just have one of something. Once she gets started, she said, "I have to eat it till it's gone."
Spence had several suggestions. "You don't have to give sweets up. You just have to give up overeating."
One of the best ways to wean yourself, she said, is to let a longer time elapse between treats. "You know you can have them, but you need to set limits. The longer you can go without, the better."
She also suggested substituting some expensive, exotic fruit for chocolate so that it seems as if she's having a special treat. Not an apple. "If you go spend $1.29 on an apricot that's only available two weeks a year, it might work."
Then she presented Battle with the First Bite Theory of Eating. The first bite of anything always tastes the best, it's been argued, because of "taste fatigue."
"The idea," Spence said, "is that you don't have to keep eating because it's never going to taste as good as that first bite. So you might as well cut your losses."
When Battle didn't look convinced, the nutritionist brought out the Last Bite Theory of Eating. Whether you have one doughnut or three, there's still always the last bite. You'll still always want more. So you might as well cut your losses and stop after a reasonable amount.
Our nutritionist tried to talk Battle out of her 35-pound weight-loss goal. It would be reachable, she said, only with a "shakes-and-bars" diet. To lose that much weight by her trip in August, Battle would have to shed 2 pounds a week and stick to a 1,000-calorie-a day diet.
"You will be miserable," Spence told her, "and there's a huge likelihood of your gaining it all back with a vengeance."
Instead, Spence did the math, given Battle's height and weight, and suggested a 1,700-calorie- a-day diet, which would lead to a weight loss of 1/2 to 1 pound a week.
One of the most important strategies would be to eat only the intended portion. Battle often finished up what her daughter left, or nibbled on leftovers as she cleaned the kitchen after dinner. (Get your husband to do the cleanup, Spence said.) Battle does own a food scale, which would help make portion control accurate.
Because Battle likes vegetables, Spence told her she wouldn't have to make drastic changes. The before-and-after meals were a good example.
One of Battle's favorite dinners when she needs a treat is a rib-eye steak cooked in butter. When she has it, she serves it with pasta and a vegetable like carrots or broccoli. Dessert might be ice cream. (There was a pint of Baskin-Robbins in the freezer.)
She always planned to eat just half the steak, she told Spence, but she usually kept nibbling away because it was so good. She probably ended up eating 8 ounces of rib-eye.
For an after meal, Spence suggested using a leaner cut like flank steak and marinating it to tenderize it, something the marbling in the rib eye does naturally. Cutting the flank steak in thin slices on the diagonal also makes it seem more tender and creates the illusion of more meat. The nutritionist told Battle to weigh her portion after cooking and to limit herself to 3 ounces.
Battle doesn't like lettuce salads, but she does eat raw spinach, so Spence suggested a salad made of spinach, sliced mushrooms and the reduced-fat raspberry vinaigrette Battle had in the fridge. The vegetable would be cooked carrots with fresh mint and just a smidgen of butter to bring out the flavor. The whole-grain pasta with butter and salt and pepper she would leave to her husband and Kayla. Dessert would be sorbet, not ice cream.
The calorie total for the dinner should be under 600, which meant she could eat breakfast, lunch and a couple of healthful snacks during the day and still stay under 1,700 calories.
So how did the after meal compare? I called a few days later to find out. Because this is closer to reality TV than a scripted show, there was one big glitch.
"I couldn't find flank steak anywhere," Battle told me over the phone. "I tried Whole Foods, Trader Joe's and then Safeway."
"So what did you use?" I asked.
It turned out that she bought a rib-eye, but "it was very lean." (If you have trouble finding flank steak, try a London broil instead.) She cooked it the way Spence advised, sliced it thin, and limited herself to 3 ounces. She filled up on carrots and spinach salad.
Back at the Sun office, we were surprised to find that the caloric difference between the two cuts wasn't that great. Portion control actually made the biggest difference.
"I was quite full," Battle said, "and it looked so pretty on the plate."
And the pasta?
"I am guilty of having one strand," she said.
Long term, though, she felt she could follow most of Spence's advice.
"I'm guilty of whenever Kayla doesn't finish it, I eat it," she said. "But lately Logan [the dog] has been enjoying a lot of waffles."
Basic Grilled Flank Steak
1 (2-pound) flank steak, trimmed
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Place steak in an 11-inch- by-7-inch-baking dish. Sprinkle each side evenly with half of Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper; rub mixture into steak. Cover and refrigerate at least 20 minutes.
Prepare grill. Place steak on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill 8 minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Place on a cutting board; cover loosely with foil. Let stand 10 minutes. Cut steak diagonally across grain into thin slices.
Recipe and analysis provided by Cooking Light
Per serving: 158 calories, 7 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 23 grams protein, 45 milligrams cholesterol, 203 milligrams sodium, 0 grams fiber, trace carbohydrate