Here's what I eat on an average day: an energy bar, cheddar-flavored rice cakes, a banana, some baked chips, and for dinner, maybe a slice of pizza washed down with diet lemonade. Then if I'm feeling wild, I'll have a slice of fat-free pound cake. This menu horrifies my husband, an amateur gourmet cook. "Why do you eat that fake stuff?" he asks. I give him my usual answers: I don't have time for real meals. I like feeling "light" as opposed to stuffed. It keeps my energy up. But the real reason is that I am always thinking about food. I remind him that I've had a robust appetite since birth—my first word was more
—and I can't exactly eat brownies nonstop.
He shakes his head. We've had this conversation many times. He grabs my latest discovery, a box of jalapeño "munchies," a low-fat version of pizza rolls from the health food store, and says, "Can you please define a munchie
I can't. All I know is that if I'm going to eat all day, then grazing on low-fat or low-carb snacks and meals is the only way I know to maintain my weight. But later, after polishing off a bag of cheddar and sour cream baked chips (not a two-ounce portion but a family-size bag), I think about my husband's questions and start wondering about the trade-off for feeling so light. Those chips were the color of a highway safety cone, and why was sugar the third item on the list of ingredients? What if I ate the real-food counterparts to all my low-cal foods—actual ice cream, for instance? Would my thighs expand faster than the Sun Belt suburbs? Would I feel sluggish from the changes? And if I started eating cheese or cookies or roast beef, would I ever be able to stop?
I wasn't sure. My diet plan has always been about leveraging science and technology to fool my taste buds and Mother Nature, but when O
asked me to give up my faux foods in favor of the real thing for a month, I thought it might be time to try something different. So I said yes.
Knowing that this will be a radical shift in my diet, I've arranged to talk to a woman who's written a best-selling book about enjoying fabulous food in tiny amounts, as well as two nutrition experts, and Danny Meyer, the incredibly busy owner of some of New York's consistently top-rated restaurants, who always tries to make time for a homemade lunch. The first of my unofficial advisers is Mireille Guiliano, president of the Champagne company Clicquot and author of French Women Don't Get Fat
. The French, Guiliano explains in her book, refuse to think of a meal as a guilt-inducing activity. French women make a ritual of sitting down for a meal—they do not snack or eat on the run. They also don't torture themselves; they take pleasure in wine and cheese and pastries—all kinds of foods that I've deprived myself of—but in moderation.
We meet at Jean Georges restaurant, a glorious, four-star paean to French cuisine in New York City. As a waiter serves Guiliano a jewel-like piece of salmon and a few perfect spears of asparagus, I tell her about my low-cal lifestyle. Like all the experts I'll meet, she's aghast. During our three-hour meal, she drinks a generous glass of Champagne and eats both bread and molten chocolate cake, but, following a key tenet of her book, only three bites of each. "The first bites are the best, anyway," she says. I try her rule, then put my fork down when she does. She's right: If you can just hold off that more-more-more urge for five minutes, you won't bolt down the whole serving. We share our dishes with much exclaiming (dining with her is a festive event), and Guiliano tells me about her passion for cooking with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
For dinner that night, in the spirit of Guiliano, I leave the frozen diet angel hair pasta marinara in my freezer and make my own, using vine-ripe tomatoes and fragrant basil. I imitate Guiliano and eat slowly, putting my fork down frequently. I still devour the whole thing. French women may not get fat, but I'm afraid I might.