It is 6 A.M. on one of those unfailingly blue-sky days in Los Angeles, and Kara Fox is starting the morning as she starts every morning: having a mug of Taster's Choice instant coffee filled liberally with heavy cream. It's unlikely that any other nourishment (if this pale brown breakfast can be called nourishment) will pass her lips until dinnertime—except for maybe an apple, a few spoonfuls of cottage cheese, some trail mix. Fox, 60 and arguably one of the more glamorous grandmothers, is on a kind of perpetual, self-imposed parole of food restriction in order to stay a size zero and continue to fit into some damn beautiful clothes. But all that may change...
The idiosyncratic habits of Fox and three other women, all good sports, were the focus of O
's "spy in the house" project. The inspiration was a call to the cofounder of the National Weight Control Registry, a data bank of around 4,500 long-term weight losers. James O. Hill, PhD, sends ethnographers—cultural anthropologists— into the homes of successful dieters to ferret out their secrets. Such a clever method seemed like a good way to investigate the healthy (or not so healthy) behaviors of O
's four women. Asking questions about a diet or workout may lead to a somewhat rosy version of the truth, but dispatch a trained observer with an acute eye for detail to poke around the house—dust on the treadmill? cookie crumbs in the bed?—and all habits are laid bare.
Enter (literally) Inga Treitler, PhD, one of Hill's anthropologists and director of ethnography for the TerraNova Group in Atlanta (her job entails observing and evaluating human behavior to compile research, often for corporate clients or health professionals). Treitler agreed to take notebook and camera on the road for O
, to get a nonjudgmental and judicious peek into the refrigerators, medicine cabinets, closets, and cars of our subjects, shadowing them at home and at work, at the gym and the grocery, and wherever else they go during a typical day.
Once Treitler completed her four missions, she joined a SWAT team of healthcare professionals, including Hill, to evaluate the findings. Aside from his work with the Registry, Hill is director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver, coauthor of The Step Diet Book, and cofounder of America on the Move—a national program that coaches people to take an additional 2,000 steps per day (about a mile), while cutting 100 calories. Pamela Peeke, MD, and Miriam Nelson, PhD, rounded out the team. Peeke, an expert in women's health based in the Washington, D.C., area, is the author of Body for Life for Women and Fight Fat After Forty. Nelson is director of the John Hancock Center for Physical Activity and Nutrition at Tufts University in Boston and the author of the Strong Women book series (Strong Women Stay Young, Strong Women Stay Slim, Strong Women Eat Well).
The goal of this project was for each woman to receive a customized health-upgrade prescription. (We'll check in with them in the August issue to see how well it's working.) But there's no reason they should be the only ones to benefit. "Even without a team of professionals," says Treitler, "people can play investigator to their own lives"—and give their health a lift.
Next: Treitler investigates the first home