Out of the 100-plus women who e-mailed us this very complaint, we chose three and had a team of no-nonsense experts—a nutritionist, a trainer and a life coach—take them on. What were our subjects really eating? More important, what was eating them? Three months (and a total of 47 lost pounds) later, the answers are in.
Michelle Williams, a 37-year-old financial analyst living in Colorado Springs, Colorado, wrote to O in frustration, claiming she can't lose weight despite doing everything right. Wagering that some part of that "right" is probably wrong, the magazine put together an ace makeover squad for Michelle and two other women. The experts—O columnist and life coach Martha Beck, nutritionist Rovenia Brock, PhD, and exercise consultant Jorge Cruise—created a radical yet simple three-month plan to take off extra pounds.
Nutrition Advice from Rovenia Brock
Nutritionist Rovenia Brock, who goes by the name Dr. Ro, is a former host on Black Entertainment Television and the author of the no-nonsense eating guide Dr. Ro's Ten Secrets to Livin' Healthy (Bantam). Dr. Ro, however, is no carb counter. Instead she advocates balanced meals of mostly unrefined foods.
Before the meeting, Dr. Ro had each woman send her a week's food diary. As she reviewed their entries with them over breakfast, their "I'm doing everything right" defense quickly collapsed. Dr. Ro pointed out the self-sabotage in Michelle's choices.
Good food would provide nutrition and a feeling of fullness that lasts all afternoon. Michelle, however, often went for quick "cheap thrills"—a rush of sugar-fueled energy that leaves her hungry again in about an hour. Dr. Ro advises Michelle to take baggies of food to work that she can turn to when the cravings hit: slices of chicken, strips of bell peppers, strawberries. "And try a protein bar as opposed to 32 ounces of fruit punch," she advises.
Dr. Ro's diet advice for all is refreshingly gimmick-free: Step up the fruits and vegetables; eat some lean protein (egg whites, low-fat dairy, skinless poultry, beans) at each meal; and replace doughnuts, bagels and candy with complex carbohydrates like whole grains and cereals. She believes in snacks, but emphasizes healthy ones like a handful of nuts or a small bag of carrots.
Additionally, she wants the women to cut back on their calories but not go so low that their bodies think there's a famine. Starving will only encourage the retention of fat around the waist and hips, she explains.
Making Over Your Mind from Martha Beck
With Dr. Ro's advice for the stomach in place, it was time for Martha Beck to make over Michelle's mind. "I believe losing weight is about telling the truth," says Martha Beck, author of The Joy Diet (Crown) and Expecting Adam (Berkley). She means a kind of truth beyond admitting, say, that before bed you tend to devour a pint of chocolate–chip–cookie–dough ice cream.
Her theory is that we all have an "essential self" who wants to live our "right life." But so often our real life is not our right life. If work or intimate relationships are keeping us from what we really want and need, she says, "the essential self kicks up a fuss through eating, addiction and getting sick."
Her goal with Michelle is to break down bad relationships with food. "Take your plate of food, go to the wastebasket and throw it away." Beck's politely delivered command is meant to focus on portion size: eating only to the point of fullness. "Studies are very clear that the ability to throw away food is a great indicator of an ability to lose weight," says Martha. To Michelle's plaintive "That's wasteful," Martha replies with a knowing smile, "It's going to waste if it goes to your thighs, belly and upper arms."
Martha's role in exposing their emotional eating triggers is so important. Without self-knowledge, all the nutritional information in the world won't do any good, because every time the women need to relieve stress or salve an emotional wound—in other words, deal with life—they'll probably resort to food. And life, she says, happens every day.
She explains that when women are actually addressing the reasons they are feeling fear or anger or frustration, they won't feel hungry. "If you're processing that mountain of emotional energy, you can't eat. Your relationship with food is an amazing passage to your deepest issues."
Body Movin' Advice from Jorge Cruise
Jorge Cruise is AOL's online weight loss coach and the author of the popular 8 Minutes in the Morning book series (published by HarperResource and Rodale). His basic program consists of just two exercises of high-intensity strength training a day, six days a week.
To those dubious that eight minutes a day can accomplish much, Jorge assures each of them that if they do his routine properly, they will reshape their bodies and charge up their metabolism. He says a lot of people waste time at the gym resting too long between sets and not using heavy enough weights. "Strength training is like a house's foundation," he says. "It's the structural support."
The key to his program's success, he explains, is that it's excuse-proof: No one can convincingly claim she can't carve eight minutes out of her day to get in shape. The exercises can be done at home; the only equipment you need is a pair of dumbbells.
How'd Michelle Do?
And what were the results of all this work?
After three months, Michelle, wearing a red sweater and white pants (yes, white, the color that hides nothing!), had lost 15 pounds and achieved her goal of going from size 12 to size 8—sometimes even a 6. For years, her husband, an exercise fanatic, would invite her to go to the gym with him early in the morning. "I'd say, 'I'll meet you,'" she recalls, "and then I never would." Now she gets there. In the evenings, instead of relaxing on the couch, the whole family goes for a walk with the dog, and Michelle will say, "Let's take a longer route." (She, too, kept dropping weight after the reunion, going down to 128 for a total of 22 pounds lost.)
On Dr. Ro's advice, Michelle started bringing healthier snacks to work so she could bypass the vending machine. "This morning it was carrots," she says. She also packs nuts, and eats just a handful, or small boxes of raisins. "Once or twice a week, I treat myself," she says of her love for sweets. "But I don't go overboard the way I used to."
She also followed Martha's advice on not automatically finishing everything on her plate. And there was something else. Thinking about her first e-mail to O, she admits, "I was a liar. I wasn't doing everything right." She knew what to do, she says; she just wasn't doing it.
At their first meeting in New York, Martha told Michelle, "Dieting is just the beginning. Pushing away that food is like pushing away your drug—you will be left with your feelings." And once those feelings were exposed, the process of getting honest began. The women lost weight because they became truthful about the fact that they weren't doing "everything right" and straight about the reasons why. Martha left them with the knowledge that their success had little to do with reducing the circumference of their thighs, and everything to do with discovering what had been going on inside their minds and hearts to keep them from reaching their goals. "I want you to have bodies you love," she said. "But more important, I want you to have lives you love." They are on their way.