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Lose 50 pounds - but not the popcorn

By Glenn Yoder
Globe Staff / June 17, 2009

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My mother awoke recently thinking a bear had broken into her house. Pantry doors were slamming. She swore she heard a growl.

No need to call animal control. It was my father. He's a night eater. We all have our sweet or salty vices, and his is the late-night snack. It's his key diet weakness, preventing him from losing the weight that showed up when my sisters and I were born - no matter how many diets he tries. An exercise fanatic, he actually kind of looks like a bear: barrel-chested with powerful arms . . . except for the gut. My grandfather is the same way: a one-time karate instructor and retired minister who frequents the gym even at 86, yet still watches his eating carefully. Being the next in line, I inherited this lot.

My Achilles' heel? Movie theater popcorn. Living in Davis Square, the scent of buttery kernels wafting from the theater may as well be a siren's song. The problem with these cravings is that you attempt to get rid of them from your life entirely, swapping all the "bad" foods for their "good" alternatives. Soon, nothing tastes good anymore and you invariably fall off the wagon.

After I graduated from college and settled into the role of online producer at Boston.com, the work week got the best of me. Sitting on my duff eight hours a day staring at a computer (and working on the food section, no less) contributed to a quick 40 pounds. Playing in a band, Cassavettes, didn't help. Sometimes the only pay musicians get is a bucket of Budweisers. I'm 23 years old, just a hair over 6 feet 1, and I've never been much of a cook. In fact, I've always been anti-diet, having watched numerous family members try and fail at every weight-loss fad.

But when my own weight ballooned to over 220 pounds last summer, and my health was affected, I knew something had to give. After overseeing an online chat with the authors of "Eat This, Not That," a book about making smarter food choices, I decided to follow that logic. I embellished parts and added my own rules where I saw fit. Still, I didn't imagine losing 50 pounds in six months.

As I set out to drop the weight, I identified certain foods as perhaps unhealthy, but nonnegotiable. After all, if I'm switching breads from white to high-fiber whole-wheat, and cereals from Frosted Flakes to Cheerios, surely I can allow for real mayo on that sandwich or an occasional bowl of oatmeal with brown sugar to break up the breakfast monotony. And I didn't consider getting rid of popcorn - I still made room for that once a week with no major changes.

As time passed, I added items to the "no" list with surprising ease: I gave up red meat and ham (two favorites). I did it cold turkey. Speaking of which, I substituted turkey and chicken. Beer, fast food, and my all-time favorite dish, spaghetti, were severely limited. Sugary sodas were out of the question; they were replaced with milk, water, or diet sodas.

I also set a few simple rules. At the recommendation of the "Eat This" authors, I became somewhat versed in nutritional labels, generally trying to keep calories, sugar, and carbohydrates low, while boosting fiber, whole grains, and proteins. In turn, my girlfriend and I decided to cook at home more than dine out. This meant learning to cook, using cookbooks and recipes online. Luckily, we mastered a few dishes quickly in order to have some reliable go-to options. I also imposed a firm ban on late-night eating (sorry, Dad) and tried to adopt the philosophy of my mother, who always says she doesn't believe in three squares a day. Instead, she chooses to scavenge throughout the day, eating small, light meals.

Following that logic, I likened my metabolism to a fire that I have to constantly stoke in order to keep it burning. I now eat as soon as possible in the morning (immediately after weighing myself), then I try to eat something light like a banana between breakfast and lunch, followed by a small lunch an hour later, usually a turkey sandwich and a diet soda. Before I leave work, I nibble on a reduced-sugar granola bar, and a few hours later, I try to eat a sensible dinner.

Dinner, with its social aspect, is the most difficult meal to control. So this is where I apply some of my "allowance" items. At least once a week, I indulge in pizza, Mexican food, even an occasional beer. But while simple food choices helped me, they were only half of the strategy. As the saying goes, calories in, calories out. I burned off whatever I ate by exercising - a lot. In November, as I started eating healthier foods, I bought an exercise bike and began logging my daily activities in a journal: weight, workout routine, sometimes a note about a large meal. The log was occasionally inspiring - I could literally see the results - but it was also motivating, particularly when I packed on weight after heavy feasts.

The pounds went quickly. Within a month, I dipped below 200. By February, I was back to my college weight, 180. People started using euphemisms like "you're looking rather svelte" to politely ask whether I had lost weight. Twice I bought new jeans (quite a good feeling). When Boston thawed out in the spring and I started running outside rather than biking indoors, my weight began to plateau and I slowly evened out at about 170.

There is, of course, a method at play here that every health professional already knows: eating right and exercising regularly. And in case you want to throttle me because this seemed to come so easily, the exercise wasn't always easy. Nor were the tough food choices. But I'm a guy and still in my early 20s, two factors working in my favor.

Beyond that, there really are no secrets or shortcuts. The only way for me to actually follow a weight-loss regimen was to figure out what my body responded to, and what's reasonable to ask myself to give up.

So, come on, pass the popcorn.