City Sprawl: Seasonal Calories

To everything there’s a season, a carb count and an insufferable weight-loss support group.

Northern Virginia Magazine City Sprawl, Illustration by Matt Mignanelli
Illustration by Matt Mignanelli.

To everything there’s a season, a carb count and an insufferable weight-loss support group.

By Susan Anspach  •  Illustration by Matt Mignanelli

Diet season is upon us in Northern Virginia. No one knows it better than me, after 10 years of being on the wrong side of chubby. That’s not true. Target and Yoplait know better. Mid-January strikes neither of them as an outrageous time of year to merrily point out bikini season, hovering over us all like the thong of Damocles. The suggestion’s a lot of things; subtle isn’t among them: If we want to look good in string wear we would be wise to start—guzzling cultures, blowing kisses to three-way mirrors—now. 

Diets—I’ve known a few. To date I’ve danced with Atkins, Weight Watchers, a three-and-a-half-hour juice “cleanse,” the other Weight Watchers, South Beach, and a little ditty known as the 18-in-4, so named for having purportedly rid the creator of 18 pounds in four days (a preposterous claim, not to mention enormously bad for you—but what place does health have in selecting in a diet?).

My mother convinced me to undergo my first weight-loss regimen with the argument that it would be good for me to shed 10 pounds before I started college. I lost five before a three-night orientation camp trip and directly gained them all back calmly eating granola bars while the others scaled rocks and kayaked white-water rapids. (I made lots of friends on that trip, by cheering and always having gummy snacks in reserve.) Once college started, a student center serving cheesy sticks opened less than three minutes from my dorm. Doom.

I’ll tell you what you want to know. Atkins is the best. You can’t eat muffins or drink wine for two months, but goat cheese, bacon and bacon-wrapped goat cheese are fair game. I ate a wheel of Brie for dinner one night and was down two pounds the next day. When in a meeting a whole avocado rolled out of my supervisor’s handbag. The two of us locked eyes over the conference table and have been the closest of friends ever since.

Here’s the snag with fad diets like Atkins: Your interest burns out as fast as it flares up. It would be wrong to go your whole life drinking Crystal Pepsi by the light of a lava lamp. Similarly unthinkable: peeing on a Ketone test strip many consecutive mornings to make sure your carb levels are negligible and your body’s running on blubber. It is 100 percent as sensually pleasing as it sounds.

“Club” diets like Weight Watchers insist they’re not fads, that with them you’re tweaking your eating habits into something long term and manageable. The diets are manageable, unto themselves. What I’ve never been able to bring myself to do is set an alarm on a Saturday to sit in a circle arranging dates for power walks in the mall. For some reason it’s OK to commiserate with the other woman at the bar sipping Diet Cokes through happy hour; forced camaraderie via support groups tastes as unsatisfying as a protein shake artificially flavored to mask the micronized creatine and whey.

Enter the 18-in-4. What I liked most was it owned up to being what it was. A lot of them don’t. A lot of them make you sit through a two-chapter preamble rattling on about how they’re not a diet. But I want a diet, you’re thinking. You don’t, they correct you. We know you think you do because we just tricked you into shelling out $13.19 plus tax for The South Beach, Supercharged but what you’re looking for is a new way of life. What kind of life?, I wonder. One with rivers of Yoplait and a rainbow of Mossimo string-tops? No. One where you can never eat at the Golden Corral, or have bread.

My sister emailed me the 18-in-4, which legitimized it, since she’s a doctor. That doesn’t make her the healthiest person I know, but it does make her the busiest. The 18-in-4 doesn’t have a preamble. There’s no narrated meet-cute about me and the diet, about what forces led me to discover the diet, to the bookstore or website that was going to change my spiritual outlook. The 18-in-4 had grit. It had edge—the faintest outline of a crap boyfriend’s callous egotism. “No substitutes whatsoever. Don’t bother asking. Pepper is OK, no salt. Drink water if you want, but four glasses a day is recommended.” Then it tells you what to eat for four days, and you can do that if you want to. Or not. I did the 18-in-4 in 2009 and lost six pounds, a third of what was promised me, but I wasn’t complaining. Until I was complaining quite a bit. Two weeks after I finished the diet, I was diagnosed with appendicitis. Apparently the condition’s “genetic” and/or triggered by the “stasis” of your “lymphatic flow,” not four days of eating eggs and string beans. The association stuck anyway and I can’t go back. Tweet me if you want to try the 18-in-4, though.

Exercise, self-acceptance: the obvious alternatives. I have exercised before, in my life. I have joined gyms. I’ve been among the people whose evenings include jog routes and the same people they pass every night on their jog routes. Maybe before you thought those people only lived at bars and Whole Foods and Saturday meetings at Weight Watchers, but no! It’s a spooky feeling, like being able to see ghosts, or the future. One time I went so far as to register for a half-marathon. I may be a little lazy, and a little hungry, but I’m overwhelmingly cheap; i.e. wasn’t going to pay for that thing without following through. My training goal was the nine-mile run because I read in a magazine you could start eating gummy snacks for energy at nine miles. If you, like me, exercise for food rewards, I must tell you this one was not worth it. Race day saw 90-degree temperatures and 95-percent humidity. Owing to the aforementioned thrift, I’d selected a budget-friendly event in rural Pennsylvania where the other participants were either casually qualifying for the Boston Marathon or running ironically, dressed as various Disney characters and former presidents. No one was taking it seriously, including me after being twice lapped by a cross-dresser costumed as Ursula the Sea Witch.

It could be the final answer lies there—somewhere in the distance between me and that man in a purple leotard festooned with flopping rubber tentacles. The world over, yogurt companies would crumple unto themselves like spent puffer fish if we took the male approach to bikini season and its preparations. My husband could effectively drape himself in a Hefty garbage bag and declare himself “beach-ready,” if that term existed for him.

Better yet, the sexes could jointly adopt the European approach and institute Virginia’s first ocean-side nude beach, dotted with shacks selling carb bombs and yogurt-free mixed drinks. We could organize Disney-character beach volleyball. Free-for-all bombs of gummy snacks would volcanically erupt from the sand. You wouldn’t have to earn a minute of it. Come as you are. Maybe throw on a be-tentacled dance leotard, only make sure beforehand you don’t shed an ounce for it.

@CitySprawlNVMag keeps her fingers in shape on Twitter.

(March 2014)