YOU KNOW how it is with diets. The first week, you wrap yourself in a mantle of religious zeal and adhere stringently to their every dictatorial whim: fish -- 3 ounces, boiled; peas -- 2, small.
By the second week, you're beginning to question the wisdom of obeying a guru you've never met, and you've started to chop celery and green pepper into every dish.
During the third week, the scales glue themselves to last week's weight and the TV shows nothing but chocolate candy and the detailed preparation of pizza. By then, you are willing to pretend that tomato juice is tomato paste and bean sprouts are spaghetti, as long as it will get some food into your stomach.
This process goes double for the intrinsic snacker -- those of us who never got off the three-hour feeding schedule. Like Winnie-the Pooh, many of us have clocks permanently set at the "time for a little something" mark.
Diets that ignore this ingrained habit may be doomed to failure. It's hard enough going off sugar and bread; trying to go off snacks at the same time falls into the category of "cruel."
What a diet should ideally do, instead, is retrain your eating from the gluttonous to the normal, teach you to tell the difference between appetite and hunger, and show you how to ignore the former and satisfy the latter with nourishing foods.
That's the sort of statement diet books are full of, and they make perfect sense -- especially if you read them while munching pretzels. What they don't tell you is how to accomplish these lofty goals. For that, you need a battle plan.
Your first line of defense lies in the Ignore Tactic. If the hunger signal goes off, remember that your hunger signal has been broken lately, and treat it as you would a malfunction: Ignore it. Clean out your files, straighten your wallet, take a walk around the block or up and down some stairs, treat yourself to a soak in the tub, but get as far away as you can from the refrigerator or the vending machine.
If the signal continues to go off after a half-hour, you may cautiously assume that it might mean something. Then your best defense lies, as the conservatives keep telling us, in preparedness. You need a refrigerator stocked with low-calorie snacks within easy sight and reach -- snacks that look appetizing, of not as appealing as brownies.
The ideal snack contains enough protein to keep you going until your next "real" (I use the term advisedly) meal, and enough bulk to fill your stomach and hit the "off" switch on your hunger signal.
Two cups of most vegetables certainly fill the bulk bill, and add less than 100 calories to your quota. There are a host of low-calorie vegetables at your disposal; a flip through a U.S. Department of Agriculture list turned up the following calorie counts for 1/2 cup servings: bok choy -- 6; green pepper -- 7 (1/2 pepper); zucchini -- 9; celery -- 10; cucumber -- 10; mushrooms -- 10; red pepper -- 10 (1/2 pepper); cauliflower -- 11; radishes -- 11; yellow squash -- 13; green beans -- 17; turnips -- 18; broccoli -- 20; scallions -- 23 (6 scallions); eggplant -- 25; carrots -- 27; and brussel sprouts -- 32.
A dip adds both color and splash to this crunchy meal; the following recipes also contain protein. SALSA (Makes about 2 cups; approximately 110 calories) 4 to 5 fresh tomatoes, or 1 pound canned tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped 1/2 green pepper, finely minced 1/2 small onion, minced (about 1 tablespoon) 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder 1 hot, green chill pepper, minced 1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix together all ingredients. Puree about 1/2 the mixture in the blender, and add this to the remainder. The salsa is a little juicy, and needs to be drained periodically if left to stand for a long time. Because of its lumpiness, it does well with curved vegetables like celery and green pepper, and with (sigh) corn chips. VEGETABLE MARINADE (Makes about 1/2 cup; approximately 50 calories) 1 small shallot, minced 2 tablespoons green onion tops or chives, minced 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1 tablespoon capers 1 teaspoon fresh dill 1/4 teaspoon celery seed 1/2 cup tomato juice 1/8 teaspoon salt 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Mix all ingredients, and pour over 3 to 4 cups of lightly cooked, low-calorie vegetables. Let stand for several hours or overnight, stirring periodically.
There are days when the sight of yet another celery stalk does nothing but deplete your drive to diet, when nothing will do but the comfort of a warm meal. For those days, there is Survival Soup -- a low-calorie broth filled with chunky, crunchy vegetables. This version comes from fellow dieter Ricci Waters, who says that "nearly every dieting group in the area has an equivalent recipe." SURVIVAL SOUP (Makes about 5 cups; approximately 32 calories per cup) 1 cup tomato juice 2 beef bouillon cubes 2 cups water 1/2 cup fresh green beans 2 cups shredded raw cabbage 1 cup chopped celery (2 large or 3 small stalks) 1/2 cup mushrooms 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder 1/2 teaspoon pepper
Stir together tomato juice, bouillon cubes and water; bring to a boil. Add the green beans and cook five minutes. Add the remaining ingredients, and simmer 10 to 15 minutes.
If you require something fast and warm, a frittata fits the need. Basically, a frittata is one or two eggs cooked with 1/2 cup vegetables and seasonings to match; pick your favorite combination, or try: GERMAN OMELET (Slightly more than 100 calories) 1 egg 1/2 teaspoon water 1/2 cup sauerkraut Caraway seeds
Beat egg with water, and pour into a heated nonstick pan. When it starts to set, evenly distribute the sauerkraut over the top, sprinkle with the caraway seeds, and cover. Cook until set, and serve immediately.
The question of the weekend breakfast looms ugly in the minds of most dieters. The thought of facing a family pig-out with a calorie-bereft food allowance seems self-flagellating; many choose to stay in bed with the paper throughout the family feast.
Another choice is joining the family and partaking of one or two pancakes, covered with warmed applesauce or crushed pineapple. Or try the following recipe: FRENCH TOAST (Approximately 267 calories) 1 egg 3 tablespoons frozen, unsweetened orange juice concentrate 1 tablespoon water 1 teaspoon cinnamon 2 slices thin-cut bread
Beat the egg, and add the concentrate, water and cinnamon. Dip the bread quickly in this mixture, covering both sides and heat it on a nonstick skillet.
With the taste of sugar echoing from their past life, many dieters turn their sweet-tooth cravings toward a rubbery pseudo-substance called "diet gelatin," or to baked, saccharin-laden objects with cute names like "Somewhat Sinful Chocolate Cake."
This is a turn for the worse, and one best avoided. Remember all those little rats who got tumors so that you might know the evils of sugar substitutes. Did those cancer-ridden rats (or was it mice?) die in vain?
Actually, there was a perfectly good reason to avoid saccharin long before the cancer research: It tastes crummy. What's more, real food tastes great, as the dieter's long-numbered taste buds begin to discover. Onions are actually sweet, carrots seem like dessert, and pineapple tastes like something that rots your teeth.
If reaching for a piece of fruit does not seem the same as reaching for dessert, here are a couple of recipes that use nature's candy as its only sweetener: STRAWBERRY ICE CREAM (Approximately 135 calories) 1 cup frozen whole strawberries (unsweetened) 1/3 cup dry nonfat milk 1 teaspoon vanilla
Place ingredients in a blender, and add enough water to get the blender started (2 to 3 tablespoons; more if you want a milkshake). Whirl until the ingredients are thoroughly mixed, and serve.