Okay, so we were sitting around this picnic table at a Cub Scout camp out, and the boys are eating hot dogs and the grown-ups are having chicken. And someone says, "Gee, that chicken would make a great sandwich. Try it in this hot dog bun."
So one of the dads says, "Okay," and takes it, but he doesn't eat it.
"I'm on Atkins," he says eventually, a sort of apology in his voice and a soggy mess of the scrunched-up bun left on his plate, but the chicken all gone.
Then another dad chimes in, "Yeah, I'm on South Beach," so he's skipping the bread, too, and nobody is eating the corn, heaven forbid! And a skinny young mom nearby chirps in that she's dieting, too. I don't want to be left out, so I throw in, sure, I'm on Weight Watchers, which I normally wouldn't be chatting about with my Cub Scout pals, but I think smugly to myself: At least I can eat bread.
I eat the corn instead.
It is now possible to be embarrassed if you are not dieting. Because we are the Diet Nation, fat and unhappy. The nation's obesity threat level has been raised to red: An attack is underway!
William H. Dietz, a physician and director of the Division of Nutrition and Physical Activity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stresses that the threat is real, but the camp out story is positive, he says, laughing a little, because it "means the message is getting through." Weight-loss attempts are to be applauded because it is not happening enough. Obesity has doubled in adults and kids ages 6 to 11, and tripled in adolescents ages 12-19.
We are big and getting bigger.
Dietz says that's partly because the "energy balance" has shifted.
He's talking about all our labor-saving devices.
"When was the last time you rolled up your car window by hand?" Dietz asks, to say nothing about reductions in PE classes, sprawling suburbs that require cars over walking and, of course, television, which has made big, fat double-stuffed couch potatoes of so many of us. Those are on the "expenditure" side of the energy balance.
On the "intake" side, you can thank growing portions, takeout food, soft drinks and skipping meals. At least dieting gurus forbid that. You've got to eat or else you get hungry and risk bingeing.
So now, instead of skipping meals, we diet to eat and eat to diet. We follow whoever will lead on any given day. Atkins, South Beach, Dr. Phil, Jenny Craig, Fergie Does Weight Watchers, Overeaters Anonymous, private nutritionists, low carb, low fat, low sugar, low taste. The Washington Post's own Lean Plate Club is thriving. AOL's Diet and Fitness week recently wrapped up.
One friend, looking slim and trim, told me she had lost a lot of weight on Weight Watchers. Not long after, I told her she was my inspiration for joining. Then she confessed. No Weight Watchers. She had lied out of embarrassment. Not because she was dieting, but because she was such a cheater she couldn't even trust herself on Weight Watchers.
Instead she had signed up with some group that you check in with every morning, tell them what you are going to eat all day, and check in regularly through the day. You have to go to meetings, too. This is what it has come to.
Pounds are being shed by the millions. The "South Beach Diet" has 7,750,000 books in print, with 2.5 million online subscribers to their e-mail newsletter called the Daily Dish.
Is there anyone who isn't dieting?
According to Dietz, the most recent data, which are a few years behind the curve, suggest that there are still more women than men trying to lose weight, by about a 3-to-2 margin. Dietz has no stats on whether more men are dieting these days, but, if you take a head count at any cocktail party -- or Cub Scout camp out -- you would bet their numbers are up.
The lines at Weight Watchers are quite literally out the door. Weight Watchers holds 46,000 meetings every week in 30 countries, with 1.5 million people in attendance.
On any lunch hour the K Street office is filled with the dieting millions, the worker bees who have had too many candy bars with their Diet Cokes and now spend time totaling up their points. Have I eaten my 22 today? Might I squeeze in a few more if I walk into the McDonald's instead of using the drive-through?
All the sandwich shops, the bread palaces of America, which have spent a lifetime paying homage to the wheat farmers of the world, now offer their low-carb alternatives. Diners squeal in horror when the bread basket is brought to their table, as if a dead rat had been offered instead.
"Do you want this the Atkins way?" asks a worker at Subway, and then she counts out the slices of black olives to make sure I do not go into carb overload. "Put on a few more," I encourage her, but she looks at me with the greatest guilt-inducing glare she can muster. "That's not the Atkins way."
"It's okay," I whisper. "I won't tell anybody."
Besides, Jared even ate the bread and he lost all that weight, didn't he?
For Mother's Day my son gave me two bags of potato chips. My favorite. I cannot resist. When he sees me eating them, he says, "Weight Watchers -- how many points are those?" Why did he bother with the gift if guilt was part of the package?
So what can you do?
"The strategies people employ to lose weight vary greatly," Dietz says. "The strategies people employ to maintain weight are less varied." If they followed these, he says, "they wouldn't have to lose weight the second time."
How simple they are, but how undisciplined are we. Eat Breakfast. Eat a low-fat diet. Monitor your weight regularly (hey, big guy, get on the scale already!). And exercise moderately, 60 minutes a day.
He seems to have left out the part where you can eat all you want and never exercise.
However, Dietz has some small good news -- your metabolic rate can be increased by something as seemingly insignificant as "vigorous fidgeting or chewing gum." Sugarless, of course. That doesn't mean it counts as a weight-loss strategy, but it "changes your energy expenditure."
Every little bit helps.
I am visualizing. A pound of butter, in that nice rectangular box, that is my goal. Every pound shed is one more box off the waistline, piled up in the corner. I see them rising to the ceiling, pound after pound. Then I see a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread. How many points is the whole loaf?
Time to start fidgeting -- vigorously.