Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) is marshaling her resolve. She approaches the food table at the reception in the basement of the Rayburn House Office Building and gazes longingly upon it. She straightens her long, checked jacket and smooths her black straight skirt, delaying decision. Her eyes travel from the miniature fried egg rolls to the tiny meatballs in gravy to the tower of cheese. She considers, then resists, choosing a piece of raw, dried-out broccoli. Vegetables are the C rations of Lowey's war with weight.

"I've been to most of the programs," Lowey says. "Weight Watchers, Diet Center. One of the best was . . . the Bloomingdale's diet. I've been hypnotized . . ."

It was about three years ago, when Lowey, friend of Mario Cuomo, former state official and stalwart of Westchester County's volunteer network, decided to challenge then-Rep. Joseph J. DioGuardi. Her campaign was built around meeting small groups of voters at coffees. These proved a turning point in her battle with the bulge. "One person would have cookies and another would have cheesecake," she says. She never sat down for a meal. When the campaign ended, she'd gained a seat in Congress -- and 10 pounds.

That was the beginning of the vicious spiral upward. During her first term on Capitol Hill, she wallowed in workaholism: She stopped exercising in order to get to the office earlier and gave up cooking entirely -- she never even opened the silverware set she bought for her apartment in Washington. Soon, she had succumbed to the two most notorious nutritional pitfalls of congressional life -- carryout food and hors d'oeuvres. "If you have three receptions a night," she says, "and you walk around and eat at each . . ." That was how she gained the next 20 pounds.

This past fall, with the November election just weeks away, Lowey went on a quick weight-loss diet of her own design, dropping eight pounds in two weeks. She got out on the campaign trail, won reelection -- and is now caught up in the food-filled stream of receptions for new members, fund-raisers and eating events that seem a mandatory part of Washington's political life. It is only a matter of time, now, before she begins her next diet.

For despite a lifetime of losing weight, scores of pounds in dozens of weight wars, the congresswoman was forced to concede this fall, "This is the fattest I've ever been."

CONGRESS, LIKE MANY OF THE REST OF US, IS SUFFERING from a weight problem. Becoming too fat a cat is an increasingly significant occupational hazard for politicians. As a result, dozens of Capitol Hill denizens are joining the ranks of the diet-obsessed, dazzled by promises of permanent, painless weight loss in less time than it takes to order a pizza from Domino's. Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), overweight as a child and throughout his life a frequent "yo-yo" dieter, relied on "chocolate goop" last year to, again, drop 50 pounds -- which he regained. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) lost nearly 100 pounds twice but now says he's changed his eating habits to "low-fat." Former Republican representative Jack Buechner of Missouri shed more than 30 pounds in a month of eating prepackaged Jenny Craig cuisine and planned a Slim-Fast fast in this session before he was defeated. Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio) consulted Denise McLean, a personal nutritionist and trainer, and his success persuaded 40 other House members to enroll in McLean's Nutricize program.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who once tipped the scales at 333 pounds, lost his distinction as one of the fattest men in the House after his doctor ordered him to lose weight before prostate surgery a year and a half ago. To do it he developed his own Henry Hyde Quick Weight Loss Diet, an eating plan that makes Oliver Twist look well fed: "A cup of coffee, a glass of juice and a small muffin or dry toast for breakfast; for lunch, a very small salad; sometimes I would munch an apple about 4, and when I began getting hunger pains I fantasized about my Weight Watchers frozen dinner. I would look forward to that all day." Hyde's doctor was shocked when he found the congressman had dropped 75 pounds in only 3 1/2 months, much of which Hyde has -- so far -- kept off while eating a bit more but following his basic diet. As he puts it, "One gets used to anything."

Most congressional dieters look to the example set by last session's loss-leader, Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Wash.). Foley didn't fool around with personal diet development, fat counting or nutritionists; according to Roll Call, he dropped 63 pounds drinking Optifast, the liquid diet that television talk show queen Oprah Winfrey made famous.

But there's a difference between being a pudgy, diet-crazed pol and just another pudgy, diet-crazed person: On Capitol Hill, weight is not merely a personal issue, it's a political one. Our elected representatives are supposed to be, well, representing us on health issues, appropriating dollars and developing programs that might actually alleviate the country's widespread nutritional problems, obesity being one of the most significant ones.

This is not to say that, in another sense, we are not well represented by a chubby Congress. More than one-quarter of all adults in this country, 34 million people, are overweight, and one-tenth are severely overweight, according to the 1989 U.S. Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. The prevalence of obesity in the nation has not declined in more than two decades and results in more than $100 billion per year in avoidable costs from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke, hypertension and atherosclerosis. A hundred billion a year is about the same amount, on the average, that Congress sweated blood to find in the recent five-year, $492 billion federal deficit-reduction package.

We're probably well represented too by a dieting Congress. At least 65 million people are dieting right now, though not all of those dieting are overweight nor are all of the overweight dieting. And 18 percent of adults, like many of their public officials, are always dieting. A $33 billion weight-loss industry has been offering us prepacked foods, liquid formulas, diet drinks, pills, clinics, programs, spas, books, tapes, gadgets, exercise equipment and much more for three decades, yet we're still fat. And getting fatter. Obesity experts say fatness is increasingly a health hazard for -- and obsession of -- children, many of whom are already dieting by age 9.

Because 90 percent of people who lose 25 pounds or more in a diet program regain the weight within two years, and many of them gain even more weight, one diet often leads to another. Dieting becomes not so much a means to an end as a lifestyle. One is forced to wonder if all this dieting is part of the solution or part of the problem.

It's not as though our government is simply ignoring these issues; given the rising cost of health care, it can't. Still, there is no coordinated diet and nutrition policy, only a few disparate attempts to create one.

Congress recently held hearings on fraud and deception in the weight-loss industry and is pressuring the plodding Federal Trade Commission to adopt stricter regulations on advertising by diet programs. Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan in his report to the nation, "Healthy People 2000," set as a goal trimming the country's overweight adult population from 26 percent to 20 percent in 10 years. Sullivan himself concedes in his report that meeting this goal will require an effort on the order of that waged against smoking -- in this case, through extensive nutrition education and research into obesity and dietary treatment of disease, now only a tiny fraction of the federal health budget.

Reducing America's weight problem, then, means a major shift in public attitudes about fat and food -- away from diets, quick weight loss and our quixotic quest for thinness and toward a slow, agonizing change in what we regard as good eating, good looks and good health. A campaign like this would seem appealing to an overweight Congress floundering for a nutrition policy. But shifting attitudes through public policy is never simple. Especially when the policy is being made by a group of people who can seem, in their personal lives, as savvy about healthy eating and safe weight-loss practices as the average group of teenagers. "I GO TO THE REPUBLICAN SIDE FOR APPLES; THE DEMOCRAT-ic side doesn't serve fruit. I tried to get them to serve fruit. I failed," says Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), describing the food in the congressional cloakrooms, off the floor of the House. "There's every type of candy bar, that cheese-covered popcorn . . . Once in a while they'll serve you a sandwich, like tuna fish, but that's really heavy on the mayonnaise. The men really do eat those hot dogs. I've never had a hot dog in the eight years I've been here -- it's so high in sodium, fat and cholesterol. They have all kinds of cookies; there are pieces of pie . . ."

By her fourth term, Kaptur had signed on with Denise McLean, Ohio colleague Mike Oxley's fitness mentor, to drop the 15 pounds she'd picked up in the halls and cloakrooms of government. THE HOUSE SMALL BUSINESS COMMITTEE HEARING ROOM IN the Rayburn Building is filled with reporters, TV cameras and members of the drug and weight-loss industries. Oil paintings of past chairmen of the committee stare sternly down from the cream-colored walls. The long, wood-paneled desk on the dais where the members sit has 15 chairs, all of them empty except two. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chairman of the subcommittee on regulation, business opportunity and energy, is present, as is ranking minority member William Broomfield (R-Mich.). Nobody else seems to care much about the topic on this September day: fraud and deception in the multibillion-dollar weight-loss industry.

Wyden, a tall, lanky guy with only 165 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame, has never dieted in his life. But he was curious enough about the millions of people who do to begin investigating the safety, effectiveness and advertising claims of the various weight-loss plans, as well as what he calls the government's "chaotic" efforts in obesity and nutritional research. One of Wyden's overriding concerns is whether the average person knows what he's getting into when he signs up for a quick weight-loss program.

Michael Householder, a 44-year-old engineering professor from Flagstaff, Ariz., seems in some ways Wyden's typical dieter. But the professor's experience, according to testimony presented to the subcommittee, turned out to be devastating.

Householder went to his local Nutri/ System program to lose 30 pounds, according to his wife, because he'd become convinced by the company's advertising that Nutri/System "succeeds where diets fail." At the time, the six-foot Householder weighed 215 pounds. According to the new weight charts released in November in the USDA's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," Householder was only about 15 pounds overweight for someone more than 35 years old. Nutri/System, advertising itself as "medically supervised," determined that he was "obese," and put him on a meal plan of prepackaged food containing about 1,000 calories a day.

Not surprisingly, Householder began to lose weight rapidly. Nutri/System encouraged exercise, so he began to walk and then jog three miles, three or four times a week. He was tired a lot, but the diet really seemed to be working -- he lost 28 pounds in only seven weeks.

In his ninth week on the program, one pound short of his goal, Householder went jogging during his lunch break at a nearby track. Walking back to his office, he felt sick, lightheaded, fell down -- and went into full cardiac arrest. Paramedics resuscitated him, but he was without a heartbeat for as long as 14 minutes.

His wife, Carol, tells this tragic story to the subcommittee because Householder never became fully functional again. "He cannot live alone," she testifies. "He will never work again, and his daily activities must be planned and supervised. He has no text knowledge. Occasionally an equation will enter his brain, but he has no idea what it stands for."

The "nurse counselor" Householder was seeing at Nutri/System never suspected anything was wrong, Carol Householder says, even when he went to her complaining of passing out after exercise a day before his cardiac arrest. The emergency room doctor who treated the former professor told Carol Householder that her husband had a low blood potassium level, possibly the result of his diet, which may have triggered his cardiac arrest. Cardiac specialists who subsequently examined him also found evidence of coronary artery disease and told her that her husband should not have been in the Nutri/System program to begin with.

(The Householders sued Nutri/System. Joseph di Bartolomeo, a physician and director of nutrition at Nutri/System, says that Householder's diet was not deficient in potassium. Di Bartolomeo believes Householder's fate was the result of preexisting health problems that he says were not disclosed on the diet plan's medical history forms. "This is one case out of millions of people we have treated successfully and safely," di Bartolomeo said, "and this one case does not reflect anything wrong with the Nutri/System program." Nutri/System settled with the Householders out of court.)

By the end of the first morning of hearings, it's pretty obvious to the subcommittee and everyone else in the room that the health risks associated with commercial diet programs are less than clear to most chubby consumers. No independent studies exist comparing the plans or evaluating what they actually delivered for the $10 billion that dieters spent on them last year. Among the federal health agencies, there is no universally accepted definition of how fat is too fat, how best to lose weight or how much to lose. Only one thing is clear, as Chairman Wyden puts it: "As a country we are just mesmerized with being thin." REP. GARY L. ACKERMAN (D-N.Y.), A round-faced man with twinkling eyes, turns to the credenza behind his desk, opens a drawer and begins pulling out packets of liquid diet formula. "This is really good," he says, holding up a sample of a new brand of vanilla-flavored powder. "And I tried this, and here, this was what I used, Medifast. And I lost all the weight on that diet in five months. Five months. No solid food."

The old Gary Ackerman tipped the scales at nearly 300 pounds, 112 pounds more than the most recent charts list as a healthy weight for a man who is 5 feet 10 inches and more than 35 years old. On the advice of a friend, he went to a doctor-supervised weight-loss and fitness center in Queens, his home district, and was put on the liquid diet. He began walking for exercise for the first time in his life and, with less pain than he thought possible, dropped 109 pounds. Then he began trying to keep it off.

Today, Ackerman is treating his office staff to lunch at one of his favorite Chinese restaurants on the Hill, Young Chow, a short walk from his office in the Cannon House Office Building. On Independence Avenue, the congressman heads toward his 1966 white Plymouth Valiant with the turquoise interior, parked at the corner next to a fire hydrant. "I'll drive," he says. Drive? This is the new Gary Ackerman? He pilots the car the three blocks and continued on page 29 DIET continued from page 24 parks in a bus zone at the front door of Young Chow.

When the waiter arrives to take drink orders, Ackerman asks for iced tea. His usual drink of choice is sugar-free Kool-Aid. He keeps a green plastic gallon container of the stuff sitting on his desk at the office.

"Let's order the lo mein with shrimp," he says. The staff agrees, and soon a chicken dish, vegetables, bean curd, beef and soups are added. When the waiter returns with the soups, Ackerman dives in, finishing in record time. "This is probably 125 calories for the soup," he reasons. It's a small bowl.

The congressman picks up his chopsticks, takes a small amount of rice and a little of each dish, passing up all but a bite of the beef. "Fried," he announces, pointing at the beef. When the shrimp lo mein comes around again, he takes a second helping and asks the waiter for another order. When it arrives, he takes a third helping, but his staff eats the rest before Ackerman has a chance to snag a fourth.

He sighs, and puts down his chopsticks. "Nine hundred calories," he says. His plate is clean. He wishes he could leave food uneaten, as his slim wife does. "I can't," he says. "My hand automatically goes from bowl to mouth until the bowl is empty. Full has nothing to do with it."

The liquid diet did nothing to change that. What did change was the way Ackerman was treated on the Hill.

"People view you a lot more seriously," he says. "I got elected, and a lot of heavy people get elected, but you have to work an awful lot harder to gain acceptance. You can be the same person, do the same things, say the same things, think the same things, except you're regarded in a different way."

Now the only problem is that the congressman has started to gain back some of the weight, about 30 pounds so far. "I consider it a failure," Ackerman says dejectedly, even though his blood pressure is normal and his cholesterol has dropped 100 points.

"Nobody, underline that 20 times, nobody does this for health reasons," he says. "I just got fed up with the way I looked. And I didn't want to be buried in a piano case." C. WAYNE CALLAWAY IS A DIET DOCTOR who hates diets. A sandy-haired, boyish-looking native of Maryland's Eastern Shore, Callaway is a private practice internist and endocrinologist and an associate professor of nutrition at the George Washington University Medical School. He has been called to testify this morning as Wyden's subcommittee continues its investigation of commercial weight-loss programs, and he has a lot to say -- he sees patients who've been through all of them, who've spent so many years dieting, they can't enjoy food anymore.

Callaway has also served as a nutrition and obesity expert to the government, most recently as a member of the advisory committee that drafted the USDA's new "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." It was Callaway who revised the new weight charts upward, insisting that they reflect age, not sex, differences, and who recommended that they be termed "healthy" weights, not "ideal" or "acceptable."

Public expectations about dieting and thinness, Callaway tells the subcommittee, are "largely culturally determined" and completely out of sync with biological reality. "What we consider overweight, many societies consider ideal." A century ago, he says, diet doctors were writing self-help books like How to Be Plump, and actress Lillian Russell, at 210 pounds, was considered a great beauty.

"If we look at dieters in the U.S. today," Callaway testifies, "only 1 out of 10 is dieting for medical or health reasons." Most people are trying to reach some imagined ideal -- quick. The diet industry feeds our obsession for thinness while reflecting none of the new data indicating that size and shape result from a complex series of factors -- heredity and genetic makeup being as important as overeating. Callaway says, "The programs reflect the old notion that obesity is simply a matter of self-control. Eat less and you will lose weight; if you gain it back, it is your fault."

Market research shows that women expect to lose two or three pounds each week on a diet, Callaway says, and men think they'll lose three to five pounds -- just as Michael Householder did. This is due, in part, to saturation advertising by diet programs implying this rate of weight loss is standard. "You can't achieve this amount of weight loss," Callaway insists, "unless you induce some type of semi-starvation."

Repeated cycles of starvation dieting may make it more difficult to lose weight with each successive diet, Callaway testifies, and most people coming off very restrictive diets eat a lot more afterward. "We have both clinical and animal data to support this," Callaway tells the subcommittee. "Starving leads to stuffing." Pretty soon the dieter weighs more than he or she did before going on the diet.

Very few pudgy people -- primarily overweight diabetics or hypertensives whose conditions are uncontrollable with drugs -- need to put their bodies through this. For most people, losing weight at the rate of half a pound to a pound a week is realistic, and the weight is less likely to be rapidly regained.

This is important because regained weight is not necessarily the same as what was lost. "You lose fat and muscle," including part of the heart muscle, when you starve yourself, Callaway says. "You gain back primarily fat, and . . . it tends to come back in the belly, which is the area {in which} excess fat is most associated with complications such as heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and strokes."

Throughout the day and in subsequent hearings, dietitians, nurses, public health officials and more doctors repeat these observations. The words are different, but the message the same: Quick weight-loss dieting can cause as many health problems as excess weight, and may actually contribute to the country's expanding waistline. IN LATE 1975, A FEW MONTHS BEFORE her 40th birthday and about the time she decided to run for the House, Barbara Mikulski went to a health fair in Baltimore where Weight Watchers had in its booth a mirror that could be adjusted to show people how they might look if they weighed less. Mikulski, like her mother and sisters, had always been heavy. She'd dieted all her life -- starvation diets, grapefruit diets, Stillman, Scarsdale, Metrecal -- but she had never kept the pounds off. "In our family," she says, "we have three stages: chunky, chubby and tubby. When you get chubby, you get real nervous. But I have been more than tubby. There was a point in my life at 4-11 when I weighed 175 pounds. I had kind of cheeseburgered my way into getting heavier than I'd ever been." The moment in front of the mirror was that point.

Mikulski, then a Baltimore city councilwoman -- and on her way to becoming a congresswoman and then a U.S. senator -- walked around the fair shaking hands, and when she was finished she came back to the Weight Watchers booth. "I just stood and looked in that mirror," she says. "If you've always been heavy, you never picture yourself thin. They didn't have me skinny; they had me proportionately less. And for the first time I got a picture of what I could be reasonably. This was a stunning thing."

So at the same time she was announcing her candidacy for the House, Mikulski went to see a Baltimore internist and Uni- versity of Maryland researcher who worked with the chronically obese. At the end of an "arduous" 14 weeks, she had dropped about 35 pounds. Baltimore had never seen Barbara Mikulski any other way but way too fat. Soon her weight loss had become a constant topic of conversation and a symbol of her winning campaign.

"And guess what?" she says. "I haven't gained it back. Well, I've gained a little. But I have come to terms with my genetic destiny and my desire for health to give up this quest to be slim. My goal now is to stay fit and fashionable."

This has required a major attitude change on Mikulski's part. For much of her life, she had been plagued by a "continual sense of failure fostered by dieteers." To maintain her weight loss all these years, she has had to stop worrying about looking like a movie star and learn to feel successful. "I get up, and when I get on my scale now," Mikulski says, "I say, 'Wow, I haven't gained! This is fantastic!' If I go with every season and I can put on last year's clothing and I can zip up that skirt, that is victory."

The senator, now 54 -- "Joanne Woodward, Sophia Loren and I are pretty much the same age" -- sticks to about 1,200 calories a day and exercises every day on a treadmill at the Senate or at home. Mikulski believes her weight loss has survived years of campaigns, including her winning Senate race in 1986, because she carries cottage cheese, Quibell water and lemons in a cooler in her car when she's on the road. A weight-loss refresher course she recently took focused on nutritional tips and avoiding hidden fats, especially in restaurants. After the course, she decided to pack even more supplies.

Mikulski turns to her desk and grabs her purse to demonstrate: "Here's my handbag. The senator, dressed for success" -- she opens it and begins pulling out the contents -- "her beeper, her notebook, ready to take constituent problems." Then she unzips a small pouch at the front of the purse and displays a packet of Zesty Italian Reduced Calorie Dressing.

"How do you like that for a power bag?" BACK IN THE SMALL BUSINESS COMMIT- tee hearing room, all of the television camera crews have packed up, the reporters have left, the horror stories are over. Another panel of medical experts on obesity is testifying, and Chairman Wyden is trying to hurry them along. "We will put your full statement in the record," he says over and over again. "Why don't you summarize your remarks?"

Adam Drewnowski, director of the Human Nutrition Program at the University of Michigan, tries to talk fast. Michigan, he says, leads the nation in mortality rates from diseases that are preventable through weight control. This might have been interesting to Rep. Broomfield, who is from Michigan, but he has already ducked out of the hearing.

Drewnowski says he was "shocked" to find that only 4.3 percent of the total budget for the National Institutes of Health is devoted to nutritional research. "It is discouraging to note," he testifies, "that research relevant to educating and informing the public occupies less than 4 percent" of that amount.

"Thank you, Dr. Drewnowski," Wyden says. "We really are running out of time . . . Dr. Blackburn? We will print your full statement in the record."

George Blackburn, director of the Center for the Study of Nutrition at New England Deaconess Hospital in Boston, has come to the hearings with a full set of charts and graphs to illustrate the cost savings to the nation from modest weight loss. He rips through his charts. "A five- to 15-pound loss by the overweight population," Blackburn says, "could save $100 billion a year on these illnesses -- stroke, heart disease, cancer, etc., etc. You can see it here . . ." He is trying to speed up. "Even a five-pound loss, could, uh, reduce the stroke rate by 13 percent . . ."

In an ongoing study by Blackburn of 1,400 very obese dieters, many suffering from diabetes and hypertension, health problems were reduced in severity or eliminated with a loss of only 10 percent of body weight. Even a 10-pound loss that stays off can dramatically improve health.

One reason dieters don't recognize these facts is because no one has ever told them. The federal government's health research priority has been to treat disease, not prevent it; the medical profession has relied on pharmacology and technology, not diet; and nutrition education is inadequate for doctors and virtually nonexistent for the public. "Funding and priority on nutrition and obesity research and education," Blackburn tells the subcommittee, "is so poor as to be embarrassing . . . It is entirely appropriate that Congress seize the moment . . ."

But Congress, or the one representative of it still in the room, Chairman Wyden, is not as interested in seizing the moment as he is in getting this dry, fact-driven, rather unmomentous testimony wrapped up. "You have given a blistering indictment," he assures the witnesses, promising to pursue these issues with NIH this winter. "I'm sorry our time has been so short . . ." And with that, the congressman is out the door.

Meanwhile, two representatives of the weight-loss industry prepare to leave the hearing room.

"Foley looks terrible," says a lobbyist for Medifast, a liquid diet formula, in a low voice to his colleague.

"He looks older," the colleague responds. "You always look younger with a little extra weight."

"He looks terrible," the first insists. "He's lost too much. He looked better before." But the Medifast lobbyist has an explanation.

"I think he's on Optifast."