Practically everybody I know wants to lose weight.

And we all want the pounds off quickly--like yesterday. That's why we keep falling for every fad diet that promises a fat-burning miracle. Who doesn't know somebody who is eating all the steak, butter, salad dressing, bacon and eggs he or she wants, while claiming to be on a diet?

That's the latest craze--the high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, a 1970s idea revived by Robert C. Atkins, whose paperback on the subject seems to have a permanent spot on the New York Times bestsellers' list.

I bought the book, and I'm a witness. The diet can work. I lost weight. But I can live without bread, pasta, potatoes, rice, beans, peas, fruit and sweets for only so long.

Guess what happened when I started to, um, reacquaint myself with the foods I love? Well, I'll put it this way: The weight I lost on the Atkins diet is now a moot point.

Anyway, who wants to be on a diet that makes you feel guilty for sneaking a banana? Okay, so maybe it wasn't just a banana. But the point is, I need variety. Most of us do. That's why diets don't work.

"The bottom line is you need to eat healthy, and you need to eat healthy for a lifestyle," said exercise guru Donna Richardson, 37, who grew up in the District, made a name for herself in the fitness world and now works as a consultant to NBC. She's the beautiful, brown-skinned sister who appears on "Later Today" and "Weekend Today" to give us workout tips.

If miracle diets worked, more of us would be in shape. But according to a survey recently released by the National Center for Health Statistics in Hyattsville--a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta--a whole lot of us are, er, weight-challenged.

According to the survey, more than half of the adults in this country are overweight, and one in five is considered obese. Nearly two-thirds of men and slightly less than one-half of women are overweight.

Particularly disturbing are statistics showing that African American women are twice as likely as their white peers to be overweight. Among men, fat seems to be more evenly distributed--more than 60 percent of African American, Latino and white men are overweight. But black men and women have more sedentary lifestyles than their white counterparts.

There was a time when African Americans, particularly women, didn't seem to mind so much that we tended to have more meat on our bones. But we know now that the excess weight and lack of exercise put us at a higher risk than others for the myriad of diseases associated with being overweight.

I have no statistics, but I have a hunch that more African Americans these days are trying to do something about our weight. The health club was packed with folks of every shade of brown every time I tried to get a few minutes on the treadmill.

Richardson, who is engaged to big-bucks radio personality Tom Joyner, was back home last week at Howard University as part of a nationwide tour to promote wellness among African American women. The tour of several historically black colleges is sponsored by Essence magazine and Tampax Satin.

It's pretty clear what the corporate sponsors get out of reaching out to young women, but Richardson said she jumped on board because she saw a chance to send an important message to African American women early in their adult lives.

"I thought this was a great opportunity for me to reach the young girls and say, 'I know you are on this college campus and the food is not the healthiest, but you can make better choices.' "

The National Center for Health Statistics survey pointed out another interesting fact: The more educated women are, the less likely they are to be overweight. According to the survey, 60 percent of women who had not finished high school were overweight, and 49 percent of high school graduates were overweight. Less than 40 percent of bachelor's degree holders and 29 percent of women with post-graduate college degrees were overweight.

Richardson has a great idea to reach men and women at church, the one place where you find people of all educational levels, jobs and backgrounds interacting together. She has started church walking groups in six cities and plans to expand.

Richardson said she got the idea from her mother, LaVerne, who started a health ministry at St. Paul's AME Church in the District by organizing a group of walkers to help her lose weight. The famous daughter comes home once a month to walk with her mother's group.

The biggest mistake people make while trying to get in shape, Richardson said, is they attempt too much too soon. While on the road, her workout often is as simple as dancing up a sweat to some old '70s jams--and I emphasize sweat.

Enjoy the workout, she said, but know that there are no shortcuts.

Okay, I'm trying to get it right this time. I'm sweating more often on the treadmill and the bike at home, eating a variety of food but not too much, eyeing those tiny jeans in the back of my closet, praying that by the dawn of the new millennium I will be able to squeeze back into them.

I'm determined, but Lord knows, I sure could use a miracle about now.

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CAPTION: Howard Hares, left, works out in the weight room at Bally fitness center. Yvette Gilliard, below, does aerobics to stay in shape.

CAPTION: Members take a morning step aerobics class at the Bally fitness center on Greenbelt Road.