One of the things I love about being a food writer is this: you can talk to anybody. In my first career, I worked as an editor for an academic press. I dreaded being asked about my job at cocktail parties, because it meant having to come up with some kind of bungled, context-appropriate translation of the subjectivity of the margin or queering the text.
But food! Everybody understands food. Everybody has something to say about food. And everybody has an interesting question or two for food writers. The most popular question is not What’s your favorite food? [Answer: Impossible to say.] or Who’s your favorite Food Network star? [Answer: Don't have one.] It’s probably Do you write restaurant reviews? [Answer: No.]
The short answer is: I do gain weight. All day long, I’m either cooking, eating, or thinking about food. Food is never not on my mind. I’ve always had a great appetite, and if I could, I would eat non-stop all day long. But it doesn’t take much to sustain a T. Susan Chang – just 1776 calories a day, ad infinitum. (My husband gets 2842, and eating-wise I’m totally capable of matching him bite for bite.)
Needless to say, I blow right past 1776 regularly. Especially in the winter months of Fatstember and Carbuary. (Have you noticed that butter tastes even better in the winter?) I’m resigned to gaining 5-10 pounds each winter – it’s OK, it helps me keep warm. But come March, it all has to come off.
This winter, I made it to a record high of 12 pounds over. That’s partly because we discovered Foyle’s War and Sherlock and partly because I recipe-tested desserts 2 or 3 times a week – a devastating combination.
During the summertime, I can maintain weight merely by sauntering along at the treadmill desk all day (I’m one of an increasing number, the walking working). But this winter, drastic action was necessary. I returned to an old friend, MyFitnessPal, which grimly informed me of my new Austerity Budget: 1200 calories, negotiable only with exercise.
To this I added a re-commissioned Fitbit Zip – formerly my son’s (he’s 13 and has the metabolism of a rocket engine, so he doesn’t need it right now). Finally, I added a third element: competition. I persuaded my husband to put his Zip back on too, and kept both of our monitors ostentatiously displaying our relative activity levels.
But basically, it’s a pretty simple arrangement: The Zip is a tracker – essentially a smart wireless pedometer – so it’s in charge of tracking of Calories Out. MyFitnessPal, with its giant database of foods and ingredients, is in charge of tracking Calories In.
The two systems, which I’ve linked together through their software, have slight discrepancies. They don’t always sync perfectly. And MyFitnessPal stiffs me 150 calories more than Fitbit, which makes a big difference at the end of the day when you’re seriously considering a cookie. But mostly they stay on-message. Mostly the message goes like this: Work at the treadmill desk whenever possible. Don’t have the second glass of wine. Take the stairs.
Calories in, calories out may not be the perfect fitness approach for everyone. But for a person who loves food as much as I do, it’s a lifesaver. It’s forced me to cook more carefully, knowing that if there are fewer bites they better be damn good. It’s forced me to move more, because I’m not just going to do without that 120-calorie tablespoon of butter. It’s forced me to eat more greens, because they so obviously have better bang for the buck.
Two weeks in, I’m close to 3 pounds down. But more importantly, I just plain feel better. I’ve got more energy. My brain works a little faster. And some of my jeans are starting to fit again.
There’s a frozen roll of cookie dough in the fridge – my favorite, double dark chocolate cherry. I made it two weeks ago, and not a day goes by that I don’t think of it. So far, I’ve waited patiently, gorging on it only in my imagination. But pretty soon, we’re going to have a word, that cookie and I. Actually, it will be more of a 4-way conversation: me, the cookie, Fitbit, and MyFitnessPal. But I’m pretty sure I’ll have the last word.