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The Tentacle

July 17, 2003

A Time to Diet

Joe Volz

THE proof of the eating was in the pudding - not to mention the French fries, hamburgers and ice cream.

I had ballooned to 250 pounds on a 6-foot frame, almost 100 pounds more than I weighed in my salad days at Rutgers University 45 years ago. Over the years, my waist size expanded to 42 inches from 32 inches.

One day several months ago, I looked at those men with the big bellies riding the MARC train to D. C. and realized I was one of them.

At 68, I was obese. In college, I played varsity soccer and ran the Boston Marathon. But more recently, running had become an alien concept.

Even walking was a breathtaking event. My health was slowly, but perceptibly, declining. I had sleep apnea, elevated cholesterol and triglycerides -- and a bad back.

I was ready for Diet City.

There are five weight-loss programs run by Duke University in Durham, N.C., from intensive exams for highly-stressed executives, to the famous rice diet, a low-sodium vegetarian regimen begun 60 years ago by a Duke doctor to combat high blood pressure. With its limited food choices (mainly rice, which I do not care for, and fruit), that plan seemed too spartan for me. I knew I would not keep it up.

So I chose a different program at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center which balanced eating and exercise and taught the skills I needed to continue healthy habits when my brief stay at the center was over.

Enrollment was simple - I did it on the Web site, I signed up for two weeks at a cost of $5,000, plus $70 a day for housing.

Now, before you argue that you could rent out half the staff of Frederick Memorial Hospital for that price, let me ask you: How much is your health worth? It ought to be worth at least 25 percent of the price you will pay for a modest new car.

The Duke center is located in a brick building in a dell a few blocks from campus. It's no Taj Mahal, but it had what I needed: a few classrooms, a big, well-lighted gym with exercise machines, a heated pool, a clinic and a staff of doctors, psychologists, dietitians and fitness instructors. Nutrition classes took up much of the first week. I learned that there is truth to the old bromide "Watch what you eat." In my case, it meant curtailing my intake of soda and candy. I also discovered I could enjoy less food.

I also met Bert Robinson, 55, a Canadian manufacturer who stayed for a few days during my visit. Blond and tanned, a supple 6-foot,195-pounder, Bert resembles a surfer.

"You know," he said matter-of-factly, "seven years ago, I weighed 330 pounds. I was a mess. I used a cane. I couldn't keep living like that."

He started his program by losing 70 pounds during a stay of several months.

My 120 classmates were all sizes and shapes, some 50 pounds overweight, others much more. We were lawyers, doctors, businesspeople and college students, ranging in age from 20 to 80. Success was measured in small steps. One classmate suddenly discovered he could bend down and tie his shoe for the first time in a long while. A Rutgers T-shirt that had not fit me for a decade was suddenly a bit large.

After two weeks, it was time to leave the "cocoon," in the words of Dr. Howard Eisenson, the center's medical director, and return to reality. I had lost 25 pounds. My waistline shrank a couple of inches. Dr. Eisenson called this a good start, but only that. Unless I had a concrete long-term plan, he warned, I would almost certainly join the heavy majority who gain back all the weight they lose within five years.

In the intervening months I have lost another 15 pounds. I have joined a weight control group here in Frederick that meets once a week. I keep on a strict diet. Refined sugar is my major enemy.

It has not been easy but I intend to lose another 20 pounds. I have the misfortune, however, of living a block from the Square Corner. Some of the finest restaurants in the state are within a few yards. Not to mention a famous, or infamous, candy shop, depending on your point of view.

I have no intention of avoiding the restaurants - the candy shop is out of bounds - but I must watch myself carefully. I have people in my program, which operates much like A.A., to keep me on track. It's one day at a time.

And Bert says I can call him any time I need help. He is still my role model - to a point. He went to Maui for a year with a woman he met in the program. My wife's response to that plan was, "Oh, no, Mr. Robinson!"

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