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Dieters Brace for Well-Intentioned Saboteurs at Holiday Feasts

November 25, 2004

Nov. 25–CHICAGO — Sheryl Ridder has lost 71 pounds and isn’t going to let Thanksgiving stop her from losing more — even if chided by diet saboteurs for the two chicken-flavored biscuits that will serve as her holiday dinner.

The bane of any dieter, these are the well-intentioned — grandmothers, sisters, brothers and assorted in-laws — who peer onto the plates of others with disdain, warn about the dangers of getting too thin or beg them to take a break if only for one day.

Like others determined to stick to diets during a year when concerns about obesity hogged headlines and “low-carb” signs dotted supermarket aisles, Ridder of Libertyville, Ill., expects to fend off her share of jokes and even disapproval at the dinner table. She doesn’t expect open warfare, just some good-natured skirmishing over the gravy boat and relish tray.

“They’re starting to see me get thinner and they’re getting worried,” said Ridder, 47, who after six months on a liquid diet weighs 135 pounds and hopes to reach 120. “I have been put on the spot a couple of times where I have to defend myself. All I say is it’s medically supervised, and I have some more weight to lose.”

Elizabeth Zenz, 28, of Chicago admits she was guilty of teasing dieters over the holidays. But this year, she expects to be on the receiving end as she tries to watch what she eats in an effort to lose 40 pounds.

“I’m from Wisconsin so we all eat lots and lots and lots of bad food,” said Zenz. “We all cook, too. When somebody puts less on their plate, people get nosy and say, ‘Why aren’t you eating?’”

Nationwide, Ridder and Zenz enjoy a heftier level of support as more people learn the benefits of staying slim and eating in moderation. A recent survey showed that 36 percent of Americans plan to prepare this year’s Thanksgiving meal with more healthful, less-fattening foods, according to the nonprofit agency, Produce for Better Health Foundation, based in Wilmington, Del.

But the holidays are the toughest time for dieters, and many are happy if they can maintain their weight, experts say. Some national reports estimate that Americans gain as much as 7 to 10 pounds during the Thanksgiving through New Year’s period.

“Failing to plan is planning to fail,” said Dana Petersen, dietician at Condell Medical Center’s Health Institute in Libertyville. “It’s a slippery slope once you start to eat.”

Petersen has been buying pumpkin pie spice, poultry seasoning and sugar substitutes to add some Thanksgiving flavor to the protein shake diet that some of her clients like Ridder are following.

Kristi Widmer, a spokeswoman for Weight Watchers’ central region, said that besides resisting tempting dishes, dieters must contend with food-pushing relatives.

“Members want to know what they can do to get through it,” Widmer said. “You don’t want to show up and tell them you’re on a diet and then feel pressure, like, ‘Oh, you’re not doing it today?’”

Weight Watchers provides tips, she said, on how to arrange food on the plate so it looks full, mostly by loading up on vegetables. Some repeat a mantra to themselves, “The more you gobble the more you wobble,” she said.

Many experts shun the low-carb movement, saying it causes people to forgo some healthy foods along with the bad and is an unrealistic way to eat. They urge moderation, instead, saying smaller portions leave diners feeling more energetic.

“Don’t deny yourself,” said Mercedes Carnethon, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Northwestern University. “It’s not going to work to say I’m not eating anything but a slim piece of turkey.”

She suggested to make sure your plate is full of colorful vegetables.

Take a walk or participate in a turkey trot on Thanksgiving, say others.

Grocers such as Whole Foods Market, which deals in organic, less processed foods, say some shoppers are heeding the experts’ advice. The Midwest stores have seen sales of natural and organic turkeys rise compared to last year, a spokeswoman said. Sales of complete turkey dinner packages with fresh vegetables and cranberries have doubled, she said.

Then there’s the growing popularity of the “unturkey” made mostly of wheat gluten and covered with a crisp soy skin.

The San Rafael, Calif., company that makes it, Now & Zen, has seen a 20 percent increase in unturkey sales from last year, a spokeswoman said.

In Woodstock, Ill., dieting “motivation teams” who compete to lose weight at the women’s fitness center Shape-Up Express will buck their tradition of taking the holidays off, said owner Sue Figas.

“By popular request they want to stay motivated to be more aware of exercising and eating right through the holidays,” said Figas, whose program features a 30-minute circuit workout. “I just put something up on the board saying, ‘Remember Thanksgiving is a holiday, not a holi-week or a holi-month.’”

In Mundelein, Ill., Dennis and Susan Torbeck are serious about sticking to their Weight Watchers plan, which during the last three years has become part of their lifestyle. They have converted all their Thanksgiving recipes by using low-fat, low-calorie alternatives. On Thursday, they will label each dish at the dinner buffet with a sign reminding them of the suggested serving size and points assigned by Weight Watchers.

They are making the signs for themselves, but also hope a few of their suggestions will rub off on others, such as son Ken, 34, who just underwent gastric bypass surgery.

“We go in with the mental attitude we’ll do the best we can,” said Dennis Torbeck, 58. He has shed 91 pounds over the last few years; his wife has lost 129. “If we fall off for one day we’re not going to kick ourselves in the head but get right back on it the next day,” he said.

Other families make sure they include a few fattening favorites to avoid a domestic revolt.

Peter DeVincent, 75, of Melrose Park Ill., bought a skinless, boneless turkey breast but also plans the meal to include mashed potatoes, a broccoli casserole and a French silk pie for his grandchildren.

“This is the first year we’re going to concentrate on fewer calories,” he said.

Most people who complain about falling off their diets blame the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays and Taste of Chicago, said Cheryl Simms, owner of A Natural Harvest, a South Side health food store.

“It’s a tough time for most people,” said Simms, a vegetarian. She eats her own specially prepared meal at home before visiting someone else’s Thanksgiving feast, leaving her less hungry, she said. “I might get into some pastries,” she said.

Zenz, for one, is eating out and will avoid the whole family pressure scenario.

“When you’ve got this cute, sweet little old lady looking over your shoulder saying, ‘You’ve got to eat more,’ it’s really hard,” Zenz said. “It’s hard to say no to grandma because she’s so cute.”

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