A WAY TO LIVE, NOT JUST A WAY TO LOSE

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I lost more than 250 pounds on the Atkins diet.

It's exactly the sort of statement the doctor himself would love, would seize upon for another notch on his smugly cinched belt. But just like the subheading of a recent New York Times Magazine cover story - which suggested that "maybe Dr. Atkins was right" - it's an incomplete thought.

What happened to me is that, as a Marblehead High School junior in 1974, I lost about 130 pounds under Dr. Atkins's direct care. He was so hot back then that his waiting list was a year long. But I was extremely overweight and a family friend who was consulting with him offered to get me in. I said yes, but mostly, as I remember, because it meant a daylong jaunt to New York City on a school day.

On that first visit, the scale teetered at 332 1/2; I was about 5 feet 9 inches tall. I recall two things most clearly: One was having to pee into cups a half-dozen times for various tests, including glucose-tolerance. The other was Dr. Atkins's one-size- fits-all psychology.

Couldn't I see myself, he asked, if I lost the weight, lolling away on the beach in Saint Tropez? I was a huge, pale 16-year-old who had never taken his shirt off in public and had never pined for Devereux Beach, never mind the south of France. It was such a foreign thought that instead of attempting an answer, I asked if this was where I was supposed to be feeling remorse.

"Never mind what you're supposed to be feeling!" he shouted at me. "Just answer the question!" OK, doc, yeah, sure.

I came to think of Dr. Atkins as the big bad buffoon, but the weight was flying off. Roughly stated, this was his deal: all the meat, fish, and poultry I wanted, with extras like butter and heavy cream, but practically no fruits and vegetables.

I could eat as much as I wanted but nothing with sugar (hence no ice cream), nothing with flour (no subs, no pizza, no pasta, no cereal). Almost every kind of processed food was off-limits, though as time went on, little things (an ounce of peanuts, for example) were added in. No alcohol was allowed, though eventually, a can of Gablinger's beer was put on a list from which I could choose one item daily.

I followed the instructions to the letter, and in less than a year, I weighed 198. I was eating luxuriously - six-egg omelets made with muenster and cheddar and heavy cream, not one steak at restaurants but two (the second was for dessert), and bacon-and- cheese souffles I had learned to make from a recipe in his book, "Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution" - and there seemed to be no downside in sight. (The closest was when, during one of my later visits, Dr. Atkins warned that I might be stricken with gout, because of all the fat I was taking in.)

But it was still a diet, and eventually I lost my will to live without bread and citrus. After about 18 months, about all I had left were self-recriminations and a habit of eating vast quantities. I can't say with certainty that I learned binge eating from Dr. Atkins, but I do know that part of the diet's appeal, even more than its richness, was that it was an all-I-could-eat feast at every meal - as long as I stuck to the list of high-fat ingredients.

I lost big weight, but I didn't keep it off; within a few years, I was back into the threes. When I finally felt I could, I returned not to Dr. Atkins himself but to his method. In about a year, I lost roughly the same amount I had the first time.

There's your 250.

But of course it didn't stop there. The fact is I've lost more than 500 pounds altogether, a phat feat until you realize that it was possible only because I've gained even more than that.

I don't know what my top weight was because when I stepped onto a scale in Hartford at age 30 in 1988, it told me only that I weighed more than 400 pounds - the scale's capacity. And I know I kept eating viciously for a good time afterward. Did I hit 450? Almost certainly. 500? Possibly.

Today I'm about 210, and have been around there for more than 10 years. I've found some things I never got from the diet doctor: A way to live, instead of a way to lose. What I didn't know then is that all my blubber was just the outside sign that I had work to do inside. I've done therapy and self-help, and I added in exercise as well.

The whole notion of a "diet," which we've come to define as a strict regimen to be endured until the weight is gone, is a crock. It seems so obvious now: Living as I did, I'd go back to weighing what I did.

These days I get my eating advice from a nutritionist in Philadelphia. I learned about her not from the best-seller list, but from a friend who'd received help from her. She has not become fabulously wealthy on the backs of thousands of overweight patients. She doesn't have a publicist, or an office infrastructure. When I need her, she calls me back.

Most importantly, I'm able to live a day at a time following her food advice, not without sacrifice, particularly when eating out (there's always too much protein and not enough vegetables) or in other social situations. But I'm willing, because it does nothing less than make my life possible. Where the Atkins diet gave me all I wanted of some foods and absolutely none of some others, Theresa adjusts my food to my body's needs: I eat protein, grains, fruits, vegetables, and fats, which she insists on. The only prohibitions are against flour and sugar, which would be obstacles for some, but I find this workable.

I do most of my own cooking, the proudest legacy of my Atkins years. But instead of souffles, I do a lot of roasting and broiling. At work, a typical meal is five ounces of salmon, one cup of brown rice, one cup of cooked carrots, and one cup of salad with two teaspoons of dressing. Dessert is a piece of fruit. The comment I get most often is "That's a lot of food."

When I eat out, I might bring a scale and I might not. I'll usually halve the protein, order the rice or potato dish, request an extra vegetable portion, and have a salad with oil and vinegar on the side. It is pretty rare that I wish I could have what's on my dining partner's plate.

That I was a patient of the famous Dr. Atkins is a great story to have in my satchel, and it's true that his diet was my first proof that I didn't have to be fat forever. It took at least another decade to understand what healthy living is, and that healthy eating is only one component.