A Weighty Essay

The Critic's Notebook: How to Get Fat

When you eat for a living, it's not easy to keep the pounds off. Here's the secret.

By Alice Levitt October 20, 2016

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Image: Shutterstock

How do you get fat? The answer, of course, is eat more and move less. The best way to do this is to work a desk job that requires you to eat a number of dishes at multiple restaurants every day. Get my drift?

The critic's lifestyle (or that of any full-time food writer in a major market, for that matter), is the perfect recipe for weight gain. When I parlayed my freelance food coverage into a real job in 2008, my weight had only ever briefly grazed the triple digits. Five years later, I weighed 142 pounds. I had gained nearly 10 pounds every year, adding on about 50 percent of my former self. And at my old job in Vermont, I only dined out between two and five times a week for work on average. Nonetheless, with a much more tightly packed dance card of fatty feasts, I have lost weight since I've been in Houston. No, really. 

That's because I've learned a few tricks over the years. I didn't have a choice. In 2013, my career cost me my gallbladder. In the seven months between my first attack and finally relenting and getting a cholecystectomy, I began to shed some pounds from a combination of cutting out fat, exercising more and a degree of atrophy that was as much spiritual as it was physical. I know people who recovered from the surgery in hours, but I had allowed myself to get so weak that it took me a month.

Once I was able to begin eating solid food again, my home-cooked meals were generally low-fat affairs. I discovered Ideal Protein meal replacement soups and snacks, which I used as a crutch for three months until I had made it back to a size two. Once I'd hit that goal, I merely cut out grains when not working—I called my lifestyle "paleo with dairy," because cheese is not negotiable. Given my enforced cheats for work, it was surprisingly easy.

Until I was asked to co-author a Vermont travel guide. The reporting, which involved traveling up and down the state, wasn't as much fun as I expected because it turns out I hate the forced friendliness of B&Bs. But the real trial came when it was time to write. I would leave a writing job that was already regularly more than 9 to 5 to go home and write some more for a few hours every day. Though Americanized Chinese food has always been my least favorite of all cuisines, gestating the book created an unslakeable craving for General Tso's chicken, which quickly replaced my lean-meat-and-two-veggies diet. I didn't dare weigh myself, but my "fat clothes" were starting to fit all too well.

I finished writing the book in the depths of winter (most of the year in Vermont) and used the cold weather and my feeling of being trapped in the small state as an excuse to eat mac 'n' cheese instead of broiled salmon and salad. Therapy helped me to feel less hopeless about being stuck where I was forever and by July of 2015, my eating was slowly getting back on track. Four months later, I met my goal of getting the hell out of the Green Mountain State and moved across the country for my job at Houstonia.

I loved Houston immediately, especially the dining. And though my new life included shuffling to allow room for two or even three meals out in a day, I'm wearing favorite clothes pulled from the back of the closet that hadn't fit me in nearly a decade. The secret is simple: Don't eat the whole thing, stupid. It's taken me, the girl whose family celebrated her from birth for "eating like a truck driver," until now to really understand the concept of portion control. It isn't entirely my fault. Besides having been trained my whole life to think it was funny/laudable to be a tiny girl who ate excessively, my sense of satiety was at best dulled, at worst decimated by the neuro-Lyme disease that crippled me throughout my teens and early twenties. 

Because I never feel full until I'm about to suffer a reversal, I just have to use common sense. At judgings and media events where I'm not doing the ordering, I do what I can to find out how many dishes I'll need to try. I can then eat accordingly.

But the best thing to happen to restaurant critics ever may be the Peloton. We have weird schedules which often keep us out of the house for 12 or 13 hours at a stretch, in a combination of eating and office work. Working out is almost impossible, especially in a city like Houston that's not pedestrian-friendly. I learned after my surgery that there is no exercise as simultaneously effective and fun as indoor cycling with a good teacher and the right soundtrack, but there's simply no way I could fit visits to a spin studio into my schedule. Having a bike at home with classes on demand has changed my life. I may have eaten fried chicken, a buttery pork belly sandwich, chips and guacamole and a brisket tamale for lunch today, but I'm still the fittest (if not quite the skinniest) I've ever been. And that is how to get fat—and get un-fat.

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