I was 13 years old when I ate my first diet meal.
Let me paint a picture of this entree, circa 1996: When defrosted, the teensy shrimps in my Weight Watchers Smart Ones meal turned to rubber, and the angel hair pasta became a soppy mess in tomato sauce. But with just over two minutes in the microwave, I had a 190-calorie meal with two grams of fat. It was triumph in each bite. And what variety there was in diet foods!
But as the supply of weight-loss products grew in the U.S., so did obesity. More than a third of American adults are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one-third are overweight.
For my part, I somehow managed to gain about 50 pounds while dieting, eating what I thought were the right foods in the right amounts. Each success on the scale was short-lived: I jumped between plans and pant sizes for about 15 years.
I inadvertently broke this cycle in fall 2011. One of my friends said she wanted to try losing weight by eating clean — cutting all processed foods — and she needed a buddy for support.
At the time, I was on the Jenny Craig program, which featured frozen and shelf-stable meals, weekly meetings with a consultant and numerous celebrity endorsements. I was maintaining a healthy weight, and my cholesterol and blood pressure were perfect, according to my doctor. I was running half-marathons. Life was good, all thanks to about 1,200 calories a day and my trusty microwave.
I grudgingly agreed to abandon the safety of my prepackaged meals for one week only.
Every day for seven days, each of my meals was home-cooked. I had omelets for breakfast, salads for lunch, grilled meats and roasted vegetables for dinner. It wasn't hard or especially time-consuming, and it was really fun. Seven days turned into eight, which eventually turned into 495 and counting.
Despite my fear of life without pre-portioned food and nutrition labels, I didn't lose control. I didn't regain all the weight I'd lost. I'm even healthier now. Whereas I used to suffer from migraines and insomnia, low iron and low vitamin D levels — all attributed by my doctors to stress and a fast-paced lifestyle — I now sleep through the night, can donate blood without issue and don't remember the last time I had a headache. My weight is still healthy, my blood work still perfect.
I don't mean to vilify any of the diet plans or products out there, as each of the ones I tried taught me valuable lessons about portion control, hunger cues and cravings. Nor am I trying to say that my way is best. But I now know that it is possible to jump off the diet food train unscathed.
75 million: Americans are on a diet, according to the independent market researcher Marketdata. Many turn to sources outside their own kitchens for help, and the weight-loss marketplace is booming. In 2010, meal-replacement products raked in about $2.65 billion.