The Cookie Jar Diet
Losing weight amid temptation
by Vickie Elmer
Jessica Thatai knew she had to lose weight on the February morning when she told her then four-year-old daughter that she was too tired to go out in the snow to play. “Mommy,” her daughter Sonia responded, “you are always tired.”
She weighed more than 270 pounds, and when Sonia, the older of her two daughters, drew pictures of her, she made her a big round circle with a head.
Thatai, twenty-five, says she was “really big” in high school and kept putting on weight after that. It was hard not to, since she works at Zingerman's Catering. “We're constantly eating” to sample possible menu items, she explains. “We graze through the whole day.” Not to mention the great discounts employees get on the deli's epic sandwiches.
Three years later, Thatai still works at Zingerman's, yet she weighs just 167 pounds. It sounds like a television promotion for a miracle diet: Lose weight-lots of it!-despite temptations everywhere. But she's not the only Ann Arborite who's managed to slim down while working around fantastic foods: Tammy Coxen lost weight her entire first year in business-while organizing food tastings and making chocolates. And Lewis John Veraldi dropped ninety pounds as an assistant pastry chef at La Dolce Vita.
Here's how they did it.
“My fat was happy fat,” Thatai recalls. “I was married, comfortable.” And then the girls came along.
But as her weight climbed, being fat became a problem. “I weighed 310 pounds for almost a year-the most unhappy period of my life.”
Her daughter's reproach persuaded her to make changes. Around Valentine's Day 2006, her husband, Loveesh, bought her an elliptical trainer. She got on it every night and lost ten pounds in three weeks.
Then she bought some workout videos, including a kickboxing one. The family rearranged the basement; now, she says, it's “half Mom's workout room and half toy room.” And she started running with her new workout partner: April, the family's Australian cattle dog.
She changed what she eats too, cutting out
sugars and many carbs. She eats a lot of vegetables, from chickpeas (“I could eat chickpeas every day”) to salads. And she's switched to low-cal indulgences-like a diet chocolate pudding and Diet Coke. “I drink a lot of Diet Coke,” she says, and a lot of water too.
Now Thatai, an attractive 5'8" blond, looks far different. She runs three miles many days, exercises to three to five aerobic videos a week, and went snowboarding last winter. She's just re-set her goal weight from 160 pounds to 150.
Her advice: Try different forms of exercise until you find a few you enjoy. And take it one meal at a time-if you mess up and overeat at lunch, start all over again at dinner.
At work, she now makes it a point to stay away from the places where food is set out, and she's made it a rule never to eat while standing up. And she packs her lunch every day. “I had to pretty much give up everything here,” she says of the tempting food that surrounds her. Instead, she brings in salad or hummus, veggie burgers or soup.
Except on Fridays-when, if she has stayed on her diet all week, she will split a Zingerman's sandwich with a coworker. “Sometimes,” she says, “you have to indulge a little bit.”
Lewis John Veraldi grew up in the restaurant business-his father was a chef-and has worked in restaurants in Ann Arbor for almost three years.
Veraldi says he was overweight through most of high school. After his parents divorced, his eating habits grew worse: though his grandmother still cooked for him occasionally, he ate lots of fast food, pizza, and soda. By the time he was twenty-two, he was working at the Chop House and La Dolce Vita-wearing size 48 jeans and a triple X chef's coat.
In December 2007, he hit 318 pounds and knew he had to change his lifestyle and his weight. “I was tired all the time and
had no energy,” he recalls. “I wasn't very confident.”
So he cut out virtually all the foods he had been eating and rebuilt his diet around chicken, lean steaks, lots of greens, and some dairy. At first he went through “a tough couple of weeks being around all this good food,” he recalls. But coworkers were very supportive, and so he kept bringing in simple low-calorie meals he would make ahead at home, or frozen diet meals. He now tries to eat small meals or snacks four to six times a day-yogurt, protein shakes, lean chicken, salads.
Soon, Veraldi added weight training and cardiovascular workouts. He began going to the gym four or five mornings a week. He says he's not a natural at exercise and working out, but it helped him lose weight steadily for more than six months.
Many weeks he lost eight pounds, some weeks only two, but it all added up. He lost ninety pounds and got down to size 36 blue jeans-but then regained almost twenty pounds during the Christmas holidays.
That taught him an important lesson, he says: “I can lose just as easily, but I can gain just as quick.”
His advice: Get friends or coworkers to support your weight-loss goals. Eat low-calorie foods. And build walking or easy exercise into your day. He lives on Ann Arbor's far west side, so he still has to drive-but “I park as far away as I can to get a walk to work and back.”
Despite a slow start this year, he's determined to reach his goal-losing 100 pounds from his peak weight-by September. “I love desserts,” he admits. “I love making them. You have to taste what you cook.” But he stops at tasting-and sticks to his diet at his meals.
He still misses the rich, juicy steaks and the crème brûlée topped with fresh fruit. So once a week he goes out to dinner-a salad, entrée, and dessert-at the Chop House or Palio. Knowing that a good meal is coming up gives him the motivation to hold off on eating fattening foods “for a couple more days,” he says.
Veraldi says that “losing weight helped me in everything-in all parts of my life.” He and his coworkers say that he gained confidence and energy as his fitness improved. Last year, he was promoted to assistant pastry chef.
“You have to want to lose weight for yourself, not someone else,” he says. “It's a lot of hard work.” But he has that motivation: “I want to be healthy and have a long life.”
Tammy Coxen has always been a foodie-and a fattie. “I spent my life as a fat girl,” she says.
But when she looked at the scale and saw that she was about to hit 200 pounds, she knew it was time to diet. Never mind that her diet started just as she was developing her new business, Tammy's Tastings. Never mind that the business involved staging food samplings of such things as bacon, olive oils, and maple syrup-and making chocolates. She weighed 198 and didn't like the way she looked in the mirror.
So in August 2006, she borrowed a friend's Weight Watchers sys¬tem and started counting points. Her goals were to lose twenty pounds initially and fifty pounds in all.
Coxen, now thirty-six, decided quickly she couldn't give up good food-so she'd have to eat less of it. She still drinks some wine, and eats good bread, but focuses on quality over quantity. If she has a meal in a restaurant, she enjoys half of it and takes the other half home. And she eats less during the week so she can “splurge on the weekend.”
At her day job as a policy associate at the nonprofit Corporation for a Skilled Workforce, she used to eat six or eight Hershey kisses a day. But “once I made up my mind, I just stopped,” she says. “I save the calories for a really fine piece of chocolate”-her favorite is Michel Cluizel 72 percent dark. And when she finds herself eyeing one of her own chocolates with longing, she reminds herself that this is her business, and she should sell the treat to a paying customer.
It helped that working in the kitchen was much more physical than her desk job doing research and writing. It also helped when she decided that “hunger pangs were a mark of progress.”
One complication was that she lives in the Great Oak cohousing complex, where residents share meals about four nights a week, so she had to figure out how to eat healthy without having any voice in what was being served. Now she helps herself to a big salad or the side vegetables, while taking only small servings of calorie-heavy main dishes. “It's about portion control,” she says.
At first, she didn't add exercise. It was all she could manage to keep up with her work, her diet, and her then two-year-old son. But she did keep an online journal of her food and dieting progress and she posted weekly weigh-ins for friends and others to see. They saw steady progress. She lost fifty-six pounds, and went from women's size 16 or 18 pants to 6 or 8 now. She's holding steady at 142 pounds-and plans to stay there with good eating habits and some walking and step aerobics.
Coxen's advice: “Writing down what you eat is absolutely essential.” Figure out what foods you must have, and make sure you incorporate a small amount of them into your life. Make sure your weight-loss rewards are not all food-based. Buy something nice that shows off your weight loss.
And remember: “It's OK to be hungry.”
[Originally published in April, 2009.]