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YOUR DIET // Hit the road, fat fairy!

When Bob Schwartz hit 30, something unsettling happened to him. He wasn't quite sure why it happened, or exactly when it started.

He woke up one morning, looked in a mirror, and saw that the Great Expansion had begun.

"The best way to put it," Schwartz would say later, "is that the fat fairy visited my bedroom."

Schwartz dieted and lost 11 pounds. But not only did he quickly put the 11 pounds back on, he added two more. So he went on another diet.

And that's when Schwartz got on the gain-lose-regain merry-go-round, and when he became a statistic.

More than 26,000 diets have been published since 1920 _ ideas involving everything from milkshakes and medications, to hypnosis and Deal-A-Meal cards.

But what many of the diet plans never explained _ and one of the reasons diet companies stay in business _ is this little nugget that appeared several years ago in a report in the Washington Post:

Only 10 of every 200 people who go on a diet lose all the weight they set out to lose.

And of those 10 dieters, only one keeps the weight off for several years.

In other words, diets failed 99.5 percent of the time.

And so it was with Schwartz. He kept losing weight and gaining it back. For 10 years.

"I was on 100 different diets and lost over 2,000 pounds," he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in Houston. "But at the end of 10 years, I was 40 pounds overweight."

Schwartz, who at the time was operating several health clubs and was a firm believer in diets, began to realize he was going about this all wrong.

"I went to the closet, got the biggest pants I could find, and could not put them on," he said. "Have you ever called into work fat? I did. I couldn't go to work. And that's when it hit me.

"I had been studying overweight people for 20 years trying to find the secret. But that was like studying poor people to find out how to get rich. The one group I never studied were naturally thin people. I thought it was their metabolism that kept them thin.

"But I began to notice that when I started to do some of the things they did, my weight began to come off."

What those things naturally thin people do, Schwartz found, is this:

They eat only when their body is hungry.

They eat exactly what they want to eat.

They take the time to enjoy every bite of food.

They stop eating when their body is no longer hungry.

He also found there was one thing naturally thin people didn't do:

Diet.

"Some thin people I studied ate health food, some ate nothing but junk food," Schwartz said. "I never could find a pattern, except that naturally thin people eat exactly what satisfies them each time they eat.

"We're the most obsessed country in the world when it comes to spending money on diets," he added. "We're not addicted to food. We're addicted to diets."

Inspired by what he found, Schwartz, who has a doctoral degree from More University in California, became the Diet Slayer. He wrote Diets Don't Work in 1982, and it became a New York Times bestseller. A third edition of the book appeared this spring and has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

What Schwartz advocates, in essence, is a holistic approach to self-control.

"We were born naturally thin," he explained, "and we have programed in us a form of appetite control. If you put food in a baby's mouth when he's not hungry, he won't eat.

"We have to listen to our body's signals because the human body is much more intelligent than we give it credit for. Our bodies know to within one bite when we've had enough. You don't have to teach babies when to eat. They know.

"And if babies can do it, adults can do it, too."

Schwartz, 58, says that when most people lose weight through dieting, it happens for two reasons: their health is in jeopardy, and they are highly motivated, or they are compulsive.

But in both cases, the weight loss is temporary.

"Diets do work for one out of 200 people, and those are the ones you see in the ads. Like Tommy Lasorda," Schwartz said, referring to the baseball manager's Slim-Fast promotions. "But if you've been following the news, you know that he put his weight back on and had a mild heart attack. I bet dieting played a role in that."

To become naturally thin, Schwartz offers several suggestions, including asking, "Am I hungry?" If not, wait.

"Don't look at your wristwatch to find out of you're hungry," he said. "It doesn't know. And then once you get into that naturally thin zone, work on your nutrition and exercise."

Schwartz disagrees with the notion that he has simply invented the world's first non-diet diet.

"Somebody called it the thinking person's diet," he said with a chuckle. "If you turn this into a diet, it's not going to be any better than anything else. But if you can turn the corner and begin to think like a naturally thin person, you're on your way.

"When you diet, you follow someone else's rules for eating. I'm saying you should follow your own rules.

"I think," he added, "there's a naturally thin person in each of us."

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