10/08/2012 11:42 am ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Let Them Eat Rice

We live in troubled times in America. It's an age in which our genetic predisposition for preserving surplus food as fat has trumped our good sense. Storing calories served our prehistoric ancestors so well that we exist today. However, our culture has changed and most Americans now live in a time of abundance. Few of us forage or hunt down animals for food. Put simply, most of us are fat or, more seriously, obese.

I've been fat and I've been thin -- and believe me, thin is better. Over the past decade, I gave up my regular exercise, became more sedentary, and slowly packed on extra pounds. At first, it felt good. I tried to eat a "nice" dinner every night. I studied cookbooks and watched cooking shows on TV. My friends and family called me a great cook, but after a decade I had put on a lot of extra weight.

All this changed at a moment of other transitions in my life. I decided to turn over a new leaf. I bought a shelf of diet books -- checking each out, of course, for recipes before buying it. I managed to lose 15 pounds on a high protein, low carb plan, but Thanksgiving, my birthday, and the holiday season soon returned them in abundance.

Food was -- and always will be -- a problem for me. I faced the prospect of more rapidly declining health as I age, a premature death, and missing my grandchildren's graduations and maybe a wedding or commitment ceremony or two.

After binging on diet books and cooking shows, I turned to the Internet to research residential diet programs. Of the many out there, I chose one close to home -- the Rice Diet in Durham, N.C. I went for a visit. It had the look and feel of a summer camp for overweight adults and I decided to try it.

The idea is that you eat three meals a day at the Rice House in the company of other "Ricers." Staff doctors and nurses monitor your progress daily, carefully recording weight and blood pressure. Frequent medical tests monitor blood and glucose levels.

In 3.5 months, I've undergone a miracle transformation. I've lost 60 pounds. High blood pressure and elevated cholesterol are things of the past. I no longer take meds for them because they are controlled through exercise and by the food I eat.

No, we don't just eat rice every day like the founder mandated in the 1930s but choose carefully from mostly organic fresh fruits and vegetables and a variety of starches. It's vegan except for a modest serving of fish on Saturday nights.

We eliminate salt, oil, and refined sugars. Everything is made from scratch. Highly-processed foods and caffeine are off limits. Craving disappeared after two or three days without the stimulating effects of salt, oil, and added sugar.

I've learned to appreciate the taste of genuinely natural foods. In combination with a range of exercise choices (yoga, tai chi, walking, swimming, water aerobics, etc.) and classes on nutrition, health, and lifestyle, this plan works. Or at least it has for me and a lot of other people who also have problems with food.

It appears that all diet programs operate on the principle of calorie reduction. How they go about it is what differs.

I'm very happy with my new self. After walking in (sadly, not on) water for weeks, I swim laps once again. A few days ago I ran through a corridor in LaGuardia airport to catch a plane. When I sat down, I was neither red-faced nor sweaty and no longer needed a seat-belt extender. Shortly afterward I negotiated my way through the food court at Washington-Reagan. I knew that I didn't have to skip a meal but that I did need to choose wisely. I bought a container of unsalted rice from a Chinese take-out, a salad with veggies (no dressing, please) from another, and a container of fresh fruit from a third.

Wish me luck on my venture to maintain what I've achieved. I'm determined to make it and even lose a few more pounds, and I like company. I worry about my fellow Americans who have similar weight and health issues. I say, "Let them eat rice!"

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William M. O'Barr is professor of cultural anthropology, sociology, and English at Duke and is spending his sabbatical at The Rice House in Durham, N.C while completing "An Anthropologist Looks at Circumcision in American Life."

For more by William M. O'Barr, click here.

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