feet on a scale When my brother was teaching me to drive a stick shift, he did a lot of talking. "Okay, bring up your foot," he would say. "Get it to that point where you feel it's about to give. Do you feel it? Okay, slowly, slowly, release the clutch." I kept stalling out.

Then, on one of our driving excursions, we stopped at a crowded tollbooth. I could feel the sweat build on my forehead in anticipation of stalling as I tried to pull away. My brother started to speak. "Shut up," I told him. He had been talking so much about what I should feel as I went from neutral to first gear that I couldn't feel a thing. I was too busy trying to listen. But when he kept quiet, everything fell into place. I smoothly shifted gears, and another stick-shift driver was born.

In many ways, that's how it is with dieting. You can be told about how to do it over and over, but in the end you have to feel your own way through it, at least to some degree.

The problem is that right now, there's such a cacophony of differing voices about what to do to lose weight that nobody can feel his or her way through anything. Making it more difficult still is that what it takes to lose weight is different for different people.

For me it was giving up sweets for a while. I had always eaten pretty healthful meals, but sugary foods of all kinds were what kept me obese as a grade schooler and overweight throughout my adolescence and university years.

That's why, during my last term in school some 20 years ago, I kept all cakes, cookies, and ice cream out of my off-campus apartment. But I also was strict with myself about not having seconds of anything, no matter how much I liked the taste. For instance, I would buy a package of six little chicken drumsticks and broil them all at once but only have two for dinner, leaving the other four for two other meals. I bought those tiny boxes of raisins and would use only one per bowl of breakfast cereal.

I had two things going for me to make the dieting work. One was that, living by myself, I wasn't lured into eating for social reasons. Most of the time, I completely called the shots. Those times that I did eat with others, I was so motivated by my continuing success that I was able to control whatever urges I had to stray from the diet.

The second thing in my favor was that I knew what a meal was . Having grown up in the generation where mothers cooked for their children, I knew how to get a protein, a starch, a green vegetable, and a salad on the plate. Meals weren't fancy, but they did the trick.

The result: between September and December of 1978, I dropped from about 160 pounds to 135—a not inconsiderable difference on a guy who's 5 feet 5 inches with a wiry frame.

But mine is only one story. Even in my own circle there's a lot of variation. My friend Fay dropped from a high of 200 pounds at age 12 to her present 115-120 via a variety of methods—at different times in her life. The first 40 pounds came off with Stillman's, a precursor to today's high-protein diets that allowed her only beef and chicken and loads of water—no bread, vegetables, or fruits (although she did allow herself ketchup). Then she gained back about 15 pounds and kept trying to go back on Stillman's but recounts that "it didn't work for me."

After that, she tried a combination of "starving as much as possible," as she puts it, Weight Watchers, and other plans and "got into the 130s." Then, after she gave birth to my godson six years ago, she went with the flow of the extra calorie burning that occurs during breast-feeding and lost another 20 pounds.

Today, at 5 feet 5 inches, she weighs a decidedly svelte 115 to 120 pounds. One of her most important strategies, she says, is eating more food earlier in the day. "I don't starve all day" like I used to, she comments. "I also exercise a lot more—spinning, running, weight training."

For my brother's friend, Wayne, weight loss began with exercise. In 1987, he says, "somebody recommended Nordic Track to me. I bought it, started using it, realizing what bad shape I was in. As I exercised, I felt better. As I felt better, I started eating better." Part of his new eating style was having more fruits and vegetables. "That was a big thing," he comments. "That really made a difference."

The lowest weight Wayne got down to was 168—from a high of 225 (on a 5-foot 8-inch frame). "I stayed there for four or five years," he says. "Now I'm probably about 190."

No Two Stories are Exactly Alike

Okay, so those are three people's stories. Open it out to the wider world and there are more—many more. And no two stories are exactly alike.

Perhaps nowhere is that made clearer than in a databank of information called the Weight Control Registry. Compiled by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, it's an ever-growing list of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and have kept them off for at least one year. Presently, the registry has over 5,000 enrollees, and many of them have lost well over 60 pounds—and kept them off for years and years. How?

Some used a formal program such as Weight Watchers, or professional assistance, like individual sessions with a psychologist or a registered dietitian. Some did it on their own. Some, like me, restricted intake of certain types of foods. Some ate all the foods they always had but in limited quantities. Some counted calories; some, fat grams. Others followed what is referred to as an exchange diet, often used by people with ]]>diabetes]]> . Still others used liquid formulas, at least during part of their effort. In other words, each had found a way that was right for him or her alone.

Common Themes in Weight Loss

That doesn't mean that making some generalizations is out of the question. A number of approaches to weight loss are shared among many. For instance, people who are successful at keeping off lost weight don't appear to follow regimens that eliminate whole food groups or advise unusual combinations of food. And they're not reporting that they're on high-protein diets.

They mainly seem to be following high-carbohydrate plans like my friends and me, who eat plenty of vegetables and fruits and whole-grain breads and such. Consider that researchers analyzing the diets of more than 400 people in the Weight Control Registry found that about 55% of their calories come from carbohydrate, 25% from fat, and 20% from protein—very much like the calorie break-out recommended by every health-promoting organization from the Department of Agriculture to the American Dietetic Association to the American Heart Association to the National Cancer Institute.

Many people who lost weight also came to the realization that the only way it was going to work was for them to eat less food. Yes, it's possible to eat a greater volume of food than you've been eating and still lose weight. Whole books have been written about it. But it entails eating loads of vegetables and fruits and what many would consider painfully small portions of protein-rich foods like meat and starch-rich items like bread and pasta. Most people, it appears, worked it out by eating less food all around—not huge amounts of one thing and tiny portions of another.

Other generalities about losing weight:

You have to be able to deal with at least a little hunger—at least at first . Most weight-loss books sell themselves on the notion that you don't have to endure any hunger to shed pounds, but that doesn't describe people's experience.

Marion Nestle, chair of New York University's Department of Nutrition and Food Studies and someone who lost 10 pounds when her physician told her she had ]]>high cholesterol]]> , recalls that the first weekend was "really rough." I, too, struggled at first with the hunger from meal to meal. It took a little while for my body to adjust.

Anne Fletcher, a dietitian who surveyed more than 200 people who lost weight and kept it off for her Thin for Life book series, concludes that dealing with hunger is a matter of "learning to trade off momentary pleasure for long-term satisfaction." She says people learn to tell themselves, "'I can wait another hour until supper time."

It helps to feel psyched . Many successful weight losers seem to devote a great deal of mental energy to staying with the program. I remember when I was losing weight that there was no budging me from my plan; I was really "pumped."

Mary Lou Klem, project director for the Weight Control Registry at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, says the registry's enrollees were not asked specifically about their how psyched they felt, but does say they reported that on their weight loss attempt that was finally successful, they were "more committed to make changes, more committed to losing weight."

It's important to keep on top of it . Losing weight is not something a lot of people can do without devoting considerable attention to it. It doesn't just happen. Rather, it takes a certain mindfulness, or even hypervigilance. Weight Control Registry members report having used "more intensive approaches…on the successful attempt," note the registry keepers in an article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that looked at the first 784 enrollees. Specifically, more than 60% said they incorporated a stricter dietary approach, while more than 80% noted that they exercised more.

The Marine-like toughness doesn't necessarily have to last forever. I suspect that what happens with a lot of people who lose weight is what happened with me. At first, you've got to be super-vigilant and firm with yourself. But then, as you lose weight and your body requires fewer calories to support its smaller size—and you get back in better touch with your physiologic appetite—you can go a little easier on yourself.

Weight Control Registrants corroborate my experience by reporting that they find keeping off their weight easier than losing it in the first place.

That said, however, it should be noted that not everybody's body "snaps to" in response to strict dieting. It's in part for that reason, in fact, that my sister-in-law, Tricia, a large woman who comes from a family where people put on weight easily, decided not to try to slim down. "If I were a size 12," she comments, "I would be thrilled. But I'm not, and that's okay. My priority is to stay healthy."

And she does. At her last physical, her cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and other vital signs were all within the normal range.

Eating regular meals is the way to go . Current eating patterns reported by Weight Control Registrants suggest a habit of having regular meals. That's not to say they don't snack; they eat an average of about five times a day altogether. But very few eat less than, say, twice a day. (An average of three meals a week are eaten at restaurants.)

Exercising will help—up to a point . Exercise isn't quite all it's cracked up to be when it comes to weight loss. Consider that when a National Institutes of Health Task Force set new guidelines for losing weight a couple of years ago, it said that people wanting to shed pounds should create a calorie deficit of 500 to 1,000 calories a day—but that only about 100 to 200 calories should come from physical activity. (One such activity would be ]]>walking]]> moderately intensely for 45 minutes at least five days a week.) The bulk of the calorie deficit should come from eating less food.

However, while exercise itself doesn't just melt off the pounds the way many people assume (no, you can't jog and then eat as much as you want), it's important to note that vigorous physical activity is a great motivator in a weight-control effort. It's also great at helping to keep the weight off once you've lost it. The NIH Task Force said it, and so do I, for what it's worth.

During the first six months after my weight loss, I gained back nine pounds—twice. It was very hard losing them both times. I had to go into that super-mindful small-portions, no-sweets mode again, and knew I didn't want to sustain that kind of vigilance for the rest of my life.

Then, my brother got me into jogging. I felt ridiculous running around outside in a pair of gym shorts—it was hard for him to talk me into it—but our first day out together, I went a mile and a half; the second day, two miles. In part, it was brotherly competition, but I was also hooked. I had never been active in my life, and I found I enjoyed challenging my body. Today, I jog three miles several days a week, often take a brisk, hour-long walk at lunchtime, and, when my neighbor, Tom, can stand it, mangle a game of tennis with him. Because I've become active, I can enjoy some Entenmann's blackout cake or raspberry twist without having to worry too much about the needle inching up on the scale.

Those in the Weight Control Registry maintain their losses by exercising, too. Initial reports show that the men burn more than 3,500 calories a week through exercise; the women in the registry, almost 2,700 calories. That's the equivalent of walking about four miles a day—much more physical activity than Americans typically engage in.

It pays to monitor yourself . I weigh myself once a week. Apparently, so do many in the Weight Control Registry. When data for the first 784 entrants were tabulated, 31% reported weekly weigh-ins. Thirty-eight percent reported daily weigh-ins, with 6.5% reporting weigh-ins more than once a day. It seems a little loopy to me. After all, you can't gain or lose a pound of fat in 24 hours. But to them, it no doubt serves as an alternative to creeping pounds.

Your last diet probably won't be your first. More than 90% of the first 784 people in the Weight Control Registry lost—and regained—weight before their successful attempt.