Food Critics: How to Fight Weight Gain When Eating is Your Job

To some it's a dream job--eating gourmet meals for free and then writing about them. But for some food critics, their eyes aren't the only thing that gets wide when they contemplate yet another feast.

Karen Fernau, a food writer for The Arizona Republic, said when she first started her job she began to gain weight. "I always looked forward to lunch before this job, then all of a sudden lunch was all day every day. Eventually I realized that if I continued to carry on eating for work and then eating outside of work, too, I wasn't going to fit in my cubicle," she says. Nine years later, keeping her weight steady and her health intact is a daily battle.

"When I'm not working I have to eat like a rabbit and exercise like a crazy person," she says. If she knows she will be going to a tasting at a bakery or eating a four-course meal, she usually eats fruit or salads throughout the day. "What people don't realize is that as a food critic or writer, you're not writing about health--you're celebrating food. And these chefs don't try to make it healthy, they try to make it incredible, and a lot of butter and fats go into that mission."

Fernau discovered that she had to learn the difference between tasting and gorging. "I started to realize that I couldn't eat the entire treat, even if it was delicious. I just couldn't," she says. "It's all about proportions now. That and being extremely cautious off the job. On the job, I can't not taste something. It's my livelihood and something I must deal with."

Although Fernau always considered herself a health-conscious person, she never realized the importance of counting calories. Now she is always keeping track of nutritional information that she says most people don't even look at or consider. At one tasting session alone, she says, upward of 1,000 calories is often added to her day. That's about half of the recommended total calories per day for the average adult. "As a food critic or writer you will eat more calories in one sitting than most people eat in an entire day," she says.

But even though she's devised an eating method that keeps her on track, Fernau says sticking to it is a daily battle. And food editors, writers and critics across the country couldn't agree more.

"When I'm at home or not eating for work, it's healthy food to the extreme," says Phil Vettel, who's been a restaurant critic for the Chicago Tribune for 19 years. "People are always astonished that I eat so plainly at home, but if I didn't, I'd have to widen all my doorways."
Although Vettel, unlike Fernau, has no idea how many calories are in any of his meals at a restaurant (he says if he knew the exact calorie count, it'd probably kill him), his guess is that if he ate everything presented to him at a sitting, it'd be upward of 4,000 calories. "I remember starting this job and thinking, 'Now this job could literally kill me if I'm not careful,' and so I've been careful, very careful," he says. "My saving grace in this profession is that you have to try everything, but you don't have to finish it. Doggie bags are my lifesaver."

Vettel, who eats dinner at four restaurants each week, says unlike most professions, he doesn't have the luxury of choice. "If I'm going out to eat, I can't choose the healthiest thing on the menu, I have to eat what they're bringing me."

While Vettel exercises when he can, Joe Yonan, a food editor at The Washington Post, has intensified his exercise habits since he started the job two years ago. Yonan says he realized early on that he was gaining weight and promptly hired a personal trainer to meet with three times a week, on top of his cardio training three to five times a week. "There are certainly perks to tasting such great food," he says. "But it presents an uphill struggle to staying fit."

Still, it's a struggle that many Americans might envy. After all, it's one thing to get your calories from lobster tails poached in butter or a delicate chocolate soufflé and quite another to get them from sodas and fast-food burgers.