Georgia has the bulldog; USC, the Trojan warrior; St. Joe's, the hawk. If you were a college team, what would your mascot be?

Although the costume would definitely be cumbersome and complicated to create, mine would be a clear dispenser of cellophane tape.

Odd choice? Maybe. But appropriate and certainly symbolically significant.

That's because as a teacher, columnist, and member of the human race, I firmly believe in that special quality that separates cellophane from duct, masking, electrician's or any other form of adhesion.

Transparency.

I believe you should know, for instance, that the genesis of today's column came from a compliment I received about this column. A reader saw me at a school board meeting and took the time to tell me how much she enjoyed my articles and how much her whole family benefitted from them.

Besides making me feel really good, the compliment caused me to critique the last few columns. Yes, I thought they were informative and competently written, but were they of such a quality to get somebody else to say the same?

Maybe yes. Maybe no. From such ambivalence, an obvious topic emerged for today's column.

I receive far more questions about weight loss than all other types of questions combined. When I answer such questions in print, however, I specifically address that individual's concern.

But what about the big picture? The grand scheme? The full plan that when implemented allows you to reach your target weight and maintain it regardless of limited time to work out, a crazy work schedule, or having to feed a family who refuses to eat virtually anything that's healthy?

So the next two columns will catalog a step-by-step plan that will work for all but that 3 percent or so who are genetically cursed to carry unneeded weight provided you're willing to use the strategies as a guide and tailor them to your specific situation as the process evolves.

Step one: Don't start by dieting. Instead, put the diet on hold and increase your exercise time.

A professor at Stanford University School of Medicine, Abby King, recently led a study that showed the most effective dieters exercised as they dieted. So why am I suggesting something else?

Because most people are far more likely to make a single successful change than two at once.

Furthermore, losing body fat as opposed to overall body weight and keeping it off can't happen if the diet you choose significantly decreases your basal metabolic rate, the rate at which you burn calories when not physically engaged. Since muscle requires far more energy than fat more than triple and even at rest the percentage of muscle you carry affects your BMR.

The more muscle and the less fat, the better.

In fact, the results of the Stanford study were such that King advises those who can only make one change to initially to begin with exercise, the opposite of what many well-known, but canned, weight-loss programs advocate.

That's because King knows what Dr. Osama Hamady, medical director of the Obesity Clinical Program the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston has discovered by working with diabetics: that nearly 30 percent of all weight lost on a diet not complemented by some form of strength training is a loss of muscle mass. But if patients pick up the weights while putting the fork down, only 10 percent of the weight loss is a loss of muscle mass.

Step two: After two or three weeks of exercising or increasing exercise time, create a log of everything you eat and when you eat it for at least three days, preferably a week. Afterwards, review the data as carefully as you would a contract or a life insurance policy.

You're doing this to find patterns and gain a general awareness rather than count calories.

I've been logging my calories and my workouts for nearly 30 years, and of this I am certain: even though I weigh and measure my foods, my calorie estimate is off at the end of each day, by about 15 percent on a weekday and 25 percent on a weekend. I know this because I know how many cals I burn during weekday and weekend workouts, yet I'm not losing weight supposedly eating insufficient calories; therefore, I must be using incorrect multipliers for a few of the calorie amounts of the foods I eat.

But I don't sweat this because calorie counting is still an inexact science; furthermore, my own system even with the aforementioned errors is creating the proper result.

But what the log never lies about is how I feel and perform after eating certain foods and the effect food has on me during certain times of the day.

I have a seemingly bad habit of eating too many calories after supper, yet this hasn't caused me to gain weight yet. The log has shown me this and also told me that my early-morning workout doesn't improve if I eat something beforehand.

In fact, I feel better on an empty stomach, and I will eat fewer calories for the entire day if I do it that way provided I eat a breakfast high in protein and complex carbs shortly afterward the workout.

You'll be able to make similar judgments about your diet by assessing it, and you'll find the finishing touches of the name-your-weight eating plan in next week's column.