The fat and the furious
What I learned about the Atkins diet—or, is it possible to eat too much meat?
It was 7:10 a.m. when the nurse from the lab called. I have never received a phone call from a medical lab before. I’ve never received a call from any kind of medical professional at 7:10 a.m. And my dad’s a doctor.
“Is this David Burghart?” said the warm, comforting nurse’s voice.
I’d gone to one of those Wellness Days up at Scolari’s near my house and had some blood drawn. It’s not something I do often, but I’d started the Atkins diet several weeks before, and I wanted to make sure my cholesterol levels were all right. The half of my friends who weren’t on the Atkins diet were telling me it’s a recipe for an early death.
I’m a hypertensive 41-year-old who’s never asked anything from his body except the impossible, and, frankly, I’ve known guys younger than I am who’ve died of heart problems. It’s made me somewhat sensitive to issues of blood fat.
“Yeah, but call me Brian. Middle name and all that.”
“Did you have blood drawn a week ago Saturday at the Scolari’s on Caughlin Parkway?”
“That’s me,” I said, falsely jovial.
“You’ve got some results here that are somewhat—irregular. Your liver enzymes are triple the high limit.”
I explained that I was doing Atkins and asked if that could cause the abnormalities. She was unsure and suggested I see my doctor at my earliest convenience.
“Your cholesterol looks good, though, well within normal range.”
Cold comfort, really. Tough way to start the day.
Is that a good opening? Do you like my introduction? I wasn’t quite sure how to start this ball of yarn rolling. Does it heighten the drama to begin with a phone call from a nurse that could have life-and-death ramifications? I didn’t tell you the results; I don’t know them yet, although I expect I will before this narrative is complete.
There are so many appropriate places to begin a diet story. I could have begun at the moment I realized my gall bladder had been bothering me so much that I’d worn a bald spot on my belly from rubbing the burning pain. I could have begun at the moment I realized I could no longer see my man parts over my gut, but I began a story with that anecdote once before. I could have begun at the moment where I ended my last diet story, almost three years ago, at the bottom of a weight sled with 490 pounds crushing my chest—bruising my ribs, ending my workout regimen for six months and beginning the cycle of weight gain all over again. Or, I could have told the story about how I was standing on the corner outside this building and a female passenger in a van met my eye and asked, “Do you remember when you were skinny?”
(I can see my obituary now: “Burghart, who died Wednesday morning of liver failure, struggled with his weight all his life. He is survived by a long-time partner, Kathleen O’Brien, and a son, Hunter, a brother, Robert Burghart Jr., a sister, Jennifer Lunsford, and his father, Robert Burghart Sr. He was buried in two 30-gallon Hefty bags in the Our Lady of Sorrows Cemetery.")
Dr. Robert C. Atkins first published Dr. Atkins Diet Revolution in 1972. He was regularly scoffed at by the billion-dollar diet and medical establishment for most of 30 years. Nutrition experts attacked his high-fat diet, claiming it was killing dieters, raising cholesterol, heart disease and causing kidney problems.
Atkins countered, saying the obesity epidemic began when the government started promoting low-fat, high carb diets. The Atkins diet more closely mirrors the way human beings were meant to eat, he said; there were no processed flours or spaghetti noodles when Homo sapiens were evolving.
Atkins may have won out. There’s been a huge positive buzz coming from my friends and the media lately. People are getting results. According to Slate.com, “a study by the Natural Marketing Institute claims 25.4 million Americans—12 percent of the adult population—have tried the Atkins diet.”
The diet’s basic idea is that human fat is made mostly from carbohydrates.
Let’s go one step simpler. On a basic level, foods are made of proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Atkins theorized that human animals get their energy from three possible sources: carbohydrates, fats and alcohol. (This alcohol-energy thing would take more explanation than it’s worth. Simply put, avoid alcohol when trying to drop a few pounds.) Atkins taught that the body would rather burn carbohydrates converted to glucose than fats, which it likes to store for later. Remove most carbohydrates from the equation, and the body goes into fat-burning mode. It either gets the fat from the food you eat, or it gets it from the jiggly stuff under your belt. And in your face. And on the back of your arms.
Atkins has words for all this. Lipolysis. Glucosis. Induction.
None of that matters, but I’m nothing if not obsessive. At about 255 pounds, with intermittent high blood pressure, less time than ever for working out and a doctor who eyes my gallbladder like Prometheus’ vulture studies a giblet, I had exactly nothing to lose. All right, a few pounds. But that is so cliché. For what doth it profit a man if he gain a smaller pant size and suffer the loss of his own soul?
My resolve finally coalesced six weeks ago, when I read a story on Salon.com. The story basically said that everything—virtually everything—that had been said against the Atkins diet was a lie.
And so my story really began. I went to the Atkins Web site (www.atkins.com) and boned up on the essentials. (Essential No. 1: Eat meat. Essential No. 2: Eat mayonnaise and butter. Essential No. 3: If it was grown in soil, don’t eat much of it. Essential No. 4: No processed flour or bread; no pasta or potatoes. Essential No. 5: Drink huge quantities of water. Essential No. 6: No sugar.) I was going to do this thing, come hell or high water.
Let me throw in a cautionary note. Mine is not a literal interpretation of the Atkins diet. At most, it’s related, and not that closely, to the earliest phase of the diet, Induction, in which carbohydrates are most restricted (or virtually removed, in my case). There are three more phases that slowly increase the amount of carbohydrates allowed. It truly is a forgiving and non-fascist diet that can be maintained for years.
Also, one thing that even Atkins dieters don’t seem to get is that it’s not really a low-carb diet. The key is that it’s a high-fat diet; Atkins recommended that up to 65 percent of calories should come from fat. So cook that bacon in butter.
I knew before I started that I wasn’t going to do the diet the way those nuts on Atkins.com said I should. I’ve been involved in dieting enough that I have certain preconceptions. I know a lot of experts on losing weight. I was going to combine their knowledge with my experience and come up with something new.
In other words, I started screwing up right off the bat.
Seven things I didn’t do that I should have Done Before I Started
No. 1: I didn’t read the book.
No. 2: I didn’t see my doctor.
No. 3: I didn’t weigh myself.
No. 4: I didn’t take my measurements.
No. 5: I didn’t come up with a workout regimen.
No. 6: I didn’t understand the logic of the diet.
No. 7: I didn’t get on board with the recipes.
Does anybody remember when I asked for Atkins diet experiences in my Editor’s Note (RN&R, Oct. 25)? One of my favorite responses was this one:
“Everyone wants to make dieting into a huge issue. Losing weight can be ‘reduced’ to two simple concepts: Eat less, exercise more. Forget Atkins and or calorie-counting plans. Eat a variety of healthy foods that you like and find an exercise program you enjoy enough to do consistently. I became a vegetarian after breast cancer and walk to work five days a week. I have not had a weight problem since beginning this program 15 years ago. Good luck! Cindy”
Phase 1 of the diet for me entailed a sexy kind of madness. I believed the Atkins Web site when I read, “Individuals on Atkins can eat high-fat, satisfying foods that contain more calories and still lose weight.”
If I wanted to maintain my svelte 255 tubbitude, I’d follow this formula: 13 times 255 equals the acceptable number of calories for my body. In other words, I’d eat 3,315 calories a day. This formula came from a recent Time magazine story, but I don’t think it’s too far from the truth. If I want to maintain a skeletal 210 pounds, I eat 13 times 210, or 2,730 calories a day. Anything less than 13 times my current weight puts me at a caloric deficit, so I’ll lose weight. If I want to increase the rate of weight loss, I increase the physical work I do and burn more calories.
Atkins’ book, which I bought two weeks after I started the diet, maintained that I could eat as much low-carb food as I desired and still lose weight.
And so I did.
During those first heady weeks, I ate at the meat buffet every single day for lunch. By “meat buffet,” I mean I went to the casino buffets and only ate meat—ham, ribs, bacon, eggs, pork chops, sliced baron of beef, you name it. It was exciting; I went to every casino buffet in town. It was like the early days of love, when my gluttonous behavior bordered on criminal.
For breakfast, I’d have two eggs (152 calories), a large dollop of mayonnaise (200), and a small can of tuna (150).
Every lunchtime, Dave Foto and I would head to a buffet. I’ll give you a quick rundown on the Truckee Meadows’ buffets elsewhere (see sidebar), but the fact is, I made a pig of myself—two or three trips back to the line with full plates. I’d guess I was eating 1,800 or more calories at lunchtime.
For dinner, I’d have two eggs (152), a large dollop of mayonnaise (200), and a small can of tuna (150). Then I’d add a can of sardines (155). Sometimes a chunk of pre-prepared steak (400) and a 3-4-ounce piece of cheddar cheese for dessert (320).
Shall we do the math? I come up with about 3,679 calories a day. Holy tub-o-guts. No goddamned wonder the bear at Animal Ark wouldn’t look me in the eye. Now here’s the scariest thing: I was eating 3,500 calories a day, and in the first two weeks I lost between 10 and 15 pounds (as I mentioned, I didn’t weigh myself before I started). What’s that tell you? Even with eating enough energy units to power a Greyhound bus from here to Sun Valley, I’d still cut calories. And because I haven’t debased myself quite enough, we’ll do the math one more time.
Three thousand five hundred calories must burn to lose a pound of body fat. In order to lose 10 pounds, I had to have a calorie deficit of 35,000 calories over two weeks. That’s 2,500 a day. I was exercising a bit more (jogging burns 0.75 times body weight times miles), but that was only 1,200 calories a week.
This seemed impossible to me. A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. Did I lose a couple gallons of water? What’s that I see winking up at me under my slimmer belly?
(I just put on a pair of Dockers I haven’t worn for a while. My belt is on the tightest hole, and I can pull the pants down over my hips without unbuttoning them. Why do all my pants suddenly seem too short? My gut is no longer pushing them down.)
But something must have given. The laws of thermodynamics are not to be broken. The biggest difference in my eating habits was the loss of two things: chocolate during the day and dessert at night. I’ve never attempted to keep track of the calories connected to the six or seven Oreos I might eat in an evening; the bowl of ice cream before bed, the Mrs. Smith’s pie, pumpkin bars or brownies. That doesn’t even include the half-dozen or more bite-sized chocolate bars I’d snitch from Ina Wilson’s office or the 7-ounce Symphony chocolate bars that people in the office would leave on my desk when they were feeling particularly happy with or sorry for me.
Let’s give it a shot: six small Snickers (570); one large Symphony (approximately 1,000); six Oreos (450), a couple handfuls of peanuts (510) … I can’t take it anymore. The shame. There were pre-Atkins days when I was getting half my calories from crappy junk foods. And I haven’t even mentioned the occasional potato chip or nibble of cracker. Care to guess what a triple scoop of mint chocolate chip ice cream will cost in calories? I can’t bring myself to say.
Can we call this Phase 2, not of the Atkins plan but a simple recognition of reality? The realization that I simply could not eat like Dom DeLuise came after two weeks of stalled weight loss. First, I cut out the cheese and mushrooms (Atkins made a connection between mold-based foods and mired weight loss). A pound and a half dropped that week. I started eating only one plate during my visits to the meat buffet and increased the number of days I jogged. Five pounds came off that next week.
My diet these days consists of tuna, eggs and mayonnaise for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I also eat sardines, deep-fried pork rinds with full-fat sour-cream dip, a couple ounces of steak at times (not with but instead of one of my puny meals).
Total calories per day, not including multivitamin, vitamin C, zinc and glucosamine: 1,500.
Is it possible my weight really is about self-control? Am I a bad person because I’m fat? If blindness to my own shortcomings is a measurement of “bad,” then it must be true. Maybe I shouldn’t be so fucking jolly all the time.
Friends say a meat diet is a sign of moral turpitude. I have one friend who says I should eat from as low on the food chain as possible, and I’ll never have a weight problem. It’s irresponsible to the environment to eat meat when a more grain-based existence is so much easier on Mother Earth. On the other hand, I had a friend named Amy Paris who was an unrepentant vegetarian, and she said she didn’t hold my carnivorousness against me because she knew I would absolutely hunt and kill my own meat. I don’t know why that always gave me a vague sense of pride. I remember she told me that as I polished off one of those dreamy Italian combo meat sandwiches from Chicago Express Deli.
Here are some statistics stolen from the Internet site Vegetarian Made Easy, www.vegez.com:
· A child dies of starvation every two seconds
· 20,000 pounds of potatoes can be grown on one acre of land
· 165 pounds of beef can be produced on one acre of land
· 56 percent of U.S. agricultural land is used to produce beef
· 16 pounds of grain and soybeans are needed to produce one pound of feedlot beef
· 60 million people will starve to death this year
· 60 million people could be adequately fed by the grain saved if Americans reduced their intake of meat by 10 percent
My doctor, Paul Smith, was most impressed when he saw the results of that blood test I took.
“Wow, this is the lowest I’ve ever seen your cholesterol. Triglycerides, too. But,” he said, brow furrowing at the liver-enzyme levels, “if I were a betting man, I’d bet you won’t have that gall bladder in a month.”
He had no problem with the Atkins diet in concept. “It’s not going to hurt you; it’s not something that you can live on, though. It’s fat that kills you in the long run.”
I told him my plan was to stay on the diet until I reached my target weight and then go back to a low-fat diet. Atkins fanatics will tell you that that’s a recipe for failure and diabetes. I can tell you that I have a mercurial temperament, and if I start to regain weight when I make the switch, well, I can only tell you, you’d better lock up your veal. You know what I mean.
Dr. Smith prescribed another blood test and a trip to West Valley Imaging for another ultrasonic look at my gall bladder. Perhaps that’s another irony: I believe my gall bladder, and perhaps my life, depend on my losing weight, but the steps I take to preserve my life helps to deprive others of theirs and reinforce an unsustainable lifestyle.
An associate of mine once confessed hypocrisy at her unwillingness to practice a sustainable lifestyle through the foods she consumes.
On the assumption that I was 255 pounds when I began the Atkins diet seven weeks ago, I’ve lost 22 pounds. According to my electronic body fat scale, my body fat percentage has dropped from 36.6 to 30 percent. Do I feel hypocritical? About like a hyena.
My doctor called with the results of the second blood test yesterday.“It looks like your SGOT and SGPTs have dropped back to almost normal,” he said on the answering machine. “Everything else still looks good.”