It was the height of ‘The Low Carb Craze’ and I thought it was the stupidest thing I’d ever heard of. Any idiot could see this was dumb – a nation of fat honkers gulping down plates of bacon thinking that this was going to make them lose weight!?
I had lost weight twice before 60 lbs the first time in my 20s and 70 lbs the second time in my 30s and I knew for a fact that the only way to lose weight was through a low fat, semi-vegetarian lifestyle with the only meat being some fish or baked chicken breast with the skin removed. A calorie is a calorie is a calorie – this mantra of the low-fat doctors made perfect sense. And as any nutritional label will tell you, a gram of fat has more calories than a gram of carbohydrates or a gram of protein. It’s obvious to anyone with an understanding of basic addition that you can eat more carbs than you can fat – with the extra added benefit that fat is bad for you – it increases your cholesterol and can lead to heart disease.
I had the fake cheese, the fake bologna, used the no-calorie butter-substitute on my half of a baked potato. Ate the dry, skinless baked chicken.
The problem was – I knew all this but I was 260 lbs – 90 lbs overweight.
How did this happen? Willpower – I just didn’t have it. It was a moral defect on my part. I was undisciplined, a fat slob that couldn’t control my urges. I knew that through rigorous self-discipline I could reach my goal if I wanted to – I just didn’t want it bad enough.
My friend, Jim – who also happened to be at that time the president of the company I worked for, introduced me to Atkins. I had noticed that he was losing weight – he kept pulling his pants up all the time. I asked him: “are you losing weight?” At first, he didn’t really answer directly, which I noticed, and I dropped it. Some time later he mentioned to me that he and his wife were doing Atkins.
I guess he sensed what was coming next, which was why he didn’t tell me at first – I ripped into him mercilessly about how stupid a diet it was. Even though he was the president of the company, I could talk to him like this and blasted him, going over all the obvious points about good diets and how dangerous it was.
There was only one flaw: I was as big as a house, fatter than I ever was, sluggish and puffy, and he was losing weight. The turning point was an offhand comment he tossed me as he left my office: “and the doctor says my blood work is fine.”
Something snapped. I got angry. At myself. For me, this usually precedes some action – anger directed can be a powerful force. It was a Friday afternoon. On the way home I stopped at the drugstore and bought the Atkins book.
My wife, who I love dearly, in part because she has never catered to the ‘fragile male ego’, gave me the following words of support: “You know this isn’t going to work. You start a diet, then get sick and go off it in a week.”
That’s my gal.
With those words of encouragement, on Saturday afternoon I sat in a chair in the living room and read the book. It’s 540 pages. There’s 170 pages of recipes and 220 pages of how to continue after you get started and how to keep it off. That left 144 pages of why Atkins believed fat isn’t so bad and why carbs are worse than most people think, the science that exists to back it up, a defense of what his detractors have been saying for 25 years, and finally, a list of foods that you can have.
I read the first 144 pages, and skimmed the rest. I was still skeptical. His claims were outrageous: I’m going to eat lots of meat and butter, eat cheese, have some (but not a lot) of vegetables, and not be hungry, have lots of energy and lose weight. I told myself two weeks. This sounds like the unhealthiest diet one can conceive of, but two weeks shouldn’t kill me – at least I don’t think so.
There was a problem, however – a big one. I could never follow this diet – there were just some things that he said you couldn’t do that were just not acceptable. I thought I understood the principles behind the book, but there were some things that seemed to fall in grey areas, and Atkins pronounced these just as important as the other stuff.
I decided that I would try it – but with my own modifications. Atkins specifically said that it wouldn’t work this way, but I just couldn’t see myself following the plan 100%. So even before I started, I had my own half-baked plan.
Over that weekend I had stocked up on what I had planned to eat. Loaded for bear, I was ready. The first day I felt ok as I went through my normal routine – all except for the food change. The second day I felt – weird – not necessarily bad, but weird. On the third day I noticed an interesting thing – that feeling around 2:30 in the afternoon where a wave of sudden and intense fatigue would come across me and pack such a wallop that I though I would not be able to keep my eyes open – disappeared. Completely.
I’ve never had that since.
I still had that weird feeling, but I had committed to two weeks and I was going to see it through, then make my decision.
Another interesting side note to this experiment was that the things that I cooked, my slim wife actually liked. She usually hated when I was on a diet and cooked because every dish had some sort of substitute pretending to be the real thing. The egg salad was made from some mysterious powder mixed with tofu – it didn’t taste like any known food on the planet, but it sorta, kinda seemed like egg salad if you thought about egg salad while eating it. The ‘meat’ sauce for pasta was made with meat substitute, which again, if you wished very hard, almost tasted like meat – make sure you put a lot of spices on, though!
But now it was different. Egg salad was egg salad. With real creamy delicious mayonnaise. Pasta with meat sauce was with real meat – I made the pasta for her and I ate the meat sauce with ricotta, mozzarella and parmagain cheese like a chili.
Around that time she wanted to make her famous potato salad – a thing of beauty, and with a simple substitute for the potatoes, it came out excellent (I’ll share the recipe – it’s good). For the first time in many years, I was on a diet and she ate, and enjoyed, what I cooked.
The way I was eating seemed to be the the path of a fool. I could not imagine that this could be a way to lose weight. I didn’t gorge, but I did eat when I was hungry – I never starved. But it still didn’t make sense – in fact, part of me was doing this almost as a way to show Jim just how stupid Atkins was.
At the end of the first week I got on the scale – I had lost 12 lbs. I checked the scale, then weighted myself again. 12 lbs. One more time – made sure the dial was set to zero, got on: 12 lbs.
It didn’t make sense. I lost weight twice before, and twice before dieting consisted of small portions of faux whatever-real-food-I-really-wanted or small portions of something I wanted a lot more of. When I was finished, I would look at the clock and go: “ugh – four hours till the next meal.” I once told someone the secret to losing weight when I did it the low calorie / low fat route: get used to being hungry.
I was encouraged, but I still had to wonder if this wasn’t a trick. I had read that people on Atkins lose water-weight – maybe that’s what it was. If so, I was retaining a lot of water. Still possible, though. I had another week to go. So I continued.
I began to notice I seemed to have a lot more energy. I also noticed that my use of Tums, which had become for me almost a snack food I used them so much, began to diminish a bit. I found myself not having to carry them around with me all the time, which again didn’t make sense because it had always seemed in the past that it was greasy food that caused the heartburn I perpetually had. I continued having burgers and cheese and cream and butter and all the other things that Atkins says is ok while the rest of the world cringes in horror.
At the end of week two I weighed myself again. I had lost 20 lbs.
Now I had to make my decision – would I continue or stop. I thought about it a long time, and concluded that despite the weight loss, Atkins just wasn’t for me – I was a semi-vegetarian before I went on Atkins, and I still felt weird – again, not bad or sick – as I said, I seemed to have more energy and was in better spirits, my GERD lessened and my belt didn’t pinch my waist anymore, but it just didn’t feel right, eating all this fat and grease. I told my wife I was going off the diet and went back to my old ways that Monday.
By the end of the day I felt terrible. I realized that weird was nothing compared to terrible.
The next day I went back on Atkins. It’s four years later and I lost the remaining 60 lbs. I stalled for about a year at 195 but with no change in my routine the last 15 lbs just seemed to come off by themselves. I’m a size 34 pant – I was a size 42 (sometimes 44). I wore XXL t-shirts, now I wear mediums. People I haven’t seen in a few years don’t recognize me.
Oh yeah – my blood pressure is now 135/80 after years of the lower number never going below 90 – even with medication, and I had my blood work last done 7/14/06. My total cholesterol was 186, my HDL 57, my LDL 119 and my triglycerides 51 – and I’m a guy who regularly puts butter on low-carb toast so thick it’s more like a slice of cheese and throws berries and Splenda in sour cream for a dessert.
I couldn’t have done it without Robert C. Atkins and his book, but I also couldn’t have done it without making some changes to Atkins and carving my own path by standing on the good man’s shoulders.