A food critic loses weight without becoming a teetotaler

Over the last few months, I went from the worst shape of my life to the best while continuing to eat like a food critic. Don't punch me in the face; instead, read how I did it in part three of this new series:

I love booze.

I try to blame this on my parents. When I was in kindergarten, I proudly announced to my class that my favorite Christmas tradition was the wine tasting - and no, much to my teacher's relief, I wasn't actually boozing at age five. But my parents had instilled in me an appreciation for quality beverages, and the traditions that go with them. And though I subsequently indulged in some nights of aggressive drinking, my love of alcohol is mostly a geeky fascination. Every bottle has a history, a method, a story. To me, the restaurant bar is the perfect hybrid of the front and back of the house, where craft and ingredient knowledge meets service and sociability.

But sadly, planting my butt on a bar stool to enjoy one of my favorite parts of the restaurant business was a major contributor in making said butt fatter.

I was fully ready to acknowledge that every drop of bourbon, beer and Burgundy I'd poured down my gullet was glomming right on to the lumpy bits on my thighs. But I knew any regimen that eliminated alcohol from my diet completely was simply not realistic. I was happy to put a moratorium on knocking back rounds on a Tuesday, but a lifetime of club soda with lime was not in the cards. Especially because club soda just ain't gonna work as a pairing with spicy noodles or a fat, velvety steak.

I made this clear to personal trainer Jamie Atlas early on.

"Protein breakfast I can handle," I said, as I completed yet another set of a seemingly endless variety of lunges in the Bonza Bodies studio. "No gluten and dairy when I'm not at work, fine. Intense workouts four days a week, okay. But when you start talking about eliminating alcohol, well, that's when you lose me."

"But Laura, I didn't tell you that you had to eliminate alcohol," the 6'7" Atlas replied. I was sure that his thick Australian accent had addled my brain. And his next statement almost made me turn my ankle: "In fact, some research has shown that one glass of dry red wine a day actually helps you lose weight."

"This is excellent news," I said, picturing myself drinking my way to skinny.

Clearly reading my thoughts, he came swooping in with a light-hearted chuckle that dashed my dreams. "This doesn't mean you get to drink heavily," he said. "I'm talking one glass - four ounces - of red a day."

"Yeah, that's not going to cut it," I said.

"I figured as much," he said, laughing again. "Here's the deal. Our focus is on keeping your blood sugar levels stable, right? Strong alcohol that hasn't been mixed with anything containing sugar won't make you fat if you drink it in moderation. But here's what you really need to focus on: no matter what you drink, whether it's wine or tequila or scotch, drink it after you eat."

Atlas explained that since all alcoholic beverages start as sugar, the greater the fermentation process, the less the sugar. High alcohol spirits are actually relatively low in caloric density, so as long as you don't pour in a bunch of juice and sugar, you can get away with them, he said -- especially if you drink after you eat a meal high in protein and fat, because your body can better absorb the alcohol (otherwise, you're spiking your blood sugar -- which Atlas's plan works to avoid). Furthermore, the process of drinking alcohol affects the way your body processes food -- anything you eat after drinking is digested poorly and ends up being put into the fat stores rather than burned away naturally.

Perhaps most important for me, if you drink at the end of the meal, you're less likely to overdo it on more food -- your tipsy brain won't have a chance to tell you how much you want Chubby's green chile cheese fries or breakfast from Pete's at two in the morning (which is pretty much what my brain tells me every time I've had more than three cocktails). Because if the drinking doesn't make you fat, the drink-inspired eating almost certainly will.

"Try really hard to limit it to one drink, two drinks maximum," Atlas pleaded.

Naturally, I protested, because waiting until the end of a meal to drink pretty much eliminates the magic of pairings. So we compromised. Or maybe it's more fair to say that Atlas relented: "Do me a favor. Eat one high protein course before ordering your pairing, deal?"

"Deal," I said triumphantly.

"And if you can, the exercise homework we talked about before," he added quickly, referring to the thirty seconds of stair climbing followed by sixty seconds of rest, repeated for twenty minutes. "The short burst of intensity before drinking will help counteract the effect the alcohol will have on your system." I agreed, since the initial workouts and exercise homework he had given me did seem to be helping in my battle of the bulge.

I'm not going to lie: These changes in the way I think about and consume my drinks has been the single-hardest part of the plan for me to follow, especially because beer and cocktails are both technically off limits (I would be lying if I said I'd given up everything that goes in a pint glass or cocktail shaker, though). For the most part, I've put the kibosh on drinking unless I'm out for work at a place where it's part of the experience or someone's opened a really good bottle. I'll order later in my meal. I volunteer to be the DD when I'm out with friends and then commit to dancing my little heart out while stone-cold sober (which is arguably more fun because I have better rhythm). In all, this means I probably drink between one and four nights a week -- but I really only drink enough to hit the tipsy point once every two to three weeks.

The most effective strategy for curtailing my consumption? Ordering something expensive. I enjoy it more, and I usually feel too cheap to go back for round two.

"All right," Atlas said when I finished my session that day. "I think you're ready to see what a refeed workout feels like."

The refeed workout? I felt a shudder go through my already quivering muscles. Apparently, these initial workouts -- which were extremely effective in making it hard for me to walk without looking like the tinman -- had been nothing but a ruse to prepare me for what was coming next. The refeed workout, Atlas promised, would become a key component of my success, the strategy I would lean on time and time again in order to accommodate many a late-night dinner assignment. The refeed workout would, as Atlas put it, "open up the muscle cells so they take the excess energy as opposed to the fat cells hogging all the good stuff."

For this muscle makeover to happen, we would have to work at a much higher intensity.

Yay?

Following the plan? The step-by-step:

- Step one: turning the corner

- Step two: cutting the trash

Watch for the next installment of Bar Belle next Monday.


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