I am not a dieter.
Or, to be more accurate, I'm not a just-say-no type. Banning specific foods from my diet makes me go crazy, and after getting more and more resentful, I eventually go off on a defiant rampage during which no calorie in my house is safe. This became clear the first time I ever attempted to lose weight by eliminating certain foods: Post packing on the freshman fifteen in college, I cut out the carbs (well, not the alcohol, but the other carbs), overdid it on the cottage cheese and pork, immediately gained another couple of pounds and drowned my sorrows one night in the dining hall by eating five bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
Three years ago, I read that dumb book Skinny Bitch and attempted veganism. Six days later, after sanctimoniously forgoing Thanksgiving leftovers for a crappy Boca burger and still putting on a few pounds, I marched into a grocery store with a crazed look in my eye and demanded the butcher pack me up the biggest steak he had - and then it took all my willpower to not just eat it rare in the street, paper and all.
A hiatus on ice cream led to a pint-a-day habit, a moratorium on fried food inspired a trip out for gravy fries, and losing the soda made me want nothing but classic Coca Cola. And I never drink classic Coca Cola.
I admit it. I have no self-control. And come on, a lifetime of blackened chicken on a bed of lettuce and a consolation Diet Coke doesn't prepare you for life as a food critic.
But since most popular wisdom holds that losing weight is mostly about controlling your diet, I was expecting Jamie Atlas, personal trainer extraordinaire, to either eliminate everything fun - or give up on me entirely when he realized I wouldn't, or actually couldn't, restrict my diet sufficiently (because a food critic who does go for the blackened chicken salad and consolation Diet Coke isn't a useful gauge for how most people are going to enjoy a meal).
High-protein breakfast and extra glasses of water in place, I trudged back to Bonza Bodies for a second appointment. And there, in the midst of what felt like about a million squat and twists, Atlas laid out the second part of the plan.
"The first thing is to figure out where you can eliminate gluten and dairy," said Atlas. He explained that the main principle of his food plan is keeping the blood sugar at a stable level and keeping the trash out of the system to avoid gaining water weight. It's gluten and dairy that cause water retention through inflammation of the digestive system -- and while this isn't true for everybody, Atlas has yet to see a client not lose weight by eliminating them from his system. In the beginning, he says, it's mostly water weight, but the pants don't care if it's fat or water. If I eliminated those foods, he promised, I'd see results -- and fast. This is the same principle by which Biggest Loser contestants lose the most weight (mostly water weight) in the first few week, and then achieve only modest numbers as the weeks go on.
"But. But. But I love gluten-dairy combos," I protested, thinking longingly of bagels and cream cheese, a Napolitano-style pizza, toast points slicked with La Tur cheese - a food I once compared to having sex on 800-thread-count sheets. Atlas smiled. "They're not going away completely," he said. "I'm just asking you to figure out where you can cut those back."
I thought about it for a second, reminding him that I wouldn't be able to restrict those on the job.
"That's fine," he said. "I'm just asking you to eat protein and vegetables when you can - and to get rid of excess. The other thing you need to do is to start working out as hard as you can for thirty minutes four times a week."
I sighed, loudly. "So back to running?" I asked, my voice dripping with disdain.
He laughed. "Why don't you find some stairs, see how high you can climb in thirty seconds, and then walk back down. Then try to beat your distance for another thirty seconds. Do it for thirty minutes, or as long as you can without feeling queasy or faint." Pausing briefly, he looked at me with a sympathy in his eyes that he likely usually reserves for watching baby animals struggling to take their first steps and then said, in a (too) kind voice, "Maybe just start with ten minutes and try to add a couple of minutes each time you exercise until you've worked your way up to thirty minutes." A merciful compromise; it sounded manageable. Atlas later told me he was trying to walk a fine line between change and challenge that would unfat my ass without making me feel like I'd been thrown into an episode of Survivor halfway through the season. Because if I were actually thrown into Survivor halfway through the season, I'm pretty sure I'd perish. Or quit.
In addition to the stair method, Atlas suggested amping up activity with brisk thirty-minute walks, thirty-minute bike rides or thirty minutes of swimming.
Some ways he suggested cutting back on gluten and dairy: eliminate milk (or cream) in coffee, skip bread and cheese on sandwiches, substitute the high protein breakfast for the bowl of cereal, forgo the bread basket, cut out the morning (or lunch-time) yogurt, eat a salad with meat for lunch. He offered a couple of specific meal ideas: grass-fed organic beef, pinto beans, mixed vegetables and extra guacamole; or fake mashed potatoes (white beans or cauliflower mashed in a pan with oil, salt and pepper) with a serving of naturally raised lamb and pan-seared string beans. Too difficult? Go to Chipotle. Order a burrito bowl with no rice, beans and meat of your choice, salsa of your choice, guacamole and lettuce. Eat half for lunch today and half for lunch tomorrow. Ultimately, I managed by cutting gluten and dairy entirely from breakfast and lunch, when I'm rarely reviewing restaurants. I was already eating a high-protein breakfast - with plenty of black coffee - so I started eating combinations of meats and vegetables for lunch. I'm partial to seafood, so I frequently sauté shrimp with white pepper, red pepper flakes, garlic, onions and olive oil and eat it with a spinach salad. With that much protein, as Atlas predicted, I didn't need a snack; he'd guessed I'd probably only need to eat three times a day if I ate enough of the right foods that would keep me feeling full, yet not sluggish or bloated. So it was easy to save myself until dinner - when I could eat whatever a restaurant was serving.
But I stilll had a big question: "What about alcohol?" I asked.
"Ah, yes," said Atlas, nodding sagely to this inevitable question from a known lover of the food group called booze. "Alcohol. You just worry about getting the food in check and amping up your activity, and we'll talk about alcohol next time."
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Following the plan? The step-by-step:
Watch for the next installment of Bar Belle next Monday.