A food critic turns a fitness corner

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 this new series.

It's my job to eat out four times a week -- at a minimum -- and to try everything a restaurant can put in front of me, be it cocktails, pork fat or dessert. But still, I'm rapidly approaching being in the best shape of my life, and I'm skinnier than I've been since the middle of college.

Three months ago, however, I was a before picture.

That fact taunted me as I examined myself in my boyfriend's unflattering full-length bathroom mirrors -- nailed, cruelly, to opposing walls so that you could see yourself from all angles. And I didn't want to. I'd accidentally spied my hulking (m)ass when I stepped out of the shower -- and while my body might have been cute were I a thoroughbred sharpei, culled from fat parents with wrinkle-producing genes, as a human it was time to acknowledge that I now had more rolls on my body than a pastry truck, more cottage cheese on my thighs than a breakfast buffet, more jelly in my belly than a raspberry jam-filled doughnut.

It wasn't hard to figure out how this had happened, and the explanation revolved around my penchant for butter and bacon, coupled with my utter disdain for (and, um, two-year hiatus from) athletic activity. When I'd become a restaurant critic, I'd taken my new career as carte blanche to stuff my piehole with not just pie, but also chocolate-injected croissants, pork-belly tacos dripping grease, organs from animals that had been forcibly fattened. Except that in some cruel twist of karma, I was the one who was now fattened, fully ready for my liver to be harvested and eaten on crostini, or perhaps for my back fat to be rendered and crafted into artisanal lard and sold at a premium price.

Delusion had been a warm, snuggly blanket. For a while, I'd convinced myself that I wasn't really gaining that much weight, I was just getting curvier (and curves are totally hot). Plus, I reasoned, no one trusts a really skinny restaurant critic anyway.

But as I looked in the mirror that morning, I realized I'd gone far beyond "needs toning." I'd gained a solid twenty pounds in my first year on the job, and if I kept going at that pace, it wouldn't be long before I firmly planted myself in the overweight category, staring off the edge of the obese cliff, one foot in the air. If I wanted to keep both my job and my health, I had to figure out a way to turn the cholesterol-ridden tide.

After suffering through a couple of halfhearted jogs (and by "jog," I mean walk/trot), I realized I needed more than just a haphazard plan of attack. So I called up Jamie Atlas, a Denver-based personal trainer who owns a studio called Bonza Bodies.

The choice was deliberate. Atlas actually knows what makes the human body run -- which, besides making him epic at working with people who have injuries, helps him help clients get maximum results with minimum effort. I like maximum results. I also like minimum work. Moreover, he has a realistic approach to weight loss and training, and I knew he'd see my situation -- trying to lose weight while still fulfilling the requirements of my calorie-heavy job -- as a challenge.

"Here's the deal," I said. "I can't diet, and I hate exercise. Think you can un-fat my ass?"

"Of course I can. When can you come in?" he asked. Atlas also has a relentlessly positive attitude, which is particularly annoying when he's bouncily encouraging you to run faster, work harder and/or do something you just don't think you can do. (Even more annoying, he almost always proves that you can, in fact, do whatever it is you thought you couldn't).

Clad in workout clothes I hadn't touched since I lived in New York, I trudged into the Bonza Bodies studio one Monday for my initial consultation. And after the 6'7" Australian dude took a bunch of annoying measurements, proclaiming my 36 percent body fat reading "perfect" (perfect for what -- life-saving flotation in the ocean should I fall overboard?), I asked him where to start.

"Breakfast," he said. "Do you review breakfast places?"

"Sometimes, but not very often," I answered.

"So what do you usually eat for breakfast?"

"A pot of coffee," I replied promptly."Or cold noodles, if I have leftovers. Sometimes a chocolate croissant. But I'm not usually hungry in the morning."

He laughed in that way that means, oh, you are so, so wrong, it's almost cute. "Almost" being the operative word.

And then he detailed the first part of the plan: I was to eat a high-protein breakfast every morning -- ideally, something like three eggs with black beans and some vegetables, such as spinach, tossed in. Leftovers were fine, as long as the leftovers were hunks of meat and vegetables devoid of starch and dairy. Sadly, bacon and other high-fat meats were to be used sparingly. "Unless you want to be on the slow track," he said. That was mean: Who wants to be on the slow track?

The purpose of this, he explained, was that his nutrition plan is based not on calories, but on raising the blood sugar first thing in the morning and then keeping it steady all day -- which, research has shown, signals the body that it doesn't need to hold on to fat stores. Because of the way the body digests proteins, eating plenty of protein -- instead of starch, dairy and sugar, which spike the blood sugar -- is key in accomplishing that goal. And as an added benefit, it takes fewer protein calories to feel full and stay full. So if you can start your day that way, you'll be less hungry later on.

"Can I still drink coffee?" I asked.

"Sure," he said, "But no dairy or sweetener. And drink plenty of water -- at least eight glasses a day. Hydration helps your body get rid of nasty stuff."

"That's it?" I asked. "That's all you've got for me?"

"This time, that's it," he said. "A high-protein breakfast and plenty of water helps everything else fall into place."

Three months and several other steps later, things have, indeed, fallen into place. And since I did this without sacrificing my job duties -- as in, I haven't given up alcohol, pork fat or dessert -- I'm inclined to believe that anyone can do this. And I'll be detailing the rest of the plan here -- complete with demonstrations of how to follow it -- over the course of the coming weeks.

In the meantime, a high-protein breakfast to get you started:

Jamie's brekkie salad: bed of spinach, turkey bacon, chopped boiled egg, sliced pan-fried leeks, basil, salsa and pine nuts for topping.

If that sounds too complicated: Sauté a little garlic and onion, toss in about a fourth cup of black beans straight from the can, scramble in three eggs, and serve it on a bed of spinach, dousing the whole thing with sriracha. Watch for the next installment of Bar Belle next Monday.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk