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Meat, Your Meal: Gosh, an orange sure sounds good.

The Atkins Diary

Ketosis psychosis and other dark secrets of the low-carb diet craze

By R. V. Scheide

Editors note: Last month, North Bay Bohemian news editor R. V. Scheide began following the dietary principles outlined in Dr. Atkins' New Diet Revolution, the bestselling book that sparked the low-carbohydrate diet craze more than a decade ago. While millions of people claim to have lost weight following low-carb regimens, such diets continue to have detractors, many of whom consider the practice unhealthy, even dangerous. In the name of strictest science, we asked R. V. to keep a diary of his first month on the Atkins diet. The following excerpts are neither an endorsement nor a refutation of such diets, but rather the field notes of one person's anecdotal experience, submitted here for the public, satiric and scientific record.

Monday, Jan. 12. "I'm not your buddy," my significant other insists. I had designated her my Atkins buddy this morning and asked her to step on the bathroom scale. It measures weight and body fat, but she refuses to divulge the readings. I weigh 185 pounds with a body fat of 25 percent. My waist measures a portly 35 inches.

Our first Atkins breakfast. Oil and bacon grease hissed and popped on the stove as I whipped up a pair of cheddar cheese omelets, folding six pieces of crispy bacon into each one. We never eat whole eggs or bacon or cheese. I don't know why, because the omelets taste pretty damned good. Salty, crunchy, gooey with cheese and slightly undercooked egg--that's the Atkins way! It sure would be nice to have a piece of toast with strawberry jam, but that would more than blow the 20 grams of carbohydrates per day we've been allotted during the two-week long "induction phase."

Lunch is celery sticks and string cheese wrapped with salami. Tasty, but by late afternoon, I understand why Atkins calls it the "induction" phase. Going six hours with no sugar or carbohydrates whatsoever has induced a headache that feels like someone has driven a railroad spike through my temples. It's the closest I've ever come to a migraine. The book says that such headaches are not unknown.

For dinner we wolf down charbroiled tri-tip steak and salad drenched with Newman's Own balsamic vinaigrette. My body feels hungry, as if the process of ketosis, during which the body burns its own fat for energy, has already begun.

Wednesday, Jan. 14. The militant vegan at work discovered this morning that I am on the Atkins diet and wigged out. She's always trying to get everyone to quit eating meat. "Didn't you get that e-mail I sent you with all the information about how bad Atkins is?" she asked, exasperated. I'd deleted it, but I didn't tell her that.

My body feels like it's eating itself from the inside out. My buddy hasn't noticed the effect yet, but I can literally feel the fat melting away. My mood has stabilized along with my metabolism, in much the same way I imagine lithium soothes the manic depressive. It is not an unpleasant feeling, a sort of mild, foggy euphoria. I call it "ketosis psychosis."

Friday, Jan. 16. Buddy is feeling it now. We both worked late tonight and decided to rent a video on the way home. We were starving when we went into the store, but one of the drawbacks of ketosis psychosis is an inability to make up your mind. Neither one of us could pick a video, and after what seemed like hours, I gazed hungrily at her hairless arm and considered taking a bite.

A suburban Donner Party replay was avoided thanks to a nearby Carl's Jr. Carl's recently began offering a low-carb version of its $6 burger, wrapped in iceberg lettuce leaves instead of a bun. The burgers are big and incredibly sloppy to eat. We choke them down in seconds. This is the best burger I've ever had. I've been saying things like that a lot lately.

Monday, Jan. 19. After one week, I weigh 177 pounds, have 22 percent body fat and a 34-inch waist. I've lost eight pounds, 2 percent body fat and an inch off my waist. Buddy has only lost five pounds. The book says it's normal for men to lose more than women during induction. She hates my guts.

We're both now deeply in the throes of ketosis psychosis. It takes me forever to get out of the house in the morning. I keep forgetting things. I go back to the bedroom for the keys, but when I get there, I forget what I came back for. I repeat this two or three times for each item I forget: keys, wallet, underwear, etc. I call this having an "Atkins moment."

We've been satisfying our sweet tooth with sugarless jello and whipped cream. You can eat all kinds of dairy products on Atkins, everything except milk. I miss having a bowl of cereal for a late-night snack.

Wednesday, Jan. 21. I've gotten used to barbecuing in the cold winter starlight, hands cupped to catch the heat radiating off the gas grill's hood, checking with a flashlight to make sure the meat's done.

The meat! The meat has saved us. The meat and that packaged lettuce stuff. Spark up the barbie, throw a couple of Cornish game hens on the fire, dump some lettuce into a bowl and voilà! A cold hunk of breast meat is my new midnight snack.

Thursday, Jan. 22. "I'm dying," Buddy moans this morning. "I'm dying." Her body is eating itself from the inside out, sapping her energy. Lying next to her in the bed, I can feel and smell her hot, sweet Atkins breath on my pillow. It isn't so bad, this sweet-smelling side effect of the low-carb lifestyle, but neither one of us has the energy to move. Invalids.

This weakness is beginning to concern me. At the gym, I've cut down the weight I'm lifting by at least 15 percent. My body, drawing on fat stores for energy instead of carbs, just doesn't have the necessary oomph. Doing cardio is a chore; my legs burn with exhaustion after barely a half-mile on the treadmill. I'm definitely losing weight, but I'm getting weaker, too.

Today I go to the mall and buy of bunch of the prepackaged Atkins food products: pancake mix, canned low-carb milkshakes, low-carb protein bars, baked cheese snacks, sugarless candy, Atkins ketchup.

This afternoon, Militant Vegan, who hasn't been talking to me much lately, shows me a video clip of various animals being butchered for human consumption set to a punk-rock soundtrack. It is supposed to shock me out of my meat-eating mania, but I numbed to the horrors of the slaughterhouse long ago.

Sunday, Jan. 25. We make Atkins pancakes with Atkins syrup this morning, our first breadlike substance in nearly two weeks. The pancakes are tasteless and spongy. The syrup is maple-flavored water. This is the best breakfast I've ever had.

For dinner, we roast a six-pound pork loin that looks like a buffalo's tongue. The dog eats the scraps. He seems to like Atkins, too.

Monday, Jan. 26. I'm down to 172 pounds, 20 percent body fat and a 33-inch waist. Incredibly, I've lost 13 pounds, 5 percent body fat, and two inches off my waist in two weeks. Buddy has lost just seven pounds, but she's noticeably slimmer.

We have to decide today whether to stay on induction or graduate to the ongoing weight-loss phase, which permits the gradual addition of lovely carbs. We're happy with the results so far, so we decide to stay on induction to see how much more we can lose, which the book says is OK as long as you don't overdo it.

I'm starting to feel better now. My mind is getting used to its homeostatic metabolism. The number of Atkins moments has decreased, too; one day, I simply forgot to forget, and I haven't forgotten anything since, not that I can remember. I can feel the energy Atkins fanatics talk about coming on, and I've been sleeping like a baby. The pros seem to outweigh the cons.

Tuesday, Jan. 27. Militant Vegan informs me today at work that Dr. Atkins is dead. I had no idea. He looks so healthy on the covers of all those books. Apparently, last year he slipped on an icy sidewalk, hit his head, went into a coma and never recovered. I can't help thinking that his diet might have had something to do with his death.

Friday, Jan. 30. It's midnight and I'm still recovering from my first cheating binge. It wasn't even my fault. Last night, Buddy made two bowls of jello, sugarless for us and regular for the kids. I loaded up a bowl of lemon jello, scarfed it down and then loaded up again. An hour later, I was overcome with an uncontrollable urge to consume carbs in outrageous quantities. I'd eaten the wrong jello! What ensued was an anti-Atkins rampage. I ate two bowls of Lucky Charms, a big bag of Lay's barbecued potato chips and an entire box of iced apple-cinnamon Pop Tarts washed down with two glasses of milk. They were good.

I guiltily got back on the program this morning. By midafternoon, the hot poker of carbohydrate withdrawal once again pierced my skull. It's the kind of pain that will cause a laboratory rat to starve to death rather than push the right button to get food.

Sunday, Feb. 1. We barbecue all weekend, huge styrofoam trays of chicken thighs and drumsticks. By the time the Superbowl comes on, I have eaten 40 pieces. "Hey, they just showed Janet Jackson's breast!" Buddy says near the end of the halftime show. I've missed it, curled up on the floor in a narcoleptic stupor.

Monday, Feb. 2. After three weeks, I weigh 169 pounds, a loss of 16 pounds. My body fat is 18 percent, a decrease of 7 percentage points. My waist is 32 inches, three inches less. Buddy has lost 10 pounds. She looks like an angel standing naked on the bathroom scale.

Thursday, Feb. 5. I have my first Atkins moment in a long time today while driving the motorcycle into work on Dry Creek Road near Healdsburg. The next thing I know, I am six miles down the road, on Highway 101 heading into Windsor. Try as I might, I can't recall driving that section, which involves numerous turns and several stop signs. It's like I was abducted by aliens.

Monday, Feb. 9. My weight has stabilized at 170 pounds with 20 percent body fat and a 33-inch waist. Buddy has lost 12 pounds in four weeks. Both of us want to lose a little more, so we decide to stay on induction another week. But the tangelos she brought home from the store for the kids today sure look good.

Tuesday, Feb. 10. It's all over the news. The Wall Street Journal broke a story today claiming that Dr. Atkins was obese at the time of his death and died of congestive heart failure. Atkins' critics suggest his diet was the true cause of death. His family claims the weight gain was due to fluid that built up during the 12 days the doctor spent in a coma. His wife complains that the Journal has violated their privacy by revealing confidential medical information.

It's a sad story, and it's hard not to think there is something a little screwy about the Atkins diet. I've lost 15 pounds in four weeks--no diet I've ever tried has produced such dramatic results. I've gained a new appreciation for controlling the amount of carbohydrates I eat--which makes sense for any balanced diet. But I think I've had enough of the induction phase. Too spacy. It's time to start adding some carbs to my regime.

A tangelo seems like a good enough place to start.

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From the February 19-25, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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