My stint with the Atkins diet began innocently enough.I read the book in one sitting, and went to sleep with a smile of hope on my face and images of myself as the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue cover girl dancing in my head. Just 20 carbs a day? I can do it. Right?
The severe limitations of my menu hit me the next day at breakfast when I sat down and realized I couldn’t eat an apple. I settled for an omelet with two cubes of sharp cheddar cheese, and once my mouth started watering, and I had this sudden burst of hope that I could live without any fruit, and make it to the cover of Sports Illustrated.
But then my mom, on Atkins as well, dropped the bomb on me.
“What do you think you’re doing with that ketchup? Ketchup has carbohydrates, Leah!” she exclaimed.
How I had managed to live this long without being aware of the dangers of ketchup I don’t know, but regardless, I suffered through breakfast with the organic, sugar-free imitation ketchup.
For lunch I had a Greek salad, and after a grueling day life guarding in the sun, I referred back to Dr. Atkins’ book. Page 45 stated, “Do some sort of exercise every day,” but I read that as, “Continue your intense training for cross-country in the fall.”
I barely finished half my workout, and dinner caused even more difficulty. My mom was annoyingly considerate, insisting that we not put my father and brother through the same Atkins-induced hell we were going through by cooking for only us. So there I sat, at a table covered in incredible food, most of which I could not eat: homemade mashed potatoes, biscuits, lasagna, salad, challah (Jewish bread) and chicken.
For about a week I stuck to basically that menu, occasionally including veggie burgers or protein shakes, and I managed to run every day, slowly. But then the forbidden food dreams started. One night I was swimming in a pool of rich chocolate mousse, the next I was at a birthday party for a giant and I had to eat my way through a 20-foot loaf of sourdough to get to the doorway.
Then there was the variation on the Skittles “Taste the Rainbow” campaign; instead of Skittles, it rained freshly squeezed orange juice. But they would always end as nightmares. The chocolate mousse would solidify and trap me, the bread would collapse in on me, and the orange juice rainstorm would eventually become a NutraSweet blizzard.
Then one Monday I woke up craving ice cream so badly I was almost dizzy. My mom and I had a movie day, and 10 minutes into “Terms of Endearment,” the door-bell rang, and weak with hunger, I answered it to find my good friend Deb. I immediately noticed that Deb looked a little strange. She seemed to have a sort of halo surrounding her, and she was glowing like Patrick Swayze in the last scene of the movie “Ghost.”
Then I saw the source of the angelic glow: Deb was holding a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream. And then it was over. Instinct took control, and my mother and I inhaled the ice cream in less than 10 minutes.
That marked the end of my expedition into the world of Dr. Atkins, and I can’t say I mind. It’s not a bad concept, and as many testimonials show, it does work. But it’s not for the weak-minded; 20 grams of carbohydrates a day is a tiny amount (one slice of bread has 25).
And it doesn’t mean just cutting out bread and pasta. There’s no peanut butter, ketchup, salad dressing, or high-carbohydrate vegetables like carrots and peas. Got milk? Forget it. Diet Coke is out too, because it contains the artificial sweetener Aspartame, and cheese is okay only in small measured cubes. And if you’re an athlete, think very carefully before trying Atkins. Those years of “carboloading” at team dinners weren’t for nothing; carbohydrates are essential to athletic performance.
However, my advice is not to steer clear of the diet entirely. You and I both know that we all have that distant vision of ourselves on the cover of the swimsuit issue, and the Atkins craze is everywhere, from low-carb menus to low-carb chocolates and candy. If you’re interested in the Atkins diet, by all means try it, but before you commit yourself, take a moment to realize what you’re getting yourself into. Borrow the book, read it, and go into your kitchen and create a few Atkins-approved meals of your own, because the sample menus he provides are useless. The few of us who can actually saute worth a damn will quickly become lazy and stick to omelets. Give it a trial run.
As for me, many people would be angry with Deb for the ice cream episode, but I’m thankful. Her generosity marked a turning point in my Atkins days, and my dieting days in general. Eating more protein and not eating late at night works well enough for me. In the end, Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food ice cream is just not a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Leah Wyner is a student at University of Massachusetts-Amhearst.