Speaking Out: Confessions of an Atkins Slacker
A few Thanksgivings ago, as the long afternoon reached its tipping point—were we going to open those last bottles of wine, or were we all simply going to collapse in front of an old movie?—a friend dropped a geeky, but interesting, question: "Would you trade three IQ points for the ability to eat anything you wanted, for the rest of your life, and not gain a pound?"
We all agonized over this one—particularly those of us who have alert appetites, ho-hum metabolisms and an almost perverse inability to shake off that extra 15 to 30 pounds. A few guests replied (after we'd opened those last bottles) that they'd hand over the IQ points right now, thank you very much. I was with the group that reckoned, alas, we didn't have even one extra point among us to spare.
What we all needed, I later thought, is one of those lovely doctors A. J. Liebling wrote about—the ones from pre-World War I France who "recognized that their role was to facilitate gluttony, not discourage it."
Then I realized we already had one of those good doctors. We had Dr. Robert C. Atkins.
It's hard to believe, but it's been 32 years since the publication of Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution, which put forward the counterintuitive notion that eating protein and fat won't make you fat, but that eating those seemingly innocent carbohydrates (bread, bananas, pasta) will. Atkins's unlikely idea hung out there and wobbled for a few decades, like a Frisbee tossed into a stiff wind, before slamming down and changing almost everything early in the new millennium.
Atkins's idea did feel shiny and millennial somehow, the next new new thing. The Internet stock bubble had burst, and if dinner party chatter is any indication, the switch from tallying NASDAQ numbers to charting net carb intakes happened practically overnight.
I should know. My wife and I were fairly early Atkins adapters; we began to squeeze the carbohydrates out of our metabolisms early in 2001. And why not? This diet—seemingly all bacon, artisanal cheeses and steak tartare—sounded like diabolical fun, and so topsy-turvy that it made us think of Woody Allen's futuristic movie Sleeper, the one where doctors heartily recommend cigarettes and chocolate because they've been found to be pretty great for you.
We didn't feel particularly cheerful back in 2001, however, as we rounded Halloween and headed into our first Atkins Thanksgiving. On Atkins, you may find yourself giving thanks for many things, but gravy, stuffing, sweet potatoes and pie are not among them. We practically wept helping to prepare the meal we weren't going to be able to touch. We went extra-heavy on the protein, preparing two turkeys, one of them (gloriously, I have to say) deep-fried. Any diet that allows that, we thought, cannot be all bad. We piled the turkey onto our otherwise bare plates, along with some brussels sprouts. While everyone else was having pie, we consoled ourselves with a platter of stinky cheeses.
I made it through that first Thanksgiving, but from the start my wife was far more strict about the diet than I was. She read the books and explained the fine print to me. The theory behind Atkins, and spin-offs like the South Beach Diet, is basically this: Eating refined carbohydrates makes your blood sugar spike, which increases your body's insulin level. The insulin quickly breaks down the sugar, the diet doctors say, so you become hungry again. If you can keep your insulin level steady, however—by eating protein, fat and fiber—your body will enter a kind of controlled burn. On Atkins, calories don't matter, and neither does fat. (The more temperate South Beach Diet advises you to go easier on the saturated fat and recommends high-fiber carbs, like whole-grain bread.)
For the critics of these diets, of course, this all sounds like rank nonsense—a long-term recipe for an epidemic of heart disease—and certainly, for those of us with political ideas about what we eat, not a diet for a small planet. Most doctors say nondiabetics don't have problems regulating blood sugar, and common sense suggests, now as ever, that eating less and exercising regularly is the safest way to lose weight.
But between the two of us, my wife and I lost about 60 pounds on Atkins—the equivalent, we were stunned to realize, of the combined weights at the time of our two young children. (We'd toss them in the air and then stare at each other and grin.) We were weak, though, and failed to achieve the Zen "maintenance" mode Atkins writes about. We ultimately gained some of the weight back. And then we lost those new pounds...and gained them back again. Right now, we are almost back to where we started. This is, of course, the classic narrative arc of diets in general, a cycle that's as gloomily monotonous as a Philip Glass score.
Regardless of whether these low-carb diets actually work, there is no denying that they have had an enormous influence on the way this country eats. More than 1,000 products labeled "low carb" are now on grocery shelves. Gone are the days when, in restaurants, servers would raise their eyebrows if you asked for extra creamed spinach to go along with your steak in lieu of potatoes dauphinoise. I was in the Manhattan barbecue restaurant Blue Smoke a few months ago and spied a whole row of 20-something women in black—they were like the low-carb Rockettes—eating identical bunless hamburgers.
Part of the fun of Atkins is that, if you manage to avoid the bread basket, it's absurdly restaurant-friendly—the opposite of spa food. You can start with oysters or foie gras, have steak or fish and a few vegetables, then a cheese course—and you certainly won't go home feeling you've suffered.
For home cooks, and for people who throw (or attend) a lot of dinner parties, the learning curve has been more difficult. We didn't tell our friends at first that we were on Atkins, and I used to marvel at the strategies my wife came up with to hide from our hosts that she was pushing certain verboten items—rice, noodles, potatoes—around her plate. I tended to help out by sneaking some of these things away from her to eat myself. I am genetically unable to make a friend feel that his or her food is unloved, which is a more flattering way of saying that, when I am having a good time, I am genetically unable to deny myself third helpings of almost everything.
These days, it's rare to go to a dinner party where the host hasn't made some concessions to the low-carb crowd; at one, a friend was persuaded to make rigatoni with larger pieces of sausage and broccoli rabe, so that the Atkins people could serve themselves without accidentally spooning up the pasta. (I've often thought that a terrific silent film—really, worthy of Chaplin—could be made by gathering six hardcore Atkins devotees at a dinner party and then, after serving them only pasta with pesto, closely observing the squirming and the avoidance techniques.)
The biggest problem these days isn't worrying about whether you've got enough Atkins-friendly options on hand; it's worrying that one of your guests will spend the evening talking about his or her heroic battle against the demon starches. Dinner parties now have their own conversational axis of evil—kids, carbs and TiVo.
The losers in our long and uphill battle against carbs have been our kids. One of the best things about childhood is that it's essentially one enormous carbohydrate pig-out—macaroni and cheese, pizza, chocolate chip cookies. Our kids eat with us now, however, and they usually eat what we eat, at least at suppertime: steak, fish, a few vegetables, some cheese. They tend to stare at their plates forlornly, have a few bites and then remind us that there's a big bowl of buttery rice in the ice box left over from lunch that might plausibly be reheated.
At Thanksgiving, the kids are truly thankful for the carbohydrate feast. And my wife and I have learned new tactics for avoiding it. We've found that vegetable gratins make a good substitute for mashed potatoes—especially fine is a pureed cauliflower gratin from Patricia Wells's The Provence Cookbook. Also, we've added a first course, a lovely salad recipe from my wife's father, Bruce LeFavour (a former chef who lost about 25 pounds, seemingly overnight, on Atkins): slices of Fuyu persimmon and fennel on a dollop of crème fraîche mixed with minced shallots, a splash of Champagne and a bit of juice from a jar of pink pickled ginger. All of this gets garnished with pomegranate seeds, fennel leaves and a few pieces of pickled ginger. This has now become part of our Thanksgiving tradition, a hit of freshness avant le déluge.
We've fallen, a bit, from Atkins's grace recently. This holiday season, we will probably let our guard down a little. When you've gone without carbohydrates for months, even the simplest buttered roll or sweet potato looks more appealing than all the caviar you could fit onto a serving platter. We plan to give thanks to Dr. Atkins, hang on to our IQ points and—for one day, at least—dig in.
Dwight Garner is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.