The Human Heart Was Not Meant To Pump Chili Con Carne

My unhealthy relationship with crash diets.

Author by John Devore
Art credit: Twisha Patni

They say that if something is too good to be true, it is. Well, I’ve lived my life incorrectly believing that if it’s too good to be true, then it absolutely 100% is true. That’s why I’ve always been susceptible to the promise of crash diets. And the promise is seductive: for very little work, you can hate your body less.

Growing up I was a giggling super-sized cherub who wore T-shirts to the pool to hide my jiggle. I have always been “extra large.” Department stores in the 80s had a section for “big-boned” boys called the “husky section.” Husky, like I’d grow up to be a lumberjack. So I wore “husky” pants, which were just pants for adults.

My first attempt at a diet was in fifth grade when I made the conscious decision to opt for the salad instead of french fries as a side dish accompanying my favorite main course, a rectangular square of cheese pizza. The salad was a small plastic dish of wilted iceberg lettuce drowned in ranch dressing. My nickname at that particular time in my life was “pig.” I thought choosing a nice salad instead of fries was a ticket to a new nickname. I was wrong.

To this very day when I look into the mirror I see pizza dough before its glory.

***

lost 15 pounds in three weeks once and all I had to do was breakup with carbohydrates. My daily menu was a horror show of flesh: steaks, chicken breasts, and pork chops. My freezer used to be full of covered plastic bowls of chili con carne. I would make huge pots of the spicy meat stew and whenever I needed a snack, which was always, I’d walk around my small apartment slurping it from a mug.

The year was 2000, and I had discovered the Atkins diet. The all-protein diet was popular then but not the bona fide phenomenon it would become.

When I learned about the diet I was shocked by its simplicity: eat all the meat you want. The “eat all you want” part was particularly attractive.

Here’s a short list of the diets I’ve attempted: there was the cabbage soup diet. That diet required that I make great vats of cabbage soup and then I’d eat that cabbage soup. On select days I’d be allowed a carb or a protein or something that wasn’t cabbage soup. Suffice to say, this wreaked gastrointestinal havoc.

For a month I spent a small fortune eating nothing but low-calorie Lean Cuisine frozen dinners. This would have worked, if I wasn’t chowing down on three thousand calories worth of low-calorie Lean Cuisine frozen dinners a day.

I was briefly in The Zone. Maintaining the 40–30–30 fat, carb, and protein ratio was too much math. I went vegetarian. I went vegetarian plus cheeseburgers. I tried the Mediterranean diet, which, in my interpretation, meant eating gyro platters non-stop.

I tried a very famous diet plan that emphasizes portion control which, in hindsight, is the healthiest crash diet I ever tried. All I had to do was count calories. Ultimately I was better at watching — and eating — pasta than my weight.

Yes. I would exercise. Or, at least, try. Sweat is your body crying, right? Anyway, nothing compliments a good work more than post-gym pancakes and then two weeks not working out.

The term “emotional eating” is redundant. I eat when I’m sad, or happy. I eat when bored or busy. I eat in victory, I eat in defeat. I would eat inexpensive foods packed with salt and fat and flavor when I was broke because they made me feel safe. Years later, I would eat expensive foods packed with salt and fat and flavor because my credit limit had increased. And all the while my weight would fluctuate. No matter my size I’d look at a photograph of myself and see a young Santa Claus without the job security.

Then the Atkins diet came into my life. The diet was the brainchild of the physician and cardiologist Dr. Robert Atkins. The idea is simple: you trick your body into burning fats instead of carbs. You do this by eating only proteins and fats, and avoiding carbs and sugars.

The first few weeks is an intense regime of eggs, chicken breasts, and beef jerky. In his book Dr. Atkins enthusiastically suggests you butter your steak! You can also eat cheeses like feta or mozzarella. This is one key difference between the Atkins diet and its recent, and inferior, competitor, the Paleo diet. There is no cheese in the Paleo diet. After pushing your body to the very edge of a cardiac arrest, the Atkins diet lightens up a bit and lets you eat some vegetables.

I would begin my day eating a ham and cheese omelet with a side of ham. Lunch was a pile of chicken breasts or a platoon of hotdogs liberated from their buns. If I went out with coworkers, I’d stab the air with a Chinese roast pork rib to make a point. Dinner was steak! Growing up, steak was for special occasions. But now my life was the life of a French dauphin! Steak every night! Of course, the steaks I would buy from the grocery store and fry up in my Queens studio were sinewy flaps of beef. This was the kind of meat A1 steak sauce was invented to rescue. (But there’s too much sugar in A1 so I’d just use butter instead.)

After a week I could feel my body start to eat itself. When your body uses proteins as its primary fuel, you have to keep shoveling meat into it like coal into a train furnace. I learned to pack snack bags of hardboiled eggs and bacon. Bacon does not make everything better. For instance, bacon is not a substitute for regular therapy.

It didn’t take long for this carnivorous lifestyle to become grueling. I imagine being a shark must be tedious. Once, when running errands, I popped into a supermarket and bought a rotisserie chicken. I walked around buying this and mailing that while gnawing on a roast chicken leg like a casual Viking.

I was a one man slaughterhouse. My breath began to stink from all of the rotting meat in my gut. A brief pause in eating flesh would leave me lethargic. All of my erotic dreams were soon replaced with deeply sensual fantasies of my teeth gently sinking into bagels.

But I did lose weight. Slowly, at first. Then a few pounds turned into five, ten, fifteen. I was lean, mean, and full of decomposing sirloin. I could have bought new pants. I didn’t. I could still find fat to pinch. There is always fat to pinch. I had met a woman during this time. We bonded over crash diets. The first night I went home with her we were making out on the couch when, without warning, she started to unbutton her blouse. I reached for the lamp but she told me not to turn it off. I did not remove my extra large T-shirt.

Our brief relationship did not last. She liked the lights on and I did not. My relationship with Dr. Atkins also ended shortly thereafter. The human heart was not meant to pump chili con carne. So I put on my husky pants, walked to the pizzeria at the corner, and blissfully ate two cheese slices with a side of fries.

Baseball is (wonderfully) boring.
How to relax at work.
Why you should sleep in total darkness.

About Woolly

A curious exploration of comfort, wellness, and modern life — emotionally supported by Casper. It’s a beautiful magazine published by a mattress. Come on, you know it’s not the weirdest thing to happen this year. The first issue includes a love letter to comfort pants, a skeptic's guide to crystals, and an adulting coloring book.