In early January, my girlfriend and I decided to go on a diet. And not just any diet. One of the crazy ones.
I'm no health expert. I'm one of those lucky people whose high metabolism has been able to keep his often atrocious eating habits in check (though my hairline started to recede at age 21, so I guess everything comes with a trade-off). I'd actually never been on a diet before. But after a holiday season of wanton and I daresay intentional abuse of our bodies, it was time for a change. We were starting to feel disgusting. And hey, if you're going on your first ever diet, might as well make it a good one.
Here was the diet: for 11 days, we would eat no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no alcohol. Instead, we had to eat at least one thing out of each of eight various categories, mostly leafy green categories, including such obscure plants as escarole, dandelion greens, and something called chard, which sounds like a cross between a Pokemon character and a 4-year-old's description of something he made in the potty. There was one category that did allow some very lean meat, though it was offset by another that consists solely of "1-2 tbsp olive oil, flaxseed oil, or woman's oil".
On Day Eight, we would eat no food at all, just drink water and this cranberry juice & cinnamon concoction, of which we'd need to pound a glass every two hours, all day. On the last three days we could start eating yogurt again, and then we'd be done. It sounded insane. Just insane enough to work.
My girlfriend and I adhered with Spartan-like discipline to the diet, and at the end of the 11 days, I had lost 15 pounds, and she had lost eight. A month later, of course, we'd gained much of that back, given our triumphant return to our Big Mac and Budweiser diets. But we'd emerged from the experience with a new healthier feel, a lot of left over chard, and a few lessons.
1) Starving yourself really sucks for two days ... and then you get used to it.
I should clarify: the Detox Diet doesn't really require you to starve yourself -- you can technically eat as much escarole as you want. But what you're eating isn't filling, what you want you can't have, and all you think about for two grumbling days is how stupid it is that you can't even have granola, which always seemed like the healthiest, hippiest thing you could eat. If you're ever going to do a diet like this for the first time, plan for a couple days of not getting much work done, and for some homicidal thoughts every time you see a Snickers bar.
And then, on Day Three, something changed. Perhaps I was already so sick of parsley and radishes that I'd lost interest in the concept of food entirely. But more likely, it was simply that weird evolutionary principle that humans can get used to anything. It's why rich people can be depressed and chronically sick people can be happy. And it's why, after only 48 hours, I was already starting to accept eating like an anorexic rabbit.
On Day One, I ate five apples and an entire half-pound bag of baby cauliflower. On Day Five, around five pm, my roommate asked me what I'd eaten. A pear, a swig of orange juice, and a leaf of cabbage was all I could come up with. And I wasn't even hungry. You get used to it. Except the alcohol part. Which brings me to...
2) Going completely without alcohol requires a massive revamping of your social calendar.
At a group dinner out on Night Six, the waitress started to pour me a glass of wine, and I had to say "Oh, I'm sorry, I can't drink that." The table abruptly went silent, and I could practically hear some of the people I didn't know guessing "AA program?" "Allergies" "Sociopathic and/or religious weirdo?" Somehow, it felt even lamer to admit "Cleanse diet."
For one night, I could play it off as a joke, but the next night at a party, I had to abscond off to the corner to play darts when the drinking games broke out. I left shortly thereafter because, as it turns out, drunk people are super annoying when you're sober.
My group -- and I don't think I'm the only one -- drinks a lot. A college buddy of mine once told his doctor, honestly, how much he typically drank in a week, just in the course of normal social interaction. His doctor winced, and replied "Well, that's too much, but I think you knew that." Going totally sober, for health or any other reason, requires very understanding friends ... or sometimes, sadly, an entirely new group of them. Thus, why we strategically placed our 11 days to contain only one weekend.
3) I could never be a vegetarian.
This is not because stock animals aren't mistreated -- I'm sure they sometimes are. And it's not because meat isn't bad for you -- I'm sure a lot of it is (KFC's Doubledown, anyone?). I could never be a vegetarian simply because meat is just too darn tasty. Even when it's ultra-lean. Even when you take away all the butter, sauces and stuff it's usually drenched in, which this diet certainly did.
Tastiness, it turns out, is relative. For the first few days, I hated everything I ate, because I still remembered what donuts tasted like. But by Day Four, I'd forgotten whatever happiness I once knew, and even the blandest, healthiest cut of skinless, organic chicken seemed like prime rib. When is a dried chunk of ketchup-less turkey burger incredibly delicious? When it's the only brown thing on a plate that looks like it could have been dumped from a lawn mower bag.
I'm sorry animals, but if you didn't want to be one-sidedly eaten by us, you should have evolved to compete with us better, instead of evolving to be so damn tasty.
4) I've come to appreciate berries.
Just as I would save the turkey on my plate to reward myself for eating the broccoli (which in turn was a reward for eating the Brussels sprouts), I began to save my precious strawberries, blackberries and blueberries for dessert.
Everyone knows that the worse something is for you, the better it tastes. I already knew that chocolate-covered-bacon anchored one end of this spectrum, and on the Detox Diet I learned that the other end is anchored by kale, a super-nutritious leafy plant that tastes like you're weeding a garden with your mouth. But I'm happy to report that berries are one big exception to this rule. They taste great, have a bit of natural sugar in them, and yet are healthy enough even to be allowed on this evil super-diet.
Blueberries for desert, you ask? When your entrée is a handful of kale and half a stalk of celery, you're damn right.
5) Spices save your butt.
When you never cook and everything you eat comes pre-salted and pre-fatted, spices don't make a lot of sense. But this diet took me on a culinary history trip to a time when most food was bland and terrible, and spices were the grand cover-up. You wouldn't think it, but a beet burrito in a kale tortilla, seasoned with basil and cinnamon isn't half bad. I even used foods as spices for other spices: collard greens could diversify a boring fried egg, and a little orange juice could improve the taste of the collard. I don't think Chef Emeril would be impressed by my innovations, but I now watch the Food Network with a more appreciative eye.
6) It's important to pick a diet that fits your style.
Finally, as terrible as I've made it out to be, I'm really glad we picked a crash-diet.
Because it turns out I'm a crash-diet person.
To stick with any diet, that diet has to match a person's personality. Some people prefer to get their exercise via several weekly walks or light runs, and for these people a longer-term, less severe diet is probably best. I, on the other hand, won't exercise at all until one day I decide to run a triathlon, then I train like a crazy person for a month until the race, and then stop exercising completely again. And thus for me, a crash diet was perfect.
I don't think I could permanently cut down on chocolate or carbs or Dollar Menu Cheeseburgers, but to give all of them up entirely for two weeks was like a dare. I felt manly, eating only a palmful of chard for breakfast, washed down with two cupped hands of water. I even took down a straight shot glass of olive oil on one of the later days, chased by a wadded ball of mustard greens. My girlfriend thought this was weird, but it reminded me of fraternity hazing, which I also enjoyed.
In the end, like fraternity hazing, the Detox Diet was painful at times, but kind of fun, and definitely worth the experience. As far as whether I'd do it again, well... we'll see. Again, as with fraternity hazing, I have to let my kidneys recover first.
As one bonus thing I learned, short-term diets do work. Well, in the short-term, at least. Everybody knows that to actually lose weight and keep it off, you have to eat decently, exercise, and simply burn more calories than you consume. That's the way bodies (and math) work. But if you're going to do that stuff anyway, sure, you can kick-start your things with a week of kale and cranberry juice. After that, treating yourself to granola and the occasional Dollar Cheeseburger will seem like paradise.