Morgan Spurlock, eat your cholesterol-clogged heart out.
The filmmaker and human guinea pig behind the documentary “Super Size Me” consumed nothing but McDonald’s for a whole month and – surprise, surprise – gained 24 pounds. How about eating fattening, salty food for twice as long and losing weight? Well, it can be done.
I’m not speaking from personal experience, unfortunately. I tried and I failed (ugly details below), but I know some people who didn’t and wrote about them on Page One of The Wall Street Journal. Their names are Alan Martin and Jeff Berman, both winners of Olive Garden’s annual “Never Ending Pasta Pass” promotion. It entitles you to all the soup, salad, bread sticks, pasta, sauce, and toppings you can eat for two months for $100.
One reason I love writing these stories is because I find enthusiasm infectious. Whether it’s floating cars, hot peppers, or wacky contests, I get to know people who are passionate about something most people hardly know or care about. Alan and Jeff were no exception – two really nice guys with personalities as big as their appetites.
“The Olive Garden Diet” was a well-received story in large part because the editor wisely took me out of it and made it about them. Like them, I also was a Pasta Pass “winner” and also had the idea of turning all that cavatappi into muscle, or at least not into love handles.
I ate at Olive Garden once a day for a month before the story changed direction. The hours spent on the treadmill and thousands of calories consumed are what’s known as a “sunk cost” – a poor investment that I found painful to abandon for no journalistic return, even though that was the right decision. So here’s my belated attempt to salvage something good from my experiment.
When I first had the idea, I immediately went to my new gym, Impact Zone, in Norwood, NJ. The owner, Dave Paladino, isn’t just ridiculously fit and muscular – he also trained members of the Sopranos, including the late James Gandolfini. What better person to ask if I could eat all that pasta and not wind up looking like “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero?
His answer, after I managed to was convince him I wasn’t pulling his leg? “Fugeddaboudit.” But he agreed to try and mitigate the damage. Here we are at the start of my pasta binge when I weighed a mere 157 pounds:
Daves’s crack trainer Adrian Greenberg designed a really rigorous daily workout for me and I did it religiously. I also bought a FitBit and set myself a goal of 15,000 steps a day. The first few days weren’t kind to me, but I figured a pound or so of weight was to be expected simply from a big increase in salt and carbohydrates. I had a complete Olive Garden Never Ending Pasta Bowl meal a day, including a bread stick and a protein topping and I ate all my other meals normally. The calories in this meal ranged from a little over 1,000 for a salad, bread stick, whole wheat linguine, marinara sauce, and grilled chicken to a whopping 2,000 in a single sitting for certain soup, pasta, sauce, and topping combinations. Damn you, asiago garlic alfredo and crispy chicken fritta! Here’s a photo-montage of some of my meals:
My main problem was that I ate my Olive Garden meals mainly at lunch when I might normally have something light such as a salad or a protein shake. When I got home for dinner, my big meal of the day, I ate everything on my plate and often seconds. I shouldn’t have been hungry, but all the extra food just made me crave more calories in the evening. After entering every calorie into MyFitnessPal, I found that I was having an extra 600 to 800 calories a day compared to my normal diet.
To put that into perspective, a man my size would have to walk an additional 20,000 steps a day to make up the difference (the average American takes less than 5,000 steps daily). Alternatively, I could run for an hour and 18 minutes, bike for an hour and 21 minutes or swim for two hours and 15 minutes to use those 700 or so extra calories. I was working out, but I only had an hour or so to spare each day. What’s more, I already was a daily visitor to the gym so I merely went from a less-intense workout to a more-intense one.
Doing some quick math, had I done nothing to my energy usage, I would have consumed an extra 21,000 calories and packed on about six pounds. Had I gone all Morgan Spurlock and become sedentary, I would have packed on about 11 pounds. At the end of 30 days, when it was clear that the editor who had originally expressed interest in a fitness-related article had flaked out on me, I was 5 pounds heavier. Yikes!
Given the extra calories I burned, maybe two or three pounds of that was fat. The rest was water (from all the extra carbs and sodium) and, I hope, a little bit of muscle from the extra weight-lifting. More than a month later, I’m still a pound or two heavier and I feel thicker around the middle (I blame Thanksgiving, a long vacation, and a family birthday).
Alan and Jeff, who ate every meal at Olive Garden, both lost weight (five pounds and one pound, respectively). Part of that is size (they’re both about five inches taller and can consume a lot more calories), but, let’s face it, much of it is my lack of discipline outside of Olive Garden. Gaining weight is a lot easier and more pleasant than losing it.
Despite my failure, I’m pleased that I undertook the experiment. I got a great article out of it (indirectly) and learned something about nutrition and exercise. For now, though, I have some work left. Dave Paladino spotted me huffing and puffing on the elliptical at 5:50 a.m. today and looked like he was about to wish me good morning. Instead, he pointed at my flabby body and yelled: “Keep working off that pasta!”