On the Rocks: Boozing and Losing on the Drinking Man’s Diet

Like so many things, it seemed like a great idea at the time. The holidays were coming up, and that meant that a lot of heavy eating was on the horizon. Why not skip ahead a bit and start a diet now? And why not go for something that had been time-tested? Or, if not exactly time-tested, then something that was at least pretty damn old? And that’s how I began two weeks of cheese, sausage, and roast chicken — as well as lots of Manhattans; whiskey-and-sodas; and red, red, wine. I was taking the Drinking Man’s Diet out for a spin.

First published in 1964, when it wasn’t that odd for well-heeled businessmen to have a couple drinks at lunch and then lots more before dinner, the Drinking Man’s Diet is a very thin book — almost a pamphlet. I took as my main text the revised edition — published forty years later and now billed as the “original low-carb diet,” but with not much else changed inside.

Written by a high-living businessman named Robert W. Cameron, the book and its follow-ups, which include a cookbook, promise to get you in tip-top shape “with a minimum of willpower”. The thinking behind it is simple enough to remember even after you’ve had several belts: you can eat reasonable amounts of anything you want, as long as you keep your carbs down under 60 grams a day (that’s the amount in three medium apples, or three slices of bread). As one contemporary newspaper account put it, this scheme “offers the fat man a code that ignores calories and seems to let [him] gorge on such delights as martinis, avocados, and Camembert.”

This means that just about anything alpha male, at least by Johnson Administration standards, is available in copious quantities. For instance, steak, cheese, salami, pâté, and hard liquor and dry wine could all be eaten in more or less unlimited quantities. Think of it this way — anything that Mad Men’s Don Draper would be likely to be consuming in the company of a pretty girl is probably allowed.

As a “diet which was fun to follow,” at least for a while, it attracted a large subset of people who were as hungry for novelty as they were for saturated fat. In just two years, Cameron sold 2.4 million copies, until growing criticism cramped his style: the doom-saying nutritionist Jean Mayer, for instance, claimed that putting middle-aged Americans on such a diet was “in a sense, equivalent to mass murder.”

Calling the diet a massacre in the making didn’t exactly improve its reputation, and its fame faded. Carbophobes in search of a new fad would have to wait a few years for Dr. Atkins and his less boozy but kinda similar methods to appear.

The diet seems a little peculiar these days, what with everyone crazy for quinoa and only eating chicken if it’s sourced from their very own backyard. But I was still intrigued. Despite the constant dirge about eating less and moving more, I thought that there must be something in a diet whose priorities sounded so similar to my own.

I wanted to be like the “single working mom” whose testimonial on the DMD’s back cover says she “lost nine pounds in three weeks while “still [taking] two 600 p.m. tension-breaking martinis.” Or the promises in the New Drinking Man’s Diet and Cookbook (1967) of “taking out your favorite girl for a dinner of squab and broccoli with hollandaise sauce and Chateau Lafite, to be followed by an evening of rapture and champagne.”

And there’s this, too: the diet may or may not have helped the public lose weight, but it treated its author just fine. Robert W. Cameron died last month at the age of 98 after a long and active career as a publisher and aerial photographer.

My own start on the diet involved neither favorite girls nor squab nor aerial photographs. I began on a random Wednesday morning by cooking a two-egg omelet. With butter. And a few chunks of cheese and keilbasa. And then I headed out to get plastered.

Kidding. Instead, I headed to a local Polish deli to stock up on ham and sausage — if bread is hardly in your life anymore, you may very well end up eating lots of processed meat products to try to fill that void. Be ready to start feeling thirsty, too.

The first few days on the diet I spent mildly nauseated and full of a near-constant desire for toast. I was lethargic, irritated, and usually (TMI!) constipated — all the smoked gouda in the world won’t make up for that. All that bonus red wine did act as partial compensation, especially when I started drinking by six. The day after was never as pretty as it could have been, though.

Reading it now, the journal I wrote while low-carbin’ sounds a little creepy. A short excerpt should be enough to give you the flavor: “Today I ate three [small] cookies at a tea shop … they tasted so good. Managed to stay in bounds by just eating MEAT at night — two chicken legs. And salad is a savior too. No booze, hungover from too much vodka last night. Foods I have thought about a lot include toast, toast, croutons, breading, etc. And was sick of cheese this morning.”

Even the novelty of the wide-open, groaning liquor cabinet had worn off by the start of the second week, to be replaced by near-constant thoughts of, you guested it, toast. By the end of the diet, I reached the conclusion that something’s wrong when half an apple has to be carefully accounted for, but three bourbons are just a fun way to while away a random weeknight.

It was right around this point, when I could hardly look at sausage or cheese any more, that I started going through the Drinking Man’s Diet Cookbook to see what seemed decent.

Although the book had been revised in 2007, there were clear signs that some of the recipes could have done with a bit more fixing up (way-too-dry pork chops recipe, I’m looking at you). Overall, though, the handful of recipes I tried were decent. For instance, a Mexican soup, which was basically meatballs in beef broth, was good as long as you didn’t think about how you could have been having spaghetti and meatballs instead.

Some of the better recipes seemed to be about taking lighter, more healthy preparations and fattening them up: one (admittedly quite tasty) fish dish involved browning fillets in butter, then baking them in the oven with wine. And then it was time to add a little cream and Parmesan cheese and then make everything brown. It all seemed a little overwhelming, especially since there wasn’t going to be any rice around to soak up all that fat. Maybe that’s what all those martinis were for.

The bottom line? I lost about 4 pounds in two weeks — respectable but hardly amazing. And not very long-lasting, either. A couple days later, after welcoming white rice and bread and croutons into my life again, most of it came right back. For me at least, weight loss on this diet was as ephemeral as those really witty thing people say during benders. You remember, those things they say right before they pass out.

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