This article was originally published in 2004 in the Chicago Tribune. It's still knocking around on the web in various places but the original seems to have disappeared. You can't have too much of a good thing. Obviously Stephan's recent posts on lard prompted me to put this one up. The imported nutritionist doesn't seem quite as dismissive as you might expect! But notice in the last paragraph that the big bogeyman is protein overload damaging the kidneys! On 60g/d of protein??? Sobor clearly knows nothing about high fat diets, certainly not the one he is commenting so authoritatively about in this case!
Praise the LARD
By Monica Eng
CHICAGO -- Vinka Peschak starts each day by knocking back a full cup of heavy whipping cream.
That's at 8 a.m.
"At around 11 o'clock I take three or four egg yolks and make some kind of omelet with lard for breakfast," the Portage Park resident explains. Peschak, a native of Poland, eats her omelet with a cup of buttery boiled vegetables and a slender piece of almond toast slathered in more butter or lard.
Dinner is usually a fatty piece of pork or some kind of organ meat with lard-cooked french fries and more butter-soaked vegetables.
In the middle of the day she might have a cup of coffee, "but only with a lot of heavy whipping cream in it."
Peschak has been eating like this for more than five years. She is slim, energetic, and says, "I feel wonderful, never tired and never hungry."
She is not on Atkins. She is not on South Beach.
Peschak, along with an estimated 2 million folks worldwide is on the Optimal Diet, a Polish eating plan that requires the consumption of prodigious amounts of animal fat -- preferably lard.
The diet was hatched in Poland some 40 years ago by Dr. Jan Kwasniewski, who started developing it while working as a dietician for a military sanitarium in Ciechocinek, Poland. There he observed that many of his patients were sick, "not because of any pathogenic factors ... but the result of one underlying cause -- bad nutrition," according to his English language "Optimal Nutrition" book. After experimenting on his family and himself, Kwasniewski concluded that the ideal nutritional combo came from eating three grams of fat for every one gram of protein and half a gram of carbohydrates.
After a couple of decades of refining this theory, Kwasniewski published his first book in Poland in 1990. But it wasn't until converts came forward with their stories of weight loss and recovery from disease in the mid-'90s that the diet really took off it its native land and Kwasniewski's books went into wide circulation. Today there are at least two magazines devoted to the Optimal lifestyle and Kwasniewski writes a twice weekly column for the regional Polish newspaper Dziennik Zachodni.
It wasn't until 2001, though, that Chicago would become the North American capital for this eating plan. That's when Tomasz Zielinski bought a little storefront on Milwaukee Avenue and opened Calma Optimal Foods. The first and only one of its kind in the nation, it operates as a deli, meeting center and, as of this spring, a restaurant for those on the lard-laden plan. Peschak serves as its manager.
Sometimes called the Polish Atkins, the Optimal Diet severely restricts the intake of carbohydrates and sugars, but differs from Atkins by de-emphasizing protein and beefing up, or more accurately porking up, the fat to a level that would have even made the late Robert Atkins reach for his heart.
On average, the diet recommends a whopping 250 grams of fat per day, about four times what the FDA recommended for the average person to maintain his/her weight and about 10 times the amount of saturated fat allowed.
So despite its popularity in Poland -- Lech Walesa is reported to have lost 44 pounds and cured his diabetes on it recently -- the mainstream medical establishment there and here is skeptical.
"I am very against diets like this," says Jadwiga Roguska, a practicing internist at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. "All high-fat diets are unhealthy in the long term and there is absolutely no benefit to weight reduction of this sort because it is threatening to health. ... Of course, high-fat diets will give you the benefits of energy and weight loss, but they are just not good for you."
Roguska based her comments on a brief overview of its principles, but Chicago physician Mark Sobor has seen it up close and has watched an increasing number of his patients in the Polish community embrace it.
"Kwasniewski is pure fat," says Sobor who practices in Jefferson Park and is also a licensed acupuncturist. "Eat fat non-stop. Everything is pure fat. The more fat you can take in the better and these people are fanatics about it. But the thing is they're all skinny."
On a recent Sunday morning at the Optimal deli/center in Portage Park, Ill., about 30 mature, fairly slim followers of the Kwasniewski plan gathered for a weekly meeting and shared their stories.
There was the ginger-haired firecracker Irena Kozlowicz, 78, who went on the diet five years ago after Kwasniewski came to speak at the Copernicus Center in 1999. At the time she was suffering from chronic eye problems, asthma and pain in her knees.
"Now I can walk better than a young person," she chirps. "I can run up six floors of stairs and my grandson can't catch me. He's 17 years old. I meet young ladies and they are always tired and sweating, but I never am. I didn't need to lose weight, but I lost 8 pounds. I am 78, but I feel like I am 50. I thank God for the diet."
Then there is Jozef Michael Ostrowski, 71, who says he has been on a variation of the diet his whole life.
"Since the occupation of Poland my parents could only afford pork meat and liver and blood sausage and lard," Ostrowski says through an interpreter. "It is not like I was following this diet precisely but generally. At that time I didn't know this kind of natural food was good for me. I just knew that I could eat scrambled eggs with a thin piece of bread and lard and I would be full all day. I started eating regular food like McDonald's and I could not handle the pain and so I went back to the diet and have felt better and better every day."
Zofia Pawlik, 56, started the diet last year when she went on an Optimal vacation, a retreat to the Wisconsin Dells to learn about the program and eat its foods. Over the course of a year, she says she has lost 10 pounds while improving her energy and overall health.
Chicago physician Christopher Kubik wasn't at the meeting, but in a phone interview he said that four and a half years ago he was overweight and suffering from fatigue and stones in the bladder. But within a couple of months of embarking on this high-fat journey he saw results.
"I was losing weigh gradually (he lost about 25 pounds in six weeks) but I felt fine. Since then, I didn't have any more problems with stones, my skin complexion improved and I am still feeling a lot of energy," says Kubik, 57, who reports that he breakfasts on fried eggs, bacon and string cheese seven days a week. "So I experienced myself significant detectable improvement even though I generally had good health to begin with. While I was losing the weight I could feel the ketones as a metallic tasted on the mouth, but after I reached my optimal weight, (the ketosis) stopped. Now my weight has remained steady at about 185, which is in the upper limit of normal for my height."
Kubik, who also has degrees in public health and health law, says he does not actively promote the diet, "because it is not considered a standard of care and the medical community still recommends low-fat diets and it is not something I could support if I were sued." But if patients ask, "I tell them that I am on it and have seen positive results."
Dr. Sobor has also seen a growing number of Kwasniewski converts who claim weight loss is only one of the benefits they've reaped.
Chester Matuszewski, 46, for instance says that four years ago he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis and was told that there was no way he could be totally cured.
"Every single joint imaginable in my hips, elbows, knees and hands hurt," Matuszewski recalled. Remembering something he had read in a Polish newspaper about the Optimal diet, he decided to check it out even though it seemed unappetizing.
"For years I thought that pork is not good for you and I didn't like the smell, but I forced myself. ... After two months I started to feel better and I didn't want to attribute it to the diet. But my friends also saw a difference in me and I had so much energy. Today after four years, I have no pain and no swelling and I am totally cured."
Sobor hears these stories all the time, but still has his reservations.
"I'm sure you've heard their claims that their joint pain is gone and diabetes is gone," he says. "And they say it because it's true. You can apparently get a lot of benefits if you decrease your carbohydrate intake, and stop taking in all the white flour and stop taking in all the refined foods because you are not stressing your body out all the time with all of the insulin spikes and becoming hyperglycemic and hypoglycemic."
"But do I recommend the diet? I don't know," he says. "I don't think Kwasniewski is as good as Atkins or that it is something you should go on for a long time. Now the South Beach Diet that is a nice diet with more flexibility. But this Optimal diet is the most radical of the low-carb diets."
Despite the popularity of the diet in its country of origin, it remains controversial there among traditional Polish nutritionists who oppose its high cholesterol and fat recommendations.
"They don't like it because they see it endangers their own positions as nutritional authorities," says Peschak.
NO POSITION FROM THE AMA
In the U.S. the Optimal Diet hasn't yet caught the attention of the medical establishment. The American Medical Association doesn't have a position on Atkins, much less Optimal. And Lisa Dorfman, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, had not heard of it either.
Still, based on a quick description of the diet, she didn't condemn it outright.
"I can see how this would be a very attractive program, certainly in the senior citizen community because these are nutrient dense foods and seniors don't need to eat a lot of food," says Dorfman, a licensed nutritionist.
"And some of the foods are very nutritious albeit very high in fat and cholesterol. Liver is very high in iron and B vitamins, which would be lovely for senior citizens because they need those vitamins and are usually on a budget in that time of life.
"But for the general public I see where there could be potential problems. We just know that long-term high-fat diets leave one with a heightened risk of heart disease, stroke and hypertension. This is certainly not for children, teenagers or pregnant women.
Most Americans are getting too much fat as it is and they are not getting enough activity and they have incredible risk for heart disease because of a whole multiple list of factors including genetics and stress. And so I can't imagine that adding fat and lard and cholesterol into the mix would be beneficial to that."
"But for this group of Polish seniors I think it's adorable, especially if it was developed by someone from the old country. As a psychotherapist, I can see where they must feel like you've got to be healthy eating this because there is a psychological connection to eating these foods. It's old country eating."
Going back to the basics. It is different from the commercial processing chemical laden foods. I certainly believe these people are benefiting in some way, but it may be more than one way and it may be for certain groups and not for others is my gut hunch. It might not be appropriate for three-quarters of the population but maybe they've hit the nail on the head and this is perfect for them."
WHAT WILL IT DO LONGTERM
Although there is general agreement in the health community that lots of refined flours and sugars and their accompanying insulin spikes are not healthful, most conventional nutritionists are still not ready to embrace low-carb, high-protein and high-fat diets because of their perceived effects on the organs.
But could wear and tear on the liver, kidneys and heart be worth it for an older person to be free of the health risks of obesity?
"That I don't know," Sobor says. "No one on Atkins has died of kidney failure yet, but you can probably find a nephrologist (kidney specialist) who says it's good, one who says its bad and one who is in between. Because the truth is no one really knows yet."
"The final question is who dies faster, the people who are obese or the people who go on these diets. You would have to take 2,000 people on the diet and then 2,000 controls to see what is going to kill them first, the extra pounds or the extra protein load on the kidneys or whatever this diet will do to you. The pounds are going to do it in the short and medium term. There's no question about that. But the jury is out on the long term. The final arbiter is death. If they live longer than you do, then they won."