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 2,000 Polish Chicagoans -- and 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 was one of these books that made it into Peschak's hands in late 1998, when she was having lunch with other Polish women at a Chicago factory. "One lady who just came back from vacation in Poland showed me this book she got there and it made a lot of sense to me." A few weeks later, Peschak started the diet.
It wasn't until more than three years later, 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.
250 grams of fat per day
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 lost44 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, about 30 followers of the Kwasniewski plan gathered for a weekly meeting and shared their stories.
There was the ginger-haired firecracker Irena Kozlowicz, 78, of Niles, 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."
Chicago physician Christopher Kubik wasn't at the meeting, but in a phone interview he said that 4 1/2 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.
No more problems
"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. "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."
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 there was no way he could be totally cured.
"Every single joint imaginable in my hips, elbows, knees and hands hurt,"the Jefferson Park resident 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."
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.
"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.
"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."
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Mmmmm ... headcheese
Here's a sample daily menu from the Optimal Diet Web site(http://homodiet.netfirms.com)
- Two slices of homemade headcheese loaf* with mustard
- One soft-boiled egg
- Two cheese-lard pancakes with butter
- Tea with lemon (no sugar)
- Two slices of baked blood sausage fried in bacon fat
- Tea with lemon (no sugar)
- Broth with two egg yolks
- Hash browns
- One strip of bacon
DAILY TOTAL: 254 grams of fatand 2,923 calories
*This Optimal daily menu comes with a recipe for home-made headcheese, which requires the following ingredients: half-skinned and de-eyed pig's head with ears chopped into pieces, one bay leaf, a couple of kernels of allspice and salt and pepper to taste.
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Larding it on
Here's what you'll find in the deli cases, coolers and shelves of Calma Optimal Foods:
Polish specialties: flaczki (tripe soup), bigos (hunter's stew), borscht, Polish sausages, blintzes, even pierogi and paczki.
Organ delights: pork liver pate, brain croquettes, blood sausage, headcheese, brain with vegetable soup and liver and tongue stew.
Desserts: Jell-O-whipped cream slices; low-sugar, high-fat ice creams; poppy seed cakes; and low-sugar cheesecake.
Dairy products, miscellaneous: heavy whipping cream, jumbo Amish eggs, Amish butter, nut-based breads, collagen soups, tubs of house-rendered lard, lard with bacon and beef tallow.
In a nod to the diet's arrival in the States, there's even Optimal pizza, larded up with extra bacon, butter-fried mushrooms and a butter crust.
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