When a University of Minnesota fat researcher looked at his expanding waistline, he did what millions of Americans have done. He went on a diet.
He wasn't impressed by the popular weight loss programs, such as Atkins and South Beach, so he devised a diet of his own and gave it a name: the Northwoods Diet.
He's not promoting the weight-loss plan, and has no plans to write books and articles about it. Yet word has spread.
The diet might be rejected out of hand were it not for the source: prof. David Bernlohr is head of the Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics at the university. He studies obesity, and he teaches medical students all about metabolism.
To lose weight, Bernlohr decided he would eat three meals a day, starting with carbohydrates in the morning and switching to protein and fats in the afternoon. He would eat a one-helping, healthful dinner, and it wouldn't be lumberjack-sized. He would eat nothing after 7:30 p.m.
He didn't increase his exercise. His snacks were peanuts, chocolate and beer.
He lost 40 pounds in six months on the diet last year, and while he piled on some pounds last summer, he went back on the diet and dropped most of them.
Bernlohr, 47, is not a physician, and he doesn't want people to take the diet too seriously. A few colleagues have tried it and lost weight. The diet hasn't been studied by scientists.
The diet is part whimsy, part common sense. The whimsy is in the name Northwoods, which Bernlohr thought would symbolize Minnesota. The common sense is in the notion that reducing calories is a sure way to lose weight, regardless of what you eat.
Bernlohr obviously knew the health ramifications of being overweight, and he noticed that "my own personal situation was extraordinarily similar to the typical American," he said. "Slowly, my weight was sneaking up, sneaking up, sneaking up. ... "
Before he began the diet in April 2003, he took stock. He had a family history of high cholesterol, so he knew he had to have his cholesterol checked regularly while he was dieting. He was already taking Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering drug. He was sometimes short of breath and lacked energy, but otherwise was in good health.
At the outset, Bernlohr put breakfast back on the table -- he'd given it up long ago -- and made a point of eating three meals a day. Without breakfast, he knew he might do a little binge eating at lunch and a lot of binge eating at dinner, and he might eat again later at night.
His diet reduced carbohydrates and increased proteins as other diets do, but that wasn't the point. He ate carbohydrates first thing in the morning to jump start his body's insulin production. He gave up pancakes and syrup in favor of oatmeal, cold cereal or bacon and eggs.
For lunch, he sometimes ate fruit, paying no attention to the idea that dieters should eat only certain kinds of fruit, but a slice of pizza was OK, too. For dinner he ate protein, vegetables and salads.
Cutting off food consumption at 7:30 p.m. was important. "You don't want a lot of your calories to be metabolized during your sleeping period," he said. "I think that contributes to storage in your fat cells."
Bernlohr walks a lot during the day, and he sometimes bikes, but he didn't increase his exercise while dieting. His appetite decreased, and the pounds came off easily, but it wasn't because of "some magic carbohydrate diet," he said. "It's all related to how much you consume." He didn't count calories but guesses he cut his total by 20 percent.
His weight before and after dieting "are secrets that nobody knows but me," he said.
Bernlohr is convinced that other diets, like his, "have more to do with total food consumption than with anything else."
He knows more about this topic than most people. He is doing research on obesity that is funded by the National Institutes of Health and involves the university and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
As the leader of a 12-member research team, he focuses on how fat cells work. It's probably not well known, he said, that fat cells actually make hormones that circulate in the blood to the brain, the liver and muscles. "So the fat cell is not this big warehouse," he said. "It's actually a very dynamic cell that integrates your energy metabolism."
Historically, Bernlohr said, humans have evolved under nutrient limitation, which means we haven't always had unlimited amounts of food at our disposal, but now we live amid nutrient abundance, "and our bodies have never had to deal with this.
"The other thing that comes into play is that the molecules in the food we eat are all soluble or easily dissolved in fats, not in carbohydrates, and so things just taste better if they're fatty," he said. "Carbohydrates in general don't have a lot of taste to them, so eating fats gives you some positive feedback."
Simple sugars, such as those in sweets, also are tasty and give positive feedback, but "complex carbohydrates and things like fiber do not," he said. "Most complex sugars are broken down in the gut, past the tastebuds, and as such, we don't really have any 'sense' of them."
As people eat more, fewer do physical work. Weights have gone up gradually since the 1960s, Bernlohr said, and obesity, once the province of people in their 40s and 50s, is now being seen in young adults, adolescents and children. It puts people of all ages at risk for major health problems, including Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Scientists have been working on obesity for decades, and it's clear now that there won't be a magic bullet, said Allen Levine, director of the Minnesota Obesity Center and head of the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at the university.
Eating is "one of the last pleasures that we have that we can do publicly," he said. "If you're sitting at your desk eating doughnuts, you don't get punished. If you were taking drugs, you would be. If you were having sex, you would be. Eating is a publicly accepted thing that's pleasant. people do it together."
Food is cheap, safe, plentiful and tasty, but it often comes in huge portions with lots of calories, Levine said. He recalled a friend saying, "I ordered a salad, and I got a garden."
Almost any diet will work, but dieters soon will crave something not permitted on their diets, Levine said. "It has to do with what we call sensory-specific satiety. We get accustomed to a certain taste, and after a while we're bored with it, and we want variety."
What should people do They should do some serious thinking about what they eat and how much they eat, Levine suggests. He said people need to exercise, being aware that exercise alone won't do it. They need to realize that half of the plateful of food before them is probably enough, and that it's OK to take a walk and eat fruit and yogurt at their desks instead of eating huge portions at lunch outside the office.
"What we're asking people to do is take a great pleasure and control it," he said.
Lunch: protein and fats.
Dinner: Healthful, one-helping dinner.
Snacks: Chocolate, peanuts and beer. No food after 7:30 p.m.