As a hefty adolescent whose classmates jeered that his initials stood for "Fat Boy," Frank Bruni went on the Atkins Diet. "People who became wise to it only in the 1990s tend to forget that it made its initial splash back in the early 1970s," Bruni writes in his memoir Born Round, which he will discuss at Books Inc. (1760 Fourth St., Berkeley) on Monday, July 26. His mother had eagerly bought Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution in hardcover, confident in its powers as the "holy grail of weight loss" she'd always sought. To a kid with an insatiable appetite, Atkins' high-fat, anti-carbohydrate plan was a dream come true.
"The Atkins diet prohibited certain things I loved, like pretzels and ice cream," said Bruni, "but it let me have as much as I wanted of other things I also loved, like cheddar-cheese omelets with pork sausage at breakfast or hamburger patties — three of them if that was my desire, so long as I dispensed with the bun. ... It allowed snacks like hunks of cheddar and roll-ups of turkey breast and Swiss cheese. I could even dip the roll-ups in mayonnaise and not be undermining the Atkins formula. According to Atkins, it was important to stay sated, because any empty crevasse of stomach was nothing but a welcome mat for a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup."
He'd been working his way up to this all his life, growing up in a well-off American family that maintained a separate full-size freezer just for ice cream and meat. Voraciously hungry for as long as he can remember, Bruni calls his childhood self a "baby bulimic" because of a tendency as a toddler to devour huge second helpings, then throw up.
Atkins whittled away seven pounds. Competitive swimming whittled away a few more — but never enough, nor did fasting on amphetamines. In college, he went back to bulimia. After guilt-ridden fried-chicken meals, "off to the second-floor bathroom in the back corner of the student union I'd go. I'd walk in, listen for the sounds of anyone else, bend down and glance under the stalls to check for feet, making sure the coast was clear. I'd stop briefly at the sink, turn on the water and moisten the index and middle fingers on my right hand, so that they'd slide more easily down my throat."
It was a long journey from there to his stint as the New York Times' restaurant critic, a gig that lasted until 2009 and was a triumph for the slender recovered bulimic. Even so, Bruni admits still feeling "an incipient panic whenever I feel like I've gotten a little sloppy, because I feel that too much weight gain would be seen as more of a 'failure' than usual. ... But the real challenges are those of aging. I think the metabolism does constantly slow, and the body won't cooperate with exercise as intense as when younger. But so far, I'm not buying new pants."