The moment you touch down at McCarran International Airport your senses are overwhelmed by the sites, sounds and smells of Las Vegas. The sights and sounds are provided by lines of slot machines in the terminal, which beg the question, “How big of a gambling problem do you have if you can’t even wait until you get to your hotel?” The smells are of fast food—simple carbs and grease. When hungry, these are some of the most compelling smells in the world. They promise cheap, fast, easy calories. No matter how well we eat, no matter how dedicated we are to our diet, we freely admit that these smells still give us the classic, Pavlovian drool response. And McCarran Airport cranks the volume of this stench higher than anywhere else we have ever been. Some of these smells were so acute that we wondered if the cooking fans were vented directly into the terminal rather than outside as building codes usually require. For this reason, we try to live by the following simple rule:
Rule: Never land hungry.
“Never land hungry” is the first rule of Drink Your Carbs travel. It was also the first rule we violated. We worked out the in morning before our flight and somehow miscalculated how much time it would take to get back home, finish packing and leave for the airport. We made the flight with plenty of time to spare, but we had to skip lunch in order to do so. Ideally, we would have filled one of our carry-on bags with healthy snacks. But this too was thrown aside in the rush. Eating food provided by the airline was out of the question. The calories contained in-flight meals come almost entirely from simple carbohydrates. As we have said before, if you are going to break the rules at least break them for something worthwhile. The best in-flight meals fail to meet even the low standards of a high school cafeteria. It is as though the airlines deliberately hired a team of food scientists to create a TV Dinner knockoff with the taste and texture of two-day-old chewing gum and the caloric density of compressed Twinkies.
We landed ravenous.
Neither of us is good at being overly hungry. Andrea’s patience vanishes. Her tolerance for things slow or incompetent is never particularly high, but when she is hungry she has no tolerance at all. As her blood sugar drops, she can transform instantly from her mild-mannered self to Mike Tyson trying to bite your ear off. Steven is no better. If not fed, he tends to throw temper tantrums like a two-year-old in the cereal aisle. His head drops. His shoulders slump. His walk slows to a reluctant shuffle. In short, when Steven is hungry he becomes everything that makes a hungry Andrea explode.
After years of marriage we have learned to manage these situations by recognizing them and steering ourselves toward food. Only one of the two of us usually recognizes the solution to the situation. The other one is too deeply in the grip of a hypoglycemic fit. This may be one of the great arguments in favor of finding a partner in life. When one of you in completely stuck in irrational pit of hunger-induced despair, the other person usually recognizes the situation for what it is and goes off in search of food. Furthermore, it is our experience that even if food is a long way away, as long as we know it is imminent, we can manage of the worse of our behaviors.
As we landed in Vegas, Andrea took charge.
“We are not stopping in the airport,” she said. “Keep moving and I promise we‘ll eat before we get to the hotel.”
Some minor grouchiness and no shortage of moping on Steven’s part, slowed us only a little as we cut across Vegas toward our first Drink Your Carbs meal at In-n-Out Burger.
Fact: When traveling, food is always a series of compromises.
We are not fans of fast food. The quality is low. The calories are high. Next time you are in a fast-food restaurant, look at how much of the kitchen space is dedicated to fryers. This should tell you everything you need to know. While it is true that McDonald’s and Burger King have added salads to their menu, boxed salads get about two square feet of shelf space while a full third of the kitchen is dedicated to cranking out fried food. The only conclusion to draw is that McDonald’s and Burger King keep a few salads on display behind the counter as window dressing, to show that they care about your health. In reality, any token green food that replaces the standard tan/brown offerings is a ruse. Clearly no one orders them and they add no revenue to the bottom line. We wouldn’t be surprised if they are eventually replaced with the same kind of plastic food that is on display in the windows of Japanese noodle shops.
Fact: Wendy’s Baja Salad clocks in at 740 calories, 47 grams of fat and 1,990 milligrams of sodium. This would be a travesty if anyone had ever ordered one.
In defense of fast food, it is, true to its description, fast and readily available. For this reason, we all occasionally find ourselves eating it. The key to the Drink Your Carbs lifestyle is finding ways to eat at these restaurants without completely blowing your diet. There is no excuse for hitting Carl’s Junior and gorging on 2,000 calories of french fries and artificial-strawberry milkshakes. Super sizing your meal may seem prudent because the additional 1,200 calories cost only pennies more. Find a way to resist. The goal of any trip into a fast food chain is to eat just enough to sustain yourself until you can find decent food later, and to do so without blowing all of the calories you are planning to drink later that night.
The way we manage fast food is to walk in with the full intent of sticking to Drink Your Carbs. As we crack the door and the smell of grease wafts out, we have been known to repeat the words, “We are going to drink our carbs,” over and over like the chant at the end of a yoga class. This does not mean that we are planning to order beer with lunch. On a trip Munich, Germany, we did run into a McDonald’s that served beer, but in the United States, an incomprehensible web of state and local liquor laws has kept that particular temptation at bay. We mean that no matter what delicious bargains are offered on the Dollar Menu, we are sticking to the basic rules of the Drink Your Carbs Food List. In this case, our grand entrance sounded more like:
Steven: “I don’t care anymore. I don’t even want a burger.”
Andrea: “Stop it. You’re just hungry.”
Steven: “I’m not hungry. I’m fine.”
Andrea: “Just shut up, I’m ordering you a double hamburger, protein style.”
Most fast-food restaurants have options that work with Drink Your Carbs. In-n-Out Burger makes it particularly easy. Any burger can be ordered “protein style,” which replaces the bun with large pieces of iceberg lettuce. It’s a classic burger salad served in the style of an ice-cream sandwich. Is cold lettuce really a satisfying replacement for a toasted bun? No, but skipping the bun is not that great of a loss. More importantly, skipping the bun saved us 150 calories, which we knew we would need later when we hit our first casino bar.
We matched our “protein style” burgers with plain iced tea. We skipped the fries. It was a small meal by any measurement, but it served its purpose perfectly. It gave us the lift needed to check into our hotel, unpack our bags and head downstairs for a mid-afternoon snack at the tapas bar in the new City Center Casino.
City Center looks like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude as envisioned by an eight-year-old with an Erector Set. While the design came from a famous architect and cost a fortune to build, the exterior looks unfinished. More interesting is the fact that little of the strangeness in its exterior shape translates into the interior space. There is slanting wall behind the reception desk in the lobby, but the rest of the space feels like a tall, square box reminiscent of a Target or a Best Buy. The Spanish tapas bar, Julian Serrano, is located in the front of the casino, so it took us nearly 20 minutes to find.
Show place homes and buildings are often described as “having flow.” It means that every room has both a feeling of individual place and a sense of being part of the whole structure. In a building with flow, nothing is hard to find and even the hallways radiate an indefinable sense of comfort. Vegas casinos, on the other hand, were designed to very different specifications. The greatest architectural minds in the world have conspired to ensure that once you are inside a hotel casino you cannot find your way back out. A side effect of this type of design is that it is equally impossible to find your way through a casino or to find anything inside a casino, such as the restaurant you are going to for lunch. This is just fine with the architects and designers as long as it keeps you lost among the slot machines.
Andrea: “I think we’ve been through here already.”
Steven: “I don’t think so.”
Andrea: “I recognize that old lady.
Steven: “You’re sure?”
Andrea: “Watch her for a second. She’ll take a drink from her daiquiri without taking the cigarette out of her mouth. She kind of swings it to the side.”
Steven: “Fair enough. Your turn to lead.”
Julian Serrano is a restaurant scaled to its surroundings. The space is huge and dark. The ceilings are cavernous. The tables seem to go on forever. Large, exterior windows do nothing to brighten the space. The restaurant somehow maintains a late-night ambiance even in the early afternoon. And keep in mind, this is the desert—there’s sun here.
Fact: The American Institute of Architects has done itself a huge disservice not granting Julian Serrano an award for Masterful Use of Window Tint.
The menu was just as difficult as we had hoped. We chose tapas because they pose a significant dietary challenge. We could have gone for sushi; as long as you start with sashimi and avoid tempura, sushi is one of the easiest foods to eat on Drink Your Carbs. We decided instead to begin the trip by testing our will power. Spanish food is difficult on Drink Your Carbs because so much of it relies on rice, potatoes and bread. Julian Serrano was no exception. The paella, which is a fancy Spanish name for giant pile of rice with saffron and mixed seafood, looked incredible. As did the tortilla espanola, which is loaded with potatoes, and the patatas bravas, which are comprised entirely of fried potatoes smothered in spicy mayonnaise.
We ordered a bottle of wine as soon as our waiter greeted us. “You really should consider the sangria,” he replied.
Steve took the lead. “We’re in Vegas for a Drink Your Carbs weekend. Mixers are strictly forbidden.”
“There are no mixers in our Sangria.”
All sangria is some combination of wine, fruit juice, some variety of sweet liquor or brandy and frequently, simple syrup. His personal definition of “mixer” must have been as limited as ours is broad. “We appreciate the offer,” Steve replied, “but we’ll stick with the white. Also, please do not bring a bread basket. We don’t need it.”
Rule: Never let the server bring bread to your table. No matter how strong your resolve, you will not be able to resist if it is within reach. Allowing a bread basket to sit on your table is the equivalent of a recovering heroin addict letting a friend store morphine in his refrigerator.
We stuck largely to meat and vegetables. This is not to say we were perfect or that we broke no rules. Again, when traveling, food is a series of compromises. We decided even before ordering that we would allow ourselves to eat virtually unlimited quantities of fat and salt as long as we avoided the simple carbohydrates. This is not a decision we would make every day of the week, but it is a compromise that allowed us to enjoy ourselves while limiting the caloric consequences. The plate of Serrano ham was high in fat and salt, but had virtually no carbohydrates. The chorizo turned out to be paired with small, boiled potatoes, but instead of rejecting the dish, we simply left most of them behind. The shrimp bubbling in garlic and olive oil presented a bit of a quandary in that it could very much be considered deep-fried, but we ordered it anyway after confirming that is was not breaded. It is worth remembering that most diners who order similar dishes sop up every drop of oil with baguettes. By simply avoiding the bread and the excess sauce, we saved around 500 calories each with minimal impact on our dining experience. These are the types of compromises that make Drink Your Carbs work.
Fact: If you need motivation to stay on your diet in Las Vegas, just look around.
We were immediately reminded of why we are so strict with our diets the moment we found our way back through the casino and out onto the Strip. It was late afternoon. The lights of the hotels were in full bloom. The sidewalks were jam-packed with human traffic moving at an impossibly slow pace. Nearly everyone on the street was obese. It was even more shocking to see how many of these people had, hanging from nylon cords around their necks, huge souvenir glasses filled with brightly colored daiquiris. We tried to figure out how many calories are in a daiquiri served from a repurposed Slurpee machine into four-foot plastic replica of the Eiffel Tower. Our best estimate is well over half of the calories any reasonable person should consume in a single day.
Rule: A drink that comes with a souvenir cup is automatically disqualified.
Everywhere we looked, Las Vegas advertised for all things unhealthy. Overhead, billboards offered massively portioned prime rib dinners for less than the cost of a single head of organic romaine lettuce. Flashing screens showed images of fried food stacked high, pitching both high-end restaurants and cheap buffets alike. The only “healthy” options we saw came in the form of advertisements for hookers, printed on tiny scraps of paper and handed out along the Strip. An argument can be made that they at least offer an opportunity for some exercise. This is, of course, speculation. We elected not to do the research so someone else will have to write that book.
Vegas-Specific Rule: If you want to avoid the crowds just take the stairs.
We ducked into the Bellagio for a quick drink, both to get away from the crowds and to take a moment to digest some of what we saw on the Strip. There was one man in particular who stood out to both of us. He was so large that he was having difficulty walking down the street. His knees no longer bent under his weight, so he moved by swinging his legs around side of him as though he were on painter’s stilts. Around his neck hung a souvenir glass from the Hard Rock Café molded into the shape of a plastic guitar. The glass was almost as big as a full-size Fender Stratocaster. It was filled with thick blue liquid. When the man was not sucking on his cigarette, he slurped at blue liquid through a two-foot straw.
Andrea ordered a glass of rosé wine. I ordered a pint of Guinness. The rosé had been opened for too long. It tasted a little like the refrigerator it was stored in. The Guinness was fine. I did not see it poured, but from its lack of thickness I would guess that it came from a can. We toasted to another round of mixer-free drinks, and wondered aloud if that man on the street was intentionally trying to kill himself. He was unquestionably in the process of committing suicide. The only question was whether or not he was doing it on purpose.
“It’s got to be intentional,” Steve said. “Look at it this way. Imagine being that guy’s doctor. He comes to you and says, ‘I’m trying to commit suicide in a socially acceptable way and I need some ideas for how I can speed the process up, how I can kill myself faster.’ I don’t think I could help him. Every suggestion I could offer, he’s already implementing. He smokes. He clearly doesn’t exercise. We’ve seen his taste in booze. I can’t imagine his diet gets better from there. I don’t have a single idea for the guy that he’s not already doing. It has to be deliberate because he is being so thorough. If he asked me ‘Is there anything I could do to speed up my death?’ I’d have nothing for him. I’d tell him to keep up the good work.”
We cancelled our reservation at some fancy Italian place at the Wynn and instead opted for sushi. Sometimes, seeing someone else destroying his or her own health forces you to recommit to your own.
In the morning we woke up a little hazy from all of the wine and saké, but we dragged our butts down to the gym and did an hour of speed work on the treadmill. We wouldn’t normally work out quite that hard on vacation, but we knew that later that night would be our big, blow-out meal. We needed to feel that we earned the right to eat it.
Rule: For every big meal you have on vacation, do one intense workout in the hotel gym. This effectively limits the number of big meals you eat because no one wants to spend their holiday doing two-a-days.
The other reason that we decided to run hard was that if we had not been able to complete a tough workout, we would’ve had to cut back on our drinking. The Exercise Test is key to Drink Your Carbs. We cannot repeat it often enough. If you are unwilling or unable to get up in the morning and go for a run or face some hideous workout in the gym, you are drinking too much. It’s time to cut back—way back. The moment we skip a workout because of a hangover, our alcohol intake gets dialed back to a trickle. Since neither of us wanted to face this possibility in Vegas, we faked a smile and ran hard. Only afterward did either of us admit how horrible and difficult that run had been.
There is a certain glory to walking into a restaurant still dripping sweat and stinking from the gym. This is doubly true in Las Vegas. As we stepped into the hotel café for breakfast after the workout, we could see panic spread across the hostess’ face. Her eyes darted from back and forth from our sweat-soaked t-shirts to her seating chart. She was obviously doing spatial geometry in her head, trying to figure out which table would place us the absolute furthest from ruining other diners’ experiences and destroying the reputation of her employer. It was an impossible task in a full restaurant. She finally settled on a small table near the back, sandwiching us between a older man in a Sean Jean sweatsuit that had clearly never seen sweat and a young couple still dressed for evening cocktails. Neither party looked particularly pleased to see us.
When eating out, we tend to spy on what other people are eating and drinking. Sean Jean sweatsuit was not a small guy and he was working his way through a huge stack of pancakes topped with a scoop of butter the size of a baseball. The couple on the other side, who were clearly at the end of a long night on the town, were both quite trim. The man was well dressed in a jeans and a fitted grey t-shirt. The woman wore a classic little back dress cut well above mid-thigh. They were sharing the remainder of an egg white omelet and nursing the last of a bottle of champagne. Clearly they were adherents to Drink Your Carbs, even if they didn’t know it yet. We were so impressed that we mimicked their order, except for the champagne. We drank black coffee in deference to the fact that, while they were ending their day, we were starting ours.
We considered spending the day in a casino underneath the haze of secondhand smoke. We rejected the idea when we looked outside our hotel window and realized that the day was perfect. It was raining back home in San Francisco, but in Las Vegas the sun was shining without a cloud in the sky. We grabbed books and headed downstairs to find a shady patch alongside the pool.
It has been argued that it’s a mistake to think that if you’ve worked out in the morning, that you’ve earned the right to sit around doing nothing for the rest of the day. The argument is based on the idea that you undo the benefits of the exercise by spending fewer calories then you would have on a typical day. We respectfully disagree. As long as we work out in the morning—and avoid all the mixed drinks and deep-fried goodness on the menu from the poolside bar—we are perfectly happy to lounge. The difference between the calories we would have spent in a casino and the calories we did spend poolside is too minimal to concern us. So we spent our day unconcerned. We barely had to move. They brought a lunch of burger salads right to our cabana.
That night was the meal for which we had been saving up. We promised ourselves one big dinner where we would not obsess over every calorie. Picking the restaurant was not easy. Some of the greatest restaurants from around the world have opened Las Vegas outposts. We had our pick of celebrity chefs. We considered a multi-course French blowout with the seal of approval of the Michelin Tire Company, but the truth is that the quantity and richness of that type of food leaves us both feeling ill for days afterward. We considered any one of the seemingly endless high-end steak restaurants, but steak and broccoli is one of our standby meals, so it did not feel special enough. We even considered a classic Vegas buffet, but we immediately dismissed that idea as very likely to be not worth the calories.
We finally settled on a Thai restaurant in a off-strip strip mall dominated on one end by an enormous Swingers Club. We didn’t know about the Swingers Club. We were too mesmerized by ill repair of the center to even notice the huge green barn at the far end. Our taxi driver took great delight in pointing it out to us. It was clear that our driver was a fan of the place. He was shockingly specific about the décor and services offered. He kept returning to the fact that there was couples-only area. He repeated over and over as though the couples-only room would be the selling point that would finally pique our interest. For the record, had we been swingers, the couples-only area would have been a complete turn off. It is safe to assume, based solely on the existence of a restricted couples-only area, that the rest of the club must be overrun with creepy single men.
“Take a brief respite from the constant, unnerving harassment,” seems to us to be a weak slogan for attracting couples; perhaps as a single man our driver missed that implication. He also seemed particularly impressed by the fact that the club had a spa where communal hot tubs bubble away like egg drop soup.
By the time we got out of the cab in front of Lotus of Siam, we both needed desperately to wash our hands.
Lotus of Siam is both a complete dive and—as of this writing—probably the best Thai restaurant in America. The location feels vaguely unsafe. The parking lot of the strip mall is a little too dark. The bars on the windows of the adjacent liquor store are a little too heavy. If not for the constant buzz of people coming in and out of the restaurant, the parking lot would have felt downright dangerous.
Someone once sent us an article from some long-forgotten British Journal that claimed eating spicy food causes weight loss. The argument put forward was that capsicum, the ingredient that makes peppers hot, creates a metabolic boost and for hours afterward your body burns more calories than it otherwise would have. Lotus of Siam is clearly cooking for adherents to the theory. We played it safe, ordered our food medium-spicy, and wound up what was probably the spiciest food we have ever eaten. The garlic shrimp appetizer was habanero hot and garlicky enough that we both still reeked two days later. At times it was difficult to continue eating, but the flavors were so good that it was impossible to stop.
We are not adherents to the “eat spicy foods and lose weight” theory. Our reason has nothing to do with the science behind the study, which we have neither the ability nor the desire to evaluate. Our reason for rejecting the connection between spicy food and weight loss is far simpler. If it were true that eating spicy foods leads to easy weight loss, Frito Lay would be touting that fact to promote Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Let’s face it, all the big snack-food companies, including Frito Lay, Hostess and Sara Lee, have armies of food scientists who sole job is to find and verify these exact kinds of claims. Think of the branding potential. The moment these companies decide the results of this study are solid enough to be defended in a lawsuit, the market will be inundated with Spicy Twinkies and Sara Lee Five-Alarm Cinnamon Rolls. Until this happens, we can all safely assume the connection between spice and weight loss is far from confirmed.
We broke every rule of Drink Your Carbs that night. No fried foods: we started with egg rolls. No simple starches: we ladled two different curries onto beds of perfectly fluffy, white rice. No added sweeteners: in this regard, we were reasonably well behaved during dinner. We completely avoided mixers. With dinner, we drank a bottle of German Riesling, a slightly sweet white wine which actually has fewer calories than a standard glass of American white, due entirely to the fact that it is comparably lower in alcohol. But we did have mangoes and sticky rice for dessert, which is made from slices of fresh-cut mango resting on a bed of sweetened rice, drenched in a sauce that is easily half palm sugar. It was a diet buster all around, which means that the meal went according to plan.
As we mentioned, there are times when all of us fall off our diets. Sometimes these lapses are intentional, sometimes not. This is normal and expected. The key is to get right back on the very next meal. A lapse isn’t a failure unless you decide to make it one. When we woke up the next morning, we hit the gym for a quick weight session and then had a solid DYC breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit.
We both returned home from the trip without gaining a single ounce.
Andrea, in fact, came home a pound lighter than when she left. This was somewhat unexpected. Our goal was not to lose weight. By drinking our carbs, we were simply trying to limit the consequences of eating and drinking to excess, which naturally happens whenever we go on vacation. The goal going into any trip of this sort should be to limit the damage. You don’t want to come home five pounds heavier. A pound or two can usually be fixed with a few days in Austerity Mode. Any more weight gain than that and it takes serious work to undo the damage. We did better than expected in Las Vegas, and we did so without feeling like we gave anything up. That’s the power of Drink Your Carbs.
Fact: “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” can be applied to unwanted weight gain.