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 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, about 30 followers of the Kwasniewski plan gathered for a weekly meeting and shared their stories.