The wonder of red meat

In 1990, Jim Hays was a dietary hippie, a granola-gobbling, crypto-vegetarian disciple of Dean Ornish and his low-fat, high-carb cult.

Today, he is an out-of-the-closet carnivore, a meat-eating militant who advocates pigging out on plenty of fat and who regards sugar and starch as evil.

Nutritionally speaking, he has moved from Ralph Nader to Howard Dean to the right of Rush Limbaugh. Last month, he attended an Atkins convention and came away feeling betrayed.

"They've gone soft," he laments. "They're trying to be politically correct. They're peddling pre-packaged foods and permitting people to consume far too many carbs.

"I'm now more extreme than Dr. Atkins," Hays declares. "I totally believe the most important thing you can do for your overall health is to consume lots of saturated fat, particularly in the form of red meat."

Holy coronary thrombosis! Who is this guy? How did a nice boy from Kansas undergo such a radical transformation? Where did he get the nerve to contradict conventional wisdom and defy such pillars of the medical establishment as the American Diabetes Association and American Heart Association?

Hays, 48, is a physician who lives in Rosemont and practices in Wilmington. "Mild-mannered militant" may sound like an oxymoron, but it fits Hays. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he backs his assertions with research and science.

At Christiana Care, the hospital and medical-research complex in Newark, Del., Hays has explored questions of diet and nutrition that have piqued his curiosity, challenged his assumptions, and resulted in published studies that have puzzled and provoked his colleagues.

His specialty is endocrinology, which is all about glands and hormones. Many of his patients are diabetic and dependent on insulin shots for survival. It was while trying to devise the best diabetic diet - one that would keep blood sugar low and help moderate blood-sugar spikes - that Hays made a discovery that upset the apple cart of orthodoxy.

Namely: Carbs are bad, fat is good.

In the early 1990s, Hays began shifting some of his obese patients from an Ornish-like diet to one similar to that recommended by Barry Sears of Zone Diet fame - high protein and moderate carb. Next, he began experimenting with an Atkins-like approach - high fat/high protein, extremely low carb.

The effect on his patients was amazing.

Not only did their blood sugar stabilize. Not only did they lose pounds and inches (though they weren't counting calories or exercising more). But their blood numbers also improved: total cholesterol, down; LDL cholesterol, down; triglycerides, way down. Hays was prepared to give some patients cholesterol-lowering meds; for most, it was unnecessary.

Since adopting a high-fat, low-carb diet, many of his overweight patients have shed 20 percent of their weight, and kept it off. Some have lost 100 pounds-plus, all while dining on fare that Hays describes as "a heart attack on a plate."

Consider what Hays eats when he's on the road. He'll stop at Mickey D's and order five double cheeseburgers. Then he throws away the buns and carefully scrapes off the ketchup (dastardly sugar!) and washes it all down with water.

At home, he eats only twice a day, and tries to consume 1 to 11/2 pounds of red meat per meal.

Why is fat so good? Besides making food taste better, Hays says, fat takes a while to digest, so it quells your stomach and suppresses appetite. Fat also prods your liver to make more bile, and bile is the garbage truck that hauls cholesterol out of the body.

Why are carbs so bad? First, they boost your blood sugar, which triggers a spurt of insulin. The more insulin in your blood, Hays says, the higher your risk of heart disease, and the more likely you are to be obese. Carbs stimulate the liver to make triglycerides, which lead to the nasty, sticky, artery-clogging kind of cholesterol.

Hallelujah! For years, I've been feeling guilty about all the "Grappler's Goulash" I ate as a high school wrestler. The recipe: Fry 3 pounds of ground beef. Pour off grease and sprinkle with a quarter-pound of shredded dried beef. Cover with eight to 10 slices of American cheese; when melted, mix until gooey. Salt to taste and smother with ketchup. Wash down with a half-gallon of whole milk.

"Sounds healthy to me," Hays said, "except the ketchup and milk."

The reason? Satanic sugar.

When it comes to sugar, Hays has zero tolerance. (You can't trust food labels, he gripes. Zero carbs doesn't always mean no carbs. The FDA allows wiggle room.) The only carbs he permits are those in fruits and vegetables offering essential nutrients. In his booklet, "Eat More Fat to Eat Fewer Calories," he calls sugary, starchy foods "candy," including baked beans, blueberries, beer, canned fruit, cereal, chili, cottage cheese, cream cheese, grapes, milk, oatmeal, pasta, pizza, rice and yogurt.

What about Spam?

"It's high fat," Hays said, "but like a lot of processed food, it contains sugar. People get into trouble, with both their weight and their heart, when they eat food that is both high in fat and high in sugar. A cheese omelet is OK. Spam and pancakes is a disaster."