I never expected to find myself buck naked in a cold white room, lying in a crucifixion pose with a warm pepperoni pizza gently draped over my junk. For this unique experience, I am beholden to the editor of Sunday magazine. At the time of publication I was in a country without much in the way of WiFi, and couldn’t do justice to the fusillade of questions, comments, interview requests, and copycats that came my way. This expanded essay, republished with permission, also includes answers to a bunch of FAQs, guaranteed to sate even the hungriest of minds. Bon appétit!
The chest pains started on the afternoon of Day 104. As I walked home from the office, they graduated from an annoying cramp to a stabbing staccato that left me breathless.
I ploughed into my daily deep-dish pizza dinner (plain cheese with a BBQ swirl), but it wasn’t with the usual gusto. Hot knives driving into your ribcage really take the edge off your appetite. By 10pm, I could barely move. Clutching a packet of frozen peas to my side, I contemplated a trip to the emergency room, and my life choices in general.
Three months earlier, the daily pizza project had seemed like a great lark. I’d been feeling weak and out of shape, with nagging injuries that hobbled my amateur career in strength sports before it began. What better way to restore myself to peak physical condition than to hit the gym hard while devouring an entire pizza every day? With a whopping 1600 calories and a good whack of protein, the Domino’s $5 range represented absurdly good value for money. To top it all off, I could bug people out by getting jacked while gorging myself on the most sinful food imaginable. I took a blood test and some other baseline measurements, and thumbed open the Domino’s app.
Now I lay immobilised in bed, thinking dark thoughts. The pain in my heart was as much emotional as it was physical. Only a few days earlier, my beloved Domino’s had betrayed me – their biggest fan and most loyal customer. To commemorate my 100th pizza, I’d posted a photo to their Facebook page, reclining on the boxes I’d collected and sharing a few highlights from the journey to date:
Bowel movements now arrive every hour on the hour, and the cheese nightmares are becoming less frequent!
It racked up several thousand likes that night, with luminaries such as Brodie Retallick throwing their (considerable) weight behind me. When I woke the next morning, my heartfelt tribute had been deleted without explanation. I felt like I was choking on a particularly jagged shard of thin ‘n’ crispy crust. Domino’s hadn’t just disrespected me; they had disrespected World Rugby Player of the Year 2014. The relationship was over.
I’d hit rock bottom, but the only direction to go was up. The next day, the chest pains eased. Pizza wasn’t killing me after all; I’d just pulled a muscle in my ribcage from going too hard at the gym. The prognosis: One month with no heavy lifting.
Eating a whole pizza every day while remaining sedentary sounded like a fast track to blowing up like the Michelin Man. Nevertheless, I decided to slash the rest of my food to the bare minimum and forge on ahead. There was a new love in my life, keeping my spirits up and nursing me back to health: Pizza Hut.
Within days, I was on first-name terms with the manager of the Dominion Road store. Hriday never judged me for my gluttonous ways, and we soon built a rapport. He worked long hours, and Sunday was his only day off. If I went to a different branch during the week, he worried about me. On Day 151, Hriday finally put a ring on it. A burnt onion ring, admittedly; the first in a series of slightly charred but complimentary food items this lovely man would present to me. The Pizza Hut chain also offered a whole new menu to tickle my tastebuds, even if most of the items were difficult to distinguish from the cardboard box they arrived in.
“Aren’t you sick of pizza yet?” asked literally everyone other than Hriday. Never! Most people won’t admit it, but bad pizza is still pretty good. On Christmas Day, revellers stuffed with turkey and ham and all the trimmings jeered at my pathetic dinner; a cold, stale Hawaiian pizza I’d strategically bought the day before when the shops were open. But mockery soon gave way to envy, and in no time I was having to defend my plate from drunken pizza bandits.
My capacity to eat pizza ad infinitum was a surprise even to myself, and it came with an unexpected benefit. Not having to think about cooking dinner, buying groceries, or where I felt like eating out was liberating. When your thought process only stretches as far as “BBQ or aioli swirl?”, it frees up a lot of time and mental energy to focus on other things.
Of course, it wasn’t all sunshine and pepperoni. Choking down an entire pizza after already eating two burgers for dinner is no fun at all. Confession time: On Day 173 I donated two slices to a hungry homeless guy, and more than a few crusts went to my girlfriend. If I physically couldn’t finish, I made up for it the next day. At times, I wasn’t sure if I was consuming pizza, or it was consuming me. I blew up at my boss when she wouldn’t let me do a routine interview with the CEO of Domino’s, fearing a conflict of interest. A red mist of tomato paste had descended upon me.
Reactions to the pizza project were mixed. “The dreeeeam,” breathed one girl at the gym. Others had their doubts about my health, both physical and mental. A major company offered to sponsor me for a range of tests, but got cold feet when they realised the true extent of what I was doing.
I was determined to prove the doubters wrong. By the time I cracked the 200 day mark, things were going swimmingly. The weight I had put on was mostly on my chest and back, with a little muscle fleshing out my stubborn chicken legs. Lumps faintly resembling abs could be observed under flattering lighting. My bodyfat percentage was about the same from start to finish, and improved on one measure.
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In the gym, I did chin-ups with an extra 50 kilograms hanging from my waist, pressed my bodyweight above my head, and squatted 160kg, despite my dodgy knees. It was the fittest I’d been in years. On the outside, everything looked good. On the inside, for all I knew, my arteries resembled a stuffed crust oozing mozzarella. If so, the only thing the experiment would prove was the extent of my own stupidity.
Day 222 had a nice symmetry to it, so I went in for a final blood test and called the whole thing quits. I’d consumed my entire bodyweight in pizza, and then some. That weekend, my flatmates and I built a funeral pyre for the hundreds of greasy boxes, which I’d hidden from the landlady in hermetically sealed rubbish bags on top of my wardrobe. We got drunk and set the boxes alight. I ate chicken soup for dinner, and watched the green and blue chemical flames leap into the night. The neighbours looked anxious but refrained from calling the fire department. It was a cathartic experience, but I couldn’t fully relax yet.
It took two weeks to muster up the courage to check my bloodwork. Praise the pizza gods! My cholesterol was not only in the healthy range, but had actually fallen. So had my triglycerides and LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. HDL, the good cholesterol, had slipped slightly. I’d hoped things would stay about the same, but three out of four measures had miraculously improved.
Pizza is the poster child for unhealthy food. It packs a boatload of calories, carbs, fat, salt and often processed ingredients into every slice. Rumour has it that it was invented by the devil himself. Yet after taking in over 350,000 calories of the stuff, my vital signs improved in almost every measurable way. How could this be?
Context is everything. The calories in a large pizza would cover about 80 per cent of the average person’s energy needs. For me, it was more like 40 per cent. The bulk of my calories came not from pizza, but from green protein smoothies, chicken, rice and vegetables, bananas, and oatmeal. I dragged myself to the gym four times a week, and did some sort of cardio most days.
Without the exercise component, the end result would not have been pretty. If I was a 50kg woman rather than an 85kg man, the end result would have been downright ugly. If I’d taken the Super Size Me approach and eaten a pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner, they wouldn’t have been able to fit my bloated corpse on the mortuary slab.
Everyone knows pizza is ‘bad’ for you. This healthy vs unhealthy binary is drilled into us from childhood. The compulsion to pigeonhole everything into distinct categories is probably human nature, but it sure causes a lot of problems. The truth is, there are almost no objectively ‘good’ or ‘bad’ foods; only good or bad diets. The appropriateness of that diet in turn depends entirely on each person’s circumstances.
The false dichotomy presented by finger-wagging public health experts, #cleaneating social media influencers, and scaremongering documentary producers is messing us up. The enemy isn’t carbs, or sugar, or fat, or whatever else is at the centre of the latest witch hunt. It’s ignorance. Unnecessarily restrictive diets have never been more popular, while juice fasts, ‘detoxes’ and other such quackery continue to run riot. Some of these fad diets are one step removed from eating disorders, but they’re socially acceptable ones that rack up hundreds of Instagram likes.
The kicker is that overly restrictive diets don’t even work. Any dietitian worth their salt knows adherence is the number one factor for making a sustainable lifestyle change. Cutting out any food deemed “dirty” only sets us up for failure, guilt, and an endless loop of self-flagellation.
It should go without saying that my pizza journey wasn’t a scientific experiment. It was simply a very tasty stunt. If there’s one takeaway from my takeaways tale, it’s this: Short of a medical condition, there’s no reason we can’t find a way to fit the food we love into the overall context of our lifestyles.
Even a decadent, deep-dish pizza; groaning under the weight of its toppings, drowning in barbecue sauce, and enjoyed without a shred of guilt, down to the very last strand of mozzarella.
Postscript: I still love pizza, but I’ve slimmed down to a more maintainable weight since I first wrote this article, and made various other lifestyle changes, including moving to a plant-based diet. I’ve written up some thoughts on my new life as a skinny fella here.
Pizza Diet FAQs
How much weight did you gain?
Not a whole lot in the end – about 6kg. I gained the weight in about 100 days, but lost almost all of it during my forced lay-off. After I recovered from the injury, it took about the same amount of time (100 days) to get back where I was. If I’d been in a caloric surplus and trained non-stop for the whole 222 days, I would have probably ended up a lot heavier.
What about fat?
I didn’t get any fatter in a relative sense, and may have got a little leaner. My bodyfat was 15 per cent initially, based on the average of three different methods. By the end, it was supposedly 13.5 per cent, based on the same (crude) measures.
Where did the pizza gains end up?
I pulled out the tape measure once a month, taking measurements first thing in the morning and cold (no pump). My chest and arms saw decent gains, and my gut shrank too. A recurring meniscus injury meant I couldn’t consistently train my legs, and sadly they stayed pretty scrawny.
How much was muscle memory?
Quite a bit, probably. I’d been almost as heavy a couple of years previously, before I got busted up. It would have been interesting to keep pushing further into new ground.
What was your training regime?
I eased into things for a few weeks, then built up to seven sets of seven reps for the compound lifts (except deadlifts). I found this to be a good way of accumulating volume with reasonably heavy weights. Progression was as simple as adding weight when I could complete a 7 x 7, though I also dropped a few reps from the sets in the final weeks. I supersetted different muscle groups (e.g. squat and bench) to save time, and took as much rest as needed. When I was feeling shitty, I did reverse pyramids with higher reps instead of the programmed weights.
How much stronger did you get?
I didn’t get the chance to do a proper build-up to test max strength. However, I beat my previous bests in the squat and press, and hit rep or volume PBs on pretty much everything. The change in working sets from start to finish gives a pretty good indication:
What did you do for cardio?
Initially, just my regular cycle commute. Then I moved so close to work that I couldn’t even break a sweat, so I started using a rowing machine a few times a week.
What other foods made up the pizza diet?
Breakfast: Smoothie with whey protein, trim milk, a banana, frozen berries, and spinach.
Lunch: Stir-fry chicken with rice, veggies and sauce (usually Hoisin).
Pre-training: A big bowl of high-protein cereal and trim milk (I later switched to oats).
Peri-training: A sachet of cordial and a sprinkle of salt in the waterbottle.
Dinner: Large pizza, of course.
Dessert: Another smoothie, the same as the morning.
This was all pretty flexible. On weekends in particular, I ate whatever I wanted for lunch, and usually added a few beers and wines to the mix.
The macro split was about 250g protein, 50g fat and 650g of carbs for a total of roughly 4000 calories.
You would have had better results if you ate clean.
This misses the point about adherence. I don’t have a big appetite, and I’m not a fan of broccoli, boiled chicken or pre-activating my almonds. Maybe there’s an alternate universe out there where I could have choked down 4000 calories of non-delicious food. Even in that universe, I doubt the outcome would have been noticeably different, given I was comfortably hitting my micro and macro targets.
I don’t believe your cholesterol numbers really improved.
Read ‘em and weep:
Did you take any supplements?
Five grams of creatine monohydrate per day. I almost always take creatine, because it’s a) dirt cheap, b) actually proven to work, and c) has some impressive cognitive benefits.
What gave you this idea in the first place?
A Facebook post shared by Greg Nuckols. His friend did a high calorie, low-fat bulk for six weeks with great results. I got a wild hair up my ass and figured I’d try something similar, except using “junk” food to get back in shape. I was only going to do six weeks, but it was so fun that I didn’t want to stop.
So why stop at 222 days?
Doing a whole year would have been sweet, but I already had plans in motion to move to Asia. The local food here is incredible, but they haven’t quite figured out pizza. After years of busting my ass in the gym, I’m also taking a break from weights to experiment with calisthenics and gymnastic strength training.
(UPDATE: I’m a couple years into my calisthenics regime, and loving it. Check out my ‘pack of cards workout‘ for an introduction to the world of bodyweight fitness.)
Where can I learn more about weight training and nutrition?
There’s a whole lot of snake-oil merchants and general bullshit out there, so pick your sources carefully. I recommend:
- The aforementioned Greg Nuckols, of Stronger by Science. He’s the smartest guy I know of in this game, and he also has a 755 pound squat. Pay attention.
- Mike Israetel, a bodybuilding PhD who writes for Juggernaut and is chief science adviser at Renaissance Periodisation.
Alan Aragon. In the twisted Gotham City that is the world of sports nutrition, he’s Batman. Check out his website, which has links to his writing.(It recently became clear that Alan is not the person I thought. He definitely knows his stuff, but I no longer feel comfortable recommending him.)
I’m going to do the pizza diet too!
Dear god, no. Please tailor your own diet to your personal circumstances. If you blindly copy me, you have to promise not to sue my ass when you get the diabetes.
Will you marry me?
Thanks for reading. If there’s anything I didn’t cover above, feel free to sing out below!