It sounds like an oxymoron: pizza diet. But a month ago, pizzeria owner Matt McClellan set out to prove that his product could, in fact, be part of a healthy lifestyle.
McClellan, 33, opened St. Petersburg's bicycle-themed Tour de Pizza last year. He tried promoting his product by offering samples at local fitness clubs, but exercisers shooed him away. What kind of monster brings pizza to a gym?
But the pie isn't that bad for you, McClellan insisted. At least it wasn't as bad as what he usually ate — nothing for breakfast, then mostly Burger King, Taco Bell and Chipotle throughout the day.
On paper at least, the facts were on his side. According to nutritiondata.com, a Double Whopper with cheese from Burger King packs 1,070 calories, 70 grams of fat — 108 percent of the daily recommended amount — and 1,500 milligrams of sodium. A slice of Domino's thin crust pizza, which McClellan deems comparable to a slice from his shop, has 123 calories, 7 grams of fat and 194 milligrams of sodium.
With these facts in mind, on July 14 McClellan pledged to eat pizza for every meal for 30 days.
"I can't ask anybody else to do it to their body," he said, "so I decided to do it myself."
At 6-feet-1 1/2-tall and 203 pounds, McClellan looked all right, but had high blood pressure and cholesterol. "I look healthier than I actually am," he said. He would use the monthlong experiment to get healthy, or at least no more unhealthy than he already was. If he could lower his risk for heart disease a bit and keep his weight around 203 or even 205, he would consider the diet a success.
To keep the experiment pure, McClellan planned to maintain his habit of guzzling sodas and energy drinks every day and, on occasion, alcohol.
"What guy doesn't want to go on a beer and pizza diet? Right?" McClellan said. "'Hey honey, I'm drinking beer, watching the game. I'm on my diet.'"
The key to any diet, of course, is portion control. You can gain weight on carrots if you eat too many of them. And you can lose weight on pizza if you eat just the right amount.
The old McClellan could polish off a 10-inch pizza in one sitting. He knows this will have to change, so he enlists the help of Andrea Preisler Crouch, a nutrition and wellness consultant with The Hungry Heart in St. Petersburg. Crouch designs a six-slices-a-day eating plan for McClellan that includes a variety of pizza toppings for maximum nutrition: less pepperoni, more avocado and organic Roma tomatoes.
To monitor McClellan's vital statistics, Christopher L. Jackson of A Path to Wellness in St. Petersburg comes on board. Jackson, who holds a Ph.D. in natural health, suggests more tweaks: using sea salt instead of table salt in the pizza sauce, loading up on garlic to strengthen McClellan's immune system and switching to skim-milk mozzarella.
But McClellan wants this to be a diet that anyone can follow. If things go well, it could mean a marketing gold mine for Tour de Pizza. He incorporates garlic and some of the veggie toppings, but for the most part he eats the same pizza as his customers. He would walk into the shop, and whatever was ready, he would eat.
When eating in his own shop is inconvenient, McClellan patronizes other pizzerias around town — California Pizza Kitchen in Tampa, Little Italy Pizza in St. Petersburg.
By the end of week 1, McClellan is getting concerned about what all this cheese is doing to his cholesterol, but he isn't about to quit.
"I don't know how you feel if your cholesterol is high, 'cause I'm not a doctor … but I feel amazing," he says. "I feel like I'm getting leaner and trimmer. I feel healthy."
McClellan is full of energy. He's waking up around 6 a.m. every day with no alarm clock. His employees no longer have to stand outside the pizza shop while they wait for him to unlock the doors.
At the start of week 2, McClellan hires a personal trainer, Pedro Redding at Lifestyle Family Fitness in St. Petersburg, to get the most out of his monthlong health initiative. McClellan used to exercise an hour a day, five days a week; now he'll work out with Redding for half that long.
"I'm still getting the same length of workout," McClellan says. "So the concept's still the same. … I'm still doing it, just in a different way."
Redding estimates McClellan burns about 300 calories in each half-hour session. And what does he think of his client's unusual diet?
"I don't have a problem with it," Redding says. "Yeah, it's (pizza) all the time, but he's not overeating pizza. He's not overeating food. He's eating right enough food for his body, and he's moving enough to lose weight."
McClellan also begins running and swimming at Fort DeSoto with his friend Shayne Murphy, a 16-year-old triathlete.
This isn't the first time McClellan has tried extreme tactics to get in shape.
Born prematurely, McClellan was always a skinny kid. He couldn't play contact sports, so he played tennis. By the time he enrolled at Southern Illinois University, he was tired of being a string bean. So he set out to bulk up, gorging on tuna and protein powder and practically living in the gym. But then life happened. McClellan dropped out of college, opened a pizza shop in Denver, got married and moved to St. Pete. Working up to 60 hours a week at Tour de Pizza, he succumbed to the convenience of fast food.
To McClellan, this pizza diet is a chance to undo more than a decade's worth of poor eating habits.
It's day 15. The halfway point. McClellan is starting to miss ice cream and salads and going out with his wife of five years, Larissa, for sushi — their favorite. To relieve the tedium, he gets creative. He makes a sushi pizza. Apple pizza. Even a dessert pizza.
But mostly, McClellan eats it the traditional way: crust, tomato sauce and cheese — which is why he's nervous when it's time for his two-week checkup with Jackson and Crouch at The Life Center in St. Petersburg. Jackson takes McClellan's blood pressure.
It's good news. McClellan's BP is down from two weeks ago. His cholesterol is also down.
More good news: His weight is down from 203 to 191.
"The thing to note about that, though, is that muscle weighs more than fat. So even though I've lost 12 pounds, I'm not soft and squishy," McClellan says. "I'm not trying to be Jared from Subway. … I'm trying to build lean muscle mass."
• • •
Larissa wants her old husband back. Sure, it's nice having a leaner and — thanks to those runs on the beach with Murphy — tanner spouse.
"He looks hot already," Larissa says.
But she's sick of basing their dinner plans on whether a restaurant serves pizza. She's tired of McClellan driving to the shop on his days off to grab a slice. If he's hungry, Larissa reasons, why doesn't he just eat what's in their fridge at home? She won't tell anyone.
No, McClellan insists. Because if this diet is successful, he wants to take it on the road. Thirty days, 30 U.S. cities. He'll crisscross the country in a Winnebago, teaching people how to get fit on pizza. He'll call it Tour de Pizza's Tour Across America.
"I know I dream big and I know my ideas are big, and sometimes they're outrageous, which is very hard for my father to accept, because he's an engineer," McClellan says. "I'm an outside-the-box guy. He's an inside-the-box guy. But even through this, my father was in shock today when I told him about the numbers and the results."
But the diet's not done yet.
• • •
McClellan is hitting a wall. His weight loss is slowing down. He no longer craves sodas and energy drinks — he hates the slimy film he feels on his teeth afterward — but he keeps drinking them for the sake of the experiment.
What's worse, Larissa is up to her tempting ways again. She's left a crab and avocado salad in the fridge.
McClellan resists. But he can't get ice cream off his mind. Swiss almond chocolate. When these 30 days are up, he'll head for his favorite ice cream joint, Old Farmer's Creamery in St. Petersburg.
But, he adds, he's not tired of pizza.
It's Aug. 14, day 30. McClellan's experiment officially ends at 8 a.m. In the afternoon, he heads back to The Life Center for a final checkup with Jackson and Crouch.
The numbers are in. Weight's down, body fat's down, bad cholesterol's down, good cholesterol's up. Blood pressure has gone up a bit from two weeks ago, but it's still lower than it was at the beginning of the experiment.
"I was just hoping (that) whatever happened here, we were going to do our best just to keep him healthy," Jackson says. "I am a little surprised. It's pretty drastic."
Even Larissa admits her husband's monthlong pizzafest was worth it.
"And he didn't cheat, because I tried. I tried to make him cheat, but he wouldn't," Larissa says. "But it's definitely cool. I'm very proud of him. … Other than the way he looks, I think it's his energy. He has so much energy right now. It's amazing."
But how much of McClellan's improvements can be attributed to the pizza, versus his more efficient workouts with the trainer?
"That's debatable," Crouch says. "We don't know exactly how much he's burning when he's exercising." But she's confident pizza was an improvement over McClellan's former fast food diet. "Pizza still is much closer to foods that we'd find in nature."
Jackson agrees. "The other thing about that fast food is a lot of it's full of MSG," he says. "It causes you to have a real strong craving sensation for more, which really tends to make people gain weight."
Last weekend, McClellan called his parents to share the final results.
"He's very creative, and we support him wholeheartedly. The first thing we were concerned about was, what happens if you get into this two or three weeks and your health starts to (fail) on you?" his father, Lee McClellan, said by phone from Evansville, Ind. "He's always pushed himself to try to do something different, and we applaud him for that."
McClellan is still pushing himself, even though the diet ended Aug. 14. This experience has taught him portion control and self-discipline. He says he's sworn off fast food, sodas and energy drinks for good. He just doesn't crave them. In fact, McClellan is so happy with his results that he'll continue eating pizza about twice a day; dinners will be with Larissa.
"I didn't know I had 20 pounds to lose," McClellan said. "I'll be honest: I'm shocked myself with these results. I was hoping I wouldn't gain any weight. … I was just trying to show that pizza wasn't as bad as the bad diet I already had."