The Coffee and Cold Bath Diet

An unlikely-sounding regimen invented by a minor British actor promises weight loss of OMG proportions — but does it work?
A six-week diet of just coffee and cold baths.

As I was perusing new cookbooks in my local mega-bookstore one day, a copy of a book called Six Weeks to OMG: Get Skinnier Than All Your Friends, by one Venice A. Fulton, fell off a nearby shelf when I walked by, landing about six inches from my left foot. I took that as a sign.

"Lose up to 20 pounds in just six weeks," it says on the cover. "Get a flat belly and thin thighs — fast." Not only was this book forcing its way into my consciousness, now it was making irresistible promises. I was going to have to try the diet.

First a little research: According to Gregory Cowles in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Venice A. Fulton "is actually the British actor and personal trainer Paul Khanna — he played a Death Eater in the seventh Harry Potter movie — and his weight-loss plan is, essentially, this: skip breakfast, take cold baths, and drink black coffee." I also read, in a story in The Telegraph, from London, called "The OMG Diet: As Silly As It Sounds?" that the diet has been, like 50 Shades of Grey, a self-publishing crossover sensation. It began as an e-book, in which form it quickly sold 120,000 copies, and was acquired (for "a seven figure sum") by a major international publisher, the Hachette Group.

Khanna is indeed a working personal trainer who was educated at a "posh school" he won’t name, and who thinks that the pain of daily 10-minute ice-cold baths is "nothing" compared to the pain of suffering from the low-esteem of being overweight — and also that people find the term "exercise" too intimidating so we should call it "moving around" instead. As for not eating breakfast, he says, that jump-starts your metabolism.

The regimen might not be as groundbreaking as Khanna would have you believe: Black coffee is a well-known appetite suppressant; cold baths are a detoxifying technique Egyptians and Ayurvedic yogis first espoused centuries ago; as for skipping breakfast, well, as Saint Augustine once said, "Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation." Perhaps Khanna’s Big Idea is that these tenets haven’t previously been combined in a way that the average follower of Six Weeks to OMG would have seen.

Here’s what a day in the life of this diet looks like, in its most basic form (note there are more kicked-up ways, too):

Wake up
Drink water
Take a 10-minute cold bath
Drink black coffee
Exercise for at least 30 minutes
Fast for at least 60 minutes and try to build up to 180
Eat "a big chunk of protein"
Wait 3 to 5 hours (You can drink coffee, water, or green tea)
Exercise for at least 30 minutes. Wait 15 to 30 minutes.
Eat again. "Keep the protein up"
Wait 3 to 5 hours
Exercise again for at least 30 minutes
Waiting 15 minutes
Eat
Sleep

And here's what it's like to actually follow the thing:

Week 1:
For my first cold bath, I did exactly as Khanna prescribed: I bought a waterproof floating thermometer for my bathtub. The object is to take a bath that is between 59 and 68 degrees. While running the coldest water I could coax from my pipes, I only got my tub down to a little more than 70 degrees. This was going to have to be good enough. When you step into a bathtub that is just a little more than 70 degrees, your body yells. GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT. You may tell yourself, "Calm down, we want to be skinny, remember?"

I worried, what if this bathtub is so cold that the mere act of getting in and getting out too quickly actually causes cardiac arrest? I’m not the only one worried. "It’s best to let your body adapt slowly," Khanna warns. He says 15 minutes is long enough "for the body to react and boost your metabolism for hours later. Longer times are not needed. It’s potentially dangerous. And it’s definitely boring!" In my experience, nothing is boring about a freezing cold bathtub. Excruciating, yes, but never a dull moment. Khanna advises immersing yourself in the tub in stages: stand for two minutes to acclimate, sit down so you’re in waist-deep with your legs straight out for five, and then lean back and fully submerge for the last three. You are supposed to get slowly for the same reason. "If you’re still cold and shivering, stay calm. Keep your focus and get out of the bath carefully. You may be shaky…Don’t have a warm bath or shower right after a cold one. This stresses your body to breaking point, and could cause you to faint," he says. After the final three-minute submersion stage when my timer went off, I jumped out of that bathtub like my life depended on it. My logic: If I died it would at least have been while doing something I really, really wanted to do.

Two words describe the one way that I got through the cold baths: ANGRY BIRDS. The game is compulsively preoccupying and yet requires no real skill. It was almost distracting enough, but I had to remember to try to keep my body as still as possible while playing so that my body-heat warmed water would stay around me and the ice-cold water couldn’t circulate. (Khanna wants you to do the opposite, of course, and stir the cold water around you.)

I stuck to the diet faithfully all week except for the fact that it’s very difficult for a working mother of two young boys to carve out even one consistent "moving around" time a day, let alone the three Khanna prescribes. I almost always got two in (the second being a half-hour dog walk around lunchtime) but I almost never had the time to do the third "period of movement" (which Khanna calls POM). I had to fit the rest of my life, my kids, and my job around this diet. If I didn’t lose as much weight as I could have because I didn’t have enough time to exercise three times a day, so be it.

Khanna doesn’t want you to count calories but he does want you to count carbohydrates, and he doesn’t want you to have more than 120 grams of them, on the high end, per day. This was pretty easy, because it still allows some carbs — the ones in broccoli and blueberries and other "good for you food" foods.

Weigh in: -2.4 pounds

Week 2:

So soon, a challenge. A work trip to Myrtle Beach required eating out for lunch and dinner every day for three days. Of course, eating out kills a diet faster than an empty drive-through lane at McDonald’s. Temptations abound, and, although I don’t expect anyone to cry me a river, a job as a professional food writer requires me to do things like taste desserts. But I forged ahead. And I took that cold bath every morning without fail in my hotel. And I played Angry Birds and I gritted through it, literally.

The good news is that a 30-minute walk on the beach counts as a "POM," so getting exercise on the road was not a problem. The emergent issue: Khanna would like you to avoid drinking, and wine in particular. High in carbs. If you must imbibe, he’d like you to drink a vodka-and-soda, which has no added sugar and thus no carbs (Tito’s Vodka, handmade in copper kettles by Mockingbird Distillery in Austin, Texas, is an exceptional brand I discovered during this period). If you like to dine, you probably like to drink wine with your food to enhance the experience. I like to dine so much that I became a dining professional who tells other people where they might like to dine. And I really like to enjoy my food with a little wine because it makes it taste better and, frankly, it makes life better all around. So I had no wine at all in week one, but at Louis’s at Sanford, on Pawley’s Island, where one of America’s best chefs, Louis Osteen, cooked his brand of upscale Southern food for me, I had a little wine. And the meal was 12 courses. And I was a lucky woman to experience it. It’s not a matter of willpower to say to a chef who is fêting you: "I can’t eat your signature buttermilk fried chicken, your duck confit over grits, your veal and ricotta meatball slider sandwiches, because I am on a diet." It would have been the height of rudeness. So I was hospitable, grateful, and tried to take small bites and chew often so as not to overeat. And that was the best I could do.

Weigh in: -.5 pounds

Week 3:

Drinking coffee on a regular basis has never been in my routine. I don’t mind coffee, but I am a tea drinker. My body was not used to the harsh bitterness, the intensity, of black coffee. Chemically, coffee is a powerful stimulant. Scientists say that consumption of it increases the release of both the feel-good chemical dopamine and the energy-charging chemical adrenaline in your brain. Lots of studies show that drinking moderate amounts of coffee can be good for you.

As a non-coffee drinker, I began to notice by week three that my body began craving caffeine. An inveterate breakfast eater, I found that I no longer missed the food so much, but the second the alarm clock when off, I had to have coffee. It was Pavlovian. When the diet started I could only stomach about a cup of black coffee per morning, but by week three I could easily down three. I understood exactly what my body was trying to tell me: We are hungry, and all you’re giving us is this black coffee, so if that’s all you're going to give us, you need to give us more. In the mornings I felt racy: Heart pumping, head spinning, need-to-move-around… racy.

And I got annoyed with counting carbs. I don’t want to have a restrictive relationship with food. I love food. It brings joy to my life. If it’s true that I have overeaten and overindulged, if it’s true that I can benefit from losing some weight, I don’t want to do it by counting anything. Counting carbs on paper felt too much like filing reports against myself.

During this week I realized that having a happy relationship with my body is better than being skinny. And I know this because I have been skinny, and I have been fat, and I’ve been happy both ways and all ways in between. Counting carbs made me unhappy, so I stopped. Going forward I would make a concerted effort not to eat lots of carbs. And I did. So I didn’t know why this happened:

Weigh in: -.5 pounds

Week 4:

After I stopped counting carbs, I only lost a half of a pound, the same amount I’d lost the week before, when I’d had a 12-course dinner and wine. Disconcerting. Before I began this diet, I had my thyroid levels checked: All good, no imbalance. So a week in which I hadn’t behaved perfectly was now yielding the same results as a week in which I had toed the line?

Khanna urges readers to "be relentless in your pursuit of happiness," but there’s nothing but disdain when such methods don’t work. "We only reach a plateau if we’re doing something wrong. For most people, a diet only stops working if basic principles are broken or ignored." This is not helpful advice, because it’s not advice. However, this line occurs in a chapter about weight training. Khanna says that when you begin losing weight you inevitably lose muscle, and that "every ounce of muscle you lose reduces your ability to burn calories." So you have to pump iron to keep losing weight.

Khanna says you only need to lift every 10 days. I stepped up my hourlong weight training class, which I was already doing once a week, to twice to see if it would make a difference.

"It’s your life. Only you walk around in your shoes. Only you wake up with your thoughts. And only you will fall asleep to them. Should and shouldn’t are useless words. Even reading them can make you feel under pressure. Trash them!" Khanna writes. So the end of week four came. I resolve to lift weights more (as opposed to lifting more weights), but also that I’m going to trash that cold bath. Four weeks of daily freezing cold baths? I can always say I did it. And then I can say I realized I didn’t hate myself enough to keep doing it.

Weigh in: -1.6 pounds

Week 5:

Five pounds, five weeks: not bad. In fact, exactly average for what experts say is the ideal rate at which to lose weight and keep it off. It’s what Weight Watchers promises. And that’s a diet that doesn’t say anything about cold baths, black coffee, or my beloved favorite meal breakfast.

Khanna says I’m supposed to feel really energized. I’m happy to be rid of five extra pounds, but the tedium of sticking to a diet has set in. My meals have taken on a joyless sameness, mostly because it’s easier to have a plan than it is to figure it out on the fly. Also, at noon daily I never tire of a sudden starving sensation: By this time I’ve been up for five and a half hours or so, have taken a cold bath, have exercised for at least 30 minutes, have consumed at least 12 ounces of black coffee, and have grown both jittery and hungry.

The meal pattern involves breaking the fast around noon with several slices of salami, a handful of almonds or pistachios or cashews, some thinly shaved sharp Cheddar cheese, gluten-free "Nut Thin" crackers (if not counting then at least watching those carbs), and ½ cup or so of blueberries. Wait three hours. Try to take a 30-minute walk, wait 15 minutes, and then a snack. Usually a 6-ounce Greek yogurt and an organic beef jerky. Wait three hours. Try to take a 30-minute walk, wait 15 minutes, and then dinner. Usually a piece of lean locally sourced protein and a salad. With a vodka-soda on the side.

This is a healthy way to live. But it’s a boring way to live. Way, way more boring than a 10-minute cold bath. The joy of eating, of contemplating what I might like to have for lunch — the only meal I consume in solitude, the one that five days a week I get to enjoy with my own thoughts and without having to prepare anything for anyone else — that’s not something I give up lightly. And even though I’ve chosen foods I like, the feeling of restriction is palpable. And so I can wear a size 8 instead of a 10?

This isn’t a story about my issues with my weight. This is a review of a diet. But there are ways in which the two overlap. During week five of this diet I asked myself: If being skinny — not "thin," not "healthy," not "in shape," and not even "beautiful" but just "skinny" — means maintaining this black coffee/cold bath/no breakfast existence, is it worth it? I will soldier on.

Point of fact: Having given up the daily 10-minute cold bath (in four weeks I never made it to the advanced stage of 15), I found I missed a certain refreshed feeling of stepping out of the icy water. I didn’t miss the bath itself, mind you, but I liked the "I’m all woke-up now!" feeling after it was over. So what I began doing was running a very cold stream of water for a few minutes over my body after I’d finished a hot shower. Khanna actually advises this for people who are unable to bear the bath. It’s kind of cool; you should try it. You walk out of the shower invigorated.

Weigh in: -1 pound

Week 6:

The single individual who benefited most from this diet weighs nine pounds and seeks near-constant affection. Her name is Pippi, and she is my miniature Dachshund. One solid morning walk and some time on an outdoor deck is what she’s typically needed and gotten of all of her life. For almost six weeks she’s gotten at least twice if not three times as many daily walks, and each at least twice as long as usual. So that’s been a net positive: A daily outdoor walk is good for desk-bound types, and that has improved the quality of my life. Conversely, I’ve done much less "working out" in terms both of the regular classes I attend at the gym and the intensity of my workouts. Taking Pippi for a one-hour walk has taken the place of a hardcore hour’s worth of "bootcamp" including push-ups, burpees, crunches….and I have to wonder if that’s good, bad, or a push. The walks? Good. Replacing those workouts? Probably not good. Plus I liked them, despite the fact that they were hard.

Dieting, losing weight, maintaining an ideal weight: It’s all about choices. It’s all about how you take your "hard." Would you rather deprive yourself of a piece of birthday cake every year on your birthday and on the birthdays of your loved ones for the rest of your life, or spend two hours a day in a workout room (which is what Gwyneth Paltrow told Self magazine she does) every day for the rest of your life? Would you rather skip breakfast or have a muffin-top? (In that last case, neither is easy — and I’ve tried them both.)

I thought at the beginning of this journey that experimenting with a diet might lead to 20 pounds less of me (hot!) at an easy price, and that’s the promise of all diets. Instead I’m limping home here in the final stretch, really wanting to tell Khanna where to stick it and thinking a lot about spaghetti. But I persevere, half-assedly.

Weigh in: -1 pound.

The End of OMG

Seven pounds in six weeks is not "OMG." Khanna promised "up to 20." I am convinced I could have lost seven pounds in six weeks if I’d just made a concerted effort to only have one glass of wine every day and to stop eating after 7 p.m.

I’ll never have my six weeks back and we’ll never know. One thing we do know is that the day I quit drinking the black coffee, the day the diet was over, I drank some black tea with honey, and ate an English muffin for breakfast. I felt great. By about 2 p.m., though, I felt out of balance; my ceiling fan bothered me, the way a television documentary I was watching for work seemed overly jerky in the way it was filmed; it took me a minute or two to focus my eyes on an object after I turned my head.

By evening I was having a full-blown attack of vertigo. Two of my closest friends thought this term meant "fear of heights." It doesn’t. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is when a person experiences a sudden sensation of spinning of the head. It’s caused by a disturbance in the inner ear, sometimes brought on by a virus. Mine lasted about five days. Does drinking black coffee, skipping breakfast, and taking cold showers give you five days of vertigo? Not usually, and some groundwork had already been laid: I may have some vestibular scarring from years of sinus problems, blockages, and infections; I may have a genetic factor (my grandmother had "dizzy spells"), and then again I may have been overstimulated from caffeine and dehydrated from weeks and weeks of consuming nothing black coffee for hours at a stretch, which was a shock to my system. The vertigo was very painful but it passed; recurrences are common but not always as severe. The good news is "benign." But that, dear readers, is OMG.  

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