A crowd of anxious students gathers at the front of a lecture hall, eager to pester their professor for more credit on a recent test.
“Tell him I am on the pissed side of pissed,” the professor declares in a thick accent that both demands attention and piques curiosity.
Another student steps up, also disappointed with a low test score. The professor tells him frankly that the question was basic and asks if he understands the answer now. The student, scratching his head, tells him “it’s been awhile.”
“No,” the professor corrects him. “It has been one week.”
Chemistry professor Jean Claude Zenklusen is “a character,” said colleague and longtime friend Martin Zysmilich. While Zenklusen is still a larger than life character in the classroom, his waistline is a lot smaller than it used to be. Zenklusen has lost 70 pounds in the last year by following a diet he created himself.
“It’s kind of funny, because everyone said you have to follow a book, like the South Beach, Atkins or the Zone,” Zenklusen said. “I don’t follow any of those. I just use common sense.”
Putting them on
Zenklusen takes a seat on a table in his classroom and jumps right into the root of his problem and the secret of his success. His weight problems began when he started attending college in Buenos Aires, Argentina. When he went from an active lifestyle of playing rugby, swimming regularly and running races to spending most of his time in the lab, he began to gain weight.
Zenklusen’s struggles with weight continued when he moved to Texas in 1992 to earn his doctorate degree in cancer biology. Born in Switzerland and raised in Argentina, Zenklusen was new to American eating habits.
“It’s very different,” Zenklusen said. “Food is available all the time and everywhere. But it’s not good food.”
He also admitted a secret weakness for sweets, particularly doughnuts.
“Pastries. They kill me,” he said. “I cannot say no. I never found a pastry I didn’t like.”
Though Zenklusen’s peak weight was 310 pounds, his blood pressure remained low and his cholesterol was never more than 140. Still, he worried that his weight was endangering his health.
“I want to see my grandkids,” Zenklusen confided. He also enjoys his time with his own children, who are 6 years old and 19 months old.
Zenklusen said he wanted his eating habits to set a good example for his own children. “How can I tell my kids ‘you shouldn’t eat that doughnut,’ when I’m over here gorging on three?”
A turning point in his life came when he and his family were photographed for his church directory.
Zenklusen said he told his wife, “I look sick” when he looked at the photograph.
Taking them off
Zenklusen decided to start cutting complex carbohydrates and processed foods from his diet, replacing them with vegetables. Even so, his weight loss did not happen overnight.
“It took me a year to lose 70 pounds. If you want to lose it like this,” Zenklusen warned, snapping his fingers, “it’s not going to happen.”
Zenklusen lost 10 pounds during the first week of his diet, but his weight loss slowed as he became thinner. He said he believes he will have reached his ideal weight in about a year, continuing to lose a pound per week.
“At the beginning, it was hard,” he said. His wife had usually prepared pasta and homemade pizza before he began his diet. Though Zenklusen did not want his whole family to have to change, his wife gladly joined him in a more vegetable- and fruit-enriched diet. Zenklusen pinched his fingers to illustrate – “she is thin as a stick” – and added with a smile, “she was extremely supportive.”
Eating more vegetables reminded him of his Swiss upbringing and his mother’s cooking, he said.
“I grew up eating vegetables because where I grew up, meat is not common,” the instructor said. “Now, if I can’t eat vegetables, I miss it.”
Zenklusen has been a GW professor since 2001, when he began teaching introductory chemistry. He had been working at the National Institute of Health but began teaching when his longtime friend Zysmilich recruited him to the chemistry department.
“NIH is great for research, but I always liked to teach,” Zenklusen said. Zysmilich met Zenklusen in 1985, when they were both in school at Buenos Aires. They have remained friends ever since, both moving to the United States in the early 1990s. When Zenklusen told Zysmilich he was going to go on a diet, Zysmilich had no doubt he would prevail.
“When J.C. said something, he’s going to do it,” Zysmilich said. “That’s what he’s going to do. He’s a person who follows through with things.”
Even so, Zysmilich said it must have been especially difficult for such a good cook to stay on a strict diet.
“He’s a great cook, and his wife is a great cook too,” Zysmilich said. “She’s been very supportive.”
Zenklusen said he thinks Americans eat less healthy food than people in other countries because they cook less.
“People have this attitude that cooking is hard and it’s not fun,” Zenklusen said. “The good news is that people are starting to realize that cooking can be fun, and it helps you to regulate what you are eating.”
Zenklusen said his weight loss has surprised colleagues and friends, particularly those who hadn’t seen him in awhile.
“Some of them didn’t recognize me at all,” the teacher said, recalling a friend who “looked right through me” when he picked him up at the airport.
The professor has also incorporated his weight loss into practical lessons for his students learning about carbohydrates. He uses his own w/eight loss story to relate the chemistry of the human body to the proper components of a healthy diet. He said he hopes this connection will grab the attention of his non-science major students.
“I know that you guys have no interest. I don’t delude myself,” Zenklusen said. “So, I have to work hard to make interesting connections.”