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Can chicken wings be part of a healthy diet? Maybe

Drew cerza
Buffalo National Chicken Wing Festival organizer Drew Cerza has spent more time on the treadmill in recent months so he can keep enjoying his favorite food, including this plate of grilled wings from Rocco's pizza in Clarence. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)


Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor

The “Wing King” of Buffalo, and beyond, has lost 40 pounds – and it wasn’t from eating more chicken wings.

Drew Cerza, 52, of Clarence, who is 6-2, has fallen to 190 pounds since Jan. 1 by limiting his wings and sticking to a low-glycemic diet. He admits to having a few more “cheat days” in recent weeks as he’s geared up for the Buffalo National Chicken Wing Festival at Coca-Cola Field Saturday and Sunday (visit for more info). This promises to be a cheat weekend – then it will be back to his new eating regimen.

So Cerza’s weight loss begs the question: Can chicken wings be part of a healthy diet?

The personal trainer who helped Cerza lose the pounds says yes – sort of.

“You’re having protein and fat,” said Derek Alessi, owner of Alessi Fitness in East Amherst. “They won’t change your blood sugar. So if you have diabetes, it’s recommended you have a chicken wing. If you have heart disease, if you have Alzheimer’s, if you have obesity, if you want to drop body fat, it’ll keep your blood sugar level stable.

“That being said, it’s not the healthiest fat to have on a regular basis. Once a week, twice a week, maybe three times a week, even doable. More than that, don’t do it.”

Cerza told me he was horrified when he stepped on the scale New Year’s Day and saw the number roll up to 230.

“It was like, ‘What am going to do now?’ The worst thing for me was going to the closet and seeing if anything fit,” he said.

Shortly after, he ran into Alessi during a visit to Ambrosia restaurant on Elmwood.

“Derek taught me about metabolism, which I never focused on,” he said. “I always lost weight by not eating a lot and doing cardio, where his philosophy was eat a lot of the right stuff and lift weights and do very little cardio.

“We started on that program and I focused on fish and chicken, especially salmon. And vegetables, tons of vegetables, and I doctored my vegetables up with some Parmesan cheese or some Frank’s hot sauce. Frank’s Red Hot to me finally got me through everything, because when I put Frank’s Red Hot on something, I feel like it’s got the flavor but it’s got heat, so I feel like I’m getting fulfilled, like with my chicken wing buzz.”

And make no mistake, Cerza loves chicken wings. He calls wings and beer, “The dynamic duo, the only pair that beats three of a kind.”

Cerza, like many Buffalonians, remembers his younger day eating habits, when he could easily chomp down 20 wings and wash them down with a couple or three beers, without adding much to his waistline.

Then his metabolism slowed down – and the weight gain, slowly, surely, piled up.

Today, he eats five meals a day, opening up with protein powder or a shake, then a workout.

A breakfast of egg whites and mixed veggies follows.

Greek yogurt, fruits, vegetables and lean meats are part of the small meals during the rest of the day. He eats almond butter, instead of peanut butter, and his wife, Jodi, has encouraged him to use lettuce wraps instead of bread when he wants to have a “sandwich.”

“The key is you can eat in abundance, just don’t change your blood sugar,” Alessi said. “You can have proteins, you can have fats, you can have vegetables. We’re just staying away from grains and starches and sugars. Bread is a killer.”

The transformation has kept Cerza in a closer eating universe with his wife and their daughters, Nicole, 19, who attends the University of Rochester and plays on the field hockey team, and Sydney, 15, a three-sport athlete who excels in soccer.

“I was the black sheep,” Cerza said. “Now I’m back on the team now.”

That doesn’t mean Cerza has had to abandon chicken wings – though Alessi has encouraged him to cut down.

Alessi said sugar, processed grains and dairy products all are worse choices than Buffalo’s food standard bearer.

“If you keep your blood sugar level stable, you can have steak, you can have bacon, you can have chicken wings, you can have fats,” he said.

“But you want to avoid things that change your blood sugar, like breads, starches and sugars.

“I’m not saying the chicken wing is the ultimate protein source. It’s not. It fails in comparison to other things like turkey, lean chicken and beef. But it’s workable, much more so than grains and carbs are.”

Cerza – owner of Just Wing It Productions, a marketing business is in Williamsville – tends to eat no more than a half-dozen wings at a sitting these days, and favors the grilled variety over the fried, but with 40 tons of wings having just been shipped in for this weekend’s festival, and 32 restaurants from across the country cooking up about 120 varieties of wings, he plans to make this weekend an exception. Big time.

He also plans to see what ideas have been cooked up for the Healthy Wing Contest at 3 p.m. Saturday.

”Before I went hard core (on the diet), I was eating 50 wings, 60 wings a week,” Cerza said. “This past month, leading up to the festival, I’ve been really bad. I’ve probably eaten them three times a week. It’s just my season for August.

“But again, I’ll be able to keep eating chicken wings. I’ll be able to have them twice a week if I want to, as long as I keep working out, now that I’ve got my metabolism working.

“As soon as Wing Fest is over, I’m back in.”


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About The Refresh Buffalo Blog

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon

Scott Scanlon is an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered various topics in his quarter-century as a journalist in South Florida, Syracuse and Buffalo. He is aiming to pass along what he is learning these days about health, fitness, nutrition and family life.

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