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in: Health, Health & Fitness, Podcast

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

Podcast #715: What’s the Most Sustainable Diet?

If you’re someone who wants to lose weight, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about and experimenting with different diets. Browse the literal shelves of a bookstore or the metaphorical ones of the internet, and you can find thousands of options to choose from, each with their ardent fans and supposedly decisive rationales. But which diet really works best, and, most importantly, given that 95% of people who lose weight on one gain it back, is a plan that an average human can stick with for the long haul?

My guest today is in a distinctly well-informed position to comment on this question, having personally test-driven over a dozen diets in three years. His name is Barry Estabrook, and he’s an investigative journalist and the author of Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen That Works. We begin our conversation with what set Barry on his quest to find the best, most sustainable diet. We then get into the fact that the ideas behind modern diets aren’t new, and the sometimes weird history of their predecessors. From there we turn to Barry’s experiments with contemporary diets, including what happened when he tried eating both low-carb and low-fat, joining Weight Watchers, and figuring out what he could learn from the eating habits of the Greeks and French. We end our conversation with what Barry ultimately changed about his own diet to successfully drop the pounds, and what he discovered as to what really works best for sustainable weight loss.

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Show Highlights

  • What set Barry on this course to experimenting with every diet in the book 
  • What’s the earliest diet Barry came across?
  • Some of the weird fad diets in America’s history 
  • The three primary branches of dieting 
  • The religious overtones of dieting 
  • Barry’s experience on a low-fat diet 
  • The original Atkins diet — low-carb, high-fat 
  • What Weight Watchers is like 
  • Some lessons Barry learned from healthy countries around the world 
  • Why the Mediterranean/Greek “diet” works 
  • Why don’t the French gain weight like Americans do?
  • What are people doing who lose weight successfully keep it off?
  • Easy places for anyone to cut back 

Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. If you’re someone who wants to lose weight, you probably spend some time thinking about and experimenting with different diets. Browse the literal shelves of a bookstores with the metaphorical ones of the Internet, and you can find thousands of options to choose from, each with their ardent fans and supposedly decisive rationales. But which diet really works best, and most importantly, given that 95% of people who lose weight on a diet, just gain it back, what is the plan that as an average human can stick with for the long haul? My guest today is in a distinctively well-informed position to comment on this question, having personally test-driven over a dozen diets in three years.

Brett McKay: His name is Barry Estabrook, he’s an investigative journalist and the author of Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen that Works. We begin our conversation with what set Barry on his quest to find the best, most sustainable diet, we then get into the fact that the ideas behind modern diets aren’t new, and then sometimes weird history of their predecessors. From there, we turn to various experiments with contemporary diets, including what happened when he tried eating both a low-carb and low-fat diet, joining Weight Watchers, and figuring out what he can learn from the eating habits of the Greeks and French. We end our conversation with what Barry ultimately changed about his own diet to successfully drop the pounds, what he discovered as to what really works best for sustainable weight loss. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/rightdiet.

Brett McKay: Barry Estabrook, welcome to the show.

Barry Estabrook: Well, thank you for having me.

Brett McKay: So you got a book out called Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen that Works. And so you made yourself a guinea pig and tried all the diets that are out there, ’cause you needed to lose some weight. What kick-started you trying all these popular weight loss programs out there? 

Barry Estabrook: Well, I guess you could say it was probably a kick in the rear end from my doctor, verbally speaking. He sort of in his quiet way, read me the Riot Act. I had a very high cholesterol levels, I had very high blood pressure, and he said, “Barry, I can’t give you any more meds, you’re maxed out, maximum amount I’m allowed to give. And about the only thing you can do if you wanna get these two factors, both of which are signs that you’re headed for a heart attack, if you wanna get them down, you’re gonna have to lose weight.” And it so happens that I do have a history of cardiovascular disease in the family. Most of the men in my family have eventually died from it, and I wasn’t quite ready to continue that tradition. So for the first time in my life, I was one of the people I don’t diet. I’d never do that. First time in my life, I went on a diet.

Brett McKay: Not just a diet, you went on multiple diets, tried them out.

Barry Estabrook: Well, right, eventually, first of all, I went on a diet, it was the fad diet du jour. It was called Whole30, and everyone I knew seemed to be on it a few years ago, and so I just went on it ’cause hey, that was what everyone was doing. It was a stupid thing to do, because what I did was I suffered for 30 days deprivation. I proudly dropped 13 pounds and then almost instantly gained them all back. So that got me thinking, I’m supposed to be an investigative journalist who covers food, all aspects of food and food production, and I’d gone and done the very thing that I sort of encouraged my readers not to do. I went on a diet without thinking, without understanding, just because everybody I knew seemed to be on it. I had given it no more thought than I do when I go in and pick up a bag of yellow onions at the supermarket. And here, I was affecting my health. Could be damaging my health. I had no idea of why the diet worked or didn’t work, who the people were who were espousing this diet, what were their qualifications, and what medically inside me was happening according to experts.

Barry Estabrook: So I decided that I would simply apply my journalistic training, which suggested that I go on these various diets that are out there. I ended up going on about 12 or 13 of them over a course of three years, and then I would interview the people who created them, if they were still around. And I would interview leading nutritionists and medical doctors and find out what was happening to me, why was I taking risks? And ultimately, personally, I would find out is, hey, can you live this way? I mean, the best diet is no good if you can’t stick to it. So I embarked on this three-year program of trying any diet that was out there, to see what would happen, and then trying to understand the science behind it.

Brett McKay: So as you said, there’s a lot of options for people to choose from. If someone is in your shoes and they need to lose weight, they just go online, they just go to a bookstore and they’re gonna find different types of diets. There’s the Whole30 that you did, there’s cleanse diets, there’s paleo, there’s low-carb, low-fat, and you think this is a modern phenomenon, but you actually… You do a historical survey and saying these different options for Americans in particular, they’ve been around… It’s been around for centuries. So in your research, what’s the earliest known diet book that you came across in your research? 

Barry Estabrook: A fellow named William Banting, who was a British undertaker of all professions, is credited with really the first diet book per se, you might call it a diet booklet. It was maybe 30 pages long, and it was called A Letter on Corpulence, and it was published in the 1850s, mid-1800s, and he’s generally credited with the first actual diet book. People have been writing about diet since ancient Greece, but he’s sort of the father of what became this industry of diets and diet books that we live in today. He was, like I say, an undertaker, he was 5 feet tall, he weighed well over 200 pounds. He’d gotten to the point where he couldn’t tie his shoes, he couldn’t climb stairs or descend stairs. He said he couldn’t take care of all the personal niceties, whatever that is, I don’t wanna think about it.

Barry Estabrook: And so he… He started eating eventually after trying everything according to the instructions of a doctor who suggested that basically he stopped eating plain carbohydrates. He ate very few carbohydrates at all. He went on pretty much as a meat diet, and within a year he had lost 46 pounds. He could do all those things he couldn’t do before he… And he lived for another 20 odd years until he was in his 80s and never put a pound back on. And so he wrote this pamphlet to show others how he did that.

Brett McKay: And he’s like the father of the low-carb diet, and it was such a…

Barry Estabrook: Yeah, exactly.

Brett McKay: Yeah. And it was such a phenomenal, it was such a thing that people called it… When they said they were gonna go on a diet, they’d say, “I’m Banting.” His name became a verb.

Barry Estabrook: Yeah. It did it. I’m Banting, I’m going on a Bant. I need to Bant. It actually entered the language for a period of time.

Brett McKay: And then around the same time, a little bit later, you had the origins of the low-fat, kinda high-carb diet with… It started with the Temperance Movement in America, and Graham kinda kickstarted this. Tell us about that.

Barry Estabrook: Well, Sylvester Graham was a Presbyterian preacher, originally, a very stern religious man, and he left that career to become a lecturer on all forms of temperance. And he then focused in on diet, and he basically thought that anything a normal person would enjoy spices, sugar, fat, meat, anything the person would enjoy was sinful and led to… He was very concerned about men’s libido, and he said such a diet increased libido, which was bad, and led to masturbation, and on and on, and it was a quasi religion, but it was this… It became very popular. Restaurants would serve Graham affair. We know him today, he survives in the grocery store as Graham crackers, although I think he’d probably be shocked about the amount of sugar in the modern Graham cracker. But he became very influential and yeah, preaching the exact opposite from Banting who’d come a few years prior.

Brett McKay: Besides those kind of genres, you also highlight along the way, there’s been all these different weird fad diets in American history. What are some of the weirdest ones you came across? 

Barry Estabrook: Oh, God, there was a big craze started in the early part of this century of these two ingredient diets, I guess you’d call them, for a diet where all you would eat was bananas and skim milk. You’d eat about a half a dozen bananas a day, and a few glasses of skim milk, that’s it. And it became very popular, surprisingly, and so it inspired a host of imitators. So you could go on a diet allowing only tomatoes and hardboiled eggs, or if you didn’t like that, how about pineapple and lamb chops, nothing more, or baked potatoes and buttermilk, nothing more. And people did lose weight because if you’re eating nothing but pineapples and buttermilk, there’s no way you can consume enough pineapple and buttermilk to get the amount of calories you need in a day, so you’ll start losing weight.

Brett McKay: Another one that you highlight that was funny is Fletcherizing. What is Fletcherizing? 

Barry Estabrook: It’s amazing, it was hugely popular in its day, you talk about the presidents went on it, Thomas Edison went on it, Pruss went on it, all sorts of famous people went on it. The legislatures actually suggested that all children be taught. And what Fletcherizing or Fletcher suggested was that every bite be chewed rhythmically 100 times a minute until there was no flavor left in the food that you were chewing, and it was just a sloppy goop that you almost couldn’t help but swallow just reflexively. He had different amounts of chewing required for say a piece of bread, maybe 50 chews, something like an apple, several hundred, and it became really popular. There were parties held in high society where people sat around the table, not talking ’cause they were so busy chewing constantly. He thought it would save the world, save it from gluttony, end crime, be a great economy because you’ve got all the nourishment you possibly could out of the food, he even…

Barry Estabrook: He had a very peculiar fascination with excrement, claiming that when you Fletcherize, as it was called, your excrement contained no poison, nothing offensive in the least. He himself used the toilet for that purpose. About every two weeks, he was known to carry his own excrement around in his pocket, if you doubted that it was inoffensive. He said it tasted… “It was no more offensive than a biscuit,” he said. And you gotta remember this guy, all these famous people, all these politicians worshipped him basically. They thought he had the answer, you gotta… The thing about these weird historical diets is we need to put them in perspective, ’cause it’s something we don’t have today, when we say go on a keto diet that someday maybe people will think it’s as silly as Fletcherism, or eating nothing but bananas and skim milk.

Brett McKay: Right, or those cleanse diets where you just drink cayenne pepper and maple syrup or whatever.

Barry Estabrook: I did go on one of those.

Brett McKay: Yeah, how’d that go? 

Barry Estabrook: I know… Well, let’s say, I don’t know if I can really describe it accurately in a family-friendly podcast, but I lasted about four days. I had extreme digestive issues, diarrhea, no energy, after a few days, dizziness, and I finally quit just because I was worried that I was gonna injure myself. And I lost 8 pounds in a week, and instantly, instantly gained them all back.

Brett McKay: Yeah, you probably lost a lot of just water weight and glycogen.

Barry Estabrook: Yeah, that’s exactly it. When you’re getting… Absolutely, when you’re very hungry and you’re getting absolutely no carbohydrates or very limited carbohydrates in your diet, your body is just from burning glucose, its normal fuel or sugar, to burning glycogen, like you said, a compound that’s made in the liver. And glycogen always comes attached to a couple of molecules of water. So if you burn a molecule of glycogen, that water gets released and you excrete it. So what you’re doing is just excreting that water, and then the minute you start to eat again, you go back to burning glucose, stop burning glycogen and your liver goes into overdrive to build back up its glycogen, which means it needs to start adding water back into the whole system, so you’re gaining it right back.

Brett McKay: Gotcha, alright, so I think from the top, we can just dismiss these quack stuff, like Fletcherizing, cleanse diets, the two food or single food diets. I remember when I was a kid growing up in the ’80s, ’90s, grapefruit was the thing. So you had to have a thing of grapefruit in the morning and something else, or rice cakes. That’s not gonna work. It’s not sustainable. So basically, you say, if you look at all the diets out there, and we’re excluding all the quack stuff, they’re basically three types, there’s the low-carb diets sort of Bantingism, there’s the low-fat, kinda high carbohydrate, so we’re talking about grains, whole vegetables, whole fruits. That was inspired by Graham. And then the third one is you don’t even look at carbs or fat, you just look at total calories that you consume, and if you burn more than you consume, you’re gonna lose weight. Is that basically the three types of diets out there? 

Barry Estabrook: Yeah. I think you can categorize almost every diet, slip it into one of those slots. The key is people keep reinventing them, rebranding them, so that they sound new and exciting. If you get a good name and rebrand it enough, you’re gonna make a lot of money. But that seems to be the secret, the same formula, the same everything, just three different… These three different categories, and they’re still around.

Brett McKay: Yeah. You start off looking at the low-fat, high, good carbohydrate diet, and the primary predecessors here today of Grahamism, we’ll call it, is a guy named Dean Ornish. So what’s his diet and what does the research say about what he recommends? 

Barry Estabrook: Dean Ornish is a doctor. He now lives in the San Francisco area, and he came up with a diet in the ’80s that basically is strictly vegetarian for all intents and purposes. And then on top of that, it’s less than 10% fat, and that includes fat from vegetable sources, olive oil, nuts, things like that. So it’s a very, very low-fat, vegetarian diet. He has done research and others have followed that shows that if you follow that diet, you not only lose weight, but you can really improve your blood chemistry. Ornish says, although a lot of people dispute him, that you can reverse heart disease, or certainly it won’t keep getting worse. He’s got all of these stories about patients who couldn’t walk across the street and finally went on this program, and all of a sudden could become moderately active again. And my finding is, yeah, I lost weight, but I was constantly craving, craving a nice seared steak, or a plate of eggs in the morning. I became almost obsessive about that. So that type of diet is not something that I could live with, even with the health benefits. Maybe if I was a cardiac cripple or something like that, I would change, but it’s just… There’s no real love of food, or pleasure or sensual pleasure, the whole thing that makes eating a joy to a lot of people.

Brett McKay: He’s very adamant, you have to be very strict with this diet, it’s almost… It’s like Grahamism, you have to stick with it religiously, you can’t deviate at all.

Barry Estabrook: Right. It’s interesting you said that because it is not religious, a lot of these diets have religious overtones even though they’re completely secular. It’s like you’ve joined a cult or a church or something, a church of very low fat, and there are sins and things like that. It’s an interesting cultural phenomenon, but you’re exactly right.

Brett McKay: So you did lose weight, but it wasn’t sustainable because the food just wasn’t palatable, you just stopped enjoying food. But the other thing you talk about too, is that it was a lot of work to make the food that lined up with Ornish’s diet. You’d spend hours, hours cooking meals.

Barry Estabrook: Exactly, and prepping them and cooking them, and it would be great if you have a personal chef on your household’s payroll, I suppose. But I don’t happen to be in that position, so yeah, I don’t have an hour to prepare lunch during the week. Sorry. And that’s the type of thing that following the recipes that he provides would require, to be up in the kitchen chopping, chopping, chopping and mixing and sauteeing in water instead of oil, and sometimes all I want for lunch is a couple of nice slices of bread with a piece of meat in between them and eat it and be done.

Brett McKay: All right. Okay. Ornish’s diet, you can lose weight on it, but probably not sustainable for most people. You lost some weight, but I imagine you gained it back after you stopped.

Barry Estabrook: I went on these 13 diets or so, and I hate to sound like a broken record, but I was… I was a world champion at losing 5% to 10% of my weight on a diet. Never failed, and then gained it all back, and that makes me very typical. That happens to 95% of the people who go on any diet, according to scientists. So it’s the pattern, and I think we all know it, that when you go on a diet, you will lose weight, but as soon as you go off, you’re back to square one or even worse, even a little heavier.

Brett McKay: Right. No, yeah, you typically gain a little bit more weight. Okay, so after going visiting the low-fats, kinda high-carb vegetarian diet land, you went over to the Banting side, the low-carb, high-fat type of diet. So which ones did you experience? So there’s all sorts of different types of low-carb diet, there’s Atkins, there’s paleo, there’s South Beach, there’s keto. So which ones did you try out there? 

Barry Estabrook: I tried out keto and South Beach. South Beach is sort of… It’s a mild or a friendlier, more healthful version of Atkins who’s really the founder of all these modern low-carb diets. His book, the Atkins’ Diet Revolution, sort of set the modern phase of these diets in motion and all the diets that you mentioned, keto, paleo, South Beach, Zone, they all emerged from the original work by Atkins, which basically unlimited amounts of fat and red meat, and in the early stages, almost no carbohydrates. You could be living off nothing but T-bone steaks three meals a day, and that would be fine with the early Atkins.

Barry Estabrook: Now since then, it’s been modified and the South Beach is a much more healthful, sustainable, distant cousin of the Atkins diet. But yes, you’re right, it stresses avoiding simple carbohydrates white bread, white rice, white anything pretty much other than cauliflower, I guess. But allows you to eat lean meats in pretty much unlimited quantities, so I spent a while on that, I found it much easier to follow than the ultra, ultra low-fat diet. Did have some of the same issues with it. A friend of mine went on it, and she calls it the chop chop diet, ’cause again, you’re at the cutting board doing a lot of prep, what are you going to have for lunch today if you can’t have bread of any sort? But it was more tolerable, I thought. However, at the end, it was the same situation, I lost some weight and gained it all back.

Brett McKay: Yeah, again, maybe the sustainability there was the prep part was getting in the way, and I think with all these diets, so I think a lot of people have gone on low-carb diets and said, “Oh man, I’ve just lost… It’s been the game changer.” But I think what the research says is that pretty much even if you go on a low-fat diet, you’re gonna lose weight initially, then it kind of just like a low-carb diet, you’ll lose weight initially, then you start slowing down, and then if you don’t keep it going, then your host, you’re gonna gain it back.

Barry Estabrook: Yeah, there’s actually been scientific, good scientific studies that say exactly that. They say you can lose weight on low-carb, you can lose weight on high-carb, people do, same amount pretty much, but then gain it all back. So that both diets, if you stick to them are gonna give you the same result, which pretty much for most people is you end up back where you were at the beginning.

Brett McKay: Alright, so the low-carb diet, a little bit more palatable because who doesn’t like to eat meat and T-bone steaks and things like that. But still, there’s a lot of prep there that can get in the way of making it sustainable. So after you tried the low-carb diet, so you did the low-fat diet, then you just tried to count calories, and you did that by joining Weight Watchers now called WW, which I think is the worst rebranding in the world. I still call it Weight Watchers. It’s like Kinko’s being turned into Fed… I still call it the FedEx or Kinko’s. You’re always gonna be Kinko’s. So Weight Watchers, what was your experience with Weight Watchers? 

Barry Estabrook: Weight Watchers is, first of all, it’s kind of like a 12-step program for over-eaters. You’re given a daily quota of, they call them smart points, and really what they are are to save you from figuring out the caloric value of everything, it’s a simplification of… They’re basically calories or they’re based on calories, I should say. So you get a certain number of smart points per day, and each food item costs a certain number of points, and you try to keep below or at your limit of points per day. And to do that, you attend weekly meetings with similarly overweight folks, and you get a little pep talk and share the ideas that helps keep you motivated to stay on the program, and I was at first. I was a champion. Yeah, I went in there and the first week, I lost six pounds and I got a little star. It’s sort of childish, but they give you these little gimmicks, so I got a little star given to me to paste into a booklet that comes with your membership. And then the whole group, about 30 people gave me a round of applause.

Barry Estabrook: I didn’t get that the second week, ’cause I only lost a pound, and by the fourth week, I had lost a total of two pounds. So I’d come back up for my victory the first week, and at that point, I resigned, figuring that at that rate of loss it would cost me thousands of dollars to lose the weight I wanted to lose because it does cost you about 50 bucks a month to be a member. But I should add that for certain people… I’m glad I tried Weight Watchers and I would actually recommend it because for certain people, it really does work, but you’ve gotta be one of those people who really get off on group therapy and meetings and peer support and things like that, there’s some pretty good scientific work that shows that if it’s for you, Weight Watchers can be effective. It ain’t for me.

Brett McKay: Right. And the other nice thing about Weight Watchers is that they don’t limit you on what you can eat. As long as you stay within those points, you’re good, so you could… If you wanted a Pop-Tart, a Pop-Tart is gonna have the point count, so you can have it, but it might mean you have to cut back on what you eat at dinner that night.

Barry Estabrook: Exactly, exactly. Nothing is off limit, but the point system is really skewed to subtly steer you in the right direction. You used the Pop-Tart example, for instance, most vegetables, you don’t get any points off for those, so you can eat all the vegetables you like, I think some of the leaner meats, chicken breast, you can eat all… They really try to steer you away from the triple cream chocolate cake, ribeye steaks, and steer you over to things with much lower point values or even no point values.

Brett McKay: Alright, so Weight Watchers, you lost some weight, but then you gained, started gaining it back again. You resigned from Weight Watchers. So after exploring these three main diet genres, the low-fat, low-carb, just counting calories type diet, then you started looking, okay, what are people doing in other countries that are known to be relatively thin? What are they doing? And so you looked at some the Mediterranean diet, I’m sure people have heard of that, and then also the French diet. So let’s talk about the Mediterranean diet first, what makes a Mediterranean diet the Mediterranean diet? 

Barry Estabrook: The Mediterranean diet is really vegetable forward, I think that’s the secret. They use vegetables all the time, often have entire meals that are totally vegetable-based. They make that palatable by using tons of olive oil, tons of it. You watch a Greek cook preparing something like a ratatouille type stew, and she’ll stand there and literally let oil glug out of the bottle until you think she’s playing a trick on you. But the oil makes the vegetables very palatable and gives you enough energy so that you’re not starving after you eat it. And then the third key is really abundant use fresh herbs and spices, which satisfies the sort of pleasure centers, so it’s no hardship to eat that way at all. You’re never hungry. And the irony, of course, is the Mediterranean diet is 40% fat. An American diet is about 35%, so that’s a lot fatter, a lot more fat in our diet, but it’s almost no animal fat and all fat from olive oil. So that’s the difference. And it was, like I say, a surprisingly satisfying way to eat. I went to a Greek island and spent a week there cooking with a woman, a cookbook author I know, and ate like a king weeks vacation sort of, this first time I’ve come home from a vacation, three pounds lighter than when I left. So that’s the secret, I think, to the Greek diet. As she said, the Greek diet is a fad that’s been going on for at least 2500 years.

Brett McKay: Were you able to keep… Sustain it, when you got home? Did you try to do the Mediterranean diet when you got back to Vermont? 

Barry Estabrook: What I was able to maintain, I took away from that is have a lot of vegetable, a lot of meals where the main dish is the vegetables, and satisfy yourself with herbs and olive oil. I don’t say that I live on a Greek diet, but there’s sure a lot of that influence in what I eat now because I enjoy it, like you say, it’s no hardship, it’s filling. It’s certainly a big component of the way I’ve eaten now. It’s a lesson I learned while in Greece.

Brett McKay: Well, and then you explored French cuisine, and I think there’s even been books about this. So the French cuisine is known to be very rich, very tasty, and yet French tend to be not overweight. So how are the French able to eat this really rich, delicious food, but not gain weight like Americans? 

Barry Estabrook: Yeah, if you look at the facts, it just doesn’t seem fair. These guys, they eat plenty of fat, and it’s not all olive oil like the Greeks, they eat grate cheeses, they eat whatever they pretty much want. They don’t ever diet, and yet their rates of heart attacks, strokes, and obesity are a fraction of ours, and they’re eating all this stuff from fried in butter, heavy cream, so on and so forth, in line, of course. And so it didn’t seem fair, but I know a French chef in the States, here, well-known television chef named Jacques Pépin. I went to talk to him about it. He was a good example. Here’s a man, he’s in his 80s, he eats everything pretty much. He’s never been on a diet, he’s a professional cook, and he’s maybe moderately overweight, but certainly nowhere near obese, and so I sort of took eating lessons from him. How do you do this? And the French employ some… They’re not really tricks ’cause it’s ingrained in their culture, but for us it’ll be tricks. They take very, very small portions of everything. There is no 10 ounce rib steak on their plates. They take small portions of everything. They rarely go back for seconds, they almost never snack between meals, and importantly, meals are meals. You don’t find the French eating on the run or dashing into a fast food place to grab a hamburger and eat in the car.

Barry Estabrook: They view meals and mealtime as kind of sacrosanct. You don’t eat at your desk at work, you go out with a group of friends, of colleagues, you sit down at a restaurant and have a meal. So conviviality and community becomes part of eating. You’re not just filling your face, you’re socializing. French go for quality foods over quantity, which does satisfy your hunger in a better way. You can eat a lot of junk food, a lot of calories of junk food and still feel hungry, but if you’re taking a very high quality French cheese and just have a nibble of it, your senses are satisfied. And so really what they do is they put the joy back in eating, which is something that’s really missing from almost every diet book I encountered that, hey, eating is a joyful experience. “The table is a sacred place,” Jacques said to me. He said, “People fall in love over the table, wars are avoided over a table.” It’s a whole different attitude toward what food is and what eating means.

Brett McKay: Were you able to incorporate some of that idea or that sense of food being joyful into your own diet? 

Barry Estabrook: I did, I did. I found it very easy to avoid snacking. I used to snack, but it was really just almost unconscious, didn’t give much thought. I wasn’t starving hungry, but I’d passed by the fridge and grab something, or stuck my hand in the cupboard and pulled out some peanuts or something like that. So that helped, keeping meals sacrosanct as much as possible helped. I find it doesn’t take a lot of discipline not to go back for seconds, it takes more… Just as a little mindfulness, not discipline not to head back for seconds automatically, to take smaller portions of good food. It’s more expensive, but you eat less and you’re more satisfied.

Brett McKay: So after you did this world tour and looking or exploring diets here in America, you actually wanted to explore, okay, what works? Do we have any record of people who have lost weight, and have kept it off? ‘Cause you said basically, it’s like 95% of people who go on a diet, they’ll lose weight but they gain it back. But then you uncover, there’s actually a scientific registry of people that some researchers keeping track of of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and have kept it off for five and a half years. So tell us about this registry, who’s keeping it and what have they found about what these people who lose weight and keep it off, what are they doing different from all the 95% of Americans who lose weight and gain it back? 

Barry Estabrook: Yeah, there is actually such a place, and it’s got many, many tens of thousands of members, surprisingly. I mean, 95% gain it back, but that means there’s 5% people out there who’ve somehow figured a way through it, and it’s called the National Weight Loss Registry. And professors at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island oversee it. And then, like you said, to make it into the registry, you have to lose 30 pounds and keep them off for a period of years, and there are tens of thousands of people. And so what they’ve done… They started the registry back in the ’90s because scientists, nutritionists weren’t convinced that it was possible to lose weight and keep it off.

Barry Estabrook: So the initial purpose of the registry was let’s see if there are people who have done, anybody out there who’s done this, and sure enough, they found several thousand people who did. And then they realized, hey, we’ve got this group of people who are proven weight loss experts, let’s see what they did, how did it succeed for them? And here, the secret, there’s no secret. They all lost weight in slightly different ways. Some would go to doctors and lose weight under clinical supervision, most of them did it on their own. Some did it by eliminating certain things from their diet completely, others cutting back. It just basically any…

Barry Estabrook: They did everything. That’s the message. The one take home is, they did it their way. Most of the time, they failed a couple of times, but eventually they found out that to lose weight, you don’t follow a diet, you look to yourself and you do it your way. In other words, you start with the way you eat now and see what things in your diet you can cut back on, maybe even quit, whatever works for you and lose weight successfully. Almost none of them lost weight doing anything extreme, going on nothing but keto or fasting diets or anything like that. They all did it, measured and it was successful, but what was successful for one was not successful for the other. Each had to find their way, sort of the Frank Sinatra approach, had to do it their way.

Brett McKay: Right. When you do it your way, that’s what allows it to be sustainable. You’re able to keep going for months, years, and able to maintain that instead of doing that one-off diet where, yeah, you lose weight, but then I just don’t like this, and you stop and you gain the weight back.

Barry Estabrook: Exactly, exactly. You may eat too much pizza and you may gain weight from that. Once you recognize, “Hey, I eat too much pizza, I eat it three times a week for lunch at the little restaurant down the street from my office”, you can say, “Well, I love pizza, but I’m gonna have to cut that three times a week down to once a week. Still have my pizza.” It can get absurd. They have research subjects at the Brown Medical Center, the Brown University Medical Center, they have research subjects who’ve lost 50 pounds by shifting from full test beer to light beer. They still got their beer, they must have consumed a lot of beer, but just that one little shift worked for them. Same thing with people who eat too much junk fast food, just cutting back a little bit can work wonders. And so… It led me to believe, the big problem here is, you should not follow a diet. People say, “I’m following a diet.” That’s wrong. That’s got the cart before the horse. You should lead a diet, you shouldn’t… No one likes to be told what to eat, right? Nobody.

Brett McKay: Nobody, yeah.

Barry Estabrook: It’s highly personal how we eat, what we eat. It’s right up there with sex, no one… It’s just too personal. Thank you. I eat in a different way than you. My family eats in a different way than you. I don’t want you telling me that you have to have some sort of chopped salad every day for lunch. Sorry, no dice. It’s not my style. I don’t want you saying you must give up eggs for breakfast. I love eggs. I have a flock of hens, I wouldn’t give those up for… Those eggs up for the world. So if you have someone saying, “I have discovered the perfect way to eat, you must follow my template.” You can’t do that, that doesn’t work. What you have to do is lead the diet and say, “Well, here’s how I eat. I’m the boss, and here’s where I might need to make some adjustments that I can sustain and that will help me lose weight.” You should start by looking at… There’s three things that I think everyone I talk to would agree with, that are kind of big sins. So if you eat a lot of sugar or sugary drinks or sugary snacks, you gotta look… That’s a good place to cut back. If you eat a lot of highly processed carbohydrates, the white flours, the white breads, the white rice, the grains that aren’t whole, if you eat a lot of that, good place to start cutting back.

Barry Estabrook: And I hate to break the news, but alcohol might be a good area to look at cutting back on. There’s a lot of calories in alcohol, more than you think, and alcohol affects you both your mentally and hormonally in ways that cause you to eat more. So not only do you get the calories from the drink, you eat more on days that you drink. Again, it’s scientifically validated that people eat much more in addition to the alcohol. So you can look at the areas like that and see where there are things that you can cut back on. You might not go from regular beer to light beer, but maybe when you stop in at the pub, you only have one, or maybe that bag of potato chips you have every so often is really not necessary. It’s got a lot of calories, do you need that? And you can go through your own diet and find out your own big sins and atone for them. And then what happens is, without effort, you start losing weight, without effort, without willpower, you start losing weight.

Brett McKay: So basically just find what works for you. Don’t do extremes, make small changes, and basically just do something you like. We’ve actually had a psychologist on the show talk about the same thing with exercise. There’s no one true exercise you need to do. Basically, what she found is find exercise you enjoy doing, so that you’ll keep doing it for as long as possible, and if that’s hiking or walking, fine. If it’s CrossFit, great do that. But just do what works for you so it’s sustainable.

Barry Estabrook: Exactly. Nothing is going to work ever if it’s not sustainable. And that’s the same thing these people in the Weight Control Registry found out that if it wasn’t sustainable, they didn’t lose weight, that simple.

Brett McKay: What have you settled on after this three-year experiment? 

Barry Estabrook: Well, my big sin, it turned out was booze. I wasn’t, by any means, an extraordinarily heavy drinker, there was always someone who drank more than I and was skinnier than I, which didn’t seem fair at all. But I quickly realized that my two glasses of wine, or my couple of beers at the local brewpub added a tremendous amount of calories, and I also realized that… And again, you might not be this way, but I’m one of those people who finds it easier not to take the first drink of the day than not to take the second and the third. It’s easy for me to say, “Forget it,” and not worry about counting how many shots I’ve had or measuring out from my cocktails. So I dropped that. And then other things, I had this weird habit of… We have a little deli nearby here, and you can get a lunch sandwich there, and a few times a week, I’d go out and do that, and the sandwich came with a bag of chips, the same price. I looked and those chips were like 400 calories, and I didn’t need that at all. I didn’t want it, I didn’t need it. I took it, I’d munch them out of habit.

Barry Estabrook: So that was one other thing that I was able to drop. I certainly took up what I learned in Greece, and now we have several meals a week where there’s not a scrap of meat, thoroughly satisfying meals, vegetarian chilis, ratatouille’s, stews of eggplant and things like that, that we learned in Greece. And so I’m eliminating a lot of calories that way, a lot of meat. I certainly try for the very best food I can buy and smaller quantities of that. I go for pastured pork, very expensive, but very tasty, and like I said, one chop will more than satisfy you instead of two. The same with grass-fed beef. I was able to deal with snacking without too much pain, and that’s the major… Those are the major changes I made, but I really hasten to add, that’s not what’s gonna work for you. You’re gonna have to look into your own diet and where you can make changes. I’m very lucky I don’t have… I have whatever the opposite of a sweet tooth is, but in Weight Watchers, there were a lot of people in my group that just had to wage serious battle with sugar and sugar cravings and all of that. That was their sort of big sin.

Barry Estabrook: I have a friend who lives in New York City, in a neighborhood that is just blessed with incredible pizza parlors, and he took to grabbing a slice of pizza every day as he went out for lunch, and by giving that up, he lost a tremendous amount of weight and kept it off. Another friend of mine simply limits herself to one glass of wine per day, period, it’s worked. So like I say, everybody’s gonna take a different path, but if you’re mindful and follow some very basic principles, you’ll find where you can get the job done once and for all.

Brett McKay: And I imagine you’ve lost some weight since you adopted the Barry Estabrook plan.

Barry Estabrook: Well, yes, I revisited that same doctor who gave me the kick in the you know where, to start this off, and my blood pressure had gone into a very healthy level without medication. So I was off medication that I’d been on since the 1990s. My cholesterol had settled into perfectly normal ranges, gone from too high. And despite the fact that I was a notorious flanker on all these formal diets, I’d lost 26 pounds of the 40 pounds that was my goal. 40 pounds I will no longer be overweight. As it is, I went from being obese to being not obese at 26 pounds, and I’m still losing. So I think I’m going to get there. And another important thing is, as my cholesterol and blood pressure shows, you don’t have to lose a ton of weight to get a big health benefit. 5% of your body weight, you can see some remarkable health benefits according to the people at The Weight Control Registry.

Barry Estabrook: So I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m never gonna be a skinny man. You have to repeal some of Mendel’s laws of genetics to an inheritance to do that, if you look at my family… I mean, in my family, we all are on the chunky side. So I’ll never be skinny, but I think I can be much less heavy and much healthier and much more physically vigorous than I was when I started out on this journey three years ago, four years ago now.

Brett McKay: Well, Barry, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work? 

Barry Estabrook: Well, the book is available through all of the regular outlets, Amazon, independent stores, any place you normally would buy books, you would be able to obtain a copy there.

Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Barry Estabrook, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

Barry Estabrook: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks an awful lot.

Brett McKay: My guest today was Barry Estabrook. He’s the author of the book Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen that Works. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. Make sure to check out our show notes at aom.is/rightdiet where you can links to resources, we delve deeper into this topic.

Brett McKay: Well, that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast, check out our website at ArtofManliness.com, where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles written over the years about pretty much anything you can think of. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to StitcherPremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you think will get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast but put what you’ve heard into action.

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