About 45 million Americans go on a diet every year, and we spend about $33 billion on weight-loss products, trying to find a magic way to slim down. But the diet landscape is confusing and the science is contradictory. How do you know which diet works?
Investigative food journalist Barry Estabrook is best known for his 2011 award-winning book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, and other deep dives into the way our food system works. But when confronted with obesity and maxed out on blood pressure and cholesterol medications, he decided to turn the lens on himself.
In his new book, Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen That Works, he documents his sometimes funny but very real failures at today’s popular diets. Estabrook talks with diet gurus and sifts through dieting history and the latest nutrition studies. He discovers that unfortunately, these diets don’t really work in the long term for most people because they are too strict or require unnatural patterns of eating.
Estabrook talked with NPR about how he sorted through the noise and found his own path to better health.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you decide to go on this particular diet journey?
Well, my doctor read me the riot act. He said that I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels and he couldn’t prescribe more meds. He suggested that if I wanted to improve, I should lose some weight. So I did exactly the wrong thing. I jumped on the diet du jour, which was Whole30 at the time (a 30-day diet that eliminates most grains, sugar, legumes, dairy and processed food). It seemed like everybody I knew was on Whole30. And as might be predicted, I lost 13 pounds over the course of a month and then immediately regained all of them.
I then decided I’m doing exactly what I tell people not to do. I say you should learn everything you can about how your food is produced, what it’s doing to you. And I’ve gone on the Whole30. I gave it no more thought than I do when I buy a bag of yellow onions at the store.
So after I failed at the Whole30 diet, I decided to learn as much as I could about the dieting phenomena and various diets, hoping to find an eating regimen that would actually work for me.
So how did you go about the research?
I started looking at the history of dieting in North America, and we have a really weird, dysfunctional attitude toward food. For most of the country’s history, we’ve been the victims of an unending parade of quack diet experts. And every time people would go on one of these diets, a huge fad would sweep the country, and the designer of the diets would become famous and make millions. And then everyone would find out that it was simply bunk. And the phenomenon is still going on. So that gave me perspective, you know.
I also saw in that historical research that when you boil it down, there really are only three types of diets. And they keep getting recycled every generation or so with a different name and a slightly different gimmick. A guy in the 1850s went on what was almost exactly like the Atkins diet, which is very similar to a paleo diet, which is very similar to a keto diet or the South Beach Diet. They’re all the same in that you avoid carbohydrates and you can eat a lot of meat.
On the other hand, about the same time, there was a Presbyterian preacher, Sylvester Graham, who preached just the opposite — low fat, vegetarian, whole grains, which, of course, became the Pritikin diet, Dean Ornish’s diet and even the [American] Heart Association diet.
And he gave us the graham cracker, of course.
He lived on the graham cracker, but I can’t see the good preacher having a s’more. He would be shocked.
It’s full of sugar!
Yes. And then, finally, there’s a group of diets that really are just basically counting and keeping track of calories and limiting them. That started out in the early part of this century. And now it’s like Weight Watchers, Noom, Jenny Craig, those diets where you eat some days and don’t eat other days — when you limit your eating to a certain time period each day (intermittent fasting). They’re all just tricking you into reducing calories.
You recently tweeted something about why interpreting nutrition information is best left to scientists, not reporters. What do you mean by that?
Well, that’s the whole thing. I mean, people say we have different dietary advice every other month. But science is a cumulative process, especially in nutrition science. And it’s the weight of all the studies. … It’s hard to cover science news.
It is. Even though you said all these diets are basically bunk, you did talk in your book about the benefits of incorporating certain elements. Why is that important?
Well, after spending almost three years on probably a dozen diets, the one thing that became clear is that I was just so embarrassingly typical. You lose 5 to 10 percent of your body weight on a diet and then gain it back. Well, I did that about 10 different times. And so then I started to think, “Why is none of this working?”
It dawned on me that I don’t eat like a lot of these people. I cannot spend an hour chopping stuff for lunch. Sorry, I don’t want to be a total vegetarian. Or, do I want to never eat another piece of good sourdough bread again? It came to me that the problem with diets is, nobody likes being told what or how to eat. And we all have subtly different habits, not only in what we eat but, probably more important, how we eat.
And it dawned on me that [you] shouldn’t follow a diet — you should lead a diet. You should look at how you eat now, normally, and find things that you might be able to change or adjust or cut back on. I call them “big sins.”
I noticed when I was in Weight Watchers, everybody in my group had a “big sin.” Mine was that I drank too much. I was packing on an extra day’s worth of calories every week, which isn’t too hard to do if you have a couple of real home-sized cocktails a day or big glasses of wine. But you know, [other people in] the group had a real thing for sugary drinks or cookies or pizza. So I was looking into my own eating patterns and seeing where I could cut painlessly and get results.
I found I had to quit drinking, and I really, really cut back on processed carbohydrate products like bread.
And the chips?
You know, I live in the country, and we have a little combination gas station-convenience store-deli, and two or three or four times a week, I would grab a sandwich there and those little bags of chips, not thinking about it. That was like 400 calories for a little bag of Lay’s potato chips.
During my vegetarian and vegan phases, I learned some great recipes — a lovely lentil soup, a great ratatouille with not too much fat, chili without the carne. We’re eating a lot more vegetable meals. And I’m cutting out those things like potato chips and booze.
I remember when I was out in Loma Linda, California, where the Seventh-day Adventists make up a large percentage of the population and they’re largely vegetarian or lacto-ovo vegetarian. A woman there, when I told her I was trying to figure out how their diet worked to give them such longevity, she said to me, “Be mindful.” And I thought: “That was my potato chip problem, right?” It was a habit. I think everybody has things like that in their diet they can eliminate without a lot of effort. And also without really changing the way they eat.
But there are some things that are harder, like alcohol.
Yeah. Alcohol is a dirty trickster because you’re getting a lot of calories.
And they’re not on the label!
Yeah, you don’t want to think about how big that pour is when you’re sitting at the bar with a glass of wine. But that’s just the beginning of it. You’re setting yourself up mentally to eat more food. Not just because your willpower has gone, but because alcohol affects your sleep. And if you haven’t been sleeping well, you’re more liable to eat something you shouldn’t. People who drink, studies show, consume 400 more calories on days they drink than days they don’t.
I used to think when I went to these cocktail receptions that I would eat a lot because I was nervous. No. Alcohol stimulates hormones that make you think you’re hungry. It’s insidious in ways that go beyond calories. Same with sugar — a double whammy.
Did you learn anything interesting about the role of exercise?
It doesn’t seem fair, but exercise is not a great way to lose weight. You view it as a mathematical equation. Hey, if I go out and run for an hour, I’ll burn 400 calories that will allow me to have 400 more calories. It doesn’t work that way.
But, studies have shown that once you’ve lost the weight, exercise is really important for keeping it off. Your metabolism drops when you lose weight. And one way to raise your metabolism is to exercise.
So I’ve consciously upped [my exercise routine].
And you’ve also been able to lose weight and get rid of some of your medications.
I’d been on them since the late ’90s — my blood pressure and my cholesterol medicines. Another thing I was told, though, you don’t have to lose a whole lot of weight to get good health benefits — just lose 5% of your body weight. And you’ll start noticing things like I noticed. Five percent will do it.
Do you think that the lessons you learned also apply to women?
I’ve had my eyes opened just recently. There’s a sexist element [in these diet studies and many diet books], and to be honest, I haven’t really looked into that. I mean, Weight Watchers, for instance, has way more women than men. It’s very geared to women. But, you know, I’m not sure what you’d say with something like Whole30 — the person who designed that is a woman.
OK, so where do you think we need more information about diet, nutrition, exercise — how all these things intersect?
Contrary to the general impression, I think there’s now pretty broad agreement among the top scientists. You know, it’s the obvious stuff: Don’t eat too much meat, steer clear of simple sugars and processed carbs. Do nothing extreme.
Nutrition is so hard because you can’t really do double-blind controlled studies or things like that. They’re all epidemiological studies. And that always leaves room for a less-than-satisfying result.
Let the scientists learn all they possibly can about nutrition, and maybe we can make some big progress on Type 2 diabetes and obesity and all these things. But in the meantime, I think there’s enough agreement that shouldn’t prevent you from doing good stuff and not doing stupid stuff.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m ghostwriting another book with Jacques Pépin. It’s six months of work, and it’ll give me time to regroup and figure out what’s next. I want to cleanse my palate and spend a little more time fishing this summer, canoeing and things.