My doctor delivered the bad news at the end of a routine physical several years ago. My blood pressure and cholesterol levels were dangerously elevated, even with maximum doses of medications. All signs suggested that, having entered my 60s, I was headed down the path taken by too many men in my family. One of my grandfathers died young from cardiac disease. My father suffered the first of two heart attacks at age 58 and eventually died of a stroke at 70. At 64, my brother passed away from a massive heart attack. With more meds out of the question, I only had one option: lose weight—at least 40 pounds.
I had fattened up gradually. Being a bit (eventually quite a bit) overweight didn't bother me. I was strong and active, and there was always one fatter guy around. But lately I had noticed that hiking, cycling and cross-country skiing, all of which I loved, were becoming harder and less enjoyable. The lumpy guy who looked back at me from the mirror no longer fit the image I had of myself. My first grandchild had recently arrived, which gave me another truly important reason to want to stick around. And I'll admit, there was an element of vanity. I decided to do something I had avoided for my entire life: I went on a diet.
Related: What's the Best Diet to Lose Weight?
Down the Diet Rabbit Hole
I knew the odds were stacked against me. In 2007, Traci Mann, Ph.D., a psychologist who researches eating behaviors at the University of Minnesota, analyzed more than 30 weight-loss studies—still the most comprehensive review of research on diets to date. Typically, participants dropped between 5% and 10% of their body weight. But only temporarily. Within two years, 4 out of 5 participants weighed more than they did initially. There are many reasons for the dismal success rate. Willpower flags. You go back to your old eating habits and the pounds pile back on. And it seems like your body does everything it can to make you fail. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that dieters had reduced levels of leptin, a hormone that makes you feel full, and increased levels of the hormone ghrelin, which makes you hungry—with the altered levels persisting even a year after they'd completed their weight loss. Still, I was determined to find a way to get rid of those extra pounds and keep them off.
My first attempt was a disaster. I decided to go on the Whole30, which I picked for precisely the wrong reason (although it's probably the same reason most people choose a diet): At the time, it was the fad du jour. It seemed like half the people I knew were on it. Whole30 is based on tough love taken to an extreme. For 30 days, I was to avoid a long list of foods, including virtually all dairy products, grains (even whole ones), legumes, alcohol and sugar or calorie-free sweeteners. Eliminate was the operative principle. If I consumed even a minuscule amount of a forbidden item at any time during those 30 days—a nibble of cheese, a sip of pinot noir, a forkful of pasta—I would have to start all over again at Day 1. The program is a variation on the popular paleo diets, based on the theory that we modern humans would be thinner and healthier if only we ate what our Stone Age forebears had evolved to eat before the invention of agriculture: plenty of meat, lots of vegetables and little else.
I did survive my 30 days of deprivation, and when I stepped on the scale—something Whole30 had forbidden me to do while I was on the diet—I found that I had lost 13 pounds. I was more than a quarter of the way toward achieving my goal.
Then I promptly gained it all back.
So I decided to apply my reporter's skills to my campaign to lose weight. I would read research papers and consult with doctors, nutritionists and other experts to find out what was happening to me and why—and what I should do. No more latching on to the latest fad. My journey became the basis of a book.
It turns out that my stint as a Whole30er could have had more serious consequences than regaining those lost pounds. Laura Kerns, R.D., a senior clinical dietitian at Ochsner Health in New Orleans, explained that eliminating grains and dairy products drastically reduced my intake of the B vitamins thiamin, riboflavin, folate and niacin, particularly troubling because niacin levels can affect blood pressure. I was also missing out on fiber and the reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity that is linked to eating plenty of it. Moreover, far from being a no-no, weighing yourself can actually be helpful. A study published in the Journal of Obesity is one of many showing that dieters who frequently step on the scale lose more weight than those who avoid it. Nor are "slips" reason for self-loathing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 99.9% of dieters experience lapses, and as long as you don't allow yourself to become discouraged, those setbacks can be valuable learning experiences that lead to success. Little wonder that U.S. News & World Report ranked Whole30 near the bottom of the more than three dozen diets it evaluated for their efficacy and healthfulness.
Deprivation through the Ages
In flunking my first diet, though, I had plenty of company. For more than two centuries, Americans have been suckers for an assortment of crooks, crackpots and quacks promising quick and easy weight loss. Many of the schemes foisted on our nation by gonzo-diet promoters seem almost humorous—if not flat-out reckless—today. In the late 1800s, Horace Fletcher, a San Francisco businessman, hit upon the notion that protracted chewing of every bite of food would not only make adherents healthier, but would actually eliminate slums and crime. Fletcher decreed that every morsel must be chewed at a rate of 100 times a minute and swallowed only after it was liquefied and devoid of taste. This prevented "putrid decomposition" in the stomach and rendered feces no more odorous than a hot biscuit. He carried samples of his own excrement to prove that point. Under the slogan "Nature will castigate those who don't masticate," Fletcherism became an international phenomenon, adopted by luminaries like John D. Rockefeller, Thomas Edison and Franz Kafka. Socialites held Fletcher luncheons, where they timed their chews with stopwatches. One U.S. senator suggested that all American schoolchildren be taught Fletcherism.
The Great Masticator had ample off-the-wall competition in the 19th century. While treating Civil War soldiers on battlefields, J.H. Salisbury, M.D., claimed to have discovered that a meat-only diet was the secret to a long, healthy life. A day's menu included 3 pounds of rump steak and a pound of codfish. Vegetables were forbidden, since Salisbury believed they caused heart disease, tumors and other "grave disturbances." His name survives in the Salisbury steaks made famous in 1950s-era frozen TV dinners. James Raymond Devereux, a New Zealander, took the opposite approach in his grandiosely titled book Eating to Banish Disease and to Save Civilisation. Meat was off the table. The first meal of the day had to be all vegetables. The second all fruit. The third all nuts. And New York physician William Hay, M.D., insisted that the only way to stay slim was never to eat protein and carbohydrates in the same meal.
In the 1920s, the Hollywood Diet swept the nation, as actors slimmed down by eating grapefruit and not much else. (Writing in his wise, ominously titled 1935 book, Diet and Die, Carl Malmberg, who'd go on to be chief investigator for the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health and Education, observed that "there are no figures to show how many people literally killed themselves or became seriously ill by following the popular starvation diet, but it is certain that the toll was heavy.") John Harvey Kellogg, M.D., brother of the founder of the eponymous cereal company, reportedly fed patients with high blood pressure nothing but grapes—up to 14 pounds of them a day.
The cabbage soup diet became all the rage despite having the unfortunate side effect of explosive flatulence. Other ploys were downright toxic. Lucky Strike cigarette marketers encouraged female customers to "reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet." In his 1960s bestseller The Drinking Man's Diet, cosmetics executive Robert Cameron pitched virtually unlimited quantities of booze and fatty meat. My father went on Cameron's diet. He did lose some weight, but his first heart attack came a few years later.
Early weight-loss advocates did promote some less-far-fetched programs that survive today, inevitably rechristened with catchy new names. In the mid-1800s, Sylvester Graham, a Presbyterian minister (of graham cracker fame), preached the gospel of eating a bland, meatless diet heavy on whole grains and unleavened bread. It had the added benefit, he claimed, of lowering libido and preventing masturbation. These dubious merits aside, Graham's ideas heralded modern vegan, vegetarian and low-fat diets, such as those from the American Heart Association, Dean Ornish, M.D., and Pritikin.
William Banting, an undertaker for upper-class Londoners (including the royal family) around that same time, was once so fat he could not bend to tie his shoes, or, as he put it delicately, "attend to the little offices humanity requires." He lost weight and regained his health by doing exactly the opposite of what Graham prescribed, subsisting on meat and fat and almost no carbohydrates. The Atkins, South Beach, paleo and keto diets can trace their origins to the famous obese British funeral director.
In the late 1800s, Wilbur Olin Atwater, an American chemist who studied metabolism and nutrition, advocated limiting calories to control weight, ushering in the era of the ultra-slender flapper. Although they avoid using the word "calorie," WW International (formerly Weight Watchers), Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem and intermittent-fasting diets are all designed to limit calorie intake.
Secrets of the Slim
I decided to take several modern diets on test drives to see which ones I could stick with—an exercise that took me several years. I cleansed. I became a vegetarian, then a vegan. I joined Weight Watchers. I went gluten-free. I tried Ornish's extremely low-fat, meat-free diet, as well as meat-is-just-fine plans like South Beach, Atkins and paleo. But whatever route I took, the results were the same. I slimmed down only to plump back up. Research shows that my experience was typical. In a large, long-term study with more than 800 participants, a team led by Frank Sacks, M.D., a professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, found that, ultimately, the type of diet doesn't matter. Subjects lost and then regained the same amount of weight regardless of which program they chose.
So I began to look at cultures around the world that have no tradition of dieting—where people just eat—and yet are skinnier and healthier than most Americans.
Greeks have stuck to their diet for thousands of years because eating the Mediterranean way is a pleasure, not an ordeal.
On the balcony of her country place on the coast not far from Athens, I met up with Antonia Trichopoulou, M.D., head of Greece's Hellenic Health Foundation, who has extensively researched the Mediterranean diet. She served me a lunch of eggplant stew and explained that the key to the health benefits of the diet is the liberal use of olive oil in vegetable-forward meals. Oil makes the cuisine filling, and adding plenty of herbs renders it vibrant and exciting. Greeks have stuck to their diet for thousands of years because eating the Mediterranean way is a pleasure, not an ordeal. That sounded good to me, but I wondered about other blue zones—cultures with remarkable leanness and longevity—that enjoy similar health benefits.
According to numerous studies, if I wanted to live forever, I should move to Loma Linda, California. A sizable percentage of the small city's residents are Seventh-Day Adventists. In that group, research shows that men live an average of 7.3 years longer than the typical Californian male; women survive 4.4 years longer than their counterparts. Both enjoy a significantly lower risk of obesity. And the city is awash in centenarians. A big reason, according to Gary Fraser, M.D., a distinguished professor at Loma Linda University School of Public Health, is what they eat—or rather don't eat. For religious reasons, many Adventists follow a vegan diet or a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, which includes eggs and dairy products, but no meat, poultry or seafood. Those who do eat meat, do so rarely. They don't snack between meals, drink or smoke, and they get regular—but not necessarily strenuous—exercise. "When you are brought up on a good vegetarian diet by someone who knows how to cook, you really don't miss meat," Fraser told me. When I asked whether I'd have to become an Adventist to enjoy these health benefits, he assured me that if I simply ate like a member of his church, I too could enjoy a longer, slimmer life.
Across the Atlantic, however, I encountered a different dietary point of view. I have always envied the French. They get to eat all sorts of cheeses and succulent meats, smothered in rich sauces and enjoyed with great wines, and yet the nation has half the rate of obesity as the U.S. and its people are 65% less likely to die of circulatory ailments. It's called the "French paradox."
But when you look at how they eat, rather than what they eat, there's no paradox at all. In his book Manger ("Eating"), Claude Fischler, a sociologist and anthropologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research, compares the attitudes of his countrymen and Americans toward the act of eating. The two cultures could hardly be more at odds. The French tend to put quality over quantity. They appreciate the ritual of dining with friends and loved ones. They are mindful about the food they consume and don't snack or eat on the run. We North Americans, on the other hand, are used to giant portions and view the act of eating as something to be conducted as efficiently as possible, whether at our desks, on the subway or in front of the television.
"I always eat with pleasure and no guilt."
To learn how to eat like the French firsthand, I visited an old acquaintance, chef Jacques Pépin, who moved from France to the U.S. in the 1950s. While the food he cooks these days has been Americanized to a degree, his philosophy on eating remains French. "I always eat with pleasure and no guilt," he explained. Pépin has never dieted in his life. "If I overdo it, I'll cut back for a day or two—but I eat what I would normally eat. I never avoid a specific food," he added. As we sat down and ate together, Pépin had small portions of everything, but refrained from seconds. If he had a piece of Comté cheese, it was a morsel. "If you eat slower and eat better, taking the time to taste what you put in your mouth, you eat less and enjoy it more. You get satisfied," he said. "I'll never forget the first time my mother, who loved roast beef, came over to visit. We took her to a restaurant, and when she saw the size of her prime rib, she nearly fell off her chair. She thought it was for the entire table of eight." Delicious food in modest amounts is what Pépin is convinced helps with weight control and overall health.
Not one expert I talked to had anything good to say about added sugar, alcohol or ultra-processed carbohydrates, such as those in white bread and pasta. All of these "usual suspects" can pack on far more weight than their calorie content alone suggests. Super-refined carbs, for example, cause blood sugar levels to spike, triggering a surge in insulin that results in more calories being stored away in fat cells. They are digested so fast that we quickly become hungry again and wind up eating more than we need. They hook us in ways similar to addictive drugs. They lower our metabolisms so we burn calories more slowly. And they impair willpower without us even realizing it.
When I had just about concluded that most weight-loss plans were futile—at least for me—I discovered that somehow thousands of Americans have succeeded. The records of their achievements are maintained by the National Weight Control Registry, whose 12,000-plus enrollees have lost a minimum of 30 pounds and kept the weight off for an average of six years. J. Graham Thomas, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, has been studying members to find out how they did it. The secret is that there is no secret. Some ate low-fat, some ate low-carb, some ate normally. Half participated in organized weight-loss programs, half did it on their own. Some lost dozens of pounds simply by switching from regular beer to light. I call it the Frank Sinatra Diet: they did it their way.
That made sense to me. I decided to examine the way I have always eaten and tweak that or, if need be, hack away at it. That meant eliminating or drastically reducing the "usual suspects" in my diet. From my stint at Weight Watchers, I knew that sugary foods are a huge contributor to obesity for many. A lot of my fellow WWers found that pounds started falling off once they controlled their sweet tooth. I have whatever the opposite of a sweet tooth is, so sugar wasn't my problem. On the other hand, I had plenty of weaknesses that were keeping me plump. I love bread, especially the white sourdough variety. So I virtually eliminated it from my diet. For similar reasons, pasta became a rare treat, rather than a weeknight standby. Beans, I found, filled the pasta void and also made satisfying substitutions (with fewer calories) in meals that would have once included a slab of meat. I quit alcohol completely because it was easier for me to abstain than to carefully monitor what I drank. And the pounds began disappearing painlessly. Your list of suspects will no doubt differ. But if you find them and attack them, you, too, could lose weight—your way.
In retrospect, I learned a lot from the diets I unsuccessfully endured. Thanks to Ornish, I added a few tasty vegetarian recipes to my repertoire. South Beach taught me that fiber—lots of it—was a nearly zero-calorie way to feel full and satisfied. For the same reason, I now buy olive oil, a Mediterranean diet cornerstone, in institutional-sized bottles and deploy it liberally in vegetable main courses. Keeping track of "points" at WW showed me that my cheese snacking habit inevitably pushed me over my daily allotment.
On that fateful day at the doctor's that started me on this journey, I weighed 238 pounds. Now I'm 212. My blood pressure tumbled from an unhealthy 164 over 86 to an ideal 112 over 62. My cholesterol levels are now normal. No one would call me svelte. I'm still very much a work in progress, but as surveys of members of the Weight Control Registry show, keeping the pounds off becomes more effortless over time as the habits required to maintain your weight become automatic. That strikes me as being pretty much the opposite of requiring willpower.
BARRY ESTABROOK is a three-time James Beard Award–winning journalist. His book Just Eat: One Reporter's Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen That Works comes out in February.