I COULD say that the reason I wanted to lose weight was so that I would have more time on this planet with my wife and kids.
And sure, those were huge motivating factors for me, but really it came down to the small things. Like having to carry a washcloth or a wad of paper towel in my pocket so that I could mop my brow when needed (which was often).
Like sweating through my clothing, even on cool days, almost immediately after putting it on.
Like stepping into an elevator and holding my breath because I didn’t want the other people in the elevator to hear how hard I was breathing.
Like going to sleep at night with my feet hurting so bad that I feared I wouldn’t be able to walk the next day.
Like wondering whether every chair or bench would support my weight.
Like the fucking stairs—any number of them.
All these small things were constants in my life.
I’ve blamed this host of nagging and uncomfortable problems on a lot of things: genetics, my upbringing, In-N-Out Burger, myself. But what I blame these days is the very thing that also always promised to help me lose weight though in the long run never did: my deep and complex history with dieting.
Confession #1: Diets led me to a double life.
I STARTED dieting when I was five years old. While other kids my age went to sports camps, there I was, at my grandparents’ home in Vermont, with them limiting my portion sizes and watching my habits because I had “let myself go.”
I don’t remember how much I weighed at the time, but my slightly chubby cheeks and affinity for TV were sure signs to my grandparents that I needed to go on a diet. They didn’t have a scientifically backed plan or even a structure to their approach, but they were my grandparents, so I obeyed, despite that other voice that told me “to thine own self be true.”
Back home, over the course of the next decade, my parents had me run the gauntlet of eating plans. Optifast. Atkins. Candida. The Beverly Hills Diet (how fancy). The Cabbage Soup Diet (how appetizing). There was one diet that banned anything red (beets, onions, peppers, meat). Another banned anything white (onions, dairy, turkey/chicken/ pork, mayonnaise).
Real food, seen and sorted by hue, began to lose its appeal. And junk food, in all its gleaming glory, tasted even better if I could sneak it. I’d binge-eat in secret, shoving whole sandwiches in my mouth and dry-swallowing when no one was looking.
I’d intercept the Domino’s pizza guy, paying with loose coins, eating the slices hidden on the strip of concrete separating our house from our neighbors’, and disposing the evidence in any trash can that wasn’t ours.
The kicker to all this was that if my parents thought that I’d achieved a solid week of dieting (meaning I’d successfully hidden my transgressions from them), they’d treat me to a trip to the drive-through.
So eventually, when I had my own car and some money (thank you, Boy Meets World), I “rewarded” myself daily for nothing more than being alive.
Sure, sometimes I’d order a chicken club at Carl’s Jr., but it was as a supplement to the two-patty Super Star. Fries? Of course, but why not fries and nuggets?
I once heatedly argued with the drive-through intercom at an In-N-Out. The employee didn’t want to put four tiny milkshakes into an extra-large soda cup, made me do it myself, and charged me for the cup. The audacity!
Diets were something done to me, and what I really craved when I gulped back a milkshake was my independence. Diets only ever offered me the illusion of control, but I was too young to know that yet.
Eat Right for Your Type. The Zone. South Beach. Fit for Life. The Hollywood Diet (which is different from the Beverly Hills Diet, mind you).
All these diets worked, for a time and with diligence, but I always felt like I had more weight to lose. Before I ever reached my goal, I failed. And if I failed on a diet, I believed that I failed the diet, not that the diet failed me.
By the time I was 24, I weighed more than 500 pounds and knew the location of every 24-hour fast-food drive-through in Los Angeles. I had a decent career as the lovable fat guy in movies and on television, but I was—and this may be an understatement—generally unhappy.
Then I found low-carb.
Confession #2: I thought losing weight would fix everything.
WHENEVER I went on a diet, I’d lose weight—at first. But then, regardless of the fad diet’s promise of how delicious its “lifestyle” was, I’d lose interest, give in, and give up.
But low-carb was different. It made sense to me as a dieter: Blaming and avoiding an entire food group was so much easier than doing so for specific foods. (Plus, I could technically still eat hot dogs and nacho cheese.)
I started low-carb in 2016 and lost almost 100 pounds over the next two years—more than I ever had before on any other diet.
I was one-fifth less the man I was, but I wasn’t seeing the benefits I thought I would. I struggled at the gym. I had trouble building muscle and endurance. I looked smaller but felt no stronger.
After undergoing a DEXA-scan analysis in 2018, I discovered that for every ten pounds I lost doing low-carb, four of those pounds were lean muscle tissue. I wasn’t eating the mounds of carbs I used to, but I was starving my body of protein.
And here’s where my “experience” as a dieter took hold: I knew that I had to eat more protein but that doing so would likely kick me out of ketosis, and I had to stay in ketosis because my body could only lose weight when in ketosis, and the only energy my body could function on was ketones, and I, like most of the world’s population, was deathly allergic to carbohydrates.
All this, I finally admitted to myself, was madness.
As most people struggling for answers amid a personal crisis do, I found myself on YouTube watching TED Talks.
There was one with this guy Mike Israetel, Ph.D., called “The Scientific Landscape of Healthy Eating.” This maniac was putting forth the idea that there was really no human body with a carbohydrate allergy.
“Get behind me, Satan!” I screamed at my laptop as I slammed it shut. “This blasphemous savage is going to get people killed!”
I quickly went back to his talk for a round-two spite watch. And then a third, and a fourth, until I realized: What if the “something I was eating” that was “causing me to accumulate excess fat” was just . . . too much food?
What if I could no longer blame food?
So I read Israetel’s book, and then I read more anti-diet books. And I started to implement not a diet but a healthful approach to eating. It was the middle of 2018 and I weighed 330 pounds, having lost another 70 on low-carb, but I still felt weak.
My new approach began and ended with a simple premise: Nothing was really off-limits.
The main thing I had to do was make sure I didn’t eat more calories than I expended each day. And guess what? Foods that were nutritious—dark leafy greens, chicken, salmon—also tended to be much lower in calories than, say, a two-patty Super Star.
As I became more calorie conscious, I started to binge less and fill up on healthier foods. After a few months of this, calories stopped being calories. They started being food.
I also started drinking way more water (including the sweet nectar of the gods that is Spindrift sparkling water) and protein shakes, both of which helped me stay full.
If all this sounds simple, it was. I couldn’t blame GMOs, carbs, sugar, red foods, white foods, nonorganic foods, dairy, or animal products.
At the end of the day, I was going to do a bunch of math to calculate my macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat), measure out some food, and stick to eating just that food.
At first, my weight log looked a little like this. (And I’m paraphrasing here.)
I was gaining weight. I readjusted my macronutrients to fit my new exercise plan and stayed (mostly) calm and rational until my body began to recalibrate within a week.
After a lot of tracking (and math), my diet shook out to chicken and rice with vegetables, and protein shakes with water in between. It wasn’t exciting, but this calorie-guided, protein-forward, some-carb approach was working.
The weight loss wasn’t dramatic like with a crash diet. Once I found my stride, I’d lose two pounds a week, max. Within a few weeks, I felt better, looked better, and had a stable plan that I could see being a lifelong one.
I also knew that even if my mind was telling me that it needed something else (Brain: You want a large pizza), I didn’t (Ethan: No, I do not), and I would be okay (I was).
Now I eat pretty close to what my body requires to get me through a day. Occasionally I have a bite of something purely for the entertainment. And not only am I happy and healthy, but I actually feel like I have the control that diets always offered but only ever as a siren’s song.
Confession #3: I would now trade nothing for my health.
I’M 44 and weigh 260 pounds. I can bench-press 405. I want to hit 10 percent body fat, and I’m within reach. When I was half my age and almost double my weight, you could say that I was successful.
But I look back and can’t reconcile my professional success with my inner turmoil. If faced with the choice of never acting again or remaining healthy, I’d find another way to make a living.
I now understand that early on in my life, I developed a bunch of bad habits. These habits basically broke my body’s ability to tell me when to stop eating.
Diets told me I was defective—and yo-yo dieting is the worst sort of hell. It is chasing a goal that disappears immediately once achieved.
But now, by putting in the work to devise my own way of eating (which, and this is important here, may not be your way of eating), I’ve taken back control from diets that commandeered my free will and plunged me into binge-eating.
Eating well (which is dramatically different from dieting) is tedious. But this tedium doesn’t last. Much in the way that I developed bad habits through dieting, I’ve found, with some effort, that I can program good habits.
The biggest gift through all this has been learning that I can have whatever sort of body I want. All it takes is understanding how—and then trusting only myself to follow through.
This article originally appeared in the October 2020 issue of Men’s Health.
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