It’s the time of year when many people make resolutions: to read more, to exercise more, to drink less alcohol, to lose weight. These resolutions often fail before the first month of the year is over — particularly if they involve the “D” word.
Barry Estabrook starts his upcoming book, “Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen That Works,” with a quote from Samuel Beckett: “Probably nothing in the world arouses more false hopes than the first four hours of a diet.” Estabrook ought to know. With a family history of heart disease, he was taking the maximum dosage of cholesterol and blood pressure medications when his doctor told him he needed to lose 40 pounds. So he did what any journalist would do. The author of books such as the award-winning “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit” and former editor of EatingWell magazine gave himself an assignment.
Estabrook tried some of the most popular diets of recent decades — from the Master Cleanse to the Ornish Diet to South Beach to Whole30 to WW (formerly Weight Watchers). Along the way, he researched the history of dieting, the gurus behind the regimens, and the science that supported them (or didn’t). And he found what worked for him. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t any of the programs he tried. The Globe spoke with Estabrook by phone from his home in Vermont.
Q. So: Diets. You tried a lot of them. How’d it go?
A. I tried a dozen or more diets. I flunked every one of them. It was classic. They say most dieters lose 5 to 10 percent of their body weight on a diet and gain all of it back, if not a little more. It was so banal that I felt bad: I’m not exceptional in any way, just like they say in research papers. But my failed diets all taught me a little something — except for maybe the cleanse, which taught me not to go on a cleanse.
Q. Is a cleanse actually cleansing?
A. The fact is they don’t cleanse at all. Your liver has evolved to be a very good cleanser. It does everything you need just fine. You’ll starve yourself, and you’ll have a very interesting relationship with the lavatory. But cleansing just isn’t what is happening.
Q. Many of the diets you tried or looked into as historical precedents seemed to have a lot in common.
A. A lot of dieting is rebranding. There are really only three diets, and then you rebrand them. If you can figure out a clever little trick, you too can be worth millions of dollars. One diet will tell you to avoid fat and meat. One diet will tell you to avoid carbohydrates, especially simple ones. And the other is just a matter of counting calories, basically. They all can be traced back to those, I think.
Q. One thing I wondered about is the psychological focus of some new outfits, like Noom, for instance. I’m not sure I’d seen that as an explicit approach before.
A. Noom, as far as I can see — I didn’t do it, but it’s basically Weight Watchers in different clothing. I was a little surprised to find out the head of science for the whole Weight Watchers company is not a dietitian or a doctor. He’s a psychologist. Stuff like Weight Watchers is very, very heavy on the psychological side of it. There’s group reinforcement. Although I’ve never been to AA, it’s a lot like AA. You get in a meeting. You have all these sayings. You have a group leader who talks about eating and stress.
Q. Although Weight Watchers (now called WW) ultimately didn’t work for you, it sounds like it did help you figure out where you could cut back on calories without putting your willpower through the wringer.
A. Cheese was the weird one. On Weight Watchers, I couldn’t bring it in under my limit if I indulged in the little cheese I was having, mostly as a dessert or as a snack. I never thought of it until I sat down and started adding everything up. If you’d told me cheese was a problem, I wouldn’t have necessarily agreed with you at first. The other thing was my unconscious potato chip habit. You’re driving a car, you drive a lot in the country, and it was nothing to pull in, get gas, pick up a bottle of water and a bag of potato chips. It was like a day’s worth of calories per week in potato chips. Quitting that required no willpower. I just sort of took a look at my own stuff and picked what seemed to be the easiest targets. Until you start putting it into practice, you don’t know what is going to work for you. That’s the important thing I learned. We all know the likely bad guys, but until you really assess and think about it and try, you don’t know what’s going to work.
Q. So there is no “best” diet plan.
A. It was one of my epiphanies: It’s completely wrong to quote-unquote follow a diet. That to me is why diets fail. Eating is deeply personal, right up there with sex. If you try to follow someone else’s recommended eating habits, it’s a recipe for failure, it’s not you. It can be little things. What do you do for lunch each day? Everyone’s different. What about dinner around your house? Breakfast? You can’t follow a diet. If anything, you should lead a diet, by saying: Here’s how I eat. That’s the boss. So here’s what I should probably change about how I eat if I’m going to lose weight.
Q. Another big thing for you was alcohol. Can you talk a little bit about that, as many people participate in Dry January, abstaining from drink for the month?
A. It was easier for me to cut it out than to cut it back to one drink a day. It’s easier not to have the first drink than not to have the third drink. Obviously, there’s a lot of calories. It’s more than you think. They say two drinks a day. OK, that’s for men; one drink for you, sorry. A glass of wine, which is one drink, is 5 ounces. Well, I’m sorry, if you ever went to a bar and they poured you a 5-ounce glass of wine — they don’t. It’s way more than that. At home it’s even worse. When was the last time you carefully measured 1.5 ounces of gin for a gin and tonic? Secondly, lots of research shows that those calories go right on top of the calories you would normally eat. It’s not instead of some other calories. And it does increase your appetite. It activates hormones that make you feel hungrier, that tell your body you’re hungry even if you’re not. And finally, it wrecks your sleep. If you’re not getting good sleep, you’re really prone to eating more. It’s not conscious willpower. It’s doing it in a very insidious way. Who would have thought that on the days you don’t get a good night’s sleep you’re more inclined to put an extra spoonful of sugar in your coffee? Lots of scientific research shows that if you don’t get sleep, you eat more the next day.
Q. One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was getting to know the personalities behind the diets. It’s quite a lot of eccentrics. Did anyone stand out for you?
A. I’m fascinated by Sylvester Graham. He started out as a Presbyterian preacher and became really involved in temperance, and that led him to develop this belief in this really bland diet, like the most boring diet in the world. No meat, no spices, no mustard, no alcohol, no coffee, no nothing you’d want to live for. His greatest enemy was libido, and the worst sin of all was masturbation. He thought if you ate these foods you’d tend to masturbate. He was completely fascinated by it. And he lives on in the Graham cracker. He lives on in s’mores and cheesecake crusts.
Q. There’s such a historical connection, in the US at least, between dieting, sexuality, morality, religion.
A. We’re saddled with a couple things historically. Your own Boston Cooking School [founded in 1879], all those ladies — and I guess they were all ladies — were basically Puritans, a generation or two away from strict Puritanism. You weren’t supposed to take pleasure in physical tastes and that sort of stuff. The whole Protestant go-it-alone individualism, pleasure is to be mistrusted, is at the root of a lot of our attitudes to food to this day. It’s why we go on diets, probably. I’ve got four bookshelves in front of me now of diet books I’ve read, and no one really talks about the real aesthetic joys and rewards of a good meal.
Q. Do you have any closing advice for a reader who wants to lose weight?
A. Look into your own eating habits. Don’t start with someone else’s. Start with your own.