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Reporter test-drives a dozen diets to lose weight long-term. Here's what finally worked

At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, he weighed 238 pounds — a BMI that put him firmly in the obese category.
Collage of before and after pictures of man
Barry Estabrook was never bothered by his extra weight until it started to affect his health. He finally found a way to lose 28 pounds and keep it off.Courtesy Barry Estabrook
/ Source: TODAY

Right about this time of year, many people will try the Whole30 diet hoping to lose weight and start January on a healthier note.

Journalist Barry Estabrook found the plan left him “grumpy, dull-witted, sleepy, dizzy and plagued by cravings.”

“A friend of mine once said the Whole30 is easy — you just have to give up everything that makes life worth living,” Estabrook told TODAY.

He had equally strong impressions about more than a dozen weight-loss plans he tried over two years as part of a goal to shed 40 pounds and get his health back on track. Estabrook, 67, chronicles his experiences in the new book, “Just Eat: One Reporter's Quest for a Weight-Loss Regimen that Works.”

He’d been overweight most of his life, but wasn’t bothered by his growing belly and had never dieted. Things changed when Estabrook’s doctor told him his blood pressure and cholesterol levels were too high despite strong medications to get them under control. At 5 feet, 9 inches tall, he weighed 238 pounds, a BMI that put him firmly in the obese category.

Estabrook stuck with the Whole30 — a plan he called “nothing short of draconian" — for a month, losing 12 pounds, but quickly regaining them afterwards.

He moved on to the Master Cleanse, a liquid fast that’s also called “The Lemonade Diet,” and quit after four days when it left him faint and feeling like he had the flu.

More regimens followed: The low-fat, plant-based Ornish diet required “every ounce of willpower.” The lower-carb South Beach diet left him chopping vegetables all day long to prepare meals. After trying keto, Estabrook was convinced it would have been bad for his health had he stayed on it for a long time. Tracking his food intake with WW (Weight Watchers) soon became a chore and he found it inconvenient to go to the meetings. Intermittent fasting didn’t make him feel good: The times when he couldn’t eat anything “were just nasty," he said.

Each time, he quickly regained any weight he lost.

“I flunked every diet,” said Estabrook, who lives in Vergennes, Vermont. “Sure, I could force myself to obey something for a month or so, but then come right back” to the previous routine.

Estabrook’s conclusions:

  • There are only three diets: Low-fat, low-carb and limited caloric intake. All popular eating plans are a repackaged and re-tweaked version of one of these.
  • Rigid diets almost never work over the long term — the moment people back off a little bit, whether because of cravings, boredom or inconvenience, the tiny slips accumulate and lead to weight gain.
  • In many ways, dieting is a “multibillion-dollar scam,” he writes — people spend money and put themselves “through all sorts of agony” without success.
  • It's not a fair fight: “Your body does not want you not to eat. It doesn't want to get skinny,” Estabrook said. Given less food, it undergoes physical, metabolic and hormonal changes to fight back so it's not just a matter of willpower for dieters. “It's like a full on war,” he noted.

He vowed never go on a diet again.

Still, Estabrook found a way to lose 28 pounds and keep it off for two years. He now weighs 210 pounds, and his cholesterol and blood pressure are back in the normal ranges.

Here’s what worked for him:

You have to find your own path.

Losing weight is something you have to customize for yourself. After test-driving more than a dozen diets, Estabrook decided to choose bits and pieces from some of the plans — essentially cherry-picking the parts that he found helpful.

“Eating is deeply personal. You can't fit your way of eating onto somebody else’s template,” he said. “Most of the non-crazy diets had a lesson for me.”

The ultra-low-fat diet taught him to enjoy lentils, beans and meatless chili. The low-carb diets showed him it was important to cut back on processed flours, processed grains and sugar.

Counting calories with WW helped him discover his weaknesses — foods he hadn’t thought about that were sending him over his daily limit.

Identify your ‘demons.’

Estabrook doesn’t have a sweet tooth, but he loves cheese. He’d have a few slices every day as a snack or appetizer before dinner. He also developed a habit of stopping at the gas station and grabbing a bag of chips. A daily glass of wine or two contributed more calories.

He had no problem staying within his calorie limits if he skipped those items, so he "ruthlessly" cut back. He was also “stern” with white breads, white pastas and white rice, but didn’t eliminate them from his diet.

There's nothing he doesn't consume except alcohol. He simply finds it easier not to have the first glass of wine, than not to have the second.

Headshot of a man wearing a blue shirt
Estabrook's daily regimen now also includes at least an hour of exercise, usually a walk or a bicycle ride. He didn't enjoy working out at a gym.Courtesy Trent Campbell

Estabrook knows other people’s big issues might be pizza or sweets. One woman in his WW group could not get in a car for a road trip without enormous quantities of candies, chips and sugary sodas. Addressing those “bad actors” leads to more weight loss with less trying.

“If you can identify your big problem areas and make modest changes in those, you can have a big effect,” he said, “without torturing yourself.”

Look for healthy foods that keep you full.

Some of Estabrook’s favorites include:

Nuts: He eats 15-20 almonds — about a handful — at breakfast. They provide the fat and protein he doesn’t get from zero-fat yogurt, keep him full until lunch and are good for the heart.

Soup as a meal: He particularly enjoys white bean stew with broccoli rabe, red lentil soup, mushroom barley soup and meatless chili, which he found to be “glorious, satisfying” choices.

Today, Estabrook called himself a work in progress.

“I'm not suffering and I'm still slowly going down,” he noted. “I can't see myself ever being a svelte man… (but) you don't necessarily have to get skinny or even ‘un-obese’ to have health benefits from losing weight.”