‘Just Eat’ Review: Got to Lose Some Weight

In the past two decades, one dimension of U.S. public health has undergone a shocking transformation: body weight. In 2000, the residents of West Virginia had an obesity rate of 23.9{2f17427fd8d14b96404d6ef87364a17728f61fb136c23dd9d1a68703fe6eba46}, the highest of any U.S. state. By 2019, Colorado had nearly the same rate (23.8{2f17427fd8d14b96404d6ef87364a17728f61fb136c23dd9d1a68703fe6eba46}), and it was the lowest of any state. Leaving aside a few small nations, the United States is the fattest country in the world, with an adult obesity rate exceeding 42{2f17427fd8d14b96404d6ef87364a17728f61fb136c23dd9d1a68703fe6eba46}.

The disease and disability that accompany excess weight have contributed to higher health-care costs and lower life expectancy. They’ve also created a $72 billion industry devoted to telling people how to shed extra pounds. These combined conditions—reasons to worry and strategies to manage—set the stage for

Barry Estabrook’s

“Just Eat,” an enlightening first-person account focused on the diets that Americans attempt to follow and the cultures that seem to have found a healthy relationship with food.

Mr. Estabrook’s chronicle begins with his getting a physical—and admitting to himself that he is 40 pounds overweight. He is saddled with high cholesterol, so his doctor ups the dosage of a drug to treat it—to the maximum permissible level. But with high blood pressure, a family history of heart disease and a self-image as “lumpy,” Mr. Estabrook sees that something more is needed: He decides to go on the first diet of his life.



Table of Contents

Just Eat

By Barry Estabrook

Lorena Jones, 242 pages, $26

Barry Estabrook.


Trent Campbell

While his journalistic background includes food writing (he’s a former editor of Eating Well magazine), Mr. Estabrook poses as a dietary Everyman: no expert scientific or medical knowledge and no investment in any one regimen: “I had no horse in the race other than my rotund belly.” He believes that, if he can find a way of losing weight after an adulthood “defined by chubbiness and a spotty record in the willpower department,” then “anyone could.”

But he’s candid about the challenge he faces, citing studies showing that few people succeed by using diets to achieve long-term weight loss—and a lot of dieters end up adding weight. “In many ways,” he writes, “dieting is a multibillion-dollar scam.” Still, he gives it a try.

First up is a diet called Whole30. Why that one? “It happened to be the weight-loss fad du jour.” (It claims more than three million social-media fans and followers.) The experiment has an inauspicious beginning. Mr. Estabrook struggles with the “draconian” rules—no peanuts, grains, dairy, beans or booze (though he’s free to eat as much meat or fish as he likes), and no weighing himself for the first 30 days. His digestive tract goes unpleasantly haywire. The first month of Whole30 leaves him 12 pounds lighter, but he quickly gains all the weight back.

He discovers that the diet’s creators have no formal training in nutrition (one has admitted to being a former drug addict) and that little scientific research supports their diet plan. Mr. Estabrook returns to this theme several times, profiling the “unscrupulous quacks” who, for more than a century, have been peddling diets that have few, if any, redeeming qualities. (Here’s looking at you, Master Cleanse, a liquid-only program typically lasting at least 10 days.)

Mr. Estabrook goes on to experiment with more than a dozen other eating strategies—including Weight Watchers, plant-based diets, South Beach, Atkins, paleo—and still finds himself 40 pounds overweight. “Why couldn’t I just eat?” he asks. “Plenty of other cultures do.”

This is the starting point for Mr. Estabrook’s exploration of eating routines that are integrated into broader habits. He travels to Loma Linda, Calif., a community that is home to large numbers of Seventh-day Adventists. They are nonsmoking vegetarian teetotalers whose lives are filled with physical movement, spiritual devotion, socializing and purpose. Studies show that men in the religion live up to 9.5 years longer, and women 6.1 years longer, than the average of their white counterparts in California. Mr. Estabrook doesn’t adopt any elements of Adventism, but he lets the faith’s story emerge through interviews with members and accounts of vigorous senior citizens.

He also travels to Greece to experience the vaunted Mediterranean diet, which is dominated by vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, unprocessed grains and olive oil, though allowing for limited meat, dairy and wine. He describes it as “the opposite of a fad diet”—the staple dishes can be traced back thousands of years. While the food consumed is high in fat (thanks in large part to the olive oil), Mr. Estabrook points to evidence that the cocktail of vegetables, seeds, legumes, herbs and spices helps fend off cancer and heart disease. One of his interview subjects says that the Mediterranean diet succeeds “because it calls for no willpower or sacrifice. People truly enjoy eating it.”

Enjoyment matters, but it’s only part of the solution. Regrettably, Mr. Estabrook has little to say about the forces that have caused America’s obesity rate to balloon, such as the proliferation of ultra-processed food and the dramatic growth in portion sizes: provoking, one might say, an over-indulgence in “enjoyment.” Even so, “Just Eat” illuminates the struggles that come with trying to lose weight, and Mr. Estabrook’s charmingly told story does have a happy ending: He drops 26 pounds.

The slimming wasn’t a product of any one diet. Instead he found himself drawing from elements of several to “radically” change what he consumed. The core of his new regime: more beans, more vegetables and more fat from olive oil; less meat, no sandwiches, no snacking and no alcohol—all supplemented by an hour a day of walking or cycling. His story shows that weight loss is possible through determination, experimentation and—importantly—a willingness to cook for oneself. Maybe he can write a sequel in a few years that will describe how he maintained such admirable dietary discipline—or how he tried to overcome the lapses into bad habits that bedevil us all.

Mr. Rees is editor of the Food and Health Facts newsletter, president of the ghostwriting firm Geonomica, and a senior fellow at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business.

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