As we at MamaSezz well know, changing to a plant-based diet can change your life in ways you never expected. In this series, we talk with some of the world’s most soulful, dedicated (and often funny) individuals. We get to hear their stories of suffering, transformation, and service — and we learn how food is an essential part of their journey.
This week, MamaSezz co-founder Meg Donahue sat down with Chuck Carroll. Chuck is the host of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine's popular program, The Exam Room Podcast, and he is known widely as the "weight loss champion," (a name given to him by an NFL player for losing an incredible 275 pounds!).
Scroll down to read the highlights of their interview.
Meg (00:00): Chuck you have such an amazing story. Can you kind of set the scene for what happened? What was it like before you lost weight?
There's so much that leads up to getting up to 420 pounds and then losing all that weight, you know. The story for anybody that's lost an incredible amount of weight can be quite long. But for me, in a nutshell, it's a story about food addiction. And the seeds for that got planted very early in life unbeknownst to me at the time.
I was raised by primarily a single mother, and there wasn't a whole lot of time for her to cook; she was working. So a lot of times dinner for us would be at the drive-thru. And before that, my brother and I would stay at my grandma's house in the afternoon after school, and she was not one to shy away from fat and calories.
She had a little jar of bacon grease on top of the stove, and it really doesn't matter what she was cooking, somehow that bacon grease wound up in the dish. So a lot of times it was just macaroni and cheese with hot dogs that have been grilled in bacon grease, or French fries that have been fried in bacon grease, hamburgers, whatever the case may be. So a lot of high fat foods there. And then you follow that up with fast food on top of that, you know, you get a double dose of that even at a young age, I mean, you've got a problem.
I was well above 100 pounds by the time I was even in third grade. But I never really realized that I had a problem until I was much older. Even though the weight came just pouring on by the time I got to high school, I think I was a freshman, I was already on high blood pressure medication. And yeah, a lot of that just had to do with my weight, you know, being over 300 pounds at that time, obviously taking in a ton of sodium on that fast food diet. Like it was the Standard American diet, but on steroids.
And, it just kept growing, and growing, and growing until eventually, I got up to 420 pounds. I knew that I had a problem, but I wasn't quite ready to address it, and I started to find little excuses to justify continuing that unhealthy eating pattern.
The biggest excuse was that I thought that I had to do that for my career. I always wanted to work in radio, and one of my first jobs was actually working at WBIG, Big 100.3 here in Washington DC, right? So how fitting was that? So there I am at Big 100.3, and I said well, they're not going to let me on the air if I'm not this Big Chuck persona.
So I kept going through the drive-thru, by that point, Taco Bell was my big vice, and I just kept the weight on so I could keep pursuing my dreams. So even when I was being paid to lose weight, we had a company come in, called The Cookie Diet who were paying me to lose weight and endorse The Cookie Diet, I still wound up going through the drive-thru every single night.
I was so insanely addicted to food to the point where if I wasn't getting my Taco bell fix man, I was not the most pleasant person in the world to be around, so that's it in a nutshell.
Image from theweightlosschampion.com
Meg (04:56): I know there's a lot of back and forth, "is food really addictive?" More and more science tell us now that of course it is. But the larger media really kind of downplays that. I think underlying this and telling your story in particular is really helpful for a lot of people to hear.
I'll tell you having being a member of that larger media, spending time after Big 100.3 as a reporter, a lot of that is just driven by "how many clicks can we get? How much attention can we get? Is this going to give us a boost in the ratings?" So you go with the easy headline, and you don't necessarily do a deep dive into the study. And it's also not fair for anyone to say, "well, a journalist needs to completely understand this medical science," like the only people that truly understand 100 percent of those studies are the researchers and the doctor who put them out, and those who have spent eight years in medical school. You know, the lay person, no matter how much they like nutrition and study up on it, they're not going to be able to absorb 100 percent of it. And if a journalist is going after that, they're just not going to be able to paint that accurate picture, so you go for that low hanging fruit, only it's not fruit, it's fast food. So that's why you get these kind of distorted headlines. So that's, that's just my little defensive of journalists; they're not trying to do wrong, they're just trying to keep the job.
But I'll tell you how real food addiction was. I just mentioned being on that cookie diet and being paid to lose weight. I was losing weight, but it was not because of the cookie diet, where you eat a cookie for breakfast, and another one for lunch, and you drink a whole bunch of water with it, and it's supposed to keep you full until you eat this ambiguous sensible dinner that they never really tell you what it should be except "make sure that there's vegetables on your plate." But I just made sure that I was at the gym for no less than two hours a day so I could continue to fuel my fast food habit. Because I tried the first few days Meg, I tried my hardest to follow this thing. Like I really wanted to be good because this was my first endorsement.
And by the time I hit night three, I was just freaking out like, I was angry, and I felt physically ill, I mean, angry to the point where I got up out of bed and I just put my fist through a wall, and then just through a door after that, because as crazy as it sounds, it's because I wasn't getting my beef-grilled stuff burritos and my Nachos Bell Grande, it's asinine.
I was also ashamed of what was happening. So after everybody went to bed that night, I was still living with my brother and the girl he was seeing at the time. And I snuck out after midnight, found a 24-hour drive-thru, loaded up on my typical $20-a-day order – I had a standing order, they recognized my car as soon as I pulled into the window.
Meg (08:35): What was that order?
Two seven-layer burritos, two beef grilled stuffed burritos, a chicken Quesadilla, a Nachos Bell grande, they would oftentimes throw in Carmel empanada, and two cheesy potato burritos. So that was $20 worth of food, and it added up to close to 5000 calories, which sadly was only about half of the calories I was taking in a day but Taco Bell was my real issue.
Coming home that first night after putting my fist through the wall and then sneaking out, I remember taking that first bite and feeling like this weird sensation, it was like a warm rush just, kind of like, filled my whole body, and it was my brain like just relaxing finally, because it was getting this cocktail of fat, and salt, and sugar that it had been feasting on for years. And so now, the brain was able to relax, and that's where I got that warm sense of calm, and actually that was when I was like ,"Oh crap, I’ve got a real problem here. I just started to sob but I ate every last morsel of that $20 you know. It was insane
Meg (09:52): That is so compelling because to have a dramatic personality change like the one you described is exactly what somebody who might be withdrawing from a drug or alcohol describes. So without the information of what's happening medically, then I think a lot of people go to blaming themselves and thinking they're weak-willed and that they have a psychological issue. I feel so bad for you and hearing your story, that it sounds like what you got was "there's something deeply wrong here going on."
It turned around, but the thing is, even though I recognized there was a problem that night, it was still a number of years before I did anything about that. There was turmoil in my life, at least I was at kind of an emotional low because of my size as well, you know. I was dating this girl who was not overweight. I thought I had hit the jackpot because she was interested in me. And I thought she was completely out of my league, just had zero self-confidence, even though I was starting to get notoriety because of my job, but she refused to tell her friends about us.
She refused to tell her family about us, she even begged me not to tell anybody that we were dating. But I thought that was as good as I could possibly get for a relationship so I just kind of sucked it up, even though it was like being punched in the gut every single day. And again, it's like the things you put up with to continue that addiction, you know.
Today, I would not stand for that in a million years; nobody should have to go through that. But that's the addiction man, Taco Bell and fast food, I chalk it all up to that.
Meg (12:03): Yeah, you were 420 pounds, and I didn't mention this, but you talk about your height as well, and so just to give people context, you're 5'6.
Close, 5'5" or 5'6" on a good day and 420 pounds, but it was a 66 inch waist at my heaviest, so that was a lot to carry around on such a small frame, so yeah.
Meg (12:34): So what happened? How did you go from this guy who is in the midst of food obsession and addiction, and also, interestingly, having career success...then what happened? What changed?
I like to refer to it as, there's this show right now on ABC called A Million Little Things, okay? So it's not one thing – it's a million little things that adds up to that one moment where you just can't take it anymore, you just have to change because it's like change or die, that's literally what it was for me.
One of the biggest pieces to that puzzle was, I couldn't walk more than 10 feet without my chest beginning to tighten, and all the color would drain from my face. I would start to sweat profusely, and I recognized that is a big-time red flag for cardiac trouble. I had been on blood pressure medication since high school at that point. I knew that my grandfather had died before I was even born, that was on my father's side. On my mother's side, her father, he had a series of heart attacks, had more bypass surgeries than I could even count. And my dad, he was also beginning to have heart issues at that point.
So here I am at 26, and I'm like, "I'm not gonna see 30. Oh my God, what am I going to do?" So that weighed heavily on me, the emotional toll of that relationship weighed heavily on me.
The fact that I couldn't fit on an airplane and had to walk down an aisle with a seatbelt extender so we could take off and do this cross country flight where I felt like a million eyeballs were just staring at me and begging "please God, don't let this fat guy have to sit next to me all the way across country," that weighed on me. The intervention my friends wanted to have for me, that weighed on me. And so that and a million other little things finally led me to the decision, "if I don't do something right now, I'm going to die. I want to see 30. I don't want to continue down this path."
And the only thing I knew at that point was to have weight loss surgery. I didn't know anything about a plant based diet, all I knew about at that point were the fad diets that I had tried and I had failed. The cookie diet was just the tip of the iceberg, right? I tried so much and I honestly Meg, did not even think that having weight loss surgery was going to be the permanent solution. I thought that I was destined to be overweight my entire life and go to an early grave. But at least I thought with this surgery, I could go to the grave saying, "I have tried everything."
There are people in my family who had this procedure and put the weight back on. I had friends who referred me to my surgeon, they too put the weight back on, nobody I knew was able to keep weight off long-term, nobody. And it didn't matter what it was they were doing, including weight loss surgery. So I was just like, kind of waving the white flag at life and saying, "Well, I'll get a couple more years out of this and that'll be that."
Image from theweightlosschampion.com
Meg (15:44): This is like the golden nugget. What happened for you? What helped you? You got the surgery, and you maintained a weight loss, continued a weight loss. What is different about you? Because this is what people want to know, how did he do it?
Everything I hadn't been doing. I was blessed to realize that food had become an addiction at that point, and I had previous addictions that I was able to overcome: ex-smoker. And was very, very, very fond of marijuana to the point where I was smoking that six and seven times a day, every day – just a functional pothead.
Both of those vices I was able to kick, I don't want to say easily, but I was able to do it, and I knew, "okay, well that's going to be my groundwork" and I knew now that fast food, high-fat food, fried food, that is going to be my enemy, that's the addiction right there and I cannot entertain that.
And so I think where people get slipped up, initially anyway, the only thing that separates me from the rest of the pack is that I did not have cheat days. I did not set a goal weight and say “okay, now I can go back to the drive-thru and I'll be okay if I have just a little bit.” No freaking way would I be okay, because previous diets, you know, I would go those one, two, three days, have to go right back to the drive-thru, or think, you know, "even if I had lost a little bit of weight, I can have just one Nacho and be okay." No, I can't because that one Nacho led to another, and another, and another, and the next thing you know, I'm back at the freaking drive-thru again, and the weight comes pouring back on.
And I was like, "if I'm doing something so freaking drastic, there is no freaking way I'm gonna put that stuff back in my system." Because I woke up from the surgery, the surgeon, he was old school, he didn't do this laparoscopically, like he filleted me down the abdomen, and so like I was feeling like a truck had hit me, and I was not about to do that again. Even though he said when I went for my initial consultation, "if this one doesn't work, we can go back and staple it a second time and you'll be okay, I was like, "no, no."
And so that's it, you can't have cheat days, you need to rethink your relationship with food, and not think of food so much as a reward as it is the fuel that you need. And that completely made me appreciate food way more than I ever had before.
Meg (18:59): So that's a really interesting point and I'm just going to highlight it that you had experience giving something up, and success. And I think that's important, that you can do hard things. And also, and I think that this is a maybe a way to flip it, because I think sometimes people who have food addictions and other addictions, think they don't have a strong will. When in fact, I think somebody who can move around in the world at 420 pounds, and with all of those things that you described, all of that pain and still get up, and still go, and still try, has more willpower than most people experience in a year, in one day, because it takes a tremendous amount of guts to do that.
How long did it take you to lose the weight? How did it come off in that next year, or two years? I want to talk about plant-based eating too, and how that came into your life.
Plant-based eating is the key to everything. We're going to tie that up in a nice bow, how I got here. The weight actually came off pretty quickly, one; because I was so dedicated to not eating that garbage anymore, but two; I just took up walking, it's such a simple exercise.
And you'll hear this from a lot of people who lose a tremendous amount of weight, they say, "I never went to the gym.” Every failed diet that I had done before, the first thing I did was to go get a gym membership. So just as I was rethinking my relationship with food, I was rethinking my lifestyle and how I was going to approach exercise. So instead of going to the gym, I would just walk on my lunch break.
At first, I couldn't walk very far. I would literally just walk across the street, from my office, sit down, there was a ball field right there, and even if nobody was playing, I would just sit in the bleachers, and stare out for 15 minutes, and then walk back. Then it got to the point where I could walk all the way around the block, and what a huge success that is, that doesn't seem like a whole lot, but to me, that was everything. And then two blocks, and then three, and then four, eventually, it got up to the point where I was walking one mile a day, and then that kept going to two, and three, and eventually I was walking five miles every single day on my lunch break without fail. Didn't matter if it was raining, didn't matter if it was snowing, or sleeting, it didn't matter if it was 120 degrees outside, I was out there walking. I was super committed to this.
And God bless my boss at the time recognizing this and said, "alright, well, clearly you can't walk five miles, in just 60 minutes, so why don't you go ahead and take 90 and then make up that extra half hour on the back end of the day," and so that way, I didn't even have to worry about going to the gym after work when I was already tired. It was done, and I felt fantastic. So on the exercise part, that was it, I was as committed to just walking as I was making sure that I wasn't eating the fast food and fried food anymore.
Meg (22:18): How much did you have to change, habit-wise? And how did you do that? Did you plan your meals ahead of time? Or did you just say these are the only things I can eat? Because I think that's a part where people struggle – actually implementing the plan. They can agree to the plan, but to actually do it, how do you do that?
For me, initially, there was a menu. After you have the surgery, you get a specific menu that you need to eat because you get baby-stepped back into regular food. It starts with liquids, then it's pureed foods, then it's soft foods, and then you're back to your regular diet. And that takes a number of months to get there. But after I was done with the menu, it was kind of like, "well, I don't like this stuff that's on there, so let me, you know, just find what works for me and kind of work within the nutrient parameters that were on the menu,"
I didn't know a whole lot about micro and macronutrients at that point, but that's what I did, and I found things that worked for me. And I didn't necessarily make a menu for myself because as much as I'd like routine, and to eat the same thing every single day, I also found that if I did have a calendar in front of me, and I felt like I had to eat what was on that piece of paper, there was something inside of me no matter if I wanted it or not, would just rebelled against it, like "who are you to tell me that I need to eat this right now? No, I'm not going to do that." So it was just like, "Well, what do I feel like eating today."
And so on those walks, I would often just stop off at the grocery store and pick up lunch and dinner while I was there at least, the stuff that I needed to make it and that made it really easy on me. I wasn't constrained to anything other than making sure that it wasn't what I used to eat, and it wasn't you know, anything that was too outrageous for my current diet plan.
Meg (24:22): I like that. So you kind of looked at it as "look at all the possible things I can eat given these parameters, rather than what I can't eat." When did plants enter?
So it was actually a number of years after I had lost a significant amount of weight, like somewhere in the ballpark of 250 pounds by that point. And I thought that I had actually reached my goal weight. The doctor had told me like "Chuck, you're where you need to be, cool." But this is also the same doctor that when I hit that told me that "it was time to eat a hamburger."
But anyway, it was a number of years after, and I had begun dating another woman who was not plant-based, but she did introduce me to the idea of cleaner eating, and it was primarily plant-based, although there were still some chicken and fish and things in there at that point.
Well flash forward another couple of years, and I'm working for CBS at that point, covering sports, and I interview a professional wrestler by the name of Austin Aries, he was wrestling in WWE at the time. And he had just put out a book about how a guy from Wisconsin had completely cut meat and dairy out of his diet, went vegan, and his career just exploded. And so he was like, "Chuck, I know that you're this healthy eater, you know, I've heard you on the radio during the football show, and why don't you try this plant-based diet?" I was a little bit skeptical at the time, but you know, it was cool, like it was healthy, and I knew that, that wasn't going to send me back to the drive-thru, so why not give it a shot. So I did, and everything just kind of fell into place after that.
I began to watch those documentaries that so many people who get started on this watch: Forks Over Knives, What the Health, things like that, and I just began consuming all of this information and went vegan, basically overnight.
The wife followed suit shortly thereafter, and I'll tell you, it was the craziest thing Meg — I thought I was at my goal weight, but no, I was still up around like 160, 165, which for my size, my height, you know, that still puts me in the obese category. and so like I got sucked all the way down to 140, you know, lost another 20, 25 pounds, and I felt great! And that's when the weight loss journey became so much more than just a weight loss journey, because at that point, I was like, now I know for a fact, even though I had been scared of putting the weight back on, I know for a fact, I'm not going to do it on this diet. because it is low fat, but high nutrient and it's everything that you could possibly need.
I learned about the benefits, the cardiac benefits that come with a plant-based diet. Alzheimer's runs rampant in my family as well – that's another great one that the risk lowers on a plant-based diet. And cancer, too. It just became this all-encompassing health journey. I got so inspired to just get this information out there and kind of use my background in media to propel this message out into the world. And that is what you know, led to The Exam Room, and you know, Chuck Version 2.0, and life has never been better.
Had it not been for that one interview with Austin Aries, we would never be sitting here today. And I guarantee I would still be worried that at some point, the weight would be coming back on.
Image from theweightlosschampion.com
Meg (28:41): So that particular piece — that hope of unhooking from food obsession, and the worry, and having your life revolve around weight — is one of the most hopeful messages for people who struggle with their weight. And so it's one of the biggest gifts tha you can understand about a plant based diet, beyond health improvements, is this unhooking from that obsession with food that doesn't serve us, and you're such a great example of that.
And it feels so good! You want as many people as possible to experience that same feeling. It it would be selfish of you to try to keep that all for yourself . Everybody should be feeling this way. And it can be a little bit daunting, and a little bit disheartening at times, you sit down, and you watch a ballgame or anything on TV, and you're just bombarded with these fast food advertisements, right? But we also have a growing appetite for health, and that is the silver lining of this whacky, whacky year: people are starting to take a harder look at their health and the things that are driving their chronic illnesses. And a lot of that begins with what it is that they're eating.
This is why if anything comes out of this year, I think that it will be improved health in the long run. I'm really hopeful that we'll continue to see the tide turn, and many, many, many millions of other people will be able to experience this same thing where just as you said, they're able to unplug from that food addiction and just break free, and experience life the way that it was meant to be experienced. Get that surge of confidence, so much so to the point where you can ask yourself that question, again, that you had as a kid, it's like, "what do you want to be when you grow up?”
I don't care if you lose the weight at 50 years old, what do you want to be when you grow up? Because you still got plenty of years left. You know, so use that surge of confidence, use that newfound health, change your life, and then change the life of somebody else, go out and do some good in the world.
Meg (31:37): That is beautiful. As we come to a close here, because you're the story:"if Chuck can do it, I can do it." You were the guy who you had everything against you. So I'm gonna put you on the spot – if you have one, two, three pieces of advice that you would say to somebody who was listening who would like try this but is afraid, what would you say?
The first tip is to remember that anyone who has made this transformation is not Superman, or Superwoman – we certainly don't have superpowers, okay? Which means that you have the exact same ability to do this, as we did.
Two: rethink that relationship with food, really have a hard conversation in the mirror with yourself about, "am I truly addicted to this?" If you can't go a day without eating something, that's a pretty big indication that yeah, you have a problem there.
And then once you get on this healthier path, I don't care, honestly, I don't care how you lose weight Initially, I honest to God do not, I will advocate 1,000 percent for a plant based diet, or at the very least getting there eventually. But if there is one thing that separates success from failure in the long-term, it is when you come to this fork in the road, and you're be pulled to go right – back to your old ways of eating – or to go left and stay on the healthy path. Even though that pull to the right is so strong, you're even stronger. Keep going on that healthier path, because that temptation will pass, it absolutely will pass and you will continue to feel great. But if you give in, in the short term, and you have that food, man, you're going to be kicking yourself for many, many, many years to come. Take the left when you come to the fork in the road, that is the key.
Image from theweightlosschampion.com
Meg (34:34): You know that is beautiful and it is that simple – just incremental successes. And it sounds like you had such enthusiasm, you really gave yourself credit at each step. You're such an inspiration. You're walking the walk and you have a very compassionate heart, because you've been there. And I can't thank you enough for sharing your story, and for the work that you do.
I would love to come back anytime. Thank you so much for having me.