How to Lose Weight Without Dieting: An Interview with Darya Rose of Summer Tomato
Dump the fad diets: The science of eating habits that really work might surprise you
The fitness industry tends to be dominated by either outright scammers or advocates of extreme regimens designed to turn someone into a fitness model. But most people just want to be truly healthy and in better-than-average shape.
If that’s what you want, you’ll want advice from a different kind of expert: one who can show you how to build a healthy lifestyle—one like Darya Rose.
Darya is the author of Foodist: Using Real Food and Real Science to Lose Weight Without Dieting and creator of Summer Tomato, a website that’s won numerous accolades and awards. She earned her Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of California, San Francisco and her bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology from UC Berkeley. She also has recently been featured at TedX Salem, where she gave a talk about how to eat healthy without dieting.
I sat down with Darya earlier this year and asked her how she’s able to stay so healthy without stressing out or giving up the foods and activities she enjoys. As always, my questions are in bold text, her answers are in normal text, and a few notes by me are in italics.
The Origins of a New Approach to Weight Control and Eating
What made you start Summer Tomato?
Darya: By the time I had started graduate school, I had been dieting for about 15 years and still felt like it was a constant battle. Frustrated, I decided to ditch all the online advice and go straight to the scientific literature—at this time I finally had the training to read and understand the primary research.
What I found was both shocking and not:
- Dieting not only doesn’t work, it often leads to weight gain.
- Thin people don’t diet but usually have several healthy habits or live in a healthy culture that keeps them on track.
- The few people who do lose weight and keep it off also do it by adopting a set of personalized healthy habits. They rarely do anything crazy like super low-carb diets or insane workouts—just a dozen or so simple things that keep them in balance.
This made sense to me and matched my experience, so I took a leap of faith (leap of science?), stopped dieting, and started focusing on healthy habits like cooking more vegetables and being less sedentary. This meant doing things I hadn’t done in years, like eating carbs (intact grains, potatoes, etc.) and cutting back on workouts to focus more on walking. The weight started coming off, I stopped having cravings and feeling hungry, and I never looked back. That was 15 years ago.
I started Summer Tomato to share this story and help others get off the diet wagon. Believe it or not, back then clean eating and weight loss weren’t really being talked about in the same conversations. It’s everywhere now, but at the time it was a pretty revolutionary message.
Your approach is to teach people how to get healthy and lose weight without dieting. What is your definition of “dieting,” why do you dislike it, and what do you do differently?
For me dieting is synonymous with restriction and willpower, and I don’t like it for a lot of reasons.
For one thing, it doesn’t work and actually makes losing weight harder in the long run, not easier. This happens because it teaches you terrible habits like ignoring satiety cues, moralizing your food choices, instilling a scarcity mentality around food, and sometimes even lowering your metabolism.
Since nobody can really torture themselves forever, when you try to relax your diet even a little, your behavior rebounds and you end up with worse habits than when you started.
Also, dieting sucks! It’s such a miserable way to live. It ruins social events and makes you constantly feel bad about yourself. There really aren’t many good things to say about it.
Note: Different people have different definitions of dieting, but virtually everybody advises building healthy habits and avoiding reliance on willpower. While you can train yourself to have stronger willpower, it’s still never a good idea to make willpower your primary strategy. Where Darya differs from many others is her focus on food quality over calorie restriction, adding healthy foods rather than restricting foods, and healthy behaviors like cooking at home and mindful eating.
What sort of results did you get after you changed your approach to health?
When I changed my mentality about dieting, it felt like I was eating more, doing things that were previously forbidden (like eating carbs), and working out less. But it was so much easier that I stuck with it. The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t gaining weight, which was a little surprising at the time. After a couple of months I noticed I had lost a few pounds.
What was the most interesting was that I continued to lose weight (yes, fat), but at such a slow rate I barely noticed. Yet after a couple years I was below my goal weight by about 5 lbs and more satisfied with food and my life than I had ever been. I didn’t feel deprived, I felt nourished at a deep level, and I was no longer the socially awkward eater who would skip all the fun stuff. It felt like a miracle, even though I rationally know it was just biology.
Darya shares her history of dieting and how she reached a healthier lifestyle on Summer Tomato in this detailed timeline.
On Healthy Habits
You’re a proponent of mindful eating—what specific techniques and habits can people build to become mindful eaters?
Mindful eating can be incredibly helpful in undoing some of those not-so-healthy food habits that you develop from dieting. It can help you make wiser food choices, slow down, enjoy your food more, and naturally eat less. People often say they “try to eat mindfully,” as I did for years, but this is really more like wishful thinking. My approach now is to take a page from seasoned meditators and make it a practice.
I recommend choosing one meal a day (or most days) to eat mindfully, rather than vaguely trying to do it at every meal. In my experience this method will help you become a mindful eater far more quickly, and you’ll see results faster. I actually built a free five-day program to help people develop this skill. You can sign up at mindfulmealchallenge.com.
There are a lot of ways to eat mindfully, but the most important part is that you aren’t doing anything else. Turn off your phone, put away your reading, turn off your media. Then prepare yourself before taking a bite by focusing your attention on your food. It doesn’t matter if you attend to how it looks, or the smell, or how you feel about it, so long as you are aware of your thoughts and sensations. It can be easier if you choose one thing to focus on per meal—for instance, the flavors, or the textures, or the mechanics of eating.
Your mind WILL wander, and you will start making judgments. Acknowledge when this happens, let it go, and return your focus back on the experience of eating.
What physical activity regimen do you personally follow?
Well when I’m not nine months pregnant, my workout routine is pretty straightforward. I do enjoy the gym, so I typically do 30 minutes of moderate cardio and a bit of strength training four to five days a week. Two of those days I make my cardio a bit more intense, with some intervals. I also keep moving during the day, walk whenever I can, and try not to sit for too long.
At this stage in pregnancy I’m mainly chasing around my one-year-old, trying to squeeze in some light biking or walking when I have time, and lifting some free weights every couple days to keep my back and hips strong so I don’t get those pregnancy aches and pains. I think it helps dramatically. I love Pilates too when I can find the time.
For someone who dislikes exercising, what specific steps would you have them take to start becoming more active?
You can apply the exact same logic to exercise as to dieting. If you don’t like it, you won’t form a habit and won’t stick with it. Almost all animals naturally enjoy movement, and humans are no exception. Don’t think about it as exercise; think about things you can do to move more and recharge your energy. Try to remember things you enjoyed doing when you were younger and start there.
Try to choose more active ways of interacting with your day. The goal is to build a habit, so don’t worry that you’re starting too small. As your fitness improves you’ll naturally want to do more. But at the beginning make it fun and easy.
Cooking for Better Health and Eating
If someone hates cooking, what would you advise them to do to build the habit of cooking healthy meals?
Cooking is a basic life skill and kind of a weird thing to hate, but I know that there are people who do. You don’t need to love cooking, but if you look at your options rationally, you start to see that having a basic proficiency is by far your best option. One of the main reasons it is important to cook is that unless you can afford a private chef who can cook to your specifications, it’s nearly impossible to have a regular source of food that is both tasty and healthy.
And your food truly needs to be both. If it isn’t tasty, then you need to use willpower to eat it and you’re dieting. If it isn’t healthy, then your choices will certainly catch up to you eventually. Most premade food you purchase is far less healthy and more calorically dense than you can imagine (even “healthy” things like salads pack a ton of sugar and calories at most restaurants), and you know best what you like. So the smartest, most efficient thing you can do is get good at cooking so that you can control the healthfulness and taste of your food. It’s really not that hard once you get the knack for it, but it can be daunting if you don’t know where to start.
For someone on a tight budget, what kitchenware—pots and pans, serving spoons, spices, appliances, etc.—would you have someone buy first? What are the bare essentials for a decently stocked kitchen?
Great question! I know you’re serious if you’re asking about the details. To start, you don’t need a lot: a cutting board, sharp knife, mixing bowl, pan, pot, spatula, olive oil, salt, garlic, and lemon will get you really far.
Note: Altogether, the cost of everything she listed falls somewhere between $50 and $100, depending on where you are and where you shop. But chances are good that all of these things are in your kitchen already!
Can you share a few of your favorite simple recipes for people who are just learning to cook?
One of my favorite go-tos is what I call cabbage and eggs. I saute about a quarter of a (small) cabbage in hot oil until it starts to brown and become translucent, then lower the heat and add a splash of soy sauce and stir. I then crack a couple of eggs on top and stir them around until they form a kind of eggy cake. I flip it after a minute or so, and it’s done when the egg is set. Add sriracha and serve. Delish!
I also love roasted cauliflower. People are always blown away at how simple and delicious it is. I heat the oven pretty hot (450–500 degrees), douse the cauliflower pieces in olive oil, curry powder, and salt, then cover in foil and roast 15 minutes. Remove the cover, stir, and continue roasting until crispy. You might need to add a bit more salt when it’s done. So good!
On Healthy Food Choices
You seem to be strongly against processed foods—why is that?
I can’t think of an example where eating processed food ended well. Everyone knows now that trans fat [at the levels it occurs in processed foods] is super bad for you, but when it was first invented it was considered a health panacea since it replaced saturated fat with vegetable fat sources. At the time that was nutrition gospel, so what could possibly go wrong?
There are so many examples like this it’s ridiculous. On top of it, processed industrial foods are terrible for the planet. Real, unprocessed foods taste better, are far healthier, and can be grown in harmony with our environment. It’s no contest in my opinion.
You’ve long been skeptical about the safety of genetically modified foods—can you explain why that is?
That’s not actually true. From a strictly human consumption perspective, the data is pretty clear that there isn’t much to worry about. GMO is a broad, umbrella term that could encompass any number of genetic alterations, so from a safety perspective you can only evaluate each food individually to say anything about risk. And so far nothing has been shown to be especially dangerous.
What I don’t like about GMOs is that they strengthen industrial food’s control over our food chain, and I think that is dangerous for the environment and our food supply. Overall I also feel that humans can be a bit arrogant in assuming what’s best for others and the world, so I’m wary of those “we need this technology to save the world” arguments (see my above answer about processed foods).
You’re also an advocate of laws requiring GMO foods to be labeled. If such laws were enacted, how do you think consumers would change their food choices?
I am a big fan of labeling because I believe in transparency. Like I said, I avoid GMOs for ecological and political reasons. I should be able to make that choice freely. If they’re so wonderful, why are they so afraid of labeling them? I honestly don’t think most people would change their behavior much at all with labeling. People who care probably already avoid them just fine by buying organic.
How well educated do you think the average consumer is on the science of GMOs?
This has been studied and, as in most areas of popular science, your average consumer is pretty uninformed. It’s unfortunate.
There’s been a lot of research in the last few years about anti-nutrients like phytic acid, gluten, lectins, and FODMAPs. What is your view on them — do you take steps to avoid them or minimize your consumption?
I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that people who eat a diverse diet need to worry about anti-nutrients. They can be an issue if you’re subsisting on a few basic crops, but most of us are doing just fine on that front. Proper prep and cooking negate most of the anti-nutrient properties anyway. In my opinion, this is so far from what most people need to be worrying about in terms of health that it’s barely worth talking about. Eat more vegetables, cook your food yourself, eat a variety of different types of food, ideally in season, and you’re way ahead of the game.
Looking Ahead at Nutrition Science
Other than what we’ve talked about so far, what health-related subjects would you like to see more research on in the next five years?
I think personalized nutrition (based on genetics, epigenetics, etc.) is really going to take off in the next few years, and we certainly need a lot more research before the impact will be significant.
I’d also of course love to see more work focused on health psychology and how we can build better mindsets to make the health changes that are needed. I believe we have enough knowledge now for most of the developed world to eat healthfully. The hard part is getting people to change their habits. I think this area has a ton of potential, but I think it will be more complicated than changing the environments in homes, restaurants, and supermarkets. We need to look inside ourselves and see what is stopping us from making better choices.