Chuck Carroll Lost 275 Pounds on a Vegan Diet. He Shares His Inspiring Story
Chuck Carroll was worried at age 27 that he wouldn't live to see 30. Even after bariatric surgery he was convinced that the weight would come back. He had tried everything, and no diet had been successful. This was his last chance. He had gone into the procedure weighing a massive 420 pounds (at five foot 6) and at his heaviest, he was eating 10,000 calories a day. He realized that even after surgery, it was possible to gain back the weight if he didn't make major changes. In fact, he had watched others in his family suffer this fate, having not changed their diet, yo-yo-ing in weight, and he didn't want that to be his fate. The surgery was a start, but it was not a magic pill. He had to do something drastic, to change the way he ate and get over his addiction to food. A chance conversation changed his life. As a reporter covering sports for CBS, he met a top pro wrestler, Austin Aries, who told him he went vegan to improve his fitness, and it changed his life. He urged Carroll to watch two powerful documentaries, Forks Over Knives and What the Health, which Carroll promptly did. Today he credits them for helping him "find his destiny."
It shows that one conversation can change someone's life:
"I am so grateful that for work, I interviewed this professional wrestler, Austin Aries, who had just released a book talking about how he had used a plant-based diet to get to the top level of pro wrestling. He wrestled at WrestleMania and he said: 'Man, you're such a health nut, and I know that you’ve lost a bunch of weight, but you should really look at going vegan.' And I said, essentially: 'Get out of here with that nonsense.' But he insisted that I watch Forks Over Knives and also What The Health and then talk to him. So I did, and it was just like it was that Hallelujah! moment. It was like the lights shined down on me from above and the angels were singing and everything clicked into place. I was not expecting this weight loss journey to become so much more, which is what it's been for me."
Carroll immediately jettisoned all animal products from his diet, and successfully conquered his lifelong battle with food addiction. He no longer allowed himself to eat Taco Bell every night, among other self-destructive habits. Over the course of several years, he lost a total of 275 pounds, and became the host of Exam Room podcast for the Physician's Committee for Responsible Medicine, which advocates a plant-based lifestyle for health benefits. Now Carroll is known as "The Weight Loss Champion” and inspires others to eat plant-based to be their healthiest. In an exclusive interview with The Beet, Carroll shares his secrets to weight loss, advice for anyone struggling with food addiction, the benefits of a plant-based diet, and simply how to live a more nourished, healthy life.
The Beet: Tell us the full story: Why and when did you go vegan?
Chuck Carroll: My vegan journey began after I had lost the majority of the weight from stomach surgery. Going vegan came at a point in time where I was still very much worried that I was going to put weight back on, because every single diet I had ever been on prior to plant-based, I had always lost a lot of weight and then gained it all back.
So even though I took the radical route and had the surgery, I was still worried about putting the weight back on, because my father, stepmother, friends, and friends' parents, who had the same surgery, all put the weight back on. Not a single one of them was able to keep the weight off, long term.
Surgery is like a yo-yo diet, just an extreme [or physically created] one. So I thought, "Man that could be my destiny," but at least I could go to my grave saying that I had tried everything. Then I met Austin and watched those two documentaries, and everything clicked. The best thing about a plant-based and vegan diet is that I don't have to worry about that "yo-yo diet" factor anymore. It's a lifestyle change.
The Beet: Do you feel healthier all around? Obviously, losing weight must feel great
Chuck Carroll: Genetically, cancer runs in my family, heart disease runs in my family, Alzheimer's disease runs in my family, hypertension, and all of those diseases run in my family and I thought, again, just like obesity, that those things were my fate. But then to learn the science behind how those risks could be mitigated by switching to a plant-based diet, just made all of the sense in the world to me. I became even more inspired and more motivated to keep the weight off, knowing that I could reduce my risk of disease, and here we are today, doing the Exam Room [podcast]and sharing that sweet science on a daily basis.
The Beet: When was all of this? When did you start to take the weight off?
CC: September 1st, 2009 was surgery day. That was the beginning of my weight journey. I will never forget that day. Surgery day was rough, it was a nightmare. I woke up from surgery and was not feeling very good but the cool thing about that surgery was that I was a food addict and what the surgery does is kind of force you to not eat the kinds of foods that brought you there in the first place.
So you get this three-to-six-month period where you can't tolerate high-fat foods or you will become super sick like you've never been sick before, and that happened one time and that was kind of enough and it wasn't even like fast food that made me super sick. I had seen my dad go through the same thing, where he literally turned green.
I will also never forget coming home right after the procedure and one of the few things I could have was just black coffee, I was a coffee drinker at the time and my dad and stepmom had stopped by McDonald's to get me a cup of black coffee, to just sip on.
I just remember seeing the golden arches, that logo, and becoming infuriated. This was contraband at this point so McDonald's had gone from being my best friend to my worst enemy and I don't care if it was just a cup of coffee, or a bottle of water, or a Big Mac, I wanted no part of this stuff ever again.
So that's how I was able to kick the fast food addiction, by just turning my back on it. But I gradually start learning a little bit more about what is healthy, and I ate a lot of those nutrition bars that are supposed to be meal replacements. I thought that that was healthy and I didn't know that any food that has a laundry list of ingredients means it's probably not healthy, especially when you can't pronounce them. But that was my diet for the first few years.
I was dating a girl that I had a crush on in high school. We had reconnected at our ten-year reunion and she had just gotten a health coach certification. So she and I hit it off and started talking, she introduced me to the idea of eating clean, and so I was able to take all of that super processed stuff out of my diet and add more fruits and vegetables. But then what I thought was healthy was lean chicken, lean beef, lean pork, fish and all of that stuff stayed in my diet, plus a ton of dairy. She had me convinced that raw unpasteurized milk was a good option.
A couple of years passed and that's when I had the conversation with Austin Aries, and that was really the day that my life changed. So I was baby-stepping my way toward a plant-based diet. I just didn't understand that that was the direction I was going until I finally turned the corner, in the span of about 24 hours.
The Beet: How old were you when you were going through all of this?
CC: Okay so I was 27 when I had the weight loss surgery. It was three days after my 27th birthday and then it was four or five years ago that I went plant-based and I have been totally devoted to it ever since.
The Beet: So when you initially went plant-based, how did you feel in the first week?
CC: Mentally I felt fantastic because I knew I was gravitating towards something much healthier. Physically you know a lot of people say ‘I felt great immediately’, but that was not the case for me. My gut bacteria was so out of whack because I was such a dairy junkie. I was drinking at least half a gallon of milk every single day, so it took a while for that microbiome to shift over and so it was kind of painful.
I didn't know that I was still carrying around extra weight. I was still fluffy. I was floating around 155 to 165. At that point, so I still had a lot of what I would call baby fat on me, and then I dropped all the way down to 140 when I switched to plant-based, where I am today. All of that excess fat was hanging on because I was still eating all the fish and beef and obviously dairy.
I felt great as soon as the bloating lifted. It just keeps getting better and better. Today I am 38 years old, but in a lot of ways I feel like I am finally getting a chance to experience the healthy feeling I should have had in my 20s, but because I was so overweight then, now I am kind of getting a do-over.
The Beet: How much did you weigh at your heaviest?
CC: 420 pounds, that was a 66-inch waist with a size 6XL shirt. I'm five foot six.
The Beet: What were some of your biggest challenges during your weight loss journey?
CC: It was kind of proving to others that I could do this and I could stick with it. Because I went the surgical route, I had a lot of people telling me don't do that. In hinds sight I wonder, would I have done things differently, had I known about the plant-based diet? Maybe. But food addiction was so, so, so bad. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy. So I do not regret that decision[to have surgery] but just being able to prove to others that I could do this and do it for good and really prove to myself that I could do it for good, was a big motivation.
That continues to fuel me to this day, so here we are many years into the weight-loss journey, and five years into my vegan journey, and it just keeps getting better by the day. I still wake up every single morning having these 'pinch me' moments, like 'Oh my God, did I really lose all that weight? Is this really my body? Like you’ve got to be kidding me! So that's the cool part about it. It never gets old.
TB: Are your family members on board to go plant-based?
CC: My wife is 1000 percent on board. Funny story: When I first told her that I was going to go vegan, she was like, "Why are you going to go vegan? You're already like the healthiest eater I know, and now you're going to get rid of everything else? What are you going to eat? Just grass every day?"
I said, "Let's push pause on that conversation. Let's go watch these documentaries, and so she and I sat down together and watched them and she was like ‘Oh my God’ and she's a real softy for animals, so when she saw that side of the equation plus the health components that come into it, then she was like "Absolutely."
The Beet: If someone is contemplating weight loss surgery or going plant-based is there one you would recommend more?
CC: It's a completely individual thing, and I have had a number of people come to me asking for advice. They're at that crossroads. They're just at their wit's end and they can't take another day being trapped inside of that body, so it's really a question of how well do you know yourself?
I tell them my story about not being able to go a single day without going to the drive-thru. I had a $20 a day Taco Bell habit and if I did not go to the drive-thru, a switch would get flipped in my brain and it was a total Jeckyl and Hyde situation and I would get angry. It got to a point where I actually put my fist through a wall just because I wasn't getting my fast-food fix. I also then snuck out in the middle of the night because I didn't want to let anybody down because I was actually being paid to endorse something called The Cookie Diet at that point. I was ironically working at a radio station called WBIG at the time so they were paying me to lose weight and endorse this thing but I still snuck out in the middle of the night because I was so woefully addicted to this and freaking out, so I snuck out and got my fix. And when I took that first bite it was like a warm rush over me. It was like this sense of calm and that was also the first time that I realized 'Holy Crap, I am an addict.'
Some people are addicted to alcohol, some people are addicted to tobacco, some people are addicted to drugs, I was addicted to grilled stuffed burritos. And so I had my 4,500 calorie Taco Bell binge and wept. But then I kept going back every single night in the middle of the night and just made sure that I was working out for like two or three hours a day, so the weight would come off and I could say that this The Cookie Diet was working.
I tell that story to people when they ask me for advice and I will ask them, "Look are you at that point? Where you can do it on your own? You know how bad your addiction is, but it's going to be a very difficult conversation for you to have in the mirror and you're the only person who can answer that question for yourself. And if they honestly believe they are in the position to change, then I am never going to tell them not to get the surgery because it does give you that window where you physically can detox.
But the thing that I hammer home to anyone struggling with their weight and is morbidly obese is: Food is your drug and you need to view this one year out, or two years out, or three years out, just like you would if you were recovering from cocaine addiction. You can't say ‘Well I could do just a little bit and be okay.’ No, you’d be hooked again overnight, so you’ve got to be consistent and there can be no cheat days, or else you will fall off the wagon and all of that hard work that you put into it can unravel so so quickly. So that's what I tell people. I give them the hard realistic answer [of how addiction works] and then they have to answer it for themselves. Are they ready to change? That's a question only they can answer.
The Beet: What advice do you have for someone who is starting a vegan diet?
CC: Stick with it. Enjoy it. Don't feel like you need to be perfect overnight. It is a journey. The word journey gets tossed around so much it's almost cliché. It's like nails on a chalkboard to me at this point, but it's also true because it’s a learning process. Also, don't beat yourself up if you don't get it perfectly right out of the gate.
If you need to rely on some of the more processed foods, that's cool. Just make sure that your baby-stepping your way toward that more whole food plant-based approach. So that way you can really maximize the benefits that come with this diet. Give yourself time to explore and figure out what you like, what you don't like, and then the cool thing is that because your microbiome is going to change because you're taking that meat and that dairy out of your diet, your taste buds are going to change too.
Get pumped up, because you're going to start liking foods you never liked before. Like I freaking hated watermelon until I was like 35 and now I think it's fantastic, and I hear these stories from other people too and it’s like the coolest thing it's like yeah I hated onions but now I can’t get enough of them. You tell people these little things and that gets them motivated to stick with it. Because I want to taste a type of food that I thought was really poo-poo, but now is fantastic. So you know just get excited just be excited because everything is going to change for you.
TB: Early on you referred to coffee in the past tense, how do now, coffee-free?
Chuck Carroll: I am completely off coffee and I have fallen off the coffee wagon once before and my cravings come back immediately. It's just like Taco Bell. It's like I can’t have one cup a day. No, I have to have five or six cups. So I eliminated that, and now I am a green tea connoisseur.
I feel better, much more clear-headed. I thought that coffee was really giving me an energy boost but it wasn't. I always felt super fatigued by the middle of the afternoon. It was the craziest thing and it didn't matter if it was the strongest cup of coffee in the world I was ready for a nap by around 3:30 or 4 pm. I was just dragging myself to that next pot of coffee. So yeah now I feel fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.
TB: What's your diet look like now? Do you minimize processed plant-based food?
Chuck Carroll: I try to minimize processed food as much as I can. If I am doing something that falls into that grab-and-go category it's going to have a shortlist of ingredients with minimal oil. I stick with the whole food plant-based diet as much as I possibly can, because it tastes better. Now, if I bite down on something and it's loaded with oil or salt, that food just doesn't taste good anymore. I would much rather keep it super clean.
TB: What do you have for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
CC: For breakfast, I eat oatmeal with frozen fruit like blueberries, strawberries, and bananas. If I have any other fruit lying around the house, I will add that too but I don't use maple syrups or anything that like. I don't like to add any kind of added sweetener. The thing is with the oatmeal and frozen fruit, it is the perfect balance for breakfast because the oatmeal is hot and when you add the frozen fruit, that cools it down, then it makes it the perfect temperature.
For lunch, I eat beans and rice on top of a bed of shredded kale. Sometimes I will throw a little diced tomato or chili powder on top of that and then just go to town. That tastes really good.
Dinner, 9 times out of 10, is the kitchen-sink salad. Whether I have kale or spinach with lunch, that becomes the base then I will throw whatever roasted vegetables I have in the refrigerator on top. I love roasted red peppers, roasted sweet potatoes, and roasted Brussels sprouts, and I will add anything else laying around like brown rice or quinoa.
Also, I have been experimenting with fresh banana peppers recently, which are fantastic. Afterward, you’ve got yourself a heck of a way to cap off the day with a little bit of pita and hummus. That's very important. Just like that, I still find myself eating the same foods every single day, now but now it's plant-based.