For decades, Ethan Suplee tried every diet under the sun while battling with food urges, addiction, and compulsions—before becoming the ultimate wellness and fitness success story. Having lost hundreds of pounds accumulated over years of failed diets, the Wolf of Wall Street, My Name is Earl, Mallrats, and American History X actor finally decided to share his discoveries, losses, mistakes, hacks and victories with the world with his incredibly in-depth American Glutton Podcast. Being candid about his ups and downs, and arguing the ambiguities of moral “truth,” cooking, and eating with weekly guests, has helped the show go viral since its very first episode.
Here, we spoke with Suplee extensively about macros, major weight-loss, the unexpected benefits of “diet breaks,” and setting himself up for the long haul.
THE THREE MACROS
“If you think about the totality of what we eat, you wanna break it down into the biggest components of food: it’s protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Some people like to call fiber the fourth macro, but really it’s protein, carbohydrates, and fat. There are then different micronutrients within each of those—for example, protein is made up of various amino acids, which all have their own jobs to do. But on a whole, protein has functions in the body; carbohydrates have functions in the body; and fats have functions in the body. So rather than just saying food, you’re splitting it into its biggest components.”
CALORIES IS A DIRTY WORD BUT…
“From all of the scientific studies, and even just from anecdotal studies, from having conversations with lots of people who have been on lots of diets: diet is the lion share of weight loss. There’s a few things to take into consideration, too, when we say weight loss. I always just assumed it meant fat loss. But in fact, all weight loss is not equal. You can lose fat, you can lose lean tissue, and you can lose water—those are kind of the three component parts of weight loss that should be considered when evaluating what diet you choose.
The word calories, unfortunately, seems to be upsetting to people. People don’t like this thing of counting calories. It’s a pain in the butt, and I don’t like the word either. You can call it whatever you want, you can call it fuel. But the metric we use by which we gauge what we’re putting into our bodies is calories. So what happens is, our bodies do something called thermogenesis—this is the act of heating up the fuel, which have been named calories, unfortunately [laughs], and that is basically how you survive. The majority of your weight loss will happen through your breath, exhaling; it’s not going to be defecation or urination or even sweat out of you. If you think of your body as an engine, the exhaust is every time you exhale.”
“When we think about thermogenesis, the act of the body heating up, there’s a few other component parts.
There’s the bare minimum of fuel requirement for our body to survive. Picture that you’re bedridden—your body still needs fuel for your heart to beat and your lungs to function just to live. So that’s called your Basal Metabolic Rate [or Resting Metablic Rate, also known as RMR]. That’s if you’re doing nothing.
Then there’s exercise. The amount that your metabolism is boosted by the exercise, that’s exercise-induced thermogenesis.
Then there’s non-exercise active thermogenesis. So just the fact that I am talking right now increases the amount of fuel I need. Waving my hands around when I talk increases the amount of fuel. Walking to the bathroom increases the amount of fuel I need.
This is really the thing when I think about diet, specifically with fat loss, because I don’t really like the term weight loss; it’s too broad for me, because I have so many times just gone so extreme, that I am sacrificing muscle and a lot of water. So I’m getting a lower result on the scale, but it’s not all fat; it’s a lot of other stuff too. There’s the thermic effect of food—meaning that different foods actually charge your body a fee, an energy fee, just to digest them. Protein is by far the highest. 20% to 35% of the calories in protein are getting used just digesting the protein.
5% to 10% of the calories in the carbohydrates are getting used just by digesting them. And then you have fats, which is very, very low. It’s very easy for your body to take in the fat and really mostly store it. If you’re not in a caloric deficit, you’re just mostly storing fat.”
NAILING DOWN YOUR BASELINE
“It’s not a bad idea to spend a little bit of time figuring out what your baseline is, because then you can really get specific in modeling your food intake in a way that you know you’re in a deficit, which will produce fat loss, if it’s not too severe.
Even on a diet where you’re for sure under in your calories, and you’re in a deficit, you can see fluctuations day to day—so I would never say, “I ate 3000 calories today. I got on the scale, I weighed the same as yesterday, so that’s my maintenance number”. It takes a little bit of time. Two weeks is probably better than one week. If you look at the average over two weeks and it’s the same, then that’s when you go: “This is my baseline. Anything less will produce weight loss, anything more will produce weight gain.”
Then you can kind of move away from it, because you can design meal plans around things you like to eat or things you’re accustomed to eating. You can look at it and go, “Here’s how many chicken breasts I get in a day,” or, “Here’s how many pieces of salmon I get in a day,” or, “Here’s how much rice I get in a day.” [Then] you can create a meal plan so that you are targeting your macros in that way.”
1 GRAM OF PROTEIN PER POUND OF BODY WEIGHT
I’m a big fan of front-loading lean protein, getting as much of that in as you can.
The ratio of protein, carbs, and fat in a diet can vary wildly from person to person. The thing I look at first is one gram of protein per pound of body weight. It’s actually going to be startling to many people who ask themselves, “For an average guy, what would 180 grams of protein look like in a day?” It will probably seem like a lot more protein than they’re used to. The American Dietetic Associations says that people should get 50 grams of protein a day. I think that’s way too little. Especially if you’re going into weight loss, and you don’t want to sacrifice any of your muscle and want to specifically lose fat—I like one gram of protein per pound that you weigh per day.
Then with the fats and the carbohydrates, so long as you’re not exceeding your calories, it doesn’t matter. It would be beneficial to kind of play around with it and see what makes you feel better. If you actually feel better having more fat than carbohydrates, do that.”
FATS: JUST DON’T OVERDO IT
“The thing to keep in mind with fats is they have 2.25 times the calories, or energy, or fuel that carbohydrates do. Gram for gram, it’s a lot more fuel for your body to store or take up the space of stuff that you could be eating, especially in a diet when it becomes hard and you have hunger as a real issue.
Now, you have to have some fat, but t’s almost impossible to find protein sources with zero fat.
Years ago, America went on this anti-fat crusade. What they did is they just increased the sugar and a bunch of stuff. Think about it, reduced fat milk has a shitload of carbohydrates, so all these people want low-fat, but their calories stayed the same or increased, and so it had the reverse effect and people got fatter. That, to me, is a stupid equation.
I don’t think fat is harmful in the way that they described it. I think fat is only harmful if you’re over doing everything.”
“I tend to consider a large chicken breast to have around 30 grams of protein. If you are taking in 180 grams of protein per day, that’s around six chicken breasts—that’s a lot of chicken.
So [instead] I supplement my protein intake with protein shakes. I take a whey protein shake in the morning before I go to the gym. Whey protein and water. And then before I go to bed, I drink another type of protein powder called casein, which just digests slower, so that if I am in a caloric deficit, it kind of stretches that eight hours a little bit. I’ll still wake up hungry, but it’s not going to hit me as fast as the whey, so that’s 50 plus grams of protein right there that I’ve banged out in two drinks.
And then I personally have four meals a day that I’m eating, which are basically a protein and fat source, carbohydrate source, and some fiber like a vegetable.
But it doesn’t matter, if somebody prefers to have one large meal and is interested in intermittent fasting, that’s totally fine. It really won’t sway it one way or the other. You run into the risk of this kind of myth that, as long as you limit your feeding window, you can eat whatever you want—and that’s just not true. If your caloric floor is 2000 calories, and you’re eating for two hours a day and eating 3000 calories, you will gain weight.”
CARBS AND QUALITY OF LIFE
“Carbohydrates are the only thing that are not necessary to live. We do not have to eat them. If you give up carbohydrates, you can live. You will survive. Your body can function on glucose or ketones—these are the two things. It’s like a diesel engine or a gasoline engine. If you are starving, you’re probably going to switch over to ketones. If you are eating a very, very, very high fat diet, you’re going to be using ketones for fuel. If you’re not starving or eating a very high fat diet and you remove carbohydrates from your life, your body can turn protein into glucose; you will have fuel in that way. Carbohydrates on their own are not necessary to consume.
However, that said, I and many people have found that if they don’t have a source of carbohydrates, their quality of life suffers, their gym time suffers. If you look at the vast majority of athletes—professional athletes—they’re all consuming lots of carbohydrates. It is a really good, clean, fuel source for your muscles. I personally have the majority of the carbohydrates I eat around my workout. The biggest carbohydrate meal I’ll eat in the day is right after the gym. And then the closer to evening, they’ll get less and less and less.”
“Today [post-workout], I had rice, cabbage, and salmon. The majority of the carbs I eat are rice, but I’ll eat bread. I don’t really eat much sugar, but I have had instances where I’ve been at the gym and suddenly felt totally zapped, and so I’ll have a Gatorade that’s got lots of sugar in it and feel great and get back into my workout.
So really, it’s just up to the individual. If somebody is eating carbs and not feeling well, you don’t have to eat them. You really can quit them all together. Perfectly fine. Carbohydrates store as a liquid—this is why the second half of the word is hydrate; they store in your muscles. If you stop eating carbohydrates, but you maintain your calories and you don’t go into deficit, you will lose weight on the scale, [but] none of it is fat. It’s water.
You could actually increase your fat and still lose weight on the scale if you quit eating carbohydrates. Let’s say, for instance, you need 2000 calories a day to function. You quit carbohydrates, but you start eating 3000 calories of rib-eye steaks. Very fatty rib-eye steaks. You’re now going to hit a weird moment where your muscles are purging this fuel they’ve been storing, and you’re actually losing weight. But it’s not fat, because your caloric intake is above; you’re in a surplus, and you’re going to be storing that excess as fat.”
“Carbs make your muscles feel better, but the thing that’s actually healing them is protein. But you can recover from something hard by eating carbs and suddenly, when you’re exercising, the very first thing your body is going to use is the glucose and carbs stored in your muscles. That’s the fast-acting fuel. Your body’s not really going to start tapping into fat while you’re exercising.
If you’re on a very long and slow walk, and you’re also in a deficit of fuel, you’re going to be burning fat. And the idea is, over the course of the day—if you’re in a deficit, you’re going to be burning fat. But if you go into the gym and start doing stuff that’s really hard for your body, it’s going to try to use fast-acting fuel, which is what you get from eating carbs.”
SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE RACE
The tricky thing is that we’ve become very accustomed to getting stuff as fast as we can. Amazon can ship and deliver to you the same day; you can get anything you want to eat delivered to you in minutes; you can watch any movie that’s ever been made practically right now. You don’t have to do anything or go anywhere, you just push some buttons on a thing, and there you’ve got the movie or listen to every song that’s ever been recorded right now.
[The bulk of] the scientific research shows that sustained weight loss is most benefited by a very slow weight loss. By taking your time. When people go very, very deep into the whole ‘lose weight very quickly’, the majority of the time, they tend to gain it back. I don’t want to say that there aren’t individuals out there who haven’t lost weight very fast and kept it off, because they have. I didn’t. Most of the people I know who do that don’t keep the weight off. So I also like to think about the future: is the point just to lose this weight and get to a number or is the point to get to that number and then not go back up?
When I think about it that way, I think, “I have to retrain my body on how to eat. I have to train myself and what I’m accustomed to.” I think you are going to get there more if you only go into a slight caloric deficit, because that’s really going to be closer to your maintenance calories, anyways.
THE RITUAL OF FOOD
“[The experience of food] can be very ritual and cultural, and there’s a lot to that. [For someone who is] Italian, making pasta with their kids isn’t something they should have to give up, right? I think that if you create some targets and hit most of them, most of the time, you’re going be okay.
I fall into a weird category because I was morbidly obese, and I also have a ton of addiction problems—so I have to be a little bit more rigid because I have all these worries of regression and compulsions, that I still kind of have these urges. If I get elated or upset, my thought is, “I could be very comforted by a trip to the drive-through at McDonald’s”, and that is not the same thing, in my opinion, as sitting down with your kids and making a bowl of pasta.”
“I don’t like to call them cheat meals because I think of it like my relationship with my wife. I really like my wife, and I want to have this relationship long-term, and the idea of cheating on her, I’m like, ‘Wait, what? That would destroy my relationship.’ I like what I’ve done with my body. I want to keep this long-term. So I don’t want to have this idea of “cheating.”
I do like to that there can be occasions when the strictness of the rules that I’ve laid down can loosen up. This does not mean I would eat a pizza and chicken wings and a couple pints of ice cream and a bag of chips, and eating to the point where I was sick. I never, ever, ever do that anymore.
EATING OUT & LETTING GO
My wife Brandy wants to go out to dinner. I don’t want to go out to dinner. I never want to go out to dinner. I just want to eat my safe food, but my wife wants to go out to dinner, so I gotta go out to dinner and not tell the [waiter] that I can see oil on the fish or something like that. If I order the steamed fish, I’m going to have to trust that they steamed the fish.”
DIET BREAKS FOR MASSIVE WEIGHT LOSS
Anybody who is confronting massive weight loss—I think technically massive weight loss is 50 or more pounds—I don’t think they have to begin by messing with calories, because really small changes to an obese person’s diet can have profound effects.
The key to massive weight loss, in my opinion, is taking diet-breaks. This is a thing that I had a big misunderstanding of when I first started because to me, a diet-break just meant I’m no longer on a diet, I can eat whatever I want.
Not the case.
A diet break is maintaining your weight. It requires effort to either eat too little or too much—especially if you’re confronting 50 or more pounds of weight loss, and you start losing weight, you lose 15 or 20 pounds, you’ve got this momentum, right? Nobody in their right mind is going say, “I want to take a break.” But it’s super helpful, and here’s why: getting to be at the weight of above 50 plus pounds overweight, that means that there was a long time of eating habits that you’ve really got to change if you want to have this success for a long time. So those maintenance periods, those diet-breaks, where you’re just maintaining your weight, which requires a lot of effort, is actually the whole goal. It has profound biological effects.
The other thing to take into consideration here is your body wants to store fat. For all of human history, we have been designed to avoid famines. Famines have wiped us out and our bodies. It’s funny because we have to separate our minds from our bodies, but our bodies are like these really high-tech, stupid machines. Your body doesn’t know when you withhold food from it that you’re dieting. If your body was a smart thing, you could say, “I want to lose weight. You need to cut me off.” When you go to the gym, it thinks that you’re doing all of that stuff for survival. So it wants to gain weight because this [the body] is like a bank account of energy.
If the world ends and there’s no food available, the fat people are actually going to survive for a while longer, because they have this savings account of fuel. I always think about this in terms of cars. If at the end of the night, all of our excess fuel in our car went to making our cars heavier and require more fuel to drive, we would get very good at figuring out how much fuel we needed every day to drive around, and we would never have any extra. But our bodies are storing the fuel. If we give it one bit of excess fuel, it’s going to store it as fat. So being on a diet for a very, very long time will cause stresses on your body. It thinks it’s starving.
And by the way, the end result of eating in a caloric deficit, if you just do it forever, is that you starve to death. You don’t want to do that. That’s not a good plan.
So that’s why I’m a big advocate for maintenance periods or diet breaks, and just really taking the time. [On a diet] your body is freaking out a little bit that you’re starving, [on a diet break] it settles down, and then you’ll actually lose weight more efficiently when you go back and start dieting again.
The maintenance period should be as long as the diet period, so if you diet for three months, do maintenance for three months.”
Many factors can play a part in your day-to-day weight. If you have too much salt one day, the number on the scale is going to go up; that does not mean you gained fat. If you drink a bunch of water, that could play a part. Certain things you eat could make you retain water. If you went one day and just swapped out everything for carbohydrates, carbohydrates retain water—you’ve heard of people who eat high sodium, getting puffy? Carbohydrates retain five times the water that sodium does. So if you think you can get water retention from eating salt, you actually can get a lot more from eating carbs. But it’s not fat, and it’s not gonna stay there forever.
I would not pay attention to the scale every day—maybe write it down as a metric, but I would look at two-week blocks and then take the average of that and go, “Am I gaining weight, am I losing weight?” If you’re gaining weight on maintenance, you need to trim some food off. If you’re losing weight in maintenance, you need to add some food.
STEPS FOR ANYONE STARTING OUT
I think [starting on a weight loss journey] can be easy. I don’t even think it requires counting calories. I would say increase lean protein, increase water, and increase vegetables because they’re very satiating—they’ve got lots of fiber and are very, very low in calories. And get rid of processed foods. I think the majority of people who are interested in weight loss have more than a pound or two to lose, and there might be some big shifts required. But it doesn’t mean you have to count calories.
If you want to get super serious about it, and guarantee that you’re in a caloric deficit over a long period of time: take the time and figure out your calories. Then figure out how much protein you want to eat, and then you’ve got the rest of your calories leftover for fats and carbs, and you can play around with them and see what makes you feel better and what your lifestyle requires.
If carbohydrates are super helpful, then you can lean on them and have more of them than fats; and if they make you feel gross, then get rid of them and eat more fats—that’s the way I do it.
You start by loading up on your lean protein, you lower carbs, you lower the fat, you go to the gym. I think anybody can do that.”
SETTING UP FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE
I’m not thinking about: “I want to lose this weight as fast as possible.” Because I’ve lost weight really fast many, many times, and I’ve gained weight back really, really fast many, many times. I’m just thinking about the rest of my life. What gets me to the goal in the best way? What sets me up for the rest of my life in the best way? It isn’t losing weight really fast. It doesn’t matter to me anymore if I’m doing it slowly, so long as I’m putting effort into it every day and making progress every day, that’s what I’m happy with.”
MY FAVORITE WEIGHT LOSS TOOLS
“I’m really easy with protein powders. [My go-to] is Optimum Nutrition. It’s not quite generic, but you can go to GNC and buy it.You can buy it on Amazon. It’s not hard to find. That’s my favorite protein.
“I don’t have a specific brand, you can google and just pick one, but a food scale is super valuable to have.”
“Measuring cups are super valuable too. I love this company, Trifecta. They are a meal delivery company who sponsor me. I’ve done Sunfair, I’ve done every version of this that existed in California, and I never liked any of it. Trifecta just sends me bulk food, I get packages of chicken breast, packages of rice, packages of vegetables. And it’s just super easy.”
“I don’t think you have to sacrifice flavor. I’ve become super into Asian flavors because they are, for the most part, low fat, low calorie, and they give you a bang of flavor. My favorite one right now is this brand called Lucky Foods Seoul Kimchi Hot Sauce, zero calorie, and it is a fucking explosion of flavor.
If that’s not your thing, Ponzu sauce is really good and you can buy that in any grocery store.”
WEIGHT LOSS APPS
The reason I like Carbon Diet Coach is you put all your information in, it does the calculations. You keep putting your weight in over time, and if it sees that you’re not losing weight, it re-calculates and says, “You’re eating too much, we need to lower it.” Or, “You’re not going to hit your target if you don’t take some down.” Or, “Where are the extra calories coming from?” You have to be very accountable to it.
The apps are great, you can actually remove measuring cups or food scales and put in those apps. Those are really useful.”
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are those of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of LEO.
CHECK OUT ETHAN
As Toby Welch in The Wolf of Wallstreet
As Randy Hickey in My Name is Earl
As Louie Lastik in Remember the Titans
As Seth in American X
As William in Mallrats
Editor’s note: this interview has been edited for clarity.