The Diet That Shrinks Smarty Pants

Intellectuals and wonks have finally found their version of the Atkins: a diet complete with history, biology, psychology, and Harvard’s seal of approval.

04.24.09 5:54 AM ET

America’s brainiacs are slimming down, and that might be because many of them are on the same diet—one that hasn’t been chatted up in the pages of Us Weekly, but has instead infiltrated the intellectual circuit. Call it the high-brow diet.

The creation of Susan Roberts, a professor of both nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University, the diet’s real name is the Instinct Diet, and it combines both areas of Roberts’ expertise in an attempt to retrain dieters’ brains. Perhaps it’s this neurological element that makes the diet appeal to highly intelligent people. It’s been endorsed by Kelly D. Brownell, the director of Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity; F. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, professor of medicine at Columbia University; and Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

“I’m a sweets fanatic,” says bestselling author Joseph Finder, “but I don’t crave them anymore because I’m reprogrammed.”

Roberts’ philosophy of eating tackles the two main reasons why dieters fail—hunger and deprivation—and is credited for expunging many calorie-heavy cravings. As for the reprogramming, the diet’s devotees say it recalibrates your tastebuds by introducing healthy food that tastes good. Instead of Pop-Tarts and mozzarella sticks, Instinct Dieters say they now crave baked apples with figs, Tuscan beans with olive oil and rosemary, and Tanzanian chicken kabobs.

Maria Lewis Kussmaul, co-founder and partner in the investment-banking group America’s Growth Capital, has lost 20 pounds on the diet and says her tastes have been drastically reoriented. “All that fried, really heavy, sauce-laden food just stopped looking appetizing,”

You won’t see Harvard faculty member turned bestselling author Joseph Finder trolling bakeries anymore, either.

“I’m a sweets fanatic,” says Finder, who’s also dropped 20 pounds since starting the diet on December 26. “But I don’t crave them anymore because I’m reprogrammed. As long as I’m able to buy Fiber One, vegetables, and yogurt, I’m fine.”

The old saw of dieting was calories in versus calories out. Roberts, however, focuses more on the former—the calories we consume. While she believes in exercise, Roberts doesn’t proselytize about it in her book because of what some studies have shown about the small effect of exercise on weight loss. She cites research that normally sedentary people who add an hour of exercise to their daily schedule might be able to lose about six pounds of body fat, which she considers a nominal amount.

The Instinct Diet functions at the nexus of biology, psychology, history, and nutrition, and deals with the sine qua non of successful dieting—we don’t want to feel deprived and we don’t want to feel hungry. Using her background as a foodie and her philosophy that a diet must address our five basic food instincts—hunger, availability, calorie density, familiarity, and variety—Roberts’ dieting program is focused on reprogramming hunger away from the needs of our early ancestors (who ate whatever they could get, whenever they could get it) and toward the reality of modern life (the constant availability of tasty, fatty foods). In this way, the diet addresses the fact that feeling satiated is a complex brain function, and that food instincts are really just an outdated survival mechanism that makes us fat. This is the Instinct Diet’s Darwinian element—helping us evolve to meet the reality of supermarket aisles packed with 36 varieties of cookies.

“I’ve done a lot of research, and [the Instinct Diet] is the most scientifically based diet out there,” says Finder, who tried South Beach and Atkins and felt deprived on both of them. He compares people on the Instinct Diet to early adopters of new sophisticated technologies.

Venerated literary critic Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who was told about the diet by his fiance, Angela De Leon, a PhD student in the nutritional biology department at UC-Davis, concedes his new lunches may not be quite as pleasurable as the Indian buffet at The Bombay Club, but he likes the diet’s scientific approach. “My caloric intake is based on my resting metabolic rate, so I know that my diet is supplying fewer calories than my body needs,” says Gates, who’s also the director of Harvard’s W. E. B. Du Bois Institute. So far, he’s lost 10 pounds on the Instinct Diet.

It’s not a diet for the kitchen-shy. Roberts was a bistro chef in France, and her program bears no resemblance to Jenny Craig or Lean Cuisine. Cooking for oneself is so instrumental to the Instinct Diet that Gates hired a personal chef to make foods like “I” Diet Soda Bread—the 72-calorie bread (per slice) that Instinct dieters say is delicious by non-diet-food standards.

Nor is this a diet of austerity or one that requires the tenacity of a pre-med student. “The margin of error on this diet is very high,” says Roberts. “If you follow the diet really carefully, you can lose about three pounds a week, but if you only follow the diet half the time, you are still losing a pound a half a week, which is a big amount of weight.”

Roberts is her own best pupil. Overweight as a child, she has been able to keep her weight stable for 15 years, and not by eating celery sticks. “I went down to New Orleans to receive an award for being a creative force in nutrition, and rest assured, I was not eating Fiber One that weekend.”

Hannah Seligson is a journalist and the author of New Girl on the Job: Advice From the Trenches. Her second book, A Little Bit Married , will be published by De Capo this spring. Her Web site is