Performer Matt Donnelly was overweight and then wound up on four blood pressure medications. But a lot of work, a few Withings devices, and a little help from his friends and family brought weight loss, medication-free health, and an authentic brain change. Read on to find out how he did it and what he learned about himself along the way.
Based in Las Vegas for the past seven years, Matt Donnelly has enjoyed success in his performing career ranging from plum roles in 50 Shades! The Parody and The Bucket Show, to co-hosting the award-winning podcasts Ice Cream Social and Penn’s Sunday School.
As a comic improviser, Donnelly has been trained to say “Yes.. and,” for the sake of building funny scenes and stories onstage. And for most of his life, the 37-year-old Las Vegas-based performer has said “yes” to bacon cheeseburgers “and” glasses of bourbon, along with other foods and drinks that led him to life-threateningly high blood pressure and a top weight of 303 pounds.
With the support of his Penn’s Sunday School co-hosts, world-famous illusionist Penn Jillette and writer/juggler Michael Godeau, plus wife Sarah Lowe (who is a Jersey Boys cast member, and with whom he has two kids ages three years and six months), Donnelly now savors the power of saying “no” to the habits that weighed him down.
Withings: Thanks for being willing to share with us, Matt. Your weight loss has taken place in the public eye, given that you’re a performer and well-known podcast personality. What is it like talking about your new way of eating, and your commitment to taking charge of your health?
Donnelly: People say they want to support you, but mostly they just want to defend the way they have eaten their whole lives. Everyone thinks they’re experts on diets because they eat food. Penn (Jillette) wasn’t talking about it when he lost weight. He and (Michael) Goudeau weren’t talking about it at all. The first rule Ray Cronise gave us was not talking about it. Which is a good rule. I’m still dealing with the emotional component. With the removal of the weight came a lot of emotional stuff. We all talk to Ray and he breaks it down in a scientific way.
Lack of information is not as powerful as misinformation. That’s what fuels people’s anger when you talk about food. My favorite thing to say when people challenge me is “You think you’re talking to a scientist, but you’re talking to a guinea pig.” I put my trust in the scientist. I watched my friends shrink a pound a day, and I wanted in.
Would you say you’ve had a lifetime of food and weight issues?
Yes, I would. It’s a very emotional and personal thing. Before Penn told me his story, and offered to help, I was battling on my own.
What pushed you to change?
I had an incident at 35. I went in to get nasal polyps operation. I was supposed to see a cardiologist and get cleared. They took my blood pressure, then took it again, then took it yet again, with every instrument they had. They said, “You’re not going anywhere, you are going to the emergency room.” My pressure was 265 /140. I wasn’t aware of it, and was on no medications. I was there for an over an hour before the medicine took. From that day forward I was on four blood pressure medications. I had a red-alert and a new kid on the way. It seemed like an appropriate time to make a change emotionally. It was a chance to mentally change as well as physically change.
But that health scare still didn’t do it?
At about the same time, Penn had his health complications. He wasn’t talking about anything, but he was shrinking in front of my eyes. People would ask him what he was doing to lose weight, and he’d make jokes about having Ebola or AIDS. I had been around Penn and Teller a lot. I don’t ask a lot of questions. They like that. One day on Penn’s Sunday School, we were interviewing The Amazing Jonathan. He’s announced that he’s going to die any day. We were interviewing him not about his death, but about his career. One day, we were together and Jonathan asked Penn in his backyard, “What are you doing to lose weight?” You don’t lie to a guy who’s going to die. You don’t make jokes. Penn told him the whole story. I was listening at a polite distance.
Penn turned to me and said, “You want to lose some weight? Are you serious about it?” I couldn’t even answer him, I just started crying, which is not something I do. He said, “Let’s go get some tea.” I told him I’d have to invite my wife. She’s in her third trimester of pregnancy at this point. “You have to talk to both of us, or you’re going to kill me,” I told him. I’d been down this path before. She had to be onboard with me. She signed off on the plan. She’s generally a healthier eater than I, and a fit person. I married up.
Penn wrote down Ray Cronise’s number, and told me he’d pay for him to work with me. He also bought me a Withings scale, and had it delivered.
Is Ray Cronise your life coach?
He’s our cult leader. He’s done TED talks about the science of food and weight. Penn knew Ray from another project. He paid for Ray to be our cult leader and coach.
What’s the 90-day thing we’ve read about? You went on a low-calorie, all plant-based and very low oil program, is that right?
The 90-day thing was a habit-breaking period, and then you start your “diet.” It’s a diet you’re willing to embark on only after the period. You would never be willing to do what I do now on day one.
I can still have every food, and do sometimes, just not on a frequency that matters. According to Ray, there’s not a discernible health benefit between being 90 percent vegan and 100 percent vegan.
Was it awful?
I sentenced my self to food prison for all my sins. I’d look at a food and think, “I want that but I’m in prison.” I’d tell myself, “You can’t. You’re on a 90-day challenge.” It’s called a challenge for a reason. It’s supposed to suck.
Was there an exercise program?
No exercise. I was advised not to exercise. It was about convincing myself that I wasn’t starving. Not to do anything extreme. Fight or flight might kick in, and you didn’t want to activate that. I lost muscle mass, but it is something very easy to get back. Within weeks of going to the gym, I felt like I gained back my full muscular resources. I exercise moderately now. I run, lift weights. Nothing extreme.
Did you undergo an identity change?
Diet is such an extension of your person. But that’s reducing the scope of how you examine your life. At one point, I was identified by the foods that were killing me. I had bacon t-shirts, people sent me bacon GIFs. I was Mr. Bacon and Bourbon. When I worked with Ray and Penn, I was absolutely willing to redefine myself. I’m embarrassed that I wore hippy jewelry and did poetry in high school. Now, I look at my early 30s with the same embarrassment. I had to be willing to be a picky vegan eater at a restaurant. Now, it doesn’t bother me.
Was there a mental and spiritual component, like with a 12-step program? I know you’re an atheist. Does that kind of thinking apply to your transformation?
The whole atheist thing is this: you’re used to keeping your mouth shut when spirituality comes up in public, and you take comfort in rallying where you can speak your peace. What we do is a kind of Food Atheism. You don’t want to hear what other people believe about food. You don’t want to bring it up, you just don’t want to talk about it to anyone. You ruffle people’s feathers and it feels like you attack what people believed their whole lives. I’d rather not talk. As I joked on Penn’s Sunday School, I’d almost rather talk to a Catholic [about religion] than talk about my diet.
You mentioned that Penn bought you a Withings scale. Did you use any other devices?
The Withings scale and blood pressure cuff are what worked for me. The watch is fun, but didn’t play as large a role. I love the alarm, it’s the slickest thing on the watch. Every time I use it I say to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
I share my stuff [that I track] with four other people. It’s on my dashboard. I don’t want to disappoint them. This works. I was on blood pressure medication for two years… four different ones. Five months on a plant-based diet, and I was off all of them.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned?
My biggest takeaway was that it never occurred to me that food didn’t have to be important at all. How much worse do you feel if you don’t eat a steak or a cheeseburger with your friends? You never wake up and say, “I should have eaten two more steaks.”
I’d rather show up at Thanksgiving and just talk to people, and not have people notice that I’m not eating. People all say, “Matt, do you want to go to a vegan place.” If I don’t find anything at a restaurant, I don’t eat. I don’t have to have an amazing breakfast, an amazing lunch, and an amazing dinner every day. I believe the human body is built to last a very long time, and to last on a very few calories.
After eating 1200 calories a day, my energy went through the roof. Complex unrefined carbs aren’t bad unless you’re combining them with fat to store. It’s very hard to eat an excessive amount of calories from just vegetables if you don’t add oil.
Will this be your lifestyle forever?
I do think I’ll slip here or there, or fall off the wagon. But I know what a plate of food does to me. I know I can take five pounds off in a week, no problem. Not having food for a long period of time doesn’t frighten me or make me crabby.
What’s going to keep you on track for life?
I’d say the scale, and that by doing the 90-day challenge, I have authentically changed my brain and my thinking. I feel better and more satisfied eating good food. I no longer feel satisfied eating bad food. It’s not a mental challenge anymore, it’s just a mental reminder. It wouldn’t have happened without sticking to the 90-day challenge.
What changed in your brain?
Now, I can’t believe the importance people put on enjoying their meal over enjoying their lives.
Thanks for being so generous, Matt. Hearing your story has been a real pleasure.
Thank you for asking me.
Want to know more about the science of weight loss? Check out Episode #125 of Matt’s podcast Ice Cream Social, on which he talks to Ray Cronise about his diet and follow Matt on Twitter @SweetMattyD