Raise your hand if you’ve never met a renowned marine biologist who enjoys mixed martial arts, glass blowing, and juggling barefoot in a fish store. OK, hands down — you’re about to. We’ll tell you how he met Penn Jillette, how he got healthy, and why he has an octopus on his head.
When Richard Ross decides to learn a new subject or skill, he dives into the deep end. A passion for juggling became a 15-year career as a performer. When he fell for glassblowing, Ross trained up so he could create his own glassware and sculptures. As a child, he tended home aquarium tanks with his father. When he rediscovered the hobby years later, it evolved into his current role as a biologist at the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco where he tends to the Philippine coral reef display within a 212,000-gallon tank, the deepest in the world.
Until last year, Ross’s stick-to-itiveness fell short when it came to changing his diet and exercise so he could lose the weight he’d been putting on steadily for years. He chalked his weight gain up to a natural byproduct of aging. He tried a few diets, would lose the weight, and then swiftly gain it back. “I didn’t look well anymore. I looked generally unhealthy.”
Ross was inspired to turn his tenacious spirit on his own health when he learned that his buddy, magician Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame, weighed the same as him. “It seemed unconscionable that someone who was a foot taller than me should weigh the same as me. It was horrible, that moment.”
Ross asked Penn to put him in touch with Ray Cronise, the scientist whose approach to making lifelong dietary changes helped the magician and two of his performer pals lose mega pounds. “Boom. The next week I was working with Ray and losing weight.”
Ross lost 60 pounds in three months following Cronise’s 90-day challenge, which involves eating a low-calorie, plant-based diet with very little fat. As planned, the weight loss period broke his bad eating habits and he happily entered the next phase – eating healthy forever with room for “rare and appropriate” indulgences.
Read on to see his before and after pic and then learn how Ross lost so much weight that when he looked at a picture of his wife beside his new, trim self, he asked, “Who is that?”
Withings: Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us. To start off, we’re wondering how you became friends with Penn Jillette?
Ross: I’ve known Penn for a while from the juggling world. All jugglers know each other at some point. In Las Vegas, we used to go to Denny’s to get Moons Over My Hammy, but now we eat fruit and lentils. I have also been on Penn’s Sunday School podcast six or seven times in the last few years, which is great fun with friends.
You work with a wide variety of marine life at the aquarium and in your fieldwork with coral reef restoration; do you have favorites among the creatures of the deep?
Cephalopods are pretty hard to beat, but coral comes in a close second. Which is funny, because one is very mobile and seemingly intelligent, and the other doesn’t have a brain and doesn’t really move. Cephalopods are an alien on our planet. They are so weird and so different and so beautiful and so interesting. They have three hearts, they have blue blood, they have a ring-shaped brain, they have a parrot like beak. They can change color, they can change shape, they can change texture. They are awesome. They’re just awesome and we don’t know enough about them. And every new thing we learn means we have to learn something else. Which is really exciting.
And the runner-up, coral?
A coral tank is like a big bonsai tree, but way more beautiful. They can be a challenge to keep alive. You’ve got to get everything right and there’s something appealing about tinkering like that. The lighting’s got to be right, the flow’s got to be right, the temperature has got to be right, a slew of chemicals have got to be right. The coral grow slowly at first and then all of a sudden they start growing really quickly. Once they get rolling you start seeing differences week to week and that’s pretty exciting for an animal that’s made out of calcium.
Did your habit of digging in when learning new and challenging skills help you with your weight loss?
It’s very easy for me to say, ‘Okay, this is what I’m doing now.’ So, when Ray says, ‘eat this,’ I eat that. There’s no worry of eating something else. I was never tempted to get off the program. When I tried other diets, where the food was supplied, I lost weight, but when it was done I was back to eating the same stuff as before. They didn’t teach you how to eat.
What was different about Ray’s approach?
The diet doesn’t start until after you’ve lost the weight. The act of losing weight is it’s own process, and when you’re done, you know how to keep it off in the future. Keeping the weight off is easy. Losing it is kind of hard. Working with Ray, you know what the end game is, what the food at the end is going to be. You get used to that and then it’s easy. Other diets, it’s all about losing weight and they have nothing to do with how you are going to keep the weight off in the future. Which is really what Ray is working on with his book Our Broken Plate. We’re not talking about how to eat in our society in general, we’re talking about how to lose weight. If we talked about how to eat, I don’t know if it would be as much of a problem.
What was most the difficult part of this process?
Coming face to face with the obvious things I was doing to make myself fat over and over again. If you eat a lot of terrible, high-calorie food, you’re going to be fat. And if you don’t eat a lot of high-calorie food, you’re not going to be fat or you’ll lose weight. And if you eat good food, that’s good for you, it ends up tasting really good once you get used to it. It feels like every other diet has just been a substitute version of the bad food and as soon as you’re done all you want is that same kind of taste or texture or feel. And I don’t want that anymore.
What was the most surprising part of your weight loss journey?
The most interesting part for me is that I write a series of articles about skeptical reefkeeping where I talk about thinking rationally and intellectual honesty and fighting cognitive dissonance and other kinds of fallacious thinking. Then working with Ray just shined a bright light on all the ways I was fooling myself. I thought, ‘I’m middle-aged now, this is just what happens to your body’ and ‘I’m not really that overweight’ and ‘I eat pretty well, when I choose to.’ But all of that was not really true, it was just me getting used to the idea and getting lazy about it and not paying attention. One of the biggest lies I was telling myself is that fast food is faster. It’s not. You have to go there. You have to get out of your car, wait in line and it’s really just as fast to run into a grocery store and get something that’s not terrible. None of it actually pans out to the story we tell ourselves about it. And no matter how much we understand how things like cognitive dissonance or how marketing works, we can all fall into the traps ourselves with that stuff. Rather than looking at myself and making changes, I just pretended it wasn’t happening.
What’s the best part of losing the weight?
I feel incredibly different. I’m much more interactive with my family. My daughter is 12 and she’s very strong and she’s very proud of that. And she likes to carry me around. But when she would give me a piggy back ride when I was fat, I couldn’t do it for very long because I couldn’t breath with my belly pushing up into my chest. Now she can give me a piggyback for a while, which she likes very much. She’s very strange that way. And it’s great.
How has your relationship with food changed?
Food is not everything anymore. You have a bad day at work; you come home and reward yourself with food. You have a good day at work; you come home and reward yourself with food. Now that I’m not using food, I find there’s many more interesting things to do than eat. And there’s no feeling of being denied. It’s holiday time, so there are Oreo cookies everywhere. In the past, I would have eaten an entire package of Double Stuff peppermint cookies myself. I took a bite of one last week and I had to spit it out. It was just too much. I don’t miss eating that way. I discovered all these wonderful tastes that I had been overlaying with fat and sugar in the past. Now I can taste them and they are really good. I’d rather eat a bowl of vegetable soup than an Oreo. If you told me that in March, I would have called you crazy. And now it’s just the way it is. It’s great.
Your work brings you close to the natural world and you discuss ethical reefkeeping choices on your website. Do you consider the impact your dietary choices have on the environment?
Through the 90-day program, I was talking about how this part is really exciting. A lot of the research about how bad factory farming is for the world holds up. And I’ve always wanted to be an ethical vegetarian because it seems really awful the way animals are treated most of the time for our food. But I never did it. Now I’m doing it and it’s great. And on those rare and appropriate occasions when I want to have some meat or dairy, I can take the time to make sure it was raised humanely and not have that guilt building up in my brain. It’s kind of great. That’s a definite bonus for me.
Can you describe how you eat on a typical day now?
On a typical day, I’ll have a big salad for lunch with a balsamic dressing, soup or chili or some other veggie meal for dinner, and then a bunch of grapes or home made faux banana ice cream to top it off.
Ray required the use of the Withings Smart Body Analyzer during this process, how has the scale helped you?
At first I thought, it’s just a scale, what does this matter? It could be any scale. But having it remember your weight and progress is the best thing ever. You can see the change and the scale remembers your progress for you. That’s exciting because if you had to do it yourself it would be just another weight loss thing you have to do and if you don’t do it you’re a bad person. And I love that it e-mails your weight automatically to whoever you want. All of a sudden you’re accountable. With Penn and Michael and Ray getting my weight every day, how could I even think of screwing up? It’s a great motivator and it’s instant. I think it’s an incredible tool.
Part of Ray’s approach involves not talking about what you are doing during the weight loss period. Why?
When you discuss it, you get almost all of the pleasure of actually doing it. And then you can end up not doing it. If I tell people I want to learn to play bass I’m probably not going to learn to play bass because I’ve talked about it and I’ve gotten that same rush. But then, why do I need to do it? Don’t go on Facebook and say ‘I’m learning to play bass!’ because then you’re absolutely not going to learn to play bass. But if you decide you’re going to learn to play bass on your own and not make a big deal about it, then its more likely. Weight loss fits right in there. Actually doing it takes effort. Saying you’re going to do it doesn’t take any effort. Plus the thrill of people noticing is great! And you have a secret.
How have your friends and coworkers responded?
Everyone wants to know what the secret is. Then when it’s finally boiled down to the secret, which is – change your diet forever, that self-selects people. Some people hear that and they run away. Other people hear that, they run away, but then they come back and say, ‘What does that really mean?’ It means you’re going to eat as much good food as you want and you’re going to lose weight. You’re just not going to eat the bad food.
What’s the most important thing for people to understand about the process of transforming their relationship with food?
It’s important to know that it’s actually possible. If Penn and Mike [Goudeau] did it, if Matt [Donnelly] did it, if I did it — anybody can do it. It’s not an insurmountable thing. It’s infinitely doable. Before this work with Ray started, it always seemed impossible. You can trust that other people who were overweight for a decade or more did it and they are all saying it’s really not that bad.
How different do you feel after losing the weight?
I did martial arts and I’m trying to get back into it. For various reasons I haven’t been able to commit as much as I’d like to, but I was back solid for two months and it was fantastic. Because the new body does everything I want it to. It’s like I have a whole second life actually. Sure, in sparring, I can’t lie on someone and hold them down with my weight like I used to, but losing that is more than made up for in mobility and speed and endurance. It’s just ridiculous how much easier everything is. I can lay flat on my stomach! I can do that and not get out of breath and have to roll over. It feels amazing. I wish anybody who was overweight would feel that, because it’s doable.
And finally, regarding the photo, why is there an octopus on your head?
While training divers on responsible and sustainable fish and coral collection in Tonga, we came across this octopus. As Tonga is mostly a substance culture, the divers we were training wanted to catch the octopus to help feed their families. One of them grabbed a claw hammer and proceeded to smash up several meters of coral while catching the octopus. One the boat I asked him ‘we just spent all day talking about how not to damage the reef, and there are easier ways to catch octopus, so why use a hammer?’ He answered ‘they bite’. ‘No they don’t’ I said, picking up the octopus and putting it on my head, where luckily it didn’t bite me, going on to discuss better ways to catch octopus. We then talked about how sustainable and responsible ideas applied to everything including fishing, and how respecting habitat means there will be creatures there for a long time to come.
Visit Ross’ website to learn more about his eclectic passions and pursuits.