“Why on earth is all this called ‘Eat Like a Bear!‘?” I’m glad you asked. You might be surprised that you are not the first to do so. 🙂 As I finished up the book Half My Size with The Ridiculously Big Salad, I took a day or so to write out our community’s origin story, as I see it. The story below is excerpted from the book.
The context of all of this if you’ve just stumbled in here with no background is that we’ve got a growing, highly successful weight loss community filled with just about the least likely collection of success cases you might imagine: older women who have always been overweight. I’m still stunned that I am “half my size” (140 from 280) and in maintenance for two years, much less leading a community of people doing the same thing, all behind a simple food approach that is actually saving us money. Who knew. It only took decades and a whole lot of desperation to get to this place.
Eat Like a Bear Origin, Excerpted from “Half My Size with The Ridiculously Big Salad”
For decades (and even today), had you asked me my opinion of the weight loss industry, I would have told you that if you want to wallow in a cesspool of mediocrity, the weight loss industry would be a great place to do just that. For an industry that peddles products that only half work, taking advantage of people at some of the lowest points in their lives, “mediocrity” is a kind word. The weight loss industry is one I have never wanted to be associated with. That said, I am highly aware of the irony of this book and of the weight loss community I founded on Facebook in July 2018, Eat Like a Bear!
Indeed, starting the Eat Like a Bear! community may be the strangest and most unexpected thing I have ever done. Had I any notion of what was brewing, I would have a slew of “before” pictures, “during” pictures, DEXA scans, blood work, and every other relevant artifact. As it was, I was positioned to have bariatric surgery with no hope or expectations whatsoever that I might end up trimmer than I have ever been, leading a growing community, composed primarily of older women.
I founded the group on July 9, 2018, but through the spring and summer of 2018 I was highly focused on another pursuit. As spring of 2018 came, and I was down 100 pounds, I got out and hiked and foraged in my home in California’s Giant Sequoia National Monument. With my new energy and focus, I began a YouTube channel on herbs and foraging and was ready to build a digital foraging empire. Clearly, it would be difficult to be more awesome than when you are foraging in the forest around you, and I was ready to do just that. Those initial videos were fairly bad, but I was gearing up to launch a series in the summer, far better-produced, with great stories. In the meantime, I had some weight loss videos on YouTube for friends and family, more for convenience purposes, on a tiny new channel with no subscribers and no plan. More notably, I posted a few videos on Facebook, including a video called “Eat Like a Bear.”
The “Eat Like a Bear” video responded to an ongoing reaction to my one-meal-a-day diet: “You’re starving yourself!” I pointed out that bears purposefully get fat in order to starve off their fat in hibernation. Not eating for 23 hours in a day is not close to record-setting in the animal world, and it certainly is not “starving,” especially when the one meal has north of 1,000 calories, well above the bariatric model of eating. If what I did was “starve myself,” I should have starved myself far sooner.
I published the “Eat Like a Bear” video on May 9, 2018 and continued to build my foraging empire. I got burned out, took off on a big road trip to the Pacific Northwest, and then got refocused on my foraging video goal at the big annual video conference, VidCon. I returned home from VidCon on June 23, ready to launch the new foraging series. I went on hikes and shot some footage in late June and early July. However, I noticed something extraordinary on the morning of July 6 as I was cooking my meal: My satellite Internet service had enough speed for a live video for the first time. I quickly jumped on Facebook live with a “What I am eating” video. Two ladies who had seen my videos in the spring reported that they had lost 30 and 40 pounds (14 and 18 kg). One said, “You were my inspiration. Nothing else worked until you!” The other offered, “I was inspired by your journey. I started on May 18th and I’ve lost 42 lbs [19 kg].” Their comments took me back. Friends and family members were having great success with my approach, but now two people following me on the Internet were reporting the same. I was aware that I was having a small impact, but I certainly never intended for it to become my full-time focus. I was busy foraging, after all.
By late afternoon on the same day, I was driving on our rural mountain road and slowed down for four millennial hikers who looked lost and completely out of common sense, walking down the center of the road. I rolled the window down and asked if they needed help. “We are looking for the best sunset view!” We chatted a bit, and I took in their positive, happy-go-lucky energy and offered a variation of my favorite line: “Would you like to see the sun set from a historic brothel?” (Yes, my house was a brothel in the 1920s, and it is a line I use shamelessly for notoriety among the right demographic, and surely hipster millennials fit the bill.)
We hung out that Friday evening and then again on Sunday. All the while Friday’s live video experience and the two ladies who lost weight swirled in my mind, causing me great angst as I tried to stay focused on my foraging video plan. By Sunday, with my newfound friends, little tidbits had crept into our conversations about video making, including my recent trip to VidCon. I realize now they must have been perplexed: “Who is this middle-aged woman in this historic brothel in the middle of a forest who just went to VidCon?” What I did not know about them is that they were in the entertainment and video industry, and two had sizable platforms on Instagram. It was a highly unlikely encounter here, in the middle of absolutely nowhere, on July 6, 2018. By noon on Sunday, one asked me directly, “What do you do?” I took a breath, felt all of that swirling inside, and blurted out, “I don’t know what I am doing with my life!” I explained my weight loss, my foraging-empire-to-be, and my shock over actually providing leadership on the most ridiculous topic of weight loss, shaking my head and ending again with “I just don’t know what to do!” Four jaws dropped in unison, and one of the ladies looked directly into my eyes and said with all certainty, “You have to do this!!!”
The next morning, I went live again on Facebook and announced that I would “create a small Facebook group” so we could stay in touch and support each other. Shelley, profiled earlier, joined on Day 1, July 9, 2018, and was our first official member to hit the 100-pound (45 kg) loss mark, about nine months later. About 1,000 people joined in the first week, mainly via my Facebook page, and the group continued to grow to about 7,000 by September, mainly due to some food-related videos I posted on Facebook, highly recognizable as foraging-like diet food. We got a great crew of people interested in weight loss and also projects like infused vinegar, pickled eggs, and stinging nettle soup.
However, as I became more mindful that we had a burgeoning community, I also became dissatisfied with the message of infusing chocolate with lavender or making elderberry cream cups because, quite frankly, as awesome as those projects are, no one trying to lose over 100 pounds (45 kg) should be eating dessert at all. (Sorry.) I also knew people could learn to infuse herbs into their desserts anywhere, and if I was going to give up my foraging empire to join the weight loss community, the least mediocre way to do that would be to attract some of the most significant weight loss cases out there and see some serious transformations. That surely would not be difficult since I would simply need to attract myself, as a start.
My mind was focused on this topic in August 2018 while on a cross-country road trip with my sons, relocating a hand-me-down Ford Explorer the long way from Pennsylvania through Michigan, the Dakotas, and Wyoming. We stopped in Yellowstone National Park, where we had been one year before on a vacation to observe the total solar eclipse. We recreated some of our photos from the previous year. Most notably, my teenager and I stood at the 45th parallel sign north of Yellowstone, each of us reaching our hand to the other, touching from either side of the 45th parallel, in perfect tourist fashion, as if that sign were planted on an exact geographic line. In a photo now seen by over half a million people, the photo credit belongs to my then-nine-year-old son Alastair, who took a series of photos, some of which even included all of our body parts. Of the many photos young Alastair took, some did match well the photo from the year before. We jumped back into the car and hit some other Yellowstone landmarks, with about three days ahead of us to get home.
While I was fairly diligent with Instagram up to that moment, when I saw the new set of photos, I was completely speechless. My mind pondered the photos on those three days of driving and, in particular, the message I hoped would attract people to our community. I returned home, pensive and pondering. I vacuumed for about a week, wearing out the carpet, and shot a video now called “A Postcard from Yellowstone.”
The community grew from 7,000 in the fall of 2018 to 20,000 in February 2019, largely due to the Yellowstone video, a video which would come to shape the culture and success rate of our community in a way I would not appreciate for a year. The new group members included Maria, also profiled earlier, who found us on January 4, 2019. The subsequent growth has come from friends and family referrals, with a focus on women over 50, women who have always struggled with their weight, who have a whole lot of weight to lose.
Although our community is centered online, we have a core of members in my home region, California’s Central Valley. My county, Tulare County, is California’s capital of obesity and diabetes. Many community members come from Tulare County and neighboring Kern and Fresno Counties. Known as California’s most productive agricultural region, nearly half of our children and over one-third of our adults struggle with obesity. In my background as a food forager, I look for remedies on the trail – a plantain leaf to counteract the itch of an insect bite or a lamb’s quarters leaf to alleviate the sting of a nettle leaf – the problems and solutions all found side-by-side in the forest, if you know where to look. California’s most obese counties are bordered on the north, south, and west by the nation’s most prolific agricultural land for the production of salad greens, a remedy waiting here for us in Central California, one that we have always known is important, but a remedy missing a few pieces. It is my hope that as this community grows, members can take this simple and accessible solution and fashion it to fit their own needs and lifestyle.
The stories emerging from the community are extraordinary, and they make me proud, but I do spend a lot of my time feeling very emotional. So much of what I do every day requires me to think back on what it felt like to weigh 280 pounds (127 kg), and it is a memory I would simply never revisit if I were not in this position. I see the emotions swirling in the community as well, at all stages of the transformation, but especially at the life-changing stages where we simultaneously celebrate and have our minds completely blown. I suspect that, for a variety of complex reasons, we have one of the most highly-engaged communities on the Internet, with people focused on the biggest grind of their lives and then those staying to help others achieve the same success.
Much like I surprise myself almost daily with the new physical experience of being half my size, I am taken aback more so with the online community that we have forged and the daily success stories that fuel us. The community is obsessed with bears, rooted in the intermittent fasting portion of what we do, but perhaps a mythical bird emerging from the ashes of a fiery pit might have been an appropriate symbol, had any of us – the early adopters – any sense of what lay ahead.
The Eat Like a Bear! community was born on Facebook, prodded by a chance encounter with millennial Instagrammers wandering in a forest, like some sort of 2018 cultural time capsule. It has been fueled by viral success cases emerging from the early adopters in the community, including many from California’s obesity capital, leveraging a tool – flexible, inexpensive, and simple – that grows right out of the earth nearby.
No surgery, no drugs, no branded products.
Required: Your own bootstraps
(and perhaps a lot of salad greens)