Social Diet: How to Lose 20 Pounds (Like Our Editor Did)

How Cooking Light staffers lost 128 pounds and got moving on the Social Diet.

Scott Mowbray

Last April I resolved to lose 20 pounds. This was not news. I had made the same resolution hundreds of times, usually in the shower, contemplating my pudgy self, always a bit ashamed: Editor of healthy-eating magazine has a Body Mass Index number at the north end of overweight! This wasn't where I wanted to be on America's most notorious bell curve.

In May, something clicked. I vowed to lose 20 pounds over 20 weeks, and the pounds began to slip away. At week 18, I was down 21. This was news, though I am clearer on how I did it than what finally made me do it. It may have been weariness. It may have been professional embarrassment. It may have been age: At 53, your future is very much upon you.

Whatever the cause, it was not an infusion of willpower. Concerning weight loss, that word feels lazy and judgmental. Self-control is obviously needed to eat less, and researchers continue to explore the ways in which obesity in particular sparks brain activity related to addiction. In my case, though, the failure of daily resolutions seemed a symptom, not a cause. Like most people, I had been motivated in other areas of my life to achieve long-term goals through short-term deprivation (of sleep, of money). I knew what motivation felt like. The truth, I decided, was that I had not felt deeply motivated about my weight. The truth, my wife decided after witnessing a number of changes along my weight-loss journey, may have been darker: "You were actually depressed about your weight, and in denial about that," Kate recently told me.

Whatever the root cause, I decided in May that I needed a new approach, free of the neurosis of daily resolutions.

Ruth Durbin, a reader, responded to a blog I wrote about motivation this way: "I'm still not sure what got me to Motivation Land. I suspect it was keeping the calorie diary plus weighing myself every day on a digital scale. It allowed me to see weight loss as an equation—I could solve for X—and not a battle of willpower, which I will always lose."

"Solving for X" became my favorite way to think about weight loss, because I am a nerd. Solving for X sounds like a project, and projects motivate me. Having experimented with a couple of wildly popular food- and fitness-related apps, I saw what the new approach might be. Weight loss would be a project to build and maintain. It did not feel like a project to embark upon alone, however. This time, a nerdy loner would reach out to others for help.

Thus was born the Social Diet.

A Tipsy Plan

In late April I had dinner with three colleagues, all women, who talked about their struggles and successes in a culture that, as everyone stipulated with vigorous obscenities, is mean, shaming, and stupid about weight. It was a hilarious, eye-opening yak fueled by lots of good food and wine. We agreed that, setting normative issues aside, we feel happier and healthier when we weigh less—though in my case weighing less was a distant memory. I said I was damned tired of buying pants with "invisible waistband extensions," a feature found in the old-fart section of Macy's that neatly illustrates how the genders approach body image and clothes, females being pragmatic (Spanx), and males being completely self-delusional (magic expanding trousers). I proposed that we channel the good energy of that dinner into a collective effort: Lose weight without giving up our passion for food. Everyone tipsily signed on.

Back in Alabama, home of Cooking Light's editorial offices, I recruited a few others. The group was diverse: a mother of new twin babies; a 39-year-old type 1 diabetic man; a self-proclaimed queen of yo-yo dieting; a neurology nurse who works in a stressful, junk-food-fueled environment; a marketer who had already lost 18 pounds and wanted to keep it off; and a mother of young girls who wanted to increase her exercise regimen despite having zero me time (for her, weight loss would be a secondary benefit). Most were magazine staffers; a couple were friends.

Now we needed tools to track calories consumed and calories burned—tools that would hook us into a network. We downloaded MyFitnessPal, a food diary app that has been downloaded more than 40 million times globally, and installed it on our smartphones (similar apps include LoseIt!, which was the choice of one group member). Then we bought (or had given to us by the Jawbone company) UP bands—$130 movement trackers that measure steps walked or run, and map the user's sleep (similar devices include FitBit. The food diary apps talk to the fitness apps, so each day's calorie equation is automatically calculated: more exercise done, more calories allowed on the diet. We decided on the common 10K fitness goal: at least 10,000 steps per day.

Calorie counting is critical because, as we quickly realized with chagrin and embarrassment, even people who work in the field of healthy cooking are blind to the hour-by-hour sources of many calories. Apps like MyFitnessPal have radically simplified the chore of counting calories because they merge frequently updated nutrition data gathered by the app makers with enormous amounts of crowd-sourced information added by users (albeit not all of it accurate). It is now vastly easier to locate a calorie value for something you've eaten, or at least make an educated guess. Most important, apps incorporate calorie counting into the primary, addictive toy of the social media age: the smartphone.

We did not devise a meal plan per se. No menus, no point system. The philosophy would be taste-centered: Solving for X could not include eliminating Y—yum—from the equation. The main work for each member would be to pull and push the levers of portion and proportion, to shrink the servings of calorie-dense foods and increase the total proportion of lower-calorie plants. It would be a cook's diet because almost everyone in the group is a cook. It would not require the dieter to isolate herself or himself from the family's meals. This taste-focused family inclusiveness was strategic, designed to provide a plausible transition to the long-term challenge of weight maintenance.

Then we turned the Social Diet on: We gave each other access to our data using the UP platform. Suddenly, each of us saw—and began commenting on and encouraging each other about—how much each was exercising and sleeping. Several members opened the kimonos of their food diaries, as well. (Later I got a Withings digital scale that wirelessly uploads my weight for all to see.)