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.)
The Power of the Group
It's hard to overstate the power of the group dynamic. The lonely work of weight loss became an animated, purposeful social project. The benefits of encouragement from members will be no surprise to anyone who has been in a supportive group, such as a quilting bee or Seal Team Six, although in the case of the Social Diet, several members loved that the group mojo happens without the weigh-in with strangers that was the foundation of Weight Watchers' success.*
The power of the group grew beyond chittering online encouragement and smiley UP emoticons. We talked by e-mail and text, in the halls and on the phone, and eventually on Google Hangouts. The experience felt increasingly intimate. There is a vulnerability and humility attached to fessing up to a personal struggle and then working through that struggle with fellow travelers—an experience familiar to many women but not to me. Like Marines, members became loyal. "I feel responsible to the group to get my daily steps in," says Allison Lowery, who is Cooking Light's top online editor. "My husband and my kids are a great support system for me, but they are almost too supportive. My husband will say, 'You're tired. It's OK, you can skip it' when it's not OK. I need to be with a group of people who are really focused on this."
The self-described queen of yo-yo dieting, Erin Clinton, who sometimes now walks 25,000 steps a day, adds: "I celebrate everyone's successes. And it's not always about the scale. Allison's focus was on being more fit, and she works out every day now. That is so impressive and so motivating."
For me, by nature not a joiner, the group exerted a power I had just not anticipated. Here was a social media activity that felt more connected to the physical world than do the chatter-spheres of Twitter or Facebook. At home and when traveling, the need for more exercise meant I was taking long walks with my wife, and we were talking more. I became, she says, more understanding about her own issues with food. I was happy to split entrées in restaurants, something that heretofore had felt stingy. The group also made me more social outside the group. My wife calls these benefits "collateral good."
I was not the only one so affected. One member invited an exercise coach to come into her office for the benefit of coworkers. Spouses and friends took new interest in eating and exercise. "I've been suffering from social media fatigue lately," says Sean Kelley, the diabetic, who is a senior member of a health-information company in Atlanta and is immersed in the digital world. "But this makes me feel like we belong, like we're all a part of the same kind of mission. It's the way 'social' is supposed to work."
Little Portions and A Little Plan
Most of the Social Dieters, being in the healthy-eating business, had long ago adjusted the proportion of foods in their daily eating. What vexed everyone, even editors who had been prescribing it in the magazine, was portion control. As the group's "shadow member," Ann Taylor Pittman, Cooking Light's top food editor, puts it, "When I started actually logging in all my food, it was a huge wake-up call. I cook healthy food at home, but the reality is I was eating too much of it and not accounting for all the food I ate both outside and inside the home." (Ann used the apps and participated in a thousand hallway confabs, but was loath to share her data; hence her shadow status.)
The app revealed that I was consuming considerably more than the 1,550 calories the diet allowed me. At breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I began measuring most of my food, especially calorie-dense food: olive oil, pasta, bread, cheese, meat. I counted nuts like shekels. In supermarkets I read food labels with Jesuitical attention. I got new batteries for my digital food scale. In the kitchen, I was using even more spices, sambals, pickles, relishes, and other low-calorie flavor boosters than before. Experiments with whole grains and heirloom dried beans occurred in the rice cooker and the pressure cooker. The farmers' market made unprecedented demands on my wallet. Another piece of collateral good: I did some of my best cooking last summer.
As satisfying as the food was, though, I felt deprived. While it's true that not eating takes on a certain balancing savor as a diet progresses (now the project is working, now you are solving for X), the problem was that the deprivation and the savor were not quite in balance. Commiserating with the group helped, but there was a satisfaction deficit. Something in the equation had to change if this was going to work.
Experts will tell you that it's almost impossible to exercise your weight down. However, the relationship between exercise and delicious dieting was manifestly clear: I had to burn more calories daily to buy the few hundred that would make the difference in eating pleasure. I began running—something I had done two or three times a week for more than 20 years but never really enjoyed—daily, and ended up loving the step work itself. At some point, the equation came into balance. With that balance came a new sort of satisfaction. I thought it was successful project management. According to my wife, I was happy. Certainly I was happy when I donated 18 pairs of pants to charity and bought shirts at Nordstrom Rack that would not have fit 5 or 10 years ago.
Patrick Pittman, Ann's husband, who is a neurology nurse, experienced a profound change in his views about the relationship between food and exercise. Solving for X removed a lot of J—junk food, in which he indulged because of work and schedule—from his diet. He now demands more from his food, and blogged this:
"Instead of using the most efficient way (drive-thru) to gather the most calories (chicken wings and fries), this diet has forced me to divine how to expend the most effort (running 5 miles) to harvest the least calories (a grilled chicken salad) from food that I actually enjoy. This remains strange math for me ... but ... I insist, most of the time, that my food has real flavor and good nutrition and limited calories—and it must satisfy." Most fast foods just didn't survive his new math.
Allison Lowery's own math saw her eliminating a lot of incidental eating: "No more skimming off the kids' plates, munching office treats, grabbing snacks while cooking dinner. For one thing, I just don't want to load those numbers into MyFitnessPal. Also, logging everything makes you so aware, and it's a lot easier to resist silly calories that offer no real pleasure and no utility."
What Was Lost and What’s to Come
I met my 20-pound goal a couple of weeks ahead of schedule, and at this writing have lost 22. Patrick, 25 pounds down, has taken up trail running. The shadow member lost 18. The busy mom for whom exercise was the top priority was surprised by what her food diary revealed—and lost 17 pounds: collateral good. The maintainer indeed maintained, and lost 7 pounds to boot. The queen of yo-yo dieting has struggled—some gains, but she also lost 10 pounds, for a net loss—but describes the shift from morning weigh-scale mania to a balanced, socially powered approach as "transformative." The mom of new twins lost 23 pounds. Sean Kelley, the diabetic, joined the group late, lost 7 pounds fairly quickly, and confronted a new complexity: that maintaining blood glucose levels while using a new insulin pump amid calorie and fitness changes is like flying a helicopter in high winds. But he's optimistic. The average weight loss per member was 16.5 pounds. The average if you filter out the late starter and those who didn't have explicit weight goals: 20 pounds.
Advocates of wholesale lifestyle change deride calorie counting, food diaries, and, indeed, diets as short-term fixes destined for long-term failure—and dieting was never the motivator behind the 15,000 recipes this magazine has developed. My friend Mark Bittman, who lost more than 30 pounds seven years ago and has kept it off, argues in his recent book VB6 (Eat Vegan Before 6:00) that long-term weight loss and maintenance proceed naturally, if not always easily, from pulling the levers of portion and proportion. For him it was instantaneous and easy. The Social Dieters, however, found that even the most health-knowledgeable members benefited profoundly from the group. If mindfulness is a factor in weight loss, groupthink is an amplifier.
A successful 20-week experiment does not predict the future. "Healthy eating," as Kate reminds me, "is a practice, like yoga." As group members meet their goals, we face the transition from project to practice. As of this writing, all have signed up to do that in 2014. I use the word experiment carefully: The Social Diet is a small effort, uncontrolled, featuring no clinical BMI measurements or blood work. It was built on trust and powered by goodwill in the strange new world of the small screen. It has proven, so far, fun and energizing. We have solved for X, deliciously.
* This reinforcing dynamic of groups using apps for weight loss was described in a fascinating Atlantic article in 2012, which noted how much of this power can be explained by psychologist B. F. Skinner's theories about collective behavior change. Search for "The Perfected Self" to read online.