The only weight loss advice worth taking

For his new book, author Ted Spiker combed the science of successful dieting. Here, his 5 top takeaways.

As Ted Spiker, author of the new book Down Size and former articles editor of Men’s Health magazine, puts it: “When it comes to weight loss, everything is about food and exercise, but nothing is about food and exercise.”

He would know. While Spiker spent his days writing about weight loss—entrenched in depths of information, surrounded by some of the most knowledgeable researchers, scientists, and authors on the topic—he hit his highest weight ever, clocking in at 279 pounds. He knew exactly what he needed to do to drop a pants size or two: eat right, exercise more. But as he says: “There’s a gap between knowledge and action. We can know a lot. We can be inundated with information or be given a plan, but how do we get from knowledge to action? What makes people change in a lasting way?”

With Spiker's unique perspective on the topic, we asked him to share the most interesting learnings he acquired while writing—and, in essence, living—a diet book:

goals can destroy you—if you set them incorrectly.

“Dieting is one of the only areas of life where we don’t accept mistakes. At work, we make mistakes, we learn, we do better; in relationships, we have fights, we work it out. We don’t expect perfection. But if we fail at a diet—binge or eat something we don’t think we should—we throw in the towel and say: ‘Forget it. I ruined it.’ We never accept the fact that we can make mistakes and be flexible. In the long game, you have to have that mindset. But everyone wants to play the short game.

In the book, I include a story about a 440-pound man who set a goal to climb a 14,000-foot mountain in Colorado. He trained and hiked and when it came time to do it, he didn’t make it. He made it to 12,000 feet and had to turn around. A lot of people would view that as failure. But his attitude was: ‘I did something I never thought I would be able to do.’ That’s a healthy look at the whole idea of goal setting. If you didn’t lose the full 10 pounds, you didn’t fail if you still got 6 or 8 pounds down.”

use objective and subjective data.

“Self monitoring can be productive: calories in, steps taken, and weighing yourself weekly—that’s all objective, tangible data. I don’t argue with that. That works for a lot of people. But that can be destructive, too. That’s why Doug Newburg, Ph.D., a sports psychologist who studies elite performers suggests a different concept: it’s called ‘feel.’ Newburg asks elite performers, ‘Does how you feel affect the way you perform?’ And the answer 100 percent of the time is: ‘Yes, of course.’ But ‘feel’ isn’t about feelings.

It’s more that if you’re stretching every day, lifting, and feeling good, energetic, and strong, that should have just as much weight as the number on the scale. When you can get those two things to work together—and reach that sweet spot where subjective and objective data inform each other—that’s finding where you want to be.”

you can manufacture motivation through social connections.

“I used to think motivation had to be heaped upon you—that you were a passive recipient to it. But motivation research says otherwise. Beating almost every psychological element—humiliation, frustration, and motivation—comes down to autonomy and social connections. That’s really important for people trying to lose weight. When you’re heavy, you just want to hide. But you can motivate yourself by making the first step to sign up for a class or train with a group. Even though you might be embarrassed, that’s a huge part of motivation.”

speak in if’s and then’s.

“Peter Gollwitzer, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at New York University, studies goals—and how emotions, cognition, and behavior influence them. And when it comes to temptation, he has studied the ‘if-then’ statement—a willpower tactic that serves as an emergency plan: ‘If x happens, you do y.’ If I am going to a party, then I drink three glasses of water between drinks; if I am going to a pizza place, I’ll order a salad have only a slice. People who use ‘if-then’ more effectively handle temptation—it helps them deal with impulses. Have a backup plan before you get into the situation.”

make it about more than the pounds.

“Pick a goal that’s between something you can do and something that there is no chance you could do—like run a half-marathon if you only run a mile at a time. That way, you’ll stop worrying so much about what the scale says and worry more about making the right lifestyle choices to meet your goal. In Down Size, I write about a guy who wanted to beat his brother in tennis. His weight was holding him back. But he made his goal about beating his brother and working on his game, not his weight. He ended up losing a lot of weight—and regularly beating his brother. ”