My wife packed a chef salad for lunch—two cups—and I've eaten most of it. With the leftover chicken and lettuce, she included little cherry tomatoes that giggle as they dodge my fork. I eat them just before chasing the garbanzo beans around the bottom of the bowl. Also called chickpeas, they look like tiny brains and taste about like I'd expect brains to taste after soaking in two tablespoons of oil and vinegar. Then I get a peach Stonyfield Farm yogurt, a half cup of red grapes and a 3 1/4" apple. I eat much better when she's in town.
I'm measuring what I eat so I can enter it on LoseIt, a website designed as a sort of group hug for dieters. In, The Perfected Self, David Freedman discusses his brother Dan's diet, BF Skinner, behavior modification, people that don't like Skinner and prefer cognitive therapy, fat farms, Weight Watchers and eventually sites like LoseIt. I never took Intro to Psychology, but my roommates did, so I at least heard about Skinner and his boxes while they were studying.
By the age of fifty, 5'-6" Dan reached a clearly obese 230 lbs, had type 2 diabetes, some signs of heart disease and numerous drug prescriptions:
Today, my brother weighs 165 pounds—what he weighed at age 23—and his doctor has taken him off all his medications. He has his vigor back, and a brisk three-mile walk is a breeze for him.
Sorry if this sounds like a commercial for a miracle weight-loss program. But in fact my brother did it with plain old diet and exercise, by counting calories and walking. He had no surgery, took no supplements or pills, ate no unusual foods, had no dietary restrictions, embarked on no extreme exercise regimen. He will need to work his whole life to keep the weight off, but he shows every sign of being on the right track. He has changed his eating and exercise habits, and insists he enjoys the new ones more than the old.
Freedman then scales back his startling anecdote:
... weight-loss experts have been in fairly strong agreement for some time that a particular type of diet-and-exercise program can produce modest, long-term weight loss for most people. But this program tends to be based in clinics operated by relatively high-priced professionals ...
... and identifies the kernel of the successful approach as behavior modification, which he says is also the foundation of successful self-policing groups, like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers:
... The key characteristic of Weight Watchers and other Skinnerian weight-loss programs is the support and encouragement they provide to help participants stick with them. ... Weight Watchers and the other programs do not claim to magically burn fat, or make appetite disappear, or blast abs. They aim to gradually establish healthful eating and moderate exercise as comfortable, rewarding routines of daily life rather than punishing battles of willpower and deprivation.
To make a long story short, David referred Dan to psychologist and behavior analyst Michael Cameron, who had turned his own life into a Skinner box devoted to weight loss and control, and had helped a few other people do the same:
... Starting a few weeks later, the first thing Dan did every morning was step on a scale that wirelessly transmitted his weight to his computer, which automatically Tweeted any loss or gain to the other participants in Cameron’s program. Every time I saw him, he’d pull out his phone to read an encouraging tweet from one of them, or fire off one of his own, or plug in the components of the meal he was eating, or check how many minutes of walking he’d logged that day. Sometimes he’d excuse himself for 10 minutes to take part in a group meeting on his laptop.
Over the course of a few months, I watched him gradually transform from the guy who had always piled his plate high with fried chicken and french fries to the guy who seemed genuinely thrilled to cap off a brisk walk with a piece of grilled fish, some beans, and a salad. As the habits set and his weight stabilized near his goal, the formal prompts and supports of the program were slowly “faded.” But the new routines seem to have stuck. (I just called him to check—he weighed 168 this morning.) Cameron has followed up with many of his past clients, and reports that all of them have kept the weight off.
I had written before about my wife's sister who was successfully losing weight on a bizarre HCG Skinny diet. She did put some of the weight back on, but not all of it. Unfortunately she has recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, and is supposed to undergo chemotherapy—so dieting is now among the least of her worries—but upon reading the above it occurs to me that she probably needed more support than skepticism.
Michael Cameron helped Dan and others for free, and is not set up to treat large numbers of dieters, so Freedman suggests that home-based conditioning leveraging the social aspect of the internet might replace the expense of clinics. With another supporting anecdote, he relates how his wife lost weight on LoseIt, which is also an app for smartphones.
My wife, who has been struggling with her weight since the birth of our third child nearly two decades ago, started using Lose It late last year. Within three months, she was down to her college weight. Now several of her friends, family members, and colleagues have downloaded the app and are using it to lose weight steadily and comfortably. Lose It’s Boston-based parent company claims 10 million users so far and an average per-user weight loss of 12 pounds—an amount most doctors consider enough to dramatically improve health.
On their start page, LoseIt claims to have helped users lose 10,373,017 lbs, but with ten million users that shouldn't that be 120 million lbs? Oh well, I'm already logged in.
PC Magazine gave LoseIt and LiveStrong good reviews, 3.5 stars, in 2011, but gave their four star Editor's Choice to My Fitness Pal because their users could upload their own food choices. Livestrong now has My Daily Plate and LoseIt lets you add food types, too, so I entered Earl Grey, hot, as a snack.
All three sites let you enter exercise workouts, too. LoseIt has a full range of caloric rates for running at speeds from 5.5 minute to 12 minute miles, but for swimming the only numeric rates are 50 yards in a minute or 75 yards in a minute. Freedman said you could even enter sexual activity as exercise, and there it is: Light kissing burns zero calories, General moderate burns 20 calories and Active vigorous burns 33 calories. That info will make for interesting chats.
Oh, here's a problem email: the boss's birthday cake is upstairs. What Would Skinner Do? ... It was easier to resist white cake than chocolate. I've been very good about eschewing rather than chewing office snacks this year. One associate keeps a big jug of animal crackers near his desk, and the receptionist and marketing lady keep candy bars. And Friday is donut & bagel day.
Most of the article and most of the comments concerned Freedman's discussion of Skinner. There were complaints from commenters that Skinner is not really as discredited as he claims in the article. Others claimed that AA and WW were primarily cognitive-based. Another claims that Freedman is relying too much on anecdotes, and that AA doesn't really work that well. I can't speak to any of that, but I can test the calorie and exercise tracking site to see if it modifies my behavior.