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Most Diet Books Don’t Work — Here’s Why

In the past year I was sent 104 books on fitness, diet, and nutrition.


I’ll admit, I didn’t read all of them. This is what happens when you spend most of your life writing, editing, and helping publish health books. And after authoring seven books and ghost writing another three, I have gained a great appreciation for good writing, and an even greater understanding of health information that actually helps you achieve your goals.

In the interest of your time, I don’t want you to read 104 books to find out what works for you. Because for most people, that tends to be what happens.

Try one plan. Test it for a month. Get bored or frustrated, and then move on to the next one.

This happens repeatedly because there’s a fundamental flaw in most diet books. The vast majority try so incredibly hard to deliver what you want to hear; a promise that once you change this one thing then suddenly everything will become better.

This creates a universe of intense diet cliques that are the byproduct of the book’s magic bullet. Atkins vs. Zone, Paleo vs. Mediterranean, BulletProof vs. IIFYM. The wars wage on and the frustration grows as you simply wonder, “Who is right?”

I firmly sit in the camp that there’s not one way to do it correctly (though there are certainly better ways than others), with the understanding that all of our bodies, genetics, and personalities are different.

This is the byproduct of living in real life and what happens after you read so many books, coach so many people, and come to understand that the real health secret is accepting there’s no magic bullet.

Here’s what diet books won’t say but what needs to be heard: many diet approaches can work.

What to Look For in a Diet Book
I’ll be the first to admit that many diet books are not without merit, even if they take a slightly dogmatic approach to what works. I can’t deny the positive results for some people.

But the reality is, if we had a “one-change-that-will-fix-everything” book, everyone would be on that plan and the struggle with overweight and obesity would be significantly reduced.

The real struggle is finding what works for you, or more importantly, understanding why past diets have failed. Do that, and suddenly it’s no longer about a quick fix but rather finding the path to making one of these options stick.

That’s one of the reasons why I think anyone who’s trying to lose weight, get in shape, or re-think their health this year should take a look at what Ted Spiker has to say in his book, Down Size: 12 Truths for Turning Pants-Splitting Frustration into Pants-Fitting Success.

In full disclosure, Spiker is my mentor and someone I consider a close friend. But this is the first time I’ve ever recommended one of his books. Despite playing a key role in many of the biggest health titles (just one example, he co-authored The Abs Diet), he had never written his own book because he wanted to do it the right way and produce a guide that cast aside quick fixes in favor of honesty and effectiveness.

Not to mention, one of the bigger factors that held him back from writing a book earlier was his own weight struggles. Despite being one of the most prolific health journalists, Spiker has battled his weight his entire life. Which is probably why this book does a better job than most I’ve read about actually helping plot a road for successful weight loss. It’s real. It’s raw. And it’s not filled with false hype.

In his book, Spiker does what many “diet” plans and books don’t do: he mixes soul with the science. It’s entertaining, educating, personal, and relatable.

Most importantly, it doesn’t set the same traps of other diet plans, much in the same way as other great diet books such as,The Diet Fix , The Lean Muscle Diet, and Lose It Right.

In addition to citing experts and studies, Spiker tells his own (often funny and embarrassing) stories about his body fails and the success stories of others. Together, they become exactly what today’s dieter needs — not just information and programs and plans, but context and nuance and nuggets of inspiration that help people find and explore what will work for them.

This is not a diet book per se, and that’s exactly why I like it.

Instead of taking a cookie-cutter approach, you take the more effective approach of trying to find what will work for you. Whether you read a diet book or not, this is some of the best nutrition advice you can receive.

When you do that and add it to a plan that is not built around restriction or any other unrealistic approach that always ends in failure, then you have the ideal formula for sustainable weight loss. And that’s exactly the foundation of Down Size. It’s designed for consistent fat loss rather than continual frustration.

In the book, Spiker outlines 12 universal truths and principles that people can apply to their own lives. But in my mind, the heart of what Spiker tries to do — in terms of practical advice that will get you going — lies in these four essential ingredients to having success on a weight-loss journey.

Track More Than Numbers
One successful tactic for many dieters is some form of self-monitoring (some use calories, some use pounds, some use steps walked). While Spiker makes the case that recording numbers you can control (like steps walked) can be more helpful psychologically than numbers that fluctuate (like pounds), he also points out that subjective data should be valued as much as objective data.

Spiker uses the work and insights from performance expert Doug Newburg, Ph.D., to describe the concept of feel (different than feelings) and how dieters can something that’s abstract to help guide them: if it feels good when you have a good workout, if it feels good after you eat a healthy meal, if you feel strong after a set of pushups, we should value and use that data as much as other forms.

It might sound a little out there, but the approach works surprisingly well. To understand how and why, you can learn more about what “feel” is about in this blog post for RunnersWorld.com.

Manufacture Your Own Motivation
I know, I know. Depending on motivation is like expecting your airline to stop running behind schedule; great in theory, but probably not going to happen. But that’s exactly why this book pinpoints a new approach.

While we often think that motivation is passive — that we have to wait for us to wash over us like some sort of “let’s do it” wave of energy — the fact is that we can kickstart it ourselves.

Spiker details the many struggles he’s had with motivation (and outright walls — like getting a D in sixth-grade gym class and being tailed by a race ambulance in a half-marathon).

Talking to motivation experts about the characteristics of lasting motivation, he details the elements that we can all use to construct our own motivational model to get us going in the right direction.

One of those elements — connectedness to others — is a theme he refers to throughout the book. And frankly, it’s probably the most important for dieters. So many people who embark on a weight-loss journey want to do so in private, but the very thing that will help them is being in public — even if “public” is only some kind of online form or with just one other person.

Customize, Don’t Conform
The one thing we don’t need are more books professing that one “type” of food — sugar, wheat, gluten, dairy, carbs — is the reason for weight gain. So much has been said — and will continue to be said — about nutrition and food.

Your job is not just learning the nutritional aspect of weight loss (full disclosure: Spiker also interviewed me about the subject), but what makes us eat and why. This is a refreshing look that can help you self-identify where your own issues exist, rather than blindly throwing another delicious food under the bus — when you still could potentially enjoy it as part of your diet.

Instead, you should focus on eating well most of the time and giving yourself some flexibility to enjoy your favorites in small amounts. [As well as how to actually make this happen.]

While highlighting the good nutrients and the eating styles that are likely to blame for weight gain, this is more about encouraging you to do what is so hard to do in the diet industry — customize an eating approach that uses sound principles but works for you.

It’s not a sexy way to “sell” an eating approach, but it’s the reality of how eating should work. Rather than try to fit into something that fits others, but not you, find a method (whether it’s intermittent fasting or calorie-counting or Paleo or something else) that enables you to eat healthy — and sustain that approach.

Push Push Push
No matter what kind of exercise you do, it’s not going to help if your eating isn’t cleaned up. That said, there are all kinds of workout methods that are surprisingly helpful (from competitive endeavors to things you do just for fun, like dancing) and have a great impact than you might think. For instance, most don’t associate walking with weight loss, but it can work.

The point is if you have to start by finding what you enjoy in order to make exercise part of your life. After that, if you have to choose what will have the most effect on your body, it’s all about raising the intensity of your workouts and doing strength exercises to increase muscle (to increase metabolism, change body shape).

Maybe most important, though, is the fact that venturing into these areas of pushing yourself to places you haven’t been — with weights or high-intensity work — is also about creating a new kind of energy. An energy in which you feel strong, feel excited, feel better — and when all those things are in place, the rest of the journey does, too.

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