Category Archives: eating well

Evolution, food rewards, dog training, and human behavior

Every beginning biology course in high school or college starts out pretty much the same way, with the same question: “how do you know if something is alive?” The students are then guided to the answers: whatever it is takes in nutrients, excretes waste material, and reproduces itself. Food and sex! The essentials of life. (And shit? Well, shit happens.)

Evolution is an amazing thing. Over the four and a half billion years of our planet’s history, life on earth has evolved from the very simplest single-celled organisms to that vast complexity of mammals (and birds, and octopuses, and honeybees, and so on). Let me stress the fundamental identity of life: food and sex. The earliest evidence for life on earth is found in rocks that are three-and-a-half billion years old. (To give an analogy here: if you spread your arms wide, and that distance represents the time span of life on earth, you can erase all of human history simply by filing down the nail on your middle finger. Three and a half billion years is a very long time.)

During all those billions of years, the organisms on earth depended on two things to ensure their longterm survival: food and sex. They had to take in enough nourishment to survive, and then enough excess nourishment to go beyond survival and all the way to reproduction. As a result of evolution, where only those organisms that were good at taking in enough extra nourishment made it to the reproduction part, there are huge mechanisms built into life forms to ensure that the drive for food is first and foremost in the actions that all life takes. (You could argue that there are times when sex is more important–the spawning of salmon would be an example–but those times always come after the organism is well fed.)

Why do I bring this up? Because it begins to explain why training your dog with food is the easiest way to train your dog. Because taking in nourishment is so evolutionarily advantageous that eating is hugely rewarding. Because eating is important in the life of any living creature.

There are a few things that dog trainers tell each other over and over, and one of them is “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” Two corollaries to that are that reward rate (timing) matters and reward quality matters.

In one of her books Karen Pryor writes about training a hermit crab to ring a bell by using a marker and a food reward. Now, hermit crabs are not nearly as smart as dogs (or humans) and yet a consistent food reward works to train at least one hermit crab. The drive for food is amazing.

To train dogs in agility (or any of the dog sports), we have to work at associating the behaviors we want with the primary and secondary rewards we offer. We can develop secondary rewards (throwing a ball, saying “good boy!”) by associating them with the primary reward of food. If you always say “good dog!” and then give the dog his food reward, the dog learns that “good dog!” means a reward is coming, and the words become a reward of their own–as long as you pair those words with food most of the time. This is the principle that is used in clicker training: the click predicts a food reward; marking the behavior with the click tells the dog (or other animal with a brainstem) that behavior predicts a food reward; the dog tries repeating the behavior that earned the click/food reward; the dog again receives the click/reward; the behavior is gradually trained.

For our dogs, who are usually pretty well-nourished (as dog trainers, we want our dogs to be in optimum health), some other activities can become primary rewards. Playing with toys or chasing balls is very rewarding for many dogs. For some herding breed dogs, the opportunity to herd is rewarding. The dog defines the reward, not the trainer!

Reward rate and timing matter a lot, because in training you’re trying to persuade a deep part of the animal’s brain stem that “this behavior, this one right now, predicts food acquisition.”* A high reward rate allows you many opportunities to form that connection; timing helps pinpoint the behavior. Sometimes when I’m training Rush or Dancer I pick a simple behavior–one I’ve trained before–and work on reinforcing my training by trying to reward that behavior with really good timing and really good rewards. Recalls are great for this, because we all need a really good recall.

As far as human training goes, I’ve written a lot about dog training in this blog over the years. I think this is the first time I’ve written about evolution, though. It’s because I’ve been thinking a lot about food for the last few months; I’m going through a challenging** time with my efforts to lose weight. The fact is that we (American) humans are going through a time of unprecedented food availability and we still have three-and-a-half billion years of evolution telling us to eat, eat now, eat now!, and only a few hundred thousand years of human self-awareness and intelligence saying “um, maybe not so much.”

The evolutionary drive to take in nourishment–to seek out food and eat it–is enormous. Think of it in the same light as trying to keep a teenage boy from thinking about sex, and the problem of reasonable food intake (instead of overeating) becomes far more understandable. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to create reward systems for myself that reward not eating. Or that reward behaviors that lead to my goal of weighing less and being more fit. I recently bought myself a pair of pink and gray Hoka One One Clifton 2 running shoes as a reward for all the training (and not-eating) I did that led to a new personal record (for my current age) in a 5K run. I love the Clifton 2s; the generous padding has meant that I don’t have knee or foot problems even as I increase my running distances.

*Think about plants. Even in plants, the reward of “food” also functions to change behavior. Plants grow toward light, which they use as energy source in photosynthesis. Light is not the same thing as food, I acknowledge, but since the point of food acquisition in organisms is to have energy for life, I will argue that the primal need is much the same.

**I have taught myself to use the word “challenging” instead of “hard” or “difficult” or “impossible” for all kinds of situations, from ignoring chocolate cake to agility handling to running a 5K. Challenges are good, I like challenges, and it’s possible (most of the time) to meet challenges and overcome them. There are methods for dealing with challenges. Just saying something is “hard” doesn’t help you get past it. At least, that’s how my brain works.


Mondays at Weight Watchers and other random thoughts

I started going to Weight Watchers meetings about a year ago. I go Mondays at noon, because of the benefits of what I call “Monday morning shaming.” That is, I find I don’t eat as much of the cake at agility trials (or the cookies or the other snack food) because I will be weighing myself semi-publicly on Monday morning. That is just enough of a nudge in the right direction to make weekends easier. Monday of this week (two days ago) I found myself on the scale, weighing exactly what I’d weighed a week before, which was 24.8 pounds down from when I started going to WW. Yes, I’ve “only” lost slightly less than 25 pounds in the last year. More on that in a moment.

I got off the scale, and took my car keys out of my pocket. I took off the very thin t-shirt I was wearing over my tank top. I pulled the empty plastic bags (poop bags, for the dog people reading this) out of my pocket. I put my Fitbit on the counter. (I’d previously removed my shoes and taken my phone out of my pocket.) In short, I went nuts, because really, what does all that have to do with my health or my weight?

Still, it did add up to another 0.4 pounds. Who knew? I’m contemplating wearing a bathing suit next week, so I can really strip down. (Of course, that leaves the question of what to wear the week after that.)

Back to the 25 pounds I’ve lost in the last year: when I talked with the nutritionist in July of 2012, she advised me that the most successful and sustainable weight loss occurs when you “sneak up on it.” She was in favor of about a half pound a week, or less. I certainly find that managing to lose two pounds a month is very challenging for me. I sit in those Monday morning meetings and I listen to women who’ve lost fifty pounds in a year (it’s taken me more than three years to lose 52 pounds). I’m impressed by their determination.

In the long run (all puns intended), I guess it doesn’t matter how fast I lose this weight, as long as I never gain it back. I’ve already kept the first twenty-five pounds off for two years–that’s how much I lost the first year I was focused on losing weight. That next year? That was the year I started working out, and my weight was pretty much unchanged over that year, maybe for that reason, but more likely it was because I stopped keeping track of what I was eating when. I do know that was the year I learned that lots of vigorous exercise is not enough to allow you to eat whatever you want whenever you want!


Fifty pounds, fifty-ish changes

I was fat. I really didn’t want to admit that to anyone, much less to myself. I was “fat but fit,” I told myself. After all, I could walk a fair distance, my stamina was good, my numbers were good (well, other than that pesky very slightly high fasting blood sugar number) (that my then-doctor was concerned might mean a pre-diabetic state) (but it wasn’t that bad and my overall numbers were good, right?). (Denial. Total denial.)

And then, in July of 2012, I made a decision that I would stop wanting to be thinner and healthier and I would do something about it. That’s been a good decision, but an extremely challenging task.

I’ve lost slightly more than fifty pounds over the last three years. I still have fourteen pounds more that I plan to lose. At dog events these days, people ask me how I’ve managed to lose the weight. I know exactly what answer they want: “Oh, it was easy, I followed the Blah-Blah Diet and the pounds just fell off and I never felt hungry.” We all have that fantasy.

Sadly, it is a fantasy, at least in my experience. I gained the weight over years and years of bad habits and one health problem that kept me from keeping fit–my chondrosarcoma (an adult bone cancer), which made walking painful and something I avoided, mostly. I stopped running. I stopped walking quickly. I continued to do agility, thankfully, since without agility I probably wouldn’t have caught the chondrosarcoma as early as I did. A surgeon took my left knee apart and put it back together, cancer-free, in 2007. After that, I started wanting to really do something about my weight.

I tried a bunch of relatively easy things between 2007 and 2012 and nothing really worked; I lost weight, I gained it back. Etc. I was still thinking about “diets” and not about changing my life. Changing my life is what it has taken, though–because my “old life” was what made me fat. I did focus a lot during those years on eating a very healthy diet, which was good. I got used to a life without too much processed food (other than breads and rice) and stopped eating most foods with added sugars. I also worked on getting back to a limp-free, pain-free regular walking habit. By 2012, I was walking around two miles a day with the dogs, albeit pretty slowly. Maybe once a week I’d walk more than that.

When I decided to lose weight, my doctor referred me to a nutritionist. The nutritionist had me record everything I ate for three weeks, and we discussed my eating habits at length. Ultimately, she looked at my diet and said “if you’re telling the truth, you should be losing a quarter to a half a pound a week.” The idea that I was lying amused me, mostly, and angered me, a little. I understood about lying to your doctor–it’s hard to admit you occasionally scarf down an entire sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints (isn’t that one serving?)–but I had made an effort to be honest, so that we could get a place that would be helpful. However, I had been eating a lot more carefully those three weeks, because who wants to admit to a nutritionist that you made really stupid food choices? I asked the nutritionist what I should do if I got hungry (because no one wants to feel hungry) and she said “you’re going to feel hungry, sometimes you just have to power through it.”

I went to Weight Watchers back in the 80s (after I had the kids, to lose the baby weight) and they kept saying “you don’t need to feel hungry”–and I was hungry all the time. Hearing that hunger was okay, from a nutritionist with a good history of helping people lose weight, was somehow very empowering. So that was change number 2: accepting hunger as a good thing. (Change number 1 was writing down everything I ate, with measurements (weight/volume/quantity). I still do that. It helps me know when it’s time to just stop eating.)

But since I wasn’t lying, and I wasn’t losing a quarter-pound a week (although my weight was stable at that point), I still needed to figure out how to lose weight. I am a researcher by inclination–never happier than when asked to find actual scientific solutions to problems–and so I went off and researched weight loss. I found the National Weight Control Registry, which is probably the best source for information out there, in that it requires that people keep the weight off for at least a year before they’re allowed to tell their stories. Every story is the same, basically: I ate less and I moved more.

I researched some more. I read books on changing business environments (this book was a favorite: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard); I read what are called “weight loss memoirs” (this post would qualify); I read books on fitness for those of advanced years (love this book: Fast After 50: How to Race Strong for the Rest of Your Life).
I read books on creating new habits for happiness and a better life (Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives and The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun).

I started putting virtual sticky notes on my computer screen. They said things like: “I will lose weight because I am walking the dogs three times a day.” At the time, it wasn’t true, but I was trying to add a third walk to the dogs’ day, in the late afternoon. It took about a month for that new habit to stick. Another note was “I will lose weight because I am enjoying every bite I eat.” Think about that one for a minute: my goal was to make sure I wasn’t eating food that made me feel bad, mentally or physically. Take my favorite chocolate bars, for example (Rittersport with hazelnuts); some days I have done a lot–a long run, a few long walks with the dogs, a bike ride–and those are the days I really enjoy that occasional chocolate bar. But once or twice I’ve taken a few bites and realized that I really don’t want all that sugar and fat.

I admitted to Jay that I had a problem. Now, Jay is not blind, but he is a very kind person, and I’d never discussed my weight with him, not seriously. He has never said anything like “you’d be more attractive if you lost weight.” He’s wonderful, and he deserves many perfect husband points for his behavior over our marriage. It turned out that he wanted to lose weight, to make his bicycling more enjoyable. He said he’d eat whatever I fed him and eat a bigger lunch if he needed to. Okay, I didn’t need to cook something different for him–that helped a lot.

I found a few articles about hunger. In one of them, the writer–a researcher on obesity–talked about learning to recognize true hunger. Cravings are one thing; hunger is another. Right now, this very minute, for example, I would love to have a big plate of southern-style buttery biscuits, with lots of honey. I know where this craving comes from–I had one last week and wow, it was great. But, really, I can wait a few more weeks before I have another one. I also would love a large piece of chocolate cake. But I’m not actually hungry. I know that because the thought of eating a big salad doesn’t appeal to me. I have a salad planned for lunch, and I’ll have it at lunch time (in about an hour), before I go to the grocery store. By lunch time, I’ll be hungry.

My daughter Stacia inspired the desire to run more. She was deeply affected, years ago, by Jay’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (he’s been in remission since 2001). Jay got involved with Team in Training when he was in chemo in 2001 and that led to his involvement with bicycling, our stores, the websites, our eventual move to Portland, and more. Stacia wanted to get more fit, and she first did the Couch to 5K program, then signed up for a marathon through Team in Training. Watching her complete a marathon, despite sore feet and hot weather, made me want to start running again. I found a Couch to 5K program online (there are hundreds of them) and started it, Christmas morning 2013, when it was dark and rainy, because a) I figured the neighbors wouldn’t see me and b) why wait until New Years, even if it was my New Years resolution? I had to do each week twice, because my weight and my knees and my lungs simply couldn’t support a faster rate of increase.

In a not-so-typical part of the weight-loss story, one inspiration was my dog, Rush. From puppyhood, Rush always wanted to move faster and do more and jump higher. He was a challenge to keep up with as a puppy, and it’s never gotten easier. When he was around a year old, it became obvious that I couldn’t take him to the off-leash park to let him run (his testosterone just kept getting in the way) and I had to figure out how else to get him enough exercise. How do you exercise a very healthy very fit poodle? I spent more time at agility barns and I trained him to run at further distances from me so that he could run fast even though I was slow, but it wasn’t really enough. One more reason to think about running.

I have found record-keeping to be a huge part of these changes. I have a Fitbit to keep track of steps; I also use their website for food logging and making sure I run a calorie deficit every day (I aim for 500 calories deficit, but mostly I end up around 350). I record my runs and most bicycle rides using a Garmin. (I started with a Forerunner 10–the simplest and least-expensive Garmin–and just upgraded to a Garmin Forerunner 225, which measures distance, steps, heartrate… and gives you a map of your run.)

I spent a lot of time thinking about what I want to eat, what I could eat, what I should eat. When Jay was first diagnosed with lymphoma, he couldn’t eat much because of the chemo, and we struggled to find a breakfast that worked for him. We ended up with a fruit-yogurt-protein powder smoothie (half frozen fruit, half non-fat plain yogurt, one scoop protein powder per person) that we still have for breakfast every day. Jay also makes himself oatmeal, but I just have the smoothie. Yes, I’m still hungry after my smoothie, but it’s enough food to make it to lunch, and remember the bit about powering through hunger? Well, that’s a habit now, too: I just say to myself “I can eat at lunchtime.” Sometimes I do make myself extra smoothie for drinking after my run, though. So that’s breakfast.

Lunch is pretty much always a very large salad, not too much salad dressing. Lots of vegetables–sometimes I cook them, sometimes they’re raw, sometimes some are cooked and others are raw–a piece or two of fruit (apples, plums, orange pieces), a small amount of meat. I’m very fond of chicken livers, and so are the dogs, so many days we share a container of chicken livers–I cook mine and add the dogs’ share to their midday soup. Yes, I know chicken livers are not that popular with most people. Other possibilities are fresh mozzarella cheese (not much) or a piece of chicken breast or a bit of plan-over left-over steak. In the winter, soup–using pretty much the same ingredients–is always a possibility.

Dinner is more complicated, because there’s the catch where I have to feed Jay too. That makes it less amenable to habit formation. I like to have soup when it’s cold, and salad when it’s warm, and once a week (not more) we can go out to dinner. Jay adds chips or crackers or bread to his meal, and I try to pretend I don’t want chips or crackers or bread, and I weigh out a reasonable portion, and I mostly manage to be satisfied with that. And I tell myself I can have some another time. Maybe next week. Or the week after that.

Four in the afternoon is my worst time. I crave a snack then. Sometimes I have veggies or fruit, sometimes I have nuts. It depends on things like how much I ran or bicycled that morning–and what we have planned for dinner. If we’re going out for dinner, I watch trash TV instead.

I made a list of all the habits I’ve created, in no particular order:

  • Walk dogs in the morning
  • Walk dogs before dinner
  • Walk dogs before bed
  • Go to bed between 9 and 10 almost every night
  • Eat an apple for snack
  • Eat a few raw carrots for snack
  • Eat a small yogurt for snack — preferably plain nonfat with some fruit
  • Eat a handful of nuts for snack
  • Spend half an hour three times a week running
  • One long run (more than an hour) or one very long bike ride (more than twenty miles) every week
  • Use Fitbit: aim for at least 45 active minutes per day (and at least 12000 steps)
  • Want ice cream? Bike to it
  • Want chocolate? Bike to it
  • Went for a run? Use luxurious lemon cream soap in the shower after
  • Went for a long bike ride? Arnica salts in a hot bath
  • Check every few weeks for clothes that are too big and give them away (there’s no going back, so no need to keep them)
  • Buy new clothes that are a bit snug, since I still have weight to lose
  • Eat yogurt-protein-fruit smoothie for breakfast every day
  • Record everything I eat, even if embarrassed
  • Enjoy, really enjoy, a small piece of cake every few weeks (but not more)
  • Eat salad for lunch almost every day
  • Set and follow regular mealtimes: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner
  • Don’t eat after dinner
  • Don’t eat in front of the TV
  • Use small plates
  • Serve food in the kitchen and eat it sitting at the dining room table, with silverware and a napkin
  • Freeze extra servings before eating–don’t leave them easily accessible!
  • One or two glasses of wine every few weeks, at most
  • Only one restaurant dinner a week–and plan for that meal and don’t indulge much
  • Before start cooking a meal, wash some carrots so it’s easy to snack on them
  • Buy a good food thermos and use it to bring salads or soups
  • Drink unsweetened ice tea or water or seltzer
  • Weigh daily and graph progress
  • Don’t eat food with a plastic wrapper
  • Don’t eat food with unrecognizable ingredients
  • When hungry, have a cup of tea and wait half an hour
  • Don’t eat between dinner and breakfast
  • Enjoy every bite. If you’re not enjoying it, don’t eat it.

A rant: things I didn’t say to the last person who asked me about my weight

I have become a skeptical curmudgeon and rather self-righteous in the three years that I’ve been losing weight. I’m down fifty pounds (hooray for me) and still have about fifteen to go. However, my actual weight loss began when a nutritionist reviewed my eating logs (for three weeks) and told me “well, if you’re telling the truth, you should be losing a quarter to a half pound a week.”

I was telling the truth; at that point I’d been eating that way for about five years (and walking about two miles a day) and all that had happened was that I had stopped GAINING weight. I had thyroid testing and other health testing, too.

Rather than giving up, however, I took this as “hmm, my metabolism is in fact different.”

I went back to the “standard advice” of eat less, exercise more. I figured it was worth a shot. I started measuring every single bite I ate and writing it down and I upped my daily dog walks to 3 miles from 2. I started losing weight. Very very slowly, but I started losing weight.

I’ve given up almost all sweets, almost all processed food, almost all meals out, almost all carbohydrates. I’ve read an enormous amount of dieting psychology (small plates, put the food away after you serve yourself, etc.). I run three or four times a week. I get about 110,000 steps a week now.

The sweet young thing doctor I discussed this with a few weeks ago (I go to a teaching practice and she’s a second-year resident), when I turned sixty, told me “that sounds like you should be losing about two pounds a week.” I’m not. I’m losing about a pound a month. I go to Weight Watchers and I watch the other people losing weight faster than I am and they get no exercise at all and they talk about eating “just a small piece of chocolate cake.”

But… I’m not gaining, I am losing, I’m no longer considered pre-diabetic (fasting blood sugar has dropped from 105 to 92), my knees don’t hurt nearly as much as they used to, and I have enough stamina to run rings around people half my age.

And I’ve become a self-righteous judgmental prig about weight loss. People ask me “what did you do?” and I tell them all that, and they sigh and say “I couldn’t do that.” Of course they could. They just want it to be easier than that.

Well, news flash. It’s —bleep— hard. You want to lose weight? It’s hard. It requires that you change the habits of a lifetime. It’s HARD. Deal with it.

Losing weight, getting more fit: summarizing my food and exercise obsessions

I was asked by a new agility friend a few days ago about how I managed to lose weight and get more fit when confronted by the reality of trying to run a big fast dog when I was a slow out-of-shape handler. I wrote a long email summarizing what I’d done; this post is an adaptation of that email, for the benefit of anyone who is bored with the reality of being out of shape.

I get asked what motivated me to get into shape and the short answer I give is that I struggled with running Rush. The deeper answer is both simpler and not so simple. Somewhere around there I saw my doctor about my “bilateral knee pain”. I was of course worried that my chondrosarcoma was back; my doctor was blunter. “It’s not cancer; it’s your weight. You’re going to need double knee replacements in a few years. Your menisci are thinning.” I went home and did research; I had a bone graft in the left knee as part of the chondrosarcoma surgery. It’s not really clear how successful a knee replacement would be, without good bone to drill into for the hardware.

So: tell me I may not be able to walk normally in a few years if I don’t lose weight, and guess what? I can lose weight.

It’s been more than three years since then. It’s taken three years–not a few months–to lose about fifty pounds. I’ve approached the project with every bit of my scientific brain trying to influence my eating patterns. I’ve read about what influences eating behaviors and exercise behaviors. I’ve read about getting fit “over fifty” (I’m turning sixty next week!). I’ve tapped into my desire to be competitive. I’ve done everything I can to get there, slowly and steadily. It’s been a lot slower than I’d like, but it beats the alternative.

And at this point my knees don’t hurt, most days.

That’s the summary of why. I also feel the need to mention that I stopped being angry at myself for gaining weight in the first place. It really didn’t help matters, and there was no point. I mean, who cares why I gained weight? I suppose it would matter if I had thyroid problems, but I don’t.

I’ve written before about what I’ve done: two posts that come to mind are two posts from late in 2014.

These two are a pair: the first is about goals, and the second is about measurable behaviors that would lead to those goals. Keep in mind that fundamental rule of training anything with a brainstem (as explained by Karen Pryor in Dont Shoot the Dog): you can’t reward results, you can only reward behaviors.


This one is recent and discusses why I’m going to Weight Watchers right now.

This one is about the changes Rush has wrought for me.

This one is an early report, when I’d lost about twenty pounds. I’d forgotten that bit about “sometimes you’ll be hungry and oh well, just power through it.” Excellent advice.

Another report from around the same time: people were stopping me at trials to ask what I was doing to lose weight. (Literally: they’d sidle up to me and whisper “how are you losing the weight?” because it’s such a forbidden topic that no one will discuss it publicly. At this point, I think people have figured out that I’ve lost a lot and it’s okay to ask about it. But I still avoid talking about it, because it’s BORING to most people. You’ll notice I’m happy to obsess, however, to those who are interested.)

And another early report, talking about some of the research I’ve done on weight loss theory.

Calorie/food tracking apps:
I’ve used the Fitbit site,,, and the Weight Watchers app. None of them is really great, but they’re all okay. Right now I’m using Weight Watchers because I’m going to meetings as a way of help myself not eat MACH cake at agility trials–I go to a noon Monday meeting and the public shaming has helped. I hate the meetings (YMMV) but it’s one more habit, along with tracking what I eat and how much I exercise. I think MyFitnessPal has the best food database, and SparkPeople sends the best daily motivational email.

Exercise tracking:
I use a Fitbit and have for almost three years. My daily goals are 45 active minutes and 12000 steps…. I also have a runner’s watch (Garmin FR110) because I’ve accidentally become a runner, again. (I was a runner in my 20s. Stopped when I had kids. Hated it when my knees were bad… Discovered the Hoka One One shoes and now enjoy running again. The shoes are no good for agility, so now I have shoes for running, shoes for trail running, and shoes for agility. I spend money on shoes.) I also keep a paper logbook on my desk with a brief summary of my day, exercise/weight/agility training info. It’s maybe a sentence a day but it’s easy to review and I like that.

Books I have found helpful (these are live links, if you decide to use them, I get a tiny commission, as an Amazon associate.):

Karen Pryor Don’t Shoot the Dog (about creating rewardable behaviors and then rewarding them–works for people too) (very helpful in explaining to my husband, family, and friends exactly what I need from them–things like: “please buy me nice soap for my birthday, not chocolate.” “Please go for a bike ride with me instead of inviting me to lunch.”)
Link: Don’t Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training

Switch by Dan Heath — this is a book about creating change in businesses by approaching things from different angles. It’s pretty geeky/business-oriented, but it helped me think about behaviors instead of abstractions.
link: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Better than Before: Mastering Habits by Gretchen Rubin (she also wrote a book called The Happiness Project, to which she refers often in this book–not nearly as specific a book)
Since I’ve found a lot of getting fit/losing weight has to do with creating new habits (since the old ones really haven’t worked for me), the idea of deliberately setting out to create better habits is helpful. Some of the ideas in this book are useful, others, not so much.
Link: Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives

Sugar Salt Fat is about the food industry and is more than a little horrifying. If you need persuading that processed food is not healthy food, this book will do it for you.
Link: Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us

Secrets from the Eating Lab is about the subtle ways you can influence your own food-related behavior to make it easier to lose weight. Stuff like putting the food away, using small plates and bowls, etc. I’ve found a lot of it very helpful.
Link: Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again

Still reading? If so, I’ll mention that I’ve started making absolute statements about myself, even if sometimes they’re more about goals than 100% true:
“I never eat processed food.”
“I avoid refined sugar (and artificial sweeteners).” (Both things wreak havoc on my insulin metabolism and create mood and sugar swings that I have trouble managing.)
“I run about 15 miles a week.”
“I walk my dogs three times a day.”
“I always record what I eat.”
“I bring my lunch to trials so I don’t eat the junk from the concession stand.”
“Yes, sometimes I’m hungry. It’s not a big deal.”
“I am losing weight because I enjoy every single bite I eat.” (In other words, I don’t just eat garbage food just because it’s there.)
“I do my hard workout on Wednesdays, when they bar car traffic in the park.”

By making these absolute statements, I a) reinforce the habit, b) make it harder to duck the task, c) present myself as the person I want to be TO MYSELF, instead of tearing myself down.

As for dieting philosophy and what to eat, I know people who are losing weight with paleo, with weight watchers, with Mediterranean diet, etc. I really think it’s key to establish what you’re eating now, what you really enjoy eating–and then reduce the amount about 20% and increase your activity about 20%. If you have any really obvious unhealthy habits, like soda or an evening slice of cake, rationing them is easier than eliminating them. I’m very fond of ice cream, for example. So these days, I can have my ice cream if I bike to the ice cream shop and bike home. French Fries? I can have seven, once or twice a month. Seven turns out to be a real pleasure. It’s enough to enjoy them but not so much I feel disappointed in myself later. One thing I really like a lot about Weight Watchers is the encouragement (through their point-counting system) to eat more fruits and vegetables. That’s helpful for me.

You can tell I’ve obsessed about this a lot. Surprisingly, there’s very little useful research out there, but I’ve found some of it very useful. All the research seems to boil down to: eat less, move more, don’t eat nutritionally altered foods (i.e., foods where a portion of the food has been refined away, such as white rice instead of brown rice, white flour instead of whole wheat, juice instead of whole fruit, etc.). Oh yes, and don’t mess with your sugar metabolism by eating refined sugar or using artificial sweeteners (yes, artificial sweeteners cause insulin to be released).