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SunLit interview: Josh Hillis introduced psychology into a plan for healthy eating “in real life”

Working with clients and digging into research informed the principles behind "Lean and Strong: Eating Skills, Psychology and Workouts," which revamped the author's approach to diet and exercise

Josh Hillis is the author of two books. His latest book, “Lean and Strong: Eating Skills, Psychology, and Workouts,” won the silver medal in the Benjamin Franklin Book Awards for psychology. He currently attends MSU Denver and is doing his thesis on contextual behavioral science and emotional eating. Josh won the psychology department’s “promising teacher of the year” award as a TA. He has been in the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, Men’s Health, and The Denver Post. Josh is currently the curriculum designer and head coach of GMB Fitness’ Eating Skills program.

Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the theme originate?

I’m just always trying to find tools that work for a wider range of people. Statistically, diets fail the majority of people who do them. If diets work for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15-25% of people, we need smarter, kinder, and more advanced tools for everyone else.

Fifteen years ago, I was having clients track their food in a food journal. It worked really well for some people, but for other people it worked horribly. When I moved to eating habits, that seemed to open it up for more people, but it still didn’t make a difference for folks who struggled with emotional eating or cravings. Working with eating skills related to hunger and fullness helped more people, but there were people who just couldn’t get a handle on it. Even though I kept expanding the number of people I could work with, there were still big gaps.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

This book really came out of finding two things: First, a tool set for working with cravings and emotional eating, and second, a set of guidelines that formed an on-ramp to learning hunger and fullness cues. Those two things were not only game-changing for my clients, but they also really jumped out as things that hadn’t been written about before.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

The first chapter of the book gives a short overview of the rest of the book. It’s kind of like a jump-start for the whole system. So, the first part of the excerpt is from that, it’s an overview of the mindset turning points in the book. The turning point about perfectionism, in particular, seems to be really helpful for people. It seems like the more diets a person has done in their life, the bigger a stumbling block perfectionism is going to be for them moving forward. I thought that that would be a great section because it stands entirely on its own. Anyone who’s ever quit anything because they “couldn’t do it perfectly” can get something from that section.

The second part of the excerpt is one of my favorite topics: Motivation. There are four levels of motivation, but folks who are working on fitness or diet goals typically only pull from one level: Guilt or contingent self-esteem. If we’ve ever tried to motivate ourselves with contingent self-esteem, telling ourselves things like, “I’ll feel so good about myself when I hit XYZ scale weight,” we know that that kind of motivation only lasts so long. It absolutely can work in short bursts, but in the long term it lowers our wellbeing. If that’s the only thing that we pull from for motivation, it’s a pretty terrible experience. 

Most people who’ve dieted love seeing the four different levels, and then being able to see which one they’re using at a given time. If folks can pull from the more intrinsic levels of motivation some of the time, it makes it easier for them to stick with behavior change when it’s really hard.

The book has eating skills, planning skills, mindset turning points, and psychology. This excerpt gets into the mindset and psychology sections. Where the eating skills answer the question, “What do I do?” this excerpt is about answering, “How do I actually do that in real life?”

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

Two things directly informed this book: Working with clients and reviewing empirical research. 

I’d co-owned a business for several years that had coached eating based on hunger and fullness cues. I learned a lot from one of my business partners about how to do that effectively. It was an amazing time of growth in my coaching.

At the same time, I went to school for psychology. I’ve loved my statistics and research methods classes, and I’ve been reading and learning a lot about contextual behavioral science (CBS) and eating. The big thing from CBS was a toolset for working with cravings and emotional eating.

When we dissolved the previous business, I’d wanted to start from scratch on my coaching system. I looked at both my client notes and the current research. What I found in my client files was that I wasn’t just teaching hunger and fullness skills… I was actually spending a fair amount of time creating guidelines for people to learn the skills. Guidelines are like training wheels for eating skills, but I’ve never seen anyone write about them before. 

On the research side, I saw these cutting edge tools for working with emotional eating and found that no one had written about them for a mainstream audience yet. 

Once you began writing, did the book or the research take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a book that seems to have a mind of its own?

In this case, I was creating a new coaching system while I was writing the book. I had pulled most of the pieces out of my notes from working with clients, but at the same time I wasn’t totally sure how to organize them. It was an interesting period of exploration, trying to nail down all of the guidelines I’d been teaching people. It was cool to be searching through my own client files, looking for patterns of things that I’d been teaching, that had been working, that I’d never really codified.

The unexpected directions were basically just how it all ended up being organized. I wrote a whole first draft and basically threw it away. Trying to come up with better structures for teaching the material often meant completely re-doing large sections of the book. There were three drafts that almost looked like different books, even though the basic ideas were the same.

While it could be exhausting to restructure a book three times, it was also really exciting to end up with a final version that works as a cohesive system.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

The biggest challenge was writing the book while working and going to school. It was just a lot. I partnered with a fitness company, GMB Fitness, and created an entire Eating Skills program with them. So I was creating two things at once — I was writing a book and an online program. It was just a super busy time in my life — flying to shoot videos on one hand, writing book chapters, coaching clients, and doing homework. It was actually too much all at once, but I was grateful to get two truly amazing opportunities at the same time. Plus, I knew it wouldn’t last forever, the book and the eating skills program would both be finished, eventually… and now they are!

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Not everyone has liked how much of a departure “Lean and Strong” was from my first book, “Fat Loss Happens on Monday.” A lot of personal trainers read my first book and felt very comfortable with it. The food journaling and habits parts were a step away from the rigid dieting that most of the fitness industry embraces, but not so far that it ruffled any feathers. Even the language in the first book spoke to the particular biases of the fitness industry better. 

This book, on the other hand, is more flexible, more values based, more skills based, and explicitly against rigid dietary restraint. Some people emailed me and asked, “So… should I throw away the first book?” Some fitness professionals who are heavily invested in rigid dieting really hated the book. I knew the book would be attacked by diet gurus, and that’s part of why I cited so much research. 

This book is in a weird middle ground — it doesn’t fit in the world of rigid diet rules and fat-phobia, but it doesn’t outright reject weight loss as a goal that a person might choose for themselves, either. Some folks who are anti-diet have attacked it for teaching skills related to weight loss and because it has anything to do with weight loss at all. So, the book has detractors on both sides.  

That’s the thing — if someone is looking for rigid diet rules, they can find that anywhere. There’s a (relatively small) percentage of people who do really well with rigid diet rules, and they don’t need this book. Similarly, if someone is looking for a book that’s entirely anti-weight loss, they can already find books like that as well.

So, this book really isn’t for everyone. This is a book for people who have done 10+ diets and are really sick of diets. Someone has to be looking for something different, more comprehensive, and deeper. If someone is looking for an alternative to diet rules, but wants to get leaner and stronger, this book provides a complete system, based on current research.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

In a way, I get as much writing done walking or hiking as I do sitting in front of my laptop. What it takes for me is a really solid writing schedule, and then some time on my feet, moving, unplugged to sort out the problems that I’ve run into. 

I start off by just writing 2,000 words per day until I hit 80,000 words. Then I throw most of that away. I usually have to write a terrible first draft for me to figure out how to structure the book. The second draft was much closer, and much of that draft stayed in the book, but the structure changed again.

It was on a walk, late at night, in December’s lightly falling snow when I figured out the five sections that would organize the book: Don’t Diet, Eating Skills, Meta-skills, Mindset Turning Points, and The Wise Five. I’ll never forget taking off my gloves, pulling out my phone, and quickly tapping that into my phone’s notes while my fingers were freezing. 

I basically have to do enough writing that I find out where the problems and dead-ends are. Then I untangle that mess out on walks or hikes.

What exactly are eating skills? Is this just flexible dieting? Is this intuitive eating?

Lean and Strong has two different things: Eating skills and eating guidelines.

Eating skills are similar to Intuitive Eating, in that the eating skills are skills for connecting to our own hunger and fullness cues, and skills for distinguishing hunger from emotions, stress, and cravings. 

Where it’s different from Intuitive Eating is that it’s assumed that readers of this book have a goal to get leaner. Where many people in the Intuitive Eating world reject weight loss as a valid goal that a person can have, the eating skills in “Lean and Strong” come from the perspective that whatever goal you set for yourself you can have. That everyone can spend some time reflecting on their own personal values, and how their fitness is a component of their lives (not their whole lives), and then set their own goals from there. So, if weight loss is a goal that you choose, the skills in the book can help with that.

It’s also different from Intuitive Eating in that it has guidelines. The guidelines are much more concrete than skills related to hunger and fullness. Things like putting the fork down between bites or pausing ten minutes before snacking are about giving people the time to check in with themselves. Putting in obvious actions that will slow us down. Many clients have noted that the guidelines for slowing down are easier to notice, easier to track, and easier to do. They also note that if they just slow down, it makes learning the eating skills much easier. Also, when they’re stressed out or tired, a guideline like “pausing 10 minutes before snacking” is easier to manage than a skill like “distinguish hunger from cravings,” even though they both end up getting to the same place.

Eating skills are different from flexible dieting in that it’s less food oriented. Flexible dieting is still focused on tracking the food you’re eating or the diet rules that you are following but building in some flexibility in terms of how often a person follows those rules. 

Eating skills are going to be ultimately based around a person’s personal values. It isn’t about having a flexible rule-set, it’s about the ability to check in with yourself about the uniqueness of a situation. You have the skillset to check in with your hunger and fullness levels, your emotional state, and your values, and make a decision that makes sense in that situation. 

You might skip eating a cookie when you are stressed out at work, but then have a cookie when your kids bake cookies. You don’t have a rule about cookies and how often you can have them. Instead, you are able to check in and say, “It’s actually really meaningful for me to have this cookie with my kids right now,” regardless of what you did or didn’t have earlier in the week.

Tell us about your next project.

I have a contract to write a book specifically about emotional eating. And, where “Lean and Strong was sort of a monster in terms of research and creating a complete system and manual, I’m going to challenge myself to write a much shorter emotional eating book. I just want to make it easy to read. 

Also, I’m doing some research on how three different eating styles relate to wellbeing. While we have a fair amount of evidence that intuitive eating positively predicts wellbeing, and rigid dietary restraint negatively predicts wellbeing, there’s very little research on methods of eating regulation that aren’t at those opposite extremes. There are some super fascinating challenges, not just in studying a third way, but also in clearly defining and measuring it. I have a preliminary study that I’m working on now, but this could easily be a lifetime of research.


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