In every bookstore in America, dozens of different diet books will replace Christmas merchandise as December becomes January and thoughts of sugar plums become thoughts of elastic waistbands. Resolutions to climb Fourteeners or run the Bolder Boulder will be made. Gym memberships will go on sale and fitness stores will run deep discounts on treadmills, elliptical trainers and hand weights. Hundreds of thousands of us will make a commitment to counting our calories, cutting out fat or giving up carbs after a holiday season of overindulgence and regret.
But to what end? Statistics show that a dismally small number of people who adopt a diet will manage to keep off any weight they lose in the long term. Yet the statistics rarely seem to deter the masses wishing for a smaller waistline.
Then again, there are always those people who seem to manage their weight effortlessly. From the outside looking in, it appears as though they can eat whatever they want, whenever they want and never gain a pound. She’s got higher metabolism than me, we think (a little jealously) as we commit to our latest diet. Or even he’s got more willpower.
“There’s that misperception that they have this great metabolism or willpower,” says Dr. Michelle May, author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. “But when you look at their behaviors, they are intuitively connected to their hunger and fullness clues. They might eat something purely for pleasure, but they don’t feel guilt, and if they feel more full than they like, they might skip their next snack or their next meal.”
In truth, the one thing they probably have that other people don’t is the ability to listen to their body. Even for the health- and spirit-conscious residents of our North Metro area, the temptation is to listen to gurus—diet books and life coaches and maybe even spirit guides—rather than our own bodies. This skill, alternately called intuitive or mindful eating, can be the holy grail for chronic dieters, but it can be much harder than it sounds.
These coveted skills are often apparent in very young children, who haven’t yet learned to fear fat or sugar, who haven’t been conditioned to clean their plate. But can those same skills be re-taught to adults hungry for a way out of the dieting cycle they’ve been stuck in for years?
In 1995, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, dieticians and nutrition therapists, came out with a book entitled Intuitive Eating, and their approach to non-dieting as a way to heal broken relationships with food sparked something of a revolution. Whether it’s called intuitive eating, mindful eating or another of-the-moment catch phrase, the concept is the same: eating according to the cues from your body and not based on any external forces.
For example, we all know that feeling when a craving strikes: We have to have chips—and right now. Someone on a diet might consult the rules in her book or in her head and find out that chips have too much fat or too many carbs, and then try to convince herself that a handful of carrots will curb her “crunchy” craving. Someone not dieting but not listening to his body either might open the bag of chips while sitting down to watch TV, and look up an hour later to find the entire package gone.
A person practicing mindful eating, on the other hand, might ask herself what was actually behind the craving and discover that she’s actually feeling sad or lonely. She might choose to eat the chips or she might not, but at that point, she is making an informed decision and not reacting without thinking.
Aside from being a recovered yo-yo dieter herself, May is a practicing physician and creator of a series of workshops that, along with her book, aim to help people reach this state of understanding with their own bodies.
“People come to this when they’ve just had it,” she explains. “They know diets don’t work because they’ve tried everything. The reason the diet industry has been so pervasive is that they do appear to work; the diet works in the short term. But then people can’t stick with it, so they think they’re the problem. They don’t recognize that dieting itself drives more obsession and distracts them. Diets don’t address the underlying reason that you’re eating food you don’t need.”
Lisa Turner, a food therapist based in Boulder who focuses on mindful eating in her practice, agrees: “People come in and they want to talk about the food, and there’s so much more that’s involved with it. It becomes a whole body and whole lifestyle practice.”
A practice that begins with asking a simple question: Am I hungry? In Western societies, we have become so used to eating for other reasons—boredom, sadness, happiness and celebration, because a diet says so, or even visual cues and advertising—that this simple question and its honest answers become an extremely powerful tool for reconnecting with our body’s ability to regulate itself.
“We’ve spent almost our entire lives, especially women, on some kind of a diet. It’s the way that our culture operates,” Turner says. “So the biggest challenge is letting go of those rules and trusting your body. If you’re paying attention to your body, it gives very sophisticated feedback.”
May takes it a step further, urging the people she works with to answer the question “not with judgment, but just awareness.” So that, even if you’re not hungry, but you still want the cookie, you go ahead and eat the cookie—hopefully with a deeper understanding of why you wanted the cookie in the first place.
At this point, many people begin to look skeptically on the entire process.
“If I eat whatever I want,” the argument goes, “I’ll gain even more weight. I’ll never stop.”
But May, Turner and Westminster psychologist Lesley Goth all say that this usually isn’t the case.
Goth, who specializes in treating eating disorders, says that someone truly doing the work that goes along with intuitive eating will have a deeper understanding of why they want that cookie.
“(We ask) what purpose is food serving for you and why has this unhealthy relationship with food developed? Eating disorders are usually about a lot of unresolved hurt and anger that patients haven’t dealt with. And once people can learn how to deal with these in healthier ways, food doesn’t become as much of an issue.”
Allowing oneself to eat, even when we’re not hungry, and realizing that no foods are off limits seems completely counterintuitive—“I call it uncommon sense,” May says with a laugh—and runs against everything the diet industry and media often tell us.
“For someone who’s never done that, it’s scary as hell,” Turner admits. “If you’ve counted calories since you were 12 years old, there’s no way you can just stop cold turkey.”
But the entire idea of intuitive or mindful eating revolves around the fact that it is a process. According to these experts and despite what the diet industry might like us to believe, there are no quick fixes on this journey. As popular diet programs have become fond of saying, it’s a lifestyle: a series of everyday moments in which a person must pause and consider the true scope of feelings every time he wants to reach for a morsel of food.
For those who feel that sort of missive a little abstract, “I think reading books is a great place to start,” Goth says. “If you feel like you need more support or more help then maybe start working with a nutritionist and letting them know that that’s the goal: intuitive eating. Most women in particular have some struggle with food at some level. They don’t have to have a diagnosed eating disorder.”
For those people, they just need a little extra support.
“Let every day just become a choice,” Turner suggests. “If you believe a diet is going to work for you, then by all means try it. And if it doesn’t, maybe you can give your body a break and see if there’s something different you can do that might change what you’re trying to change.”
Intuitive eating isn’t about rules, or calorie counts, or meal plans. There’s no way to say what an average day as an intuitive eater might look like, because it’s entirely personal, an entirely unique approach to an individual’s own needs. And while it’s not a magic bullet, Goth, Turner and May all believe it is the one way to get off the diet rollercoaster for good.
“It becomes a process where it’s not the expert saying what you should or shouldn’t eat,” May says, “but teaching people how to become the expert on themselves, learn how to monitor their own thinking and increase their own awareness about why they do what they do in the first place. It’s realizing that you truly have the ability to make wise decisions.”