One of the most common New Year’s resolutions is to lose weight. Weight loss is also big business — Americans spend tons of money on diet pills, weight loss surgeries, gym memberships, and special diet foods each and every year.
Losing weight when you are medically overweight can go a long way towards saving you money, as J.D. Roth of Get Rich Slowly explains, but subjecting yourself to diets is not necessarily the best way to achieve this goal. If you’ve fallen off of yet another new year’s diet wagon, you’ll be interested in this alternative that will teach you how to have a healthy relationship with food while reaching a healthy weight, not to mention cut out the ongoing expense of all those weight loss products.
The concept is Intuitive Eating, and it’s well-described in a book of the same title by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Their program will help you change the way you think about food and eating, improve your body image, and achieve a healthy, stable weight by giving up dieting forever and eating whatever you want, whenever you want it. There are no pills, special nutritional formulas, or products of any kind involved in this plan — just an inexpensive book and the food you normally buy anyway.
Why doesn’t dieting work? First of all, closely monitoring your food intake is unnatural. We are born knowing when we are hungry, and we cry until we get enough food to satisfy that hunger. Unfortunately, as we grow up, we learn to ignore our body’s signals. We eat, or avoid eating, for many reasons unrelated to hunger: to celebrate, to alleviate boredom, or to soothe sadness, just to name a few. We also learn to deprive ourselves of food in order to fit physical ideals or to fit others’ expectations about when and what we should eat. However, when we are deprived of what we really want, we develop unnatural cravings for it, which sets the stage for binge eating. We also learn restrictive food rules, like how many servings of fruits and vegetables we should eat per day, or that a serving size of meat is the size of a deck of cards. Rules such as these don’t take into account the vast array of individual eating preferences and appetites.
Another problem with dieting is that diets are a placebo. We often impose diets on ourselves when something is wrong that we feel powerless to fix. Say you are worried about finding a new job. You decide that if you lose a few pounds, people will think more highly of you, your self-confidence will increase, and the problem will be solved — someone will want to hire you. Your real concern, if you look deeper, may be that you do not feel qualified for the position you want, or that you don’t even know what kind of job you want. The constant distraction of dieting can serve as an escape that lets you avoid thinking about the real issues in your life in favor of thoughts like, “When can I eat next?” and “I can’t wait until I can have that half slice of cake on Saturday!”
Not only does dieting not solve most of our mental issues, it also doesn’t solve our physical ones. Dieting can actually cause your weight to increase in the long run because it slows your metabolism. We think that we should eat as little as possible to lose as much weight as possible, but what really happens is that your body goes into starvation mode and tries to preserve as much energy – in the form of body fat – as possible. The metabolic slowdown effect is particularly harmful because most people eventually abandon their diets, meaning that they’re eating the same amount of food as they were before the diet, but they now have a slower metabolism with which to burn away the excess calories.
Because of the deprivation rebound effect and metabolic slowdown, most people gain back the weight they lost, if not more, within two years. Dieting doesn’t work in 90-95% of cases (and no, you’re not in that special 5-10%). So if dieting is unnatural, can’t solve your problems, and doesn’t even work, what should you do instead?
First, eat consciously and eat what you want. Write down all of the eating rules you’ve developed (consciously or subconsciously) then embark on a mission to break them all. Eat donuts if you want them. Eat donuts for dinner! But don’t force yourself to eat junk food just because you’re now allowed to: a surprising side effect of allowing yourself to eat formerly off-limits foods is that you may not like them anymore once they’re not forbidden. Eat a salad, then, if that’s what you’re craving. Eat as often as you are hungry, and eat as much or as little as you need to be full. Savor your food, and pay attention to whether you are enjoying it or not. Stop eating anything that isn’t pleasing you, and stop eating things you like when they stop tasting good. Don’t deprive yourself — keep lots of foods you like around. At first, you may spend more money on food as you try to keep everything you like readily available, but over time, you’ll find that your junk food costs in particular will decrease compared to when you were stuck in the diet/binge cycle. Your food money will also be better spent when you’re buying what you truly enjoy.
Second, start trusting your body to ask you for the food it wants. At first, you will probably start eating higher calorie foods and you may even gain a little weight, but eventually, once you have convinced yourself that you are allowed to eat whatever you want, you will get sick of eating donuts every day and only want them occasionally, if at all. You’ll even find yourself wanting to eat former “diet foods” like fruits and vegetables. Don’t worry — if you stick with the program, you will not turn into a blimp. (If you think you’re a blimp now, start being nicer to yourself!) When you learn to eat intuitively, your weight will eventually stabilize at a natural level, which for most people means losing excess weight and keeping it off.
Third, learn your hunger signals: hunger is not just about stomach sensation. Sometimes hunger manifests itself in crankiness or other symptoms that you may have never noticed when you were dieting. Start listening to your body when it says it is hungry, even if you don’t think you should be hungry. For example, if you are hungry at 11 pm, don’t say to yourself, “How can I be hungry? It’s 11:00 and I had a huge dinner at 8:00!” Instead, say, “I am hungry, why don’t I eat a little something and see how I feel?” It’s better to eat when you are moderately hungry, not ravenously hungry, because you won’t overeat. If you’re having trouble trusting your hunger signals, try drinking a large glass of water first. If you’re still hungry ten minutes later, you’ll know you weren’t just dehydrated. Also, don’t listen to outside influences that try to tell you how much and when to eat. Your mom, food packaging companies, and your friends don’t know what portion size is right for you, and the clock doesn’t decide when you are hungry.
Finally, breaking the diet cycle will allow you to stop using food to deal with your life. When you find yourself wanting food but you really aren’t hungry, ask yourself if something is bothering you. Do not let yourself use food for gratification, comfort, distraction, sedation, punishment, celebration, anger management, boredom, or anything else. The purpose here is not to deprive yourself of food, but to allow yourself to experience your emotions. It can be unpleasant at first, especially when you aren’t used to it, but understanding yourself ultimately improves your quality of life and your relationships with others. It can even make you more successful in your career: to revisit the earlier job hunt scenario, if you don’t pretend that losing weight will make you a better job candidate (unless, say, you’re in the modeling business), you can focus your energy on things like improving your interview skills, finding more companies that would be a good match for you, or even something as simple as buying a more flattering interview suit.
Though the plan sounds very logical, after years of being fed diet information, I never thought it would work. However, I have found that my body really does know how to maintain a healthy weight regardless of what I eat, as long as I eat out of hunger and not out of boredom. Heavy, rich foods satisfy you quickly, so you’ll tend to not eat much of these, while you must eat a large quantity of vegetables to feel full. If you use hunger as your guide, your body’s natural mechanisms will help you eat healthfully.
Not only will getting off the diet seesaw make you happier and healthier, it can also decrease all kinds of expenses: your medical expenses (if not now, then in the future, when you don’t have type II diabetes or heart disease), insurance costs (reflected in lower health and life insurance premiums), exercise costs, and grocery costs. You’ll also free up a surprising amount of time when you’re no longer using it to plan shopping lists, count calories, and berate yourself for eating too much. Instead, you’ll have extra time to pursue your hobbies, get ahead in your career, and learn more about personal finance!