For as long as I can remember, I’ve been on the plump side of normal, and over the years, I’ve drifted further and further away from that coveted “normal” weight. For much of my life, I didn’t let it worry me much. I figured out that I’m just naturally on the heavy side, and there’s only so much you can do to fight your genes. I didn’t exercise much, and I didn’t eat a lot of veggies, although I did try not to overeat routinely. And my weight stayed in the overweight range. Once in a while, I’d read an article or diet book and give weight loss a try, but my heart was never in it, and I never kept it up for more than a day or two.
About 10 years ago, my weight tipped over into the obese range, and I decided it was time to act. I got serious about counting calories, eating veggies, and exercising at least five days a week. And it worked! Until it didn’t.
It’s the classic story. I hit plateaus that I’d try to power through, and it wouldn’t work. I went through a period when fitting in workouts became more difficult. I joined Weight Watchers online for an extra boost, and it worked. Until it didn’t. Eventually, all the weight I lost came back–and those pounds brought some friends.
(And on a side note, during all this time, my blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol have remained in the healthy range.)
In a lot of ways, I did everything right when it comes to weight loss. I didn’t forbid myself any food, and I attempted to treat my diet as a lifestyle change, rather than a short-term fix. And many of the best eating habits I picked up as I lost weight have remained with me. Fruits and veggies are the foundation of my diet, and I work out 4 to 6 times a week.
What I haven’t been able to sustain is the calorie counting. I tracked every bite I took for years, and eventually I couldn’t take it anymore. What made it worse was that attempting to eat non-processed foods meant that calorie counting took twice as long since the recipes I was working from or creating weren’t in the databases I used. Never mind that I didn’t even know how many calories I needed to eat anymore; those online calculators don’t all agree.
All this background gives you an idea of where my mind was regarding diets when I picked up Intuitive Eating by nutritionists Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. I’d been reading about IE for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to the book. The book outlines a way of eating that sounds like normal, natural human eating. It’s not about deprivation, nor is it about gluttony. It’s about listening to your body and learning what kind of food and how much is right for it. Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full (not stuffed).
The first part of the book talks extensively about why diets don’t work and why so many people, despite their best efforts, cannot sustain weight loss in the long term. When you’re dieting for weight loss, your body learns to hold on to every calorie it’s given, in fear that there won’t be more. There are both physical and psychological forces at work here (and the psychological forces are more complex than a mere lack of will power–just because something’s psychological doesn’t make it less real). The authors share stories of their clients’ failed efforts at weight loss and discuss what these stories teach us about our mental and physical responses to dieting. As “correct” as my approach to dieting was in general, I was shocked at how familiar some of these patterns were. As much as I’ve prided myself on my overall discipline, the areas where I’ve slipped up have, I think, led to a greater overall intake of calories than if I’d just eaten what I wanted in the first place.
Diet plans like Weight Watchers and calorie counting treat the body as an enemy, not to be trusted. Hunger is the body’s tactic for getting what it wants. One diet book that I read said that if you’re feeling hungry and have eaten your caloric allotment for the day, comfort yourself with the idea that you’re burning fat even as your stomach growls. Tribole and Resch, on the other hand, say to honor your hunger and give your body the nourishment it needs. This doesn’t mean gulping down three bacon cheeseburgers. In fact, honoring your hunger is a way to avoid a binge. By eating when you’re hungry, you’re less likely to overeat when you finally give in. And eating what you want can also prevent binges because you don’t keep coming back to the kitchen looking for something else to satisfy your craving. Go ahead and eat the cookie and be done with it instead of trying multiple cookie substitutes.
Tribole and Resch’s Intuitive Eating program rests on these 10 steps:
- Reject the diet mentality.
- Honor your hunger.
- Make peace with food.
- Challenge the food police.
- Feel your fullness.
- Discover the satisfaction factor.
- Cope with your emotions without using food.
- Respect your body.
- Exercise–feel the difference.
- Honor your health–gentle nutrition.
These steps are, to some degree, sequential. It’s difficult, for example, to pay attention to nutrition without awakening the food police, so it’s important to have that step down before worrying too much about whether you’re eating enough leafy greens.
One of my favorite things was the idea that we’re to treat our diets not as a set of rules but as an opportunity for “food anthropology” in which we make note of how different foods make us feel so that we can choose the best foods for us. For example, I used to eat a homemade yogurt every day at work, but then I noticed that I was always a little gassy afterward. Could I be lactose intolerant? Cutting out dairy showed me that yes, I am better off limiting my dairy intake. I’ve continued to experiment to learn what forms of dairy bother me most and how much I can handle.
Some of the steps Tribole and Resch suggest are more difficult than others–and I’m not sure all of them are equally helpful and practical, although I see their value. I’m going to have a hard time throwing out my scale, but the authors argue that focusing on weight can sabotage intuitive eating efforts. (Weight goes up, you eat for comfort or starve to get on track. Weight goes down, you eat to celebrate or starve to speed the trend along. Bad news all around.) But it’s hard to let go of such a clear measure of “success,” even if I know that weight is a flawed measure of health. (Don’t believe me? Read Rethinking Thin by Gina Kolata or spend some time over at Dances with Fat.)
With that said, I did feel that the authors talked about weight loss more than I’d have liked. The library edition I read (the second edition) even included a height and weight chart meant to illustrate the wide range of acceptable weights that nearly sent me into a panic because I haven’t been in that range for almost 20 years! I’m no body builder, but I’m pretty sure I’d have to lose muscle to get down to that weight! I understand that the new edition has removed much of this type of information, which is a good thing, especially since I’d like to buy a copy to own.
The authors have a very helpful website that includes a lot of information on Intuitive Eating and an active community of people trying this approach to eating. Check out the video below for a great explanation of the problem with dieting: