Diets don't work. Hating your body doesn't work.

Most people don't realize that prolonged "dieting" can contribute to a higher ratio of fat to muscle in your body. But what is the alternative to dieting? Simply letting the old pattern rule? No! There is a peaceful way to work in harmony with your body and its neurobiology. Intuitive eating develops with simple skills anyone can learn.

Why Dieting Doesn't Work
Research* shows that 90 - 95 percent of dieters regain the weight they lost, and continue on a roller coaster cycle of dieting and weight gain that wreaks havoc with your hormones.

Most people mis-diagnose the problem. They believe they lack willpower. But what really happens when you restrict, diet or eat unnaturally, is that you have what some researchers* call a "broken food thermostat." They have discovered two hormones leptin and ghrelin, which regulate fat storage and hunger signals. When levels of leptin are high, and levels of ghrelin low, the brain signals you to stop eating because you are full. Dieting breaks this delicate system so that you feel hungry all the time. After years of dieting, your appetite hormones stop working properly and you can't tell if you are hungry or full. And this leads to anxiety which often leads to even more over eating.

Poor sleep also scrambles these two important hormones. With frequent insomnia, the body produces more ghrelin making you more hungry, and it reduces leptin production, the body's appetite suppressant. So you feel more hungry and never feel full. And then you wonder why you struggle so much with food.

Research shows dieting leads to weight gain.

Let's look at the research summarized by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole in their book Intuitive Eating**

"Would you really embark on a diet, (even a so-called "sensible diet") if you knew that it could cause you to gain more weight? Here are some sobering studies indicating dieting promotes weight gain:

• UCLA researchers summarized 31 long term studies on dieting and found that dieting is a consistent predictor of weight gain
• Scientists studied 17,000 kids ages 9-14 years old and found that " the long term, dieting to control weight is not only ineffective, it may actually promote weight gain."

Intuitive eating doesn't mean you just eat mindlessly, anything you want, where or when you want. Instead you can learn to eat in a natural way: 1. Eat what you are hungry for, 2. Eat when you feel hunger 3. Eat foods that satisfy and heal your body and 4. Learn to stop eating when you feel full. When your food "thermostat" is broken, you may need a little help and support to develop these skills again.

Common experiences that result from dieting.

After multiple cycles of dieting, weight loss and weight gain you may notice some of these symptoms:
• You feel anxious about getting hungry and over eat for fear you won't get enough
• You are easily triggered to over eat when you feel judged, or subject to scare tactics regarding health problems
• You turn to food when you feel stressed, anxious , frustrated or when something is bothering you.
Intuitive eating can be learned like any skill such as playing the piano, or driving a car. The more you practice, the more at ease and natural you become. In your relationship with food, knowing what to do, and how to do it are two VERY different skills.

Managing thoughts.

Successful change depends on how you respond to your thoughts.

For example, you've had a stressful day and you stop at the store to pick up something for dinner. You decide to give yourself a little treat. Notice what your thoughts are telling you "You've had a hard day. You deserve a little reward. You've been good all week. If you don't reward yourself, who will . . . " And the next thing you know you find yourself not just getting a single ice cream bar, you get a pack of six and eat them all on the way home. These sabotaging thoughts over-ride the best of intentions and defeat "will power."

There is a better way than having a daily power struggle with food. It's time to fire your Inner Critic who bullies you, pushes you around and shames you any time you eat or even think about food.

A Better Way.

With a new set of skills the scene might turn out differently. You hear the thoughts starting to justify impulsive mindless choices. But instead of getting on struggle-with-food-train, you respond to the thoughts in a more compassionate way, "Yes we've had a very hard day. And I am going to get one small treat, eat it with great pleasure, savoring every bite, slowly enjoying the pleasure of my favorite sweet. And I am going to feel very proud of myself for making healthy choices and taking good care of myself. I am building a healthy new life for myself with each choice."

The difference is that you drop any judgments, whether they are good or bad. You listen to your body and your thoughts as a compassionate observer, and you make choices based on your values, rather than on what anxiety, stress or fear would have you do.

The Journey of Intuitive Eating - Part Two

Judith Beck PhD, the Director of the Beck Institute has written about her experience helping people make successful, sustainable change with food issues. She outlines the steps to make these changes.

Stage One: Preparation not Change. Food Is Not the Issue: 3 – 12 weeks until these skills are mastered, not just practiced.

Make a list of all the things that would be better in your life when well-being, peace of mind and self-worth do not revolve around food. What would life be like if you made peace with food and your body could return to its natural size? For example: “I’d be able to wear whatever I want.” “I’d have more energy.” “I’d be able to travel comfortably.” “I’d be confident to date or join friends and family on social occasions.”

1. To lay the foundation for sustainable change, you will create and read this list of 15 – 20 positive motivators every morning and later in the day. These seed thoughts plant new ideas in the mind and start to replace the weeds of self-hate, guilt and shame. In this stage, you will notice what your brain tells you to sabotage this simple step of reading your list: “I already know what’s on the list so I don’t need to read it. I’m feeling good so I don’t need to read it. I can just think about it and not read it.” It’s like house training your dog; you are consistent, firm but gentle and compassionate.

2. Make index cards with written responses to old thoughts and keep these with you during your waking hours. For example “If I skip breakfast, I’ll save myself 10 minutes but then I’ll be tempted to make poor food choices at lunch.” “If I don’t read my reasons for change, it will be easy later on to justify caving into my cravings.” “If I let anxiety choose my food, it might feel good for a few minutes but then I’ll be mad at myself for the rest of the day.” “Cravings go away.” “Extra food will always go to waste, either in the compost, or in my body.” If you have a smart phone, you can keep these lists in your phone.

3. Learn to eat slowly. Taste and savor what you eat. Notice this step isn’t about what you eat, but how you eat.

4. Notice the sensation of hunger. You may be triggered to eat by thoughts, stress, shame or anger rather than physical hunger. You may not know the physical sensations of hunger. You fear becoming hungry so anxiety makes food choices for you.

5. Notice the physical sensations of food cravings and how these are different than hunger.

6. Notice the physical sensations of stress, anxiety, depression or fear and how they trigger food choices.

7. Notice the effects of eating particular foods or amounts or at different times. When you eat out of panic, fear, anxiety, stress or depression, it’s difficult to connect the effects of what we eat. “Do I feel well when I eat fruit? What happens when I eat late at night? What happens when I skip breakfast? What foods energize me and sustain that energy? What foods give me a buzz and then leave me feeling depressed in a couple hours? What happens if I let myself get too hungry, too angry, too lonely, too tired?” These patterns cannot be discovered in a book. Your own has the answers.

Stage Two: Regular Eating. 2 to 6 weeks

1. Regular meals help stabilize your blood sugar, reduce hunger, reduce cravings and give the animal that is your body loving kindness. Without mindful eating skills in stage one, you would let cravings and fears decide when to eat. Emotional triggers sabotage food choices and give permission to eat anything. Everyone is different and you will learn what a natural schedule is for you through mindfulness. Many people eat 3 regular meals and a couple snacks to reassure the body that it will always have enough, but not too much.

2. Continue practicing stage one skills daily

3. Notice and collect new thoughts your mind offers to sabotage your intuitive eating plan, and having a written response. For example, resentment suggests that “I should be able to eat whenever I want.” Compassion replies “When I used to eat whenever I wanted I paid the price of shame, guilt and anxiety. I want something better for myself now. I want to feel confident and enjoy eating.” The Rebellious One suggests “It won’t matter if I skip breakfast just this once.” Compassion replies “Every time I let stress run the show, I pay with anxiety and make it easier to give in the next time I’m stressed.”

You can move to Stage Three once you can maintain regular meals without requiring a lot of effort, self-control, will power or discipline. It starts to feel natural and believe it or not, easy.

Stage Three: Food Selections

1. Throw away any ideas of dieting, calorie counting, any radical food plans and learn to eat naturally. In fact throw out all those dieting books. Delete all your dieting internet bookmarks. In this stage you will eat foods and portions that you can easily maintain for the rest of your life. In this stage food choices are satisfying, tasty, easy and completely enjoyable. There will be no forbidden foods that create a sense of longing or doing without in this stage. Food choices are guided by mindful eating skills developed in stage one. You learn to recognize how different food desires are from food cravings. You’ve learned more about your body’s natural cycles and can make food choices that prevent stress, keep your metabolism humming a happy song throughout the day. You look forward to eating without stress, shame or anxiety.

2. Meal planning can become a joyful celebration of the good life. Grocery shopping is not walking the gauntlet from temptation to temptation. Every choice feeds a new thought such as “I’m healthy and confident, making a new relationship with food.” “Food is my ally in health and happiness.” “What would my body really enjoy this week that will give me pleasure and energy and fill up my emotional bank account?”

3. Continue cataloging sabotage thoughts and building kind and gentle responses to these challenging thoughts

Stage Four: Planning for contingencies: holidays, vacations, work events, illness and stress

1. Back in the 80s a funny list of dieting rules passed through our office such as “Calories don’t count if you’re standing up. Calories don’t count if you’re on vacation. Calories don’t count after midnight . . .” It was funny, but highlighted all the ways the mind can sabotage a thoughtful and gentle approach to food.

2. In this stage, you will forecast and plan for special events, working with thoughts to see where you will need to have special plans. Thoughts such as “It’s not fair that I can’t have pecan pie with vanilla Hagen das” as thanksgiving approaches. Special guidelines might include a plan for going off the plan. Not a blanket free for all, but a guideline that will allow for flexibility, eliminate the “have not” feeling of loss, but still be mindful and planful.

Stage Five: Maintaining the plan for life: after 6 – 12 months of the first 4 stages.

1. Maintaining a plan for life will include the experience of a complete crash of the plan. Everyone has times when stress builds up, unexpected events blind side us. And you may completely abandon your plans. The Intuitive Eater will take stock, learn from the experience and add a new component to the plan so that food once again is a natural pleasure that sustains good health and energy and not a coping mechanism or a reward.

2. One of the skills you will learn is how to manage disappointment and setbacks.

3. You may have reached your goals and find a new thought challenging you “I’ve reached my goals so can I start to eat more?” A kind of magical thinking invites us to go back to old patterns. But you remember that you are building a plan that will last a life time, not until the scale reports a number that signals you to drop the plan.

Your natural wisdom.

From the moment of your first breath, your body knew how and what to eat. As you practice these simply skills, you will attune with the wise animal that is your body. And every body has its own grand design, guided by DNA and environment. Take the power that is yours for the asking. Listen to your body. Enjoy the natural pleasure of eating. And enjoy the peace that comes from your own natural wisdom.

* published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism

Author's Bio: 

Suzie Wolfer LCSW is the co-founder of Counseling Services of Portland. And with over 25,000 hours of face to face hours with clients, she is best known for her down-to-earth approach to helping people shed the cocoon of anxiety and depression to step into more authentic, confident lives. “Not counting that day in second grade when Debbie, another 2nd grader, came up to me on the playground wondering if I could help her with a problem she was having at home, my passion for this work began 20 plus years ago when I began offering counseling professionally. And of course training and experience are critical for a professional, I also know that practicing what I teach gives people confidence that they can overcome the challenges of anxiety, depression, stress and relationship problems.”

At Counseling Services of Portland, our therapists are caring, experienced, respectful and practical in their approach. People ask us “how can you stand to listen to people’s problems all day?” The truth is, we don’t just listen we help people make changes by a unique type of skilled listening we’ve developed over years of helping our clients. We love this work. Helping you come alive and re-claim your life with skills we’ve honed over decades energizes us. We are passionate even after 20+ years. You’ll find lots of articles on our website on how to start these important changes. Call us 503-342-2510/, you’ll see it’s not as hard as you think. Why wait?