body image · diets · eating · fat · overeating · sports nutrition · weight loss

Overcoming Overeating: Overview, Review, and Update

oocoverA few weeks ago I announced that I’ve given up the scale — no more weigh-ins. This new commitment to dispensing with weight as a measure of my fitness progress came in part because I’ve been following some of the recommendations in Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle and Live a Healthier, More Satisfying Life by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter.

The book is aimed at chronic dieters who feel ready to break free from the cycle of weight gain, weight loss, weight gain, and the food obsession and body hatred that accompanies that cycle.  I first encountered the book back in the early nineties and its methods have helped me get perspective over the years.

But the holidays, coupled with my personal trainer’s insistence on weigh-ins, had me right back in the despair of poor body image and food obsession.  And that’s why I picked the book back up, along with Intuitive Eating:A Revolutionary Program That Works, Third Edition, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Today’s post is about the plan outlined in Overcoming Overeating. The authors do an excellent job of explaining the psychology of the diet-binge cycle and the horrible feelings associated with it. They are also pretty convincing on the futility of the “Change Your Shape, Change Your Life” game. The game has a few well-known rules: 1. Fat is bad, 2. Fat people eat too much, 3. Thin is beautiful, 4. Eating Requires Control, 5. Criticism Leads to Change. The rules take us in one direction:  dieting.

The game is futile because….drumroll please…DIETS DON’T WORK.  Roughly, they don’t work because the natural response to rules and control is rebellion (i.e. the binge).  They also have a  metabolic impact that undermines our efforts. If diets don’t work, then we need a new approach.

Their approach begins with two radical ideas. The first is to accept the weight and body you have now as if it will never change (for this, they have you engage in a thought experiment where you live on a planet where they inject a gas into the air that, once inhaled, makes it impossible to gain or lose weight ever again. They urge us to think about how we would approach food in this scenario). The second is the idea that you can eat your way out of your “problem.”

I was good with lots of their recommendations. They encourage people who do not own a full-length mirror to get one and to stand in front of it, naked, and observe their bodies in a purely objective, descriptive way. For example, “I am round here, smooth there, bony here, hairy there.” This is supposed to get you in touch with what your body looks like in a neutral way.

They tell you to toss the scale.

There is the old stand-by: the closet clean-out. This is where you get rid of the clothes you plan to wear when you lose a few inches and the clothes you plan to wear when you gain a few inches.  You get rid of that dress that pinches at the waist, the beautiful blouse that pulls across the back, the bra that needs constant adjusting, anything with a hole in it. You keep only the clothes you feel good in.

If that leaves you with very little, go shopping. Buy according to fit, not the size on the label.  I’ve always liked cleaning out my closet because it serves the dual purpose of helping me declutter. Occasionally, I even discover things that I forgot I had and can start wearing again.

And finally, the one suggestion that makes all chronic dieters absolutely terrified and giddy, sad and relieved: dump the diet.  If you can’t face this idea, they remind you of the facts: 1. The vast majority of dieters regain their weight plus some, 2. Diets make you fat, 3. Deprivation ensures a fight-back response—the binge.

With the diet dumped, many of us need a new way to live. I had already pretty much resolved not to diet for weight-loss anymore. But diet-like behaviors  and thinking started creeping back into my eating when I started personal training and began to concern myself with “sports nutrition.”  For me, tracking and planning and measuring and counting, even in the name of sports nutrition, created a diet mentality. This might not be the same for everyone.

The new way to live involves legalizing food — carrot sticks are not any better or worse than carrot cake. No food is forbidden (allergies and moral commitments aside, of course. If peanuts will kill you, don’t eat them. If you don’t eat animal products, you don’t have to start).

Up to this point in the plan, I’m on board. It’s the next part where I jumped ship this time. That’s where they tell you to stock up on all your favourite foods in quantities so vast you couldn’t possibly eat them in one sitting.

If you adore dark chocolate, don’t buy one chocolate bar, buy ten. If you love carrot cake, don’t buy one cake, buy three so you can keep two in the freezer.  If you like crusty bread, buy a few loaves.  If you want the whole soy milk instead of the light, buy it! Cashews and almonds—buy the family sized packages.

This part just didn’t speak to me this year. It may be that I am already over the food categories for the most part from the work I have done over the years with the very ideas recommended in the book. I do have bars and bars of dark chocolate in my pantry already and that’s not a problem for me. Sometimes I eat a few pieces of chocolate. Other times it just sits there for weeks or months untouched. I do prefer the regular soy milk over the light so that’s what I buy.  And I haven’t found a vegan carrot cake that I like, so carrot cake is off the menu these days anyway. The triple chocolate cake at Veg Out is bar none the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted in my life. But I am happy enough to know that I can go have a piece whenever I like. I don’t need a few cakes in my freezer.

halloween2009_candy_bowlWhen I was a graduate student, my housemate and I followed the suggestion to overstock the pantry with favourites. We had a big bowl of Halloween candy on our kitchen table and we kept it filled to the brim all the time.  The first week or two, we ate a lot of candy and had to refill the bowl frequently.  By the third week, the pace slowed. And by the fourth week, it was so commonplace that some evenings it just sat there, or we might take one Aero bar.  After a few months, having convinced ourselves that candy was truly “legal,” it had lost its mystique.

Whether you need to do this will depend how game you are to legalize food.  Overstocking is part of the process of convincing yourself it’s okay.

The is all a prelude to the central idea in the book: food on demand.

The idea is this. We chronic dieters have spent our lives eating controlled, pre-determined portions of pre-planned food at specific times of the day. How much, what, and when we ate had nothing to do with how much or what we wanted or whether we were hungry. And then there were those times we ate from “mouth hunger” instead of “stomach hunger.”

Demand feeding requires learning to feel and respond to stomach hunger. Imagine a ledger (or even keep one for a few days) that has two columns — stomach hunger and mouth hunger. If a chronic dieter recorded whether she ate from one or the other each tie she ate, she’d have more check marks in the mouth hunger column.  The goal then, is to move the checks from the mouth hunger column to the stomach hunger column.

This re-calibration of eating habits requires vigilance. In particular, it requires that we attend to emotional reasons for eating, since a lot of times we seek food for comfort (mouth hunger) even though what comfort it brings is fleeting. How do you move the checkmarks?

Let yourself get hungry as much as possible during the day and eat just enough to satisfy that hunger each time.  Carry a food bag, filled with your favourite foods, so that you are never hungry and without something to satisfy that hunger.  Stop thinking in terms of meals or of food that is appropriate to specific times of day. If you wake up hungry and feel like eating a bowl of chili, eat it. If it’s “lunch time” and all you want is a piece of chocolate cake, have the cake.

Stop eating when you are satisfied — not stuffed.  This makes total sense.  Of course it does. For me, this is the one area of eating with which I have always struggled.  If I am not paying very close attention, I will eat more than I need to eat, and I will feel over full.  The authors recommend sticking with this, learning to forgive yourself, keeping at it long enough to convince yourself that you can stop now because, in an hour when you are hungry again, it will be okay to eat.  The idea is that if you know you will have permission to eat later (unlike when you’re dieting), it’ll be easier to stop at a comfortable place.

I tossed the scale and dumped the diet. I didn’t overstock the pantry and I do not carry a food bag. I have not stopped thinking in terms of meals — I like meals.  But I do pay closer attention and find myself eating smaller portions. I eat what I want. What I want turns out to be fairly nutritious for the most part.  I actually do like salad as much as I like fries, and which I have depends on what I feel like eating at the time.

The authors suggest that over time, the nutrition issue will take care of itself.  In my case, this has happened, but my issue has always been more about the “how much” of eating than the “what” or even “when” of it.  In order to keep with the program, you need to have a lot of faith in the process and just forge ahead, trusting that the authors are not leading you astray.

The plan is not designed for weight loss, but they maintain that if you have been overweight from the diet/binge cycle, you may indeed lose weight in the long run.  At the beginning, it’s pretty normal to gain a bit when all the favourite foods become legal.  What they do promise is that over time, people who follow this plan will find that their weight settles. Instead of the crazy range that many of us have become accustomed to, we’ll reach a comfortable weight and moreorless stay there.

I’m not sure about that because I’ve not followed the plan 100% and what little I have followed I’ve only been doing for about a month. Before I started, my weight had been in a four-pound range for quite some time (about a year).  Since I’ve tossed the scale, I can’t say where it is now, but I can say my clothes all fit me still.

If you are a serious emotional eater, there may not be enough in the book to help with your “core issues.”

I know I haven’t really come down strongly in favor or against the plan outlined in the book. I like some of the suggestions and think that, as an alternative to dieting, it has potential. But the suggestions about stocking up, carrying a food bag, and feeding on demand were a bit too much for me.  Still, I am more in touch with the feelings of hunger and satiety since I started reading this and Intuitive Eating (which I am more partial to and will explain why in a later post).

If you’re tired of dieting and ready to try something else, it’s worth a read and a try.  The advice that resonates most strongly with me is: toss the scale, legalize food, dump the diet, and pay attention to how you feel (both emotionally and physically) when you eat.  I like the visual of moving the checkmarks in the ledger over to the “stomach hunger” side.  Mindful or conscious eating is a good goal.

How has what I’ve tried worked for me this month? I feel freer. I’m drastically less preoccupied with food than I was just a month ago and not at all preoccupied with weight. I’m eating less at a sitting and enjoying what I eat more. All good outcomes.

For more information about the plan, check out the authors’ website.

33 thoughts on “Overcoming Overeating: Overview, Review, and Update

  1. Terrific post. And lots of think about and it raises lots of questions for me. Here’s one of them: ” Why the insistence on no bad foods?” It seems to me that some foods just are bad. Pop, potato chips, donuts, deep fried anything…they add nothing of value to your diet, provide nothing your body needs, they’re just empty (at best) calories. Even setting aside that they are bad for your health (think about pop and its metabolic effects and the bad fats in fried foods) they also take up a lot of calories. In a typical diet trying to get all the nutrients one needs without running over on the calories is a challenge. Adding junk foods to the mix makes it near impossible. So I find myself liking lots of what they say about not dieting and hunger but disagreeing about the value of foods. It seems to me to be clear that blueberries are a better snack than skittles and that water with a slice of lemon is a better drink than coke.

    1. Good question. The idea is that moralizing food into good and bad isn’t a healthy mindset and leads to rebellion. They’re not going to deny that some foods have more nutritional value than others. But when our choices are guided solely by nutrition, they claim, lots of people start to feel deprived. One of the reasons I am more partial to Intuitive Eating is that they are stronger on nutrition. They recommend going through something like what is recommended in OO, but only as a stage on the way to having no forbidden foods but also allowing yourself to be guided by nutrition. But overall, I do like the idea that even if there are nutritionally better and worse foods, it’s perfectly okay to make nutritionally poor choices some of the time. The diet mentality is a bit rigid in that regard. That’s what they are hoping to correct.

  2. I have to admit that when reading this post, Tracy – I can sense that alot of arrows full of insight are just passing over my head and I simply cannot snag them down. This is beyond me and it doesn’t speak to me personally. I get the sense that maybe this sort of thing either speaks to you and you get an intuitive sense of at least some of it immediately, or it’s just a volley of arrows passing over your head that you sense have some meaning, but which you simply cannot grasp.
    If this or part of this works for you, especially since it clearly on some level does speak to you, I think that’s great. I’m with Sam on the whole junk food/deep fried food thing, as I think you know. I eat the way that I eat now because that is who I am.
    But if the “emotional” component of all of this is such that “sports nutrition” simply raises too many personal demons, then I can see that perhaps another method is in order for you, and I truly and honestly wish you (and others to whom this method speaks) good luck with it, regardless of whether I understand it.

  3. For anyone who is not a chronic dieter, has not lost and gained and lost and gained throughout their life, and who does not obsess about food, this approach is obviously not necessary and will not resonate one bit. But for those who have been through periods of their life where all they think about is food and weight, the prospect of breaking free from that will be welcome. Definitely it’s not for everyone and will not speak to everyone. I’m a bit put off by the assumption that “sports nutrition” raises “personal demons” for me. It’s not that at all. I’m just not a big believer in a super-controlled approach to life. The diet mentality and any kind of preoccupation with how many calories or grams of this or that, and the assumption that without those controls we would just eat cake and fries all day, every day, strike me as extremely demoralizing (and ultimately unsustainable) “methods” of living. I don’t believe that diets work for most people in the long run. The stats on longterm success in Weight Watchers for example are grim (2/1000 keep 5 pounds of their lost weight off for more than 2 years — not a stat this billion dollar company is rushing to publicize). And I do believe that many people use sports nutrition as just another diet. There may be people who use it neutrally, simply as a sensible way to fuel their bodies appropriately for the amount of activity they engage in. Great for them. But if it gives rise to obsession and preoccupation, and if it has any impact on whether people feel good about themselves (e.g. I was so good yesterday!) or bad about themselves (e.g. I was so bad, I really blew it), then I’m sorry, I just don’t see it as a healthy way of life.

  4. It seems I upset you with my comments. I actually meant to do the opposite, i.e. to say I supported you. We all have personal demons, which is only to suggest that we all have predispositions toward negative thoughts, actions, processes, obssessions, etc. I did not mean to suggest by this that there is something horribly wrong with you and others like you, which thereby cripples you in a manner whereby sports nutrition is not an option. I meant only to suggest that if sports nutrition is not a viable option for you because it causes you to become obsessive and preoccupied with food in a negative manner, then clearly it might be advisable to consider alternative methods, and that I support you in trying out the alternative method you described, even if I really don’t understand it. I apologize for my choice of words, as clearly they upset you, but I really don’t think I owe you an apology for my inability to understand the potential value of the method you’re now trying out, especially when I truly do support you in the attempt regardless. I have come to the conclusion that I and likely most men really cannot understand many women’s issues, and that we constantly upset you unintentionally whenever we speak about such matters. Maybe it is our fault alot of the time. I don’t know.

    1. No problem. I agree that you don’t owe me an apology for not getting the approach. I do know it sounds quite extreme to many people. I don’t like to essentialize along gender lines but I think the approach will speak to women more than men. Not all women and not no men. But That’s why I think it’s a feminist issue and not just a health issue. Anyway, we appreciate your engagement with the blog and it’s nice to have an alternative perspective articulated in the comments. And it’s nice too that even when you disagree or don’t understand you are supportive.

      1. Okay, another question. What’s so bad about eating simply because food is pleasurable? That’s not emotional eating. It’s eating because food tastes good and makes us happy. Left to my own devices, without worrying about health or nutrition, I’d have dessert every night. I don’t. That’s because I make rules about dessert. But I get the sense from this approach that neither option is okay, forgoing dessert for nutritional reasons wouldn’t fit with this approach but neither would a choice to have dessert just because it tastes good. Is this right?

        I’m okay with rules around food. They stop me from obsessing. No dessert tonight but I’ll have dessert on the weekend. That’s the kind of compromise I can live with. No deprivation or obsession involved. But I’ve always liked structure and planning. It helps me relax.

        So I think you’re right that this approach might help some but isn’t for everyone.

  5. I practice intuitive eating in my life too, after many years of dieting. It’s really freeing! (And like you, my body has stabilized. That story’s over on my blog, along with the rest of my journey in Health at Every Size…)

    For me, with respect to junk foods/desserts/other things that are traditionally “forbidden” by diets: I eat them if I want them. The thing is– I don’t always want them. Usually if I’m craving something, it’s citrus fruit or green stuff or protein (though it’s sometimes chocolate too!) Checking in with your body and seeing what it’s really asking for is part of IE. But so is eating for pleasure, sometimes. 🙂

  6. Here’s what the authors say about pleasurable eating (they say more than this, but this is what they say about sweets and desserts):
    “If, for you, sweets are seldom a match for stomach hunger, dessert is a place where they may fit in with your new way of eating. Since the urge to eat something sweet after a meal has nothing to do with stomach hunger, you have to approach your urge for sweets differently than most other eating and think more in terms of your mouth. This time when yu ask ‘What would I like to eat?’ you’re trying to decide what taste in what form you’d like to experience: ice, ice cream, candy, pie, cake, mousse, fruit, liqueur?
    “As you become more experienced at allowing yourself a sweet farewell, you’ll probably discover that it takes only a bite or two to satisfy your urge. Remember, if you aren’t eating ot fill your stomach, you probably won’t have to eat much. When sweets are no longer forbidden, you’ll find nothing extraordinary about having a few bites. You’re only after the taste of sweetness, and you can always come back for more if you want it. Of course, if you decide in advance that you want more than a small sampling of dessert, you’ll plan to save room for a larger portion. As always, you’re the boss.”
    In general, they are encouraging all of our eating to be pleasurable and conscious. So eating for pleasure isn’t a big issue. I think the point at the end about leaving space for the cake captures it: if there’s no room in there for a piece of triple chocolate cake, it just isn’t all that enjoyable an eating experience.

    1. Sounds good but I’m not convinced. I’d have to try it and see but I’m not about to do that. I think we have all sorts of desires for food that are very real, not the result of restriction and deprivation, that served us very well in times of feast or famine and food shortages and that do us a disservice in this food rich environment. But if this works for you, great. For now, I’ll stick with rules and structure. Fascinating topic and I’m looking forward to hearing more about intuitive eating.

  7. If I allow myself to eat crunchy cheesies, I do not believe for one second that I personally will come to want only a few crunchy cheesies. But hey, that’s me.

  8. I may be way off base here, but I get the distinct feeling that this method is for women primarily, who are not dealing really ever with serious weight issues that could come to affect their health, even if only concerning the stress on their hips, knees and ankles. I get the sense that this method is suited best for women who perhaps are capable or once were capable of achieving certain societal ideals, but who just get a little too heavy sometimes to fit that ideal and then can’t handle it emotionally, spiralling them into ever increasing obsessive-compulsive behaviour. Such women, however, are likely relatively healthy and not too heavy really, even when they don’t fit that societal ideal anymore. This method is for those women (who in reality are quite blessed and so sadly don’t even know it, because of the ridiculous societal pressures on them), to help them accept themselves and live freely regardless of whether they really don’t want to, or are no longer capable of achieving that societal ideal. There are for those women who can already come to eat just a few cheesies or one little piece of dark chocolate and feel good! The things that are said by the authors merely have the illusion of applying to other more seriously affected people more generally. For people like me who have had to deal with serious weight issues, this method would likely prove dangerous and perhaps even medically dangerous, in my opinion.

    1. It reminds me of a very thin co worker who used to talk of buying one pint of expensive premium ice cream a month and eating a spoon each night for dessert. At the time I thought they were a reasonable two person, post dinner, serving. 🙂 Now I just don’t buy it.

  9. It’s aimed at men and women who are caught in a cycle of diet-binge and compulsive eating and who, despite a lifetime of constant dieting, have never been able to lose weight and keep it off. As with all plans of this kind, they recommend that you consult your doctor before embarking on it. If someone has a medical reason for using a different approach, then clearly this isn’t going to be the method for them. I guess I fall into the category of someone who has never in her life had a ‘serious weight issue.’ Using BMI as a measure (and yes, it’s not a good measure but let’s just use it for a minute), I have never been outside of my recommended range on the high end, though I have fallen significantly below at different times at the low end. I’m not sure it would prove dangerous to anyone with a serious weight issue. But weight issues aren’t the same from person to person, and of course each person needs to decide what they think will work for them. I like it because I am already on board with the claim that for the vast majority of people diets do not work for long term weight loss and maintenance. Given that I believe that, it makes sense for me to do something that will relieve, not encourage, an obsessive relationship with food and a negative body image. That’s what I find attractive about it. But I’ll be blogging another day about the other book, Intuitive Eating, to which I am more partial.

    1. I think that is another difference. I’ve never thought of myself as a binge eater. I think I gain weight slowly by eating slightly too much mostly healthy food! A sweet tooth but even then in moderation. Looking forward to reading about intuitive eating.

  10. Yes. I guess I’m similar — not much of a binge eater in that I don’t eat a whole box of cookies or a whole pizza or a big bag of chips etc. in one sitting. Not what most would consider a binger. But I can eat more than is comfortable, regardless of what the food is.

  11. My point is: imagine if you are a true binge eater and you eat compulsively. Still think this approach would not be dangerous for that type of person, i.e. cause them, who are already significantly overweight, to gain alot more weight? That’s why I think it’s dangerous – dangerous for the people it pretends to be its target audience, i.e. true bingers/dieters – when the true audience for it can in reality only be people like you, Tracy – who have never been above even your BMI high range – which is nothing, relatively speaking. While it may be good for you in many ways, I am very leery about this book and this approach in general.

  12. I appreciate your skepticism, but the approach is designed for true binge eaters and compulsive eaters, some of whom are very overweight by society’s standards. Of course it’s not for everyone. But if you are interested in reading more about how the authors might defend it against some of your concerns, you might want to read their FAQ section, which addresses health and so forth too.
    The key premise is that diets don’t work for the vast majority of people (an enormous body of research bears this out). If they don’t, then sadly no amount of wishing them to work is going to change that. Therefore, another approach is required for longer term success and freedom from negative cycles of compulsive eating and chronic dieting. Many people have had success with this approach since it was first introduced in the early nineties. If the traditionally recommended approach of dieting for weight loss and keeping the lost weight off through continued food restrictions and an intense exercise program works for you–as it seems to– that’s wonderful and I commend you because you are the exception, not the rule. Even for those people who have medical conditions that require them to lose weight, dieting does not have a long term success rate for sustained weight control. There will always be people who defy the statistics. Given the stats, it strikes me as dangerous to promote an approach that has been proven to fail time and time again—the stats are unbelievably depressing– to people who have medical conditions.
    Probably we just need to agree to disagree here. I am going to be writing about a similar approach — one which I actually like a bit better but isn’t much different — in a few weeks.

  13. I’m certainly not saying that my appraoch to matters is the only way to deal with things. And if this alternative approach has really been successful for a large number of seriously overweight people, as you say, then clearly I have to rethink my position. I’m sorry – I hadn’t read or somehow missed that it was proven so successful an approach for so many seriously overweight people. I have no problem, Tracy, allowing the truth to prove me wrong and set me straight on anything.

    1. I think you probably have different definitions of ‘success.’ Do we measure success in terms of long term weight loss or in terms of getting off the diet-binge cycle? Interesting discussion.

      1. Might be. I am pretty convinced that getting off the diet-binge (or chronic dieting/compulsive eating) cycle ultimately results in the stabilization of weight. Whether that means weight LOSS will depend on whether the chronic dieting and binging or compulsive eating kept a person heavier than they ordinarily would be or not. Since a lifetime of dieting has been shown to lead to weight gain, it seems to me that getting off that train and responding mostly to actual hunger (which I understand is tricky and takes time to learn to do) should lead to weight stabilization and, in many cases, weight loss. clearly, if someone is required for medical reasons to lose weight, then dropping the weight AND keeping it off is the main measure of success. Perhaps having a medical motivation yields better long term results. That would be an interesting study.

  14. I mean, if all this program does for seriously overweight people is keep them seriously overweight – but stops them from becoming more seriously overweight – is that “success”? Maybe it is. Okay, I’m just seriously confused about the whole thing now and am going to give it no more thought. Topic seems to have become too “charged” and I get the strong feeling Tracy just wants me to shut up anyway. Excuse me while I have a protein shake and a piece of melba toast. 🙂

  15. I think the assumption many people are making here is that being overweight is automatically a problem. Being overweight is not automatically a problem. Correlation does not equal causation. I think it is also important to understand that mental health is an important component of overall health – one that I would argue is more important that the quantity of adipose tissue someone has.

    Obviously intuitive eating is not for everyone. No particular way of living is universally applicable, but as someone who eats intuitively and is fit and healthy while also being ‘overweight’ (as defined by the BMI) the process helped me very much in coming to terms with a way of living that was healthiest for me.

    1. You are so right. The whole notion of what’s important has to shift. Just blogging about fitness for a few months has taught me that our attitudes have a lot to do with our health and well being.

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