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.

When 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.

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