Book Reviews · diets · eating

Book Review: If Not Dieting, Then What?

if not dieting then whatSummer vacation is the best time to catch up on some reading, and I’ve been doing just that.  Last week I read If Not Dieting, Then What? an Australian contribution to the growing literature advocating “non-dieting.”

Dr. Rick Kausman promotes a gentle, forgiving, and sensible approach to achieving a healthy and comfortable weight without dieting.  He provides good information and sound advice, starting off with a no holds barred chapter called, “Diets Don’t Work.”

I have said the same things many times on this blog, and am myself a strong proponent of intuitive eating as an alternative to dieting precisely because of the documented record of restrictive diets’ failure to produce long term results.

He cites familiar studies that yield the following results: “In controlled settings participants usually lose 10% of their weight.  However, 1/3 to 2/3 of the weight is regained within one year, and almost all is regained within five years.”  Depressing.

And yet most people with a history of dieting know this to be true. Why else would we have “a history” of dieting instead of a one-shot successful weight loss followed by successful maintenance?

The first “worksheet” in the book invites readers to list the diets they have tried, the results of each diet, and “Why they didn’t work.” The “why they didn’t work column” says it all.  If they worked, we wouldn’t be reading the book.

The book is, above all, sensible in its advice.  He focuses on small changes in approach rather than things like goal weights and eating plans.  In fact, he recommends forgetting about goal weights, throwing out the scale, and aiming for achievable and sustainable changes to eating and lifestyle.  For example, a commitment to swimming twice a week is achievable and sustainable for me (I’m already doing it).

All of the books I have read on this topic engage with the issue of non-hungry eating.  If Not Dieting, Then What?  is the first book I’ve read that emphasizes that some non-hungry eating is not just forgivable (they all say that) but normal.  Eating for sustenance and from hunger isn’t the only legitimate reason to eat. The most important thing, according to Dr. Kausman, is to be aware of why we are eating.

To that end, he offers a nice awareness question to ask ourselves when we are going to eat:  “I can have it if I want it, but do I really feel like it?”  For me, the simplicity of this one question makes it a useful tool.  I like too that it gives me a choice and invites me to pause briefly to reflect upon what I feel like.  Just this weekend, this simple question stopped me from stuffing myself beyond my comfort zone at a family gathering.

I’ve done a lot of reading and heard all sorts of suggestions, but for me this single question has been a real turning point.  It reminds me of when I quit smoking many years ago.

The smoking cessation program I followed asked us to track our cigarettes for the first week without quitting. The only two changes were that (1) we were to wait five minutes before lighting up when we had the urge and (2) we were to save all of our butts in a jar (yuck).  Other than that, we could smoke if we wanted to and weren’t required to cut back. Just waiting five minutes cut my smoking in half that week, making me aware of just how many times I used to light up out of habit.

“I can have it if I want it but do I really feel like it?” has had the same result.  I do far less mindless eating.  And as Dr. Kausman notes, the approach is empowering because it gives me choices. It’s the opposite of dieting, which involves rules and restrictions that are utterly divorced from what we’re feeling and never ask ourselves to check in with ourselves about what we feel like.

He offers three basic concepts in addition to this question:

1.  There is no such thing as “good” food or “bad” food.

2. A natural way to look at food is to eat less of the foods you enjoy the taste of now because it’s okay to have them again another time.

3. Try to eat slowly and enjoy your food.

I’m totally on board with these.  In fact, I’ve blogged about why food is beyond good and evil before.  But he offers two replacement categories: “healthy everyday food” and “high fat sometimes food.”  These categories could be useful as long as we can emply them without moralizing them. The difficulty is that these days, “healthy” is often code for “morally good”; “high fat” is often code for “morally bad.” So I’m cautious about that.

I do like very much the idea of everyday foods and sometimes foods.  When combined with an honest reflection upon the key question (I can have it if I want it, but do I really feel like it?), I know that in my own case I don’t seek high fat alternatives with little nutritional value nearly as often as I thought I would when I lifted the rules back in January.

And I can’t be reminded enough about eating slowly. I am not sure where I learned to eat quickly. It’s not as if I grew up in a home where people stole food of my plate or where there wasn’t enough to go around. I’ve never had a job where I had to scarf down my food and get back to work.

But Kausman relates eating quickly to feeling guilty about eating.  I think that ever since I started dieting over thirty years ago I have generally felt as if I shouldn’t be eating.  And if you have a lot of rules around eating, that feeling of “I shouldn’t” just intensifies. So we shove it down as a guilty pleasure.

Eating slowly and mindfully so that I can enjoy my food makes perfect sense and is also a great challenge.  But now that I’ve introduced real choice, it’s becoming easier and easier.

The book includes chapters on “Nutrition versus Intuition,” “Natural versus Normal Eating,” “Eating with Awareness,” “Nurturing,” “Body Image,” “Being Active,” and “Working with Food in a More Positive Way.”

The approach recommends seeking a balance between thoroughly intuitive eating and eating based on nutritional knowledge.  But since he thinks that most of us aren’t all that keyed into our intuitions about food, that’s what we need to focus on first. Once we learn to touch base with that, we can add our nutritional knowledge to the mix in a “non-diet, non-deprivational way.”

Since I’ve done a lot of reading on a lot of these issues already, and since eating slowly and with awareness is my greatest lingering challenge, I got the most out of that chapter. But it will be different for everyone. No doubt some chapters will speak to different people more strongly.  Others will (as was the case for me) review well-trodden paths concerning alternative ways to nurture ourselves, challenging cultural assumptions about body ideals, and incorporating activity into our lives in a way that works for us.

Overall, If Not Dieting, Then What? is a good addition to an important alternative to the diet trap. Rick Kausman offers excellent information, encouraging words, and tangible suggestions that will be useful to both the seasoned intuitive eater and those who have had it with dieting and in need of a change.

For Rick Kausman’s resource page, see here.

13 thoughts on “Book Review: If Not Dieting, Then What?

  1. This sounds like the only kind of diet book I would ever be interested in reading. (I read a few reviews of “Wheat Belly” last night and also the ensuing shitstorms in the comments and it had just reaffirmed my belief that I need to stay away from 99.9% of diet books.) The advice sounds more like practical techniques to deal with eating in a healthy way, as opposed to what most diet books seem to be these days, which is pseudo-science meant to justify severe dietary restrictions.

    re: quitting smoking – if I’d had to keep a jar full of cigarette butts as part of my smoking cessation, I probably would have quit a lot sooner than I did! That just sounds positively revolting. I ended up taking up running and that sort of forced me to quit by default. (After who knows how many failed attempts…*sigh*)

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    1. In week two of that program we had to fill the jar with water and leave it in some prominent place for the next two months. There were all sorts of ‘techniques’ including negative conditioning. It worked! I didn’t even think of running until a few years later but I did start swimming seriously almost right away and that made a huge difference to my motivation to stay quit.

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  2. Good post, Tracy. I am quite slowly becoming a bit of a convert to these general approaches concerning how to acheive a balance in the way one approaches food. I particularly like the title of this book. Because if dieting doesn’t work, the real question then, is “then what?” After all, only those with weight problems or concerns are going to be reading the book or thinking about these things in the first place. I am still somewhat suspicious about “intuitive eating” so I like the idea that even our so-called “intuitions” (is that what they really are?) can be informed properly by our knowledge about nutrition, at least once we get past moralizing food choices. I’ve found for myself that sometimes the very language used in these books and discussions throws me off or at least makes it difficult for me to understand what is being expressed. I’ve found for reasons I’m not completely sure thai I understand, that I just don’t like phrases like “intuitive eating”. Used in a very general way they’re fine, but then when the theorizing starts, I really start to have problems with them.

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    1. It’s the ideas more than the language. He doesn’t use ‘intuitive eating’ in the same way so I think his approach could be more palatable to you. ‘Intuitions’ are just one part of the story for him. It’s mostly about mindfulness and paying attention to why you are reaching for food.

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  3. This book sounds really interesting, I’ve heard of it before. I wish my library carried it! I’m currently reading Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon. Similar idea, but some different ways of saying/thinking it.

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  4. Great review – thanks! I’m trying to intuitively find my way with both eating and exercise. I do really like tracking food, since I am realizing that my portions were way out of control. Kind of like you said about waiting 5 minutes before lighting up again – I didn’t realize how much (or how) often I was eating, tracking helps with that. But all the books that say “you must do this or that” – like Caitlin said, people spouting of pseudo-science – just exhaust me. Mostly I need to remind myself that I did do what I set out to do with my eating, and I am keeping the weight off. I’m finding what works for me, rather than letting others dictate it.

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  5. Thanks for the review!! It sounds like something I might read. I agree that diets don’t work (because the research shows that they don’t). I recently read Eat to Live by Dr. Fuhrman and loved it. One of my favorite takeaway messages was that we shouldn’t be focused so much on eliminating unhealthy foods from our diet. If we reframe it, and think of it more as adding in healthy foods then we will go farther in improving health. For example, instead of forcing myself to avoid chips I remind myself to eat more apples. If I eat more apples then I’m getting those yummy nutrients and sometimes forget about the chips. But sometimes I don’t, =) and that’s okay too.

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  6. Oooh, a fellow Aussie! Definitely curious about this one, and just wanted to echo a couple of things mentioned in the post. I’m similarly cautious about the categorisation of “everyday healthy” and “sometimes high-fat” foods – to me, that seems like merely a proxy for “good” and “bad” (i.e., calling a “drunk” an “alcoholic” might be more polite and sanitary, but it doesn’t really change anything). So, at the outset, I think that’s one idea I would probably leave at the door.

    And, also, I too have – somewhere along the way – developed a habit of eating very quickly, despite the fact that I never had siblings to “beat”, or the need to compete for sustenance. I suspect it might come down to a couple of things; for instance, my dad always ate very quickly, and even though he encouraged me not to do the same, I (like so many children would) may have simply started modelling his behaviour. Also, I enjoy food, and eating is fun (when I’m not in the dark place of restriction and self-loathing), so I want to do more of it, and more quickly. So, eating slowly is a big challenge for me as well. I try to focus on the sensation of the food in my mouth – especially when it’s one of the so-called “sometimes” foods – because, after all, if I’m enjoying it, it would be wise to make the experience last as long as possible.

    Excellent post! 🙂

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  7. Really enjoyed this post. Eating slowly – and just eating (vs reading, surfing the web, checking email at my desk, making a to-do list…) – is a challenge for me too. Partly learned, partly cultural: our society strongly promotes quick, convenient food so we can get eating out of the way and jump on to the next, more interesting task.

    I’m on my second read-thru of Meghan Telpner’s UnDiet. You and your readers may enjoy this addition to the summer list.

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