Summer 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.