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Planning another New Year’s Diet? Three Alternative Approaches that May Spare You the Grief

Far more tempting than the sugar cookies and shortbread, the spinach dips and puff pastries, the stuffing and the gravy…more tempting than any of these is the allure of that January 1st diet.

There are few women’s magazines and no fitness magazines on the stands right now that don’t have a feature about weight loss and dieting: a new plan for a new you!

Diets that begin on January 1st don’t typically work any better than diets that begin on any other day.  We’ve talked before about the sad news about losing weight and keeping it off.  See for example here and here and here and here.

I too ate more than I needed to over the holidays and my jeans are a bit tighter than they were a month ago.  So I get the temptation.  But I also know enough that dieting isn’t the answer.  By dieting, I mean following a very restrictive food plan and a drastic reduction in calories. It’s temporary and designed to make us lose weight.

The thing is, the body goes into a famine response — the metabolism slows and what food we do take in, our body hangs onto.  What’s worse, restrictive diets don’t really give us what we need to lead physically active lives. And they do nothing for our metabolic health. See “Metabolic Health Is a Feminist Issue.

I’m here to tell you that there is still hope. I don’t mean there is a diet that is the last diet you will ever need. No.  I mean there are things you can do instead of dieting that have a good chance of improving your relationship with food.

What the three approaches I’m going to talk about have in common is that they require us to give up the diet mentality and focus more on what’s going on with us internally.  The three approaches are: (1) mindful eating; (2) intuitive eating; and (3) the EAT Q method that applies the idea of emotional intelligence to eating.

savorMindful Eating

The book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life is a collaborative effort between a Buddhist monk and a nutritionist. Amazon quotes Donna Seaman from Booklist, describing what the book has to offer:

So essential to healthy eating is a healthy perspective that Zen Buddhist master and prolific author Nhat Hanh joins forces with nutritionist Cheung for a truly holistic approach. The duo pairs the latest nutritional information with the age-old Buddhist practice of mindfulness—that is, of being fully aware of all that is going on within ourselves and all that is happening around us—to draw attention to what and how we eat. Guidance is offered for recognizing what barriers—physical, psychological, cultural, and environmental—prevent us from controlling our weight, and readers are encouraged to savor food in order to fully nourish both the body and the mind. To that end, Nhat Hanh provides guided meditations on everything from eating an apple to coping with stressful situations, along with advice on selecting and preparing food, staying active, and avoiding self-criticism. Complete with a discussion of why healthy eating is also good for the environment, this is a uniquely insightful and positive program for wellness: a book of tested wisdom; practical action; and intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nutriments.

The idea is not to fixate on weight. Rather, it encourages us to bring our awareness to ourselves, our relationship with food, and the experience of eating.

You can find out more about the book and the approach on the Savor website.

Eating mindfully, free of distraction, is a challenging undertaking. When I took a mindfulness meditation course, one of the first things we had to do was to eat a raisin mindfully. That meant feeling it, smelling it, looking at it, rolling it between our fingers — all this before we even put it in our mouths.  From start to finish, it took about five minutes to eat — to savor — that raisin.

I’ve scarfed down whole meals in about the same amount of time, not even tasting them, on auto-pilot, or distracted by a magazine, the television, or that thought of dessert (!).

Learning to pay attention, not just to the food I’m eating but to the way I feel as I am eating it is a difficult challenge for me but it’s definitely something that I’ve been working on and I’m renewing my commitment to eat as mindfully as possible in 2015.

intuitive eatingIntuitive Eating

I’ve been a big fan of intuitive eating for quite some time now.  You can see my post “Intuitive Eating: What It Is and Why I Love It” from almost two years ago.

My main source of information about this approach comes from the book, Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

The book outlines 10 principles of intuitive eating:

Intuitive Eating (IE) is based on ten principles, to each of which the authors devote a full chapter:

  1. reject the diet mentality
  2. honor your hunger
  3. make peace with food
  4. challenge the food police
  5. feel your fullness
  6. discover the satisfaction factor
  7. cope with your emotions without using food
  8. respect your body
  9. exercise: feel the difference
  10. honor your health with gentle nutrition

Much of it is in the same spirit as mindful eating, but there is a more explicit focus on rejecting the diet mentality and learning to approach food differently. There is much more emphasis on getting in touch with your internal cues, feeling what it feels like to be hungry (and to respond to that hunger) and to feel full and satisfied.

I credit the intuitive eating approach with helping me learn to enjoy food again without feeling so bound by the rules and restrictions I’d internalized after years of dieting.

There’s an on-line community focused on intuitive eating. You can find it here.

eat qThe EAT Q Approach

Susan Albers’ book EAT Q is subtitled “Unlock the weight-loss power of emotional intelligence.”  Anything that talks about the weight loss power of anything automatically raises my hackles. But what I like about this book is that it devotes a whole chapter to undoing the diet mentality.

Dieting is a major barrier to the EAT Q approach. You can’t get anywhere with EAT Q if you’re stuck in the mindset associated with dieting.  Why?

Dieting distorts feelings around food and eating to the point that the feelings become secondary to the basic rules of deiting: restrict (food) and resist (desire).

There are other obstacles to EAT Q (i.e. pleasure seeking, social eating, stress, and trauma) but dieting is the first one on the list.

Lots of people who have difficulties with food engage in emotional eating.  Eat Q is “a concept that helps you align your intellectual knowledge about food and nutrition with your emotions…Eat Q improves the quality of your food decisions no matter how you’re feeling.”

It combines emotional intelligence and mindfulness to address emotional eating.  Emotional intelligence is “a set of skills that, collectively, helps you be aware of and understand your emotions and the emotions of others.”

Emotional eating is “defined by experts as eating in response to emotions–whether positive or negative–in order to change those emotions.”

And mindfulness, as mentioned before, is rooted in Buddhism and is about being “fully present in the moment, in a nonjudgmental way.”

When we employ the Eat Q method, it “helps us navigate our relationship with food–our overall ability to manage the relationship between what we feel and how we eat.”

The book outlines what it is, spends quite a bit of time talking about barriers to practicing it, and finally provides a few “tools for success.”

You can find out more about Eat Q here.

A New Year, a New You — Doing Things Differently in 2015

Each of the books I’ve talked about here outlines an alternative to the trap of dieting.  They’re challenging in their own ways. Unlike diets, these are not just temporary solutions. Rather, they are lifelong undertakings that can bring peace to our relationship with food and with our bodies.

One qualification worth mentioning: if you are very physically active, perhaps an athlete who trains intensely, you may find that simply paying attention to your physical hunger signals may not be good enough for you to get the food you need to support your training.  When I’m doing a difficult bike class on the trainer or out for a long run (over 12K), I need to eat regardless of whether I’m hungry. In fact, if I wait until I’m hungry, I’ve waited too long.

Nevertheless, except in the middle of a difficult training session, my internal cues are fairly good guides. And I consider it a huge achievement that I can recognize them. Back in the day when dieting was a way of life for me, I didn’t even know when I was actually hungry or when I’d had enough.

One final point. An important practice related to all of these approaches is the practice of eating slowly. Just learning to slow down is a major step for many chronic dieters.  For more about eating slowly, see Zen Habits’ post about Slow Eating.

I’m not going to promise that any of these approaches will guarantee weight loss. You might lose weight and you might not — but you will enjoy your food more and be less likely to eat more than you need.

Does anyone want to join me in my 2015 commitment not to diet and instead to eat slowly and mindfully?


11 thoughts on “Planning another New Year’s Diet? Three Alternative Approaches that May Spare You the Grief

  1. Thanks for the really useful information here. I have a couple of books on mindful eating, and also done a workshop with a group called Feeding Ourselves that emphasizes aspects of intuitive and mindful eating. And yet I remain unhappy with my weight (I gained weight this fall while I had a super-busy and stressful work schedule) and am pulled in the direction of dieting. To deal with this, I’m focusing on fun exercise and self care through making food that feels healthy to me and is satisfying. I want this term (also super-busy) to be different, and I think daily exercise, mindful eating and self-care will help.

    1. What a sound approach: exercise, mindful eating, and self-care. I’m hereby inviting you to write a post about what falls under the umbrella of “self-care” (and perhaps talking about how this term will be different from last).

      You might find Eat Q to be a good read. It’s got lots of info that we are already familiar with, but the chapter about the poor long term results of dieting is really excellent. Whenever I’m drawn to the idea of dieting, I just need to re-read something that reminds me of the reality of it. I have lost so much weight on diets and gained most of it back, often more than I lost. I eat when I’m bored, stressed, or feeling lonely (that’s something I just learned recently). I’m not quite finished the book yet, but so far it’s speaking to me and I feel I’m learning something new.

  2. I did not realize Thich Nhat Hanh put out a book about mindful eating. His work on anger was incredibly useful to me several years ago, so I’m going to have to check out his book. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Methinks I’m losing mindful eating since tend to eat in front of computer. These 20-21lst century habits /addictions have to be curtailed severely. 🙁

    For people who eat a lot of unhealthy meals /have little concept of balanced, nutritious meals, intuitive eating may not work for them in the beginning. It would be more of a phase 2 or 3 long term strategy after they have changed to different types of healthy meals /dishes.

    But I do like intuitive eating because:

    a) neutralizes food from evil vs. good.
    b) removes ethical and a lot of emotional drivers.
    c) preserves some cultural aspects around certain foods for certain occasions.

    For c) I am reminded of my father’s funeral wake last wk.: the dinner we had was culturally symbolic with probably some emotional component. He would have enjoyed this Chinese restaurant meal: no greasy stir fried dishes, instead lightly done, no over salted foods, etc. He was restaurant cook and did read up on healthy eating through newspapers, etc. on his own. So we ate this meal with this thought…which in a way was comforting yet was not completely unhealthy/junky.

    I bring up c) because some of us may have a portfolio of favourite family recipes which aren’t purely eaten for emotional reasons, but for strong psychological-identity cultural reasons. The trick is to find ways to adjust an old family favourite in a healthier, yet not labour intensive tasty dish. I choose to cook healthy Asian 60% not as a emotional crutch, more as natural way for me to connect to my identity..and because it’s so easy, cheaper (because it really is if you understand how to shop for ingredients cheaply, in any of the big Canadian cities) and convenient for me: no need to consult a recipe book since they are recipes I’ve learned from mother since I was a teen.

    How I cook is the ONLY cultural connection I have to my family roots since I have lost 80% Chinese speaking fluency. I am completely Westernized since I’ve spent my whole life in Canada.

    Christmas for us is not allowing ourselves to get stuck and narrowly confined to just turkey and bread stuffing. We prepare seafood or bison (which is expensive but very lean compared to beef), something else that is not turkey.

    Eating mindfully also may require you to try new food traditions for the holidays and birthdays. It expands your food horizons and suddenly you may see the dish thoughtfully prepared for you in a new light.

  4. Great post! This is why I don’t like the whole idea of “dieting,” and rather utilize mindful eating and trying to eat as clean and unprocessed as I can 🙂

  5. Yay! I write about this and teach about this all of the time! I first learned mindful eating techniques at Green Mountain at Fox Run, but it’s my favorite alternative to a “diet” when I talk to clients about how to change their relationship with food. I’m with you!

  6. Reblogged this on Fit Is a Feminist Issue and commented:

    Happy December! It may seem early to start getting the message about that that doomed (sorry) New Year’s diet. But here’s a tbt that might preempt that grief before it starts. When I was re-reading some of the December posts from years gone by, this jumped out at me. With the holiday season just getting into full swing, there is still time to avoid that over-stuffed icky feeling, which, for me, is usually more the result of going into auto-pilot mode than of actually enjoying the yummy food. We’ll be blogging a lot more about the joys and jolts of the month’s festivities. Meanwhile, enjoy!

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