The No-Diet Diet
I have tried it all: sugar busting, protein loading, cabbage soup guzzling — even fruit juice detoxing. Sure, weight came off, but my food issues always remained. I grew accustomed to the cycle of dieting, weight loss, overeating to compensate for the deprivation, and then gaining it all back again.
Finally, I decided to say goodbye to fat-burning fads. I was still struggling with my "emotional eating" habit when I discovered a promising new tool in weight management: mindfulness. It all boils down to focusing on the present moment and paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Studies under way, funded by the National Institutes of Health, are showing that mindfulness training can help you lose weight by regulating eating patterns, decreasing binges, and increasing insulin sensitivity (which helps you metabolize your food faster).
Intrigued, I spoke with the experts, who recommended the following step-by-step plan. Now, two months later, I'm 8 pounds lighter and feeling great. Try these seven tips and you too can live fad diet free.
Calm Your Racing Mind
It's easy to get stuck on "autopilot" with food chowing down simply because the clock tells you it's lunchtime or because there's a vending machine near your desk at work. Eating ends up having little to do with hunger. "Mindfulness training, on the other hand, can help you tune in to internal signals that tell you when you need to eat," explains Ruth Quillian Wolever, PhD, clinical health psychologist and director of research at the Duke Center for Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina. That way, you're not fooled by external cues.
Slimming Strategy: Set aside time for reflection each day. Nothing fancy — just give yourself 10 minutes to sit alone quietly and do nothing but feel your breath move in and out. "Meditation develops your concentration," says Megrette Fletcher, RD, cofounder of the Center for Mindful Eating in West Nottingham, New Hampshire. "It makes you more aware when you grab a treat without thinking." So the next time you reach into your candy drawer while you're chatting on the phone, you'll catch yourself. In order to get started, check out Jon Kabat-Zinn's soothing CD, Mindfulness for Beginners, at store.soundstrue.com.
Tune In to Your Body
To figure out when to eat, take note of physical sensations — and respond to them. Some dieters know what hunger feels like but use willpower to block it out during the day, only to end up raiding the fridge at night, explains Sophie Pachella, a sports nutritionist and weight-management consultant in New York City. Meanwhile, steady snackers never recognize actual hunger because they graze all day out of boredom.
Slimming Strategy: Think of hunger as a scale, with "starving" on one side and "so stuffed it hurts" on the other. It's best to eat before you dip to the starving level, and stop long before you need to be wheeled away from the dinner table. "Pay attention to the subtle signs of early hunger, such as a rumbling below your breastbone or a feeling of emptiness in your stomach," says Quillian Wolever. "Don't snack unless you're truly hungry, but avoid waiting until you're ravenous or you may inhale your meal and become uncomfortably full before you realize it."
Eat More Slowly
It's tough to know when to stop eating. Sometimes we scarf down food so fast we don't give our bodies time to catch up. "It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you have eaten enough, so remember to take your time," says Quillian Wolever. Pay close attention to each bite you take, noting what you're feeling. You may be surprised to discover that you're ready to stop eating even when there is still food on the plate. (In my experience, cinnamon-swirl coffee cake, barbecued chicken, and three-cheese pizza all challenge this theory.) And don't forget: The leftovers will still be waiting for you in the morning.
Slimming Strategy: Take a "break" from eating by setting your fork down between each bite. In restaurants walk to the restroom between courses or periodically stretch your legs under the table. Once you notice the early signs of fullness (such as decreasing pleasure in the food or a slight pressure across your abdomen), stop eating. Take the rest home or just have the waiter take it away. "Overeating is just as wasteful, in a far more damaging manner, as throwing away leftover food," says Pachella.
Drive Out Distractions
Dashboard and desktop dining — wolfing down a bagel and cream cheese in the car or a sandwich in front of the computer-are a way of life for many of us. While mealtime multitasking may feel productive, it will undoubtedly set you back in your weight-loss goals. "Anything that takes your focus off food makes you more likely to overeat without knowing it," says Brian Wansink, PhD and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam).
Slimming Strategy: Turn off the television, put aside your reading, and don't pick up that phone. Pachella recommends creating a nice ambience for all your meals, whether it's lighting a candle at dinnertime or making sure you sit down at a table every time you eat. The most important thing is to concentrate on the sheer pleasure of eating. If conversation keeps you sidetracked, find time during the week for at least one solo meal, where you can dine in silence. In time it will get easier to balance your attention between socializing and noticing your bodily cues.
Focus on Quality, Not Quantity
You may not have to eat an entire piece of pie to appreciate the way it tastes, because after four or five bites taste buds lose their sensitivity to the flavors in food. "For instance, you may find that you've satisfied your sweet tooth after just a few bites of a treat," says Jean Kristeller, PhD, a professor of psychology at Indiana State University in Terre Haute.
Slimming Strategy: To get more bang for your bite, try this exercise: Take a tiny portion of food (like a single raisin or an apple slice) and imagine that you've never eaten it before. Savor the color, smell, and texture; then instead of chewing it, let the food melt in your mouth. Notice the flavor change after a few seconds, and then again after a few minutes. While it's not practical to eat every meal this methodically, follow these steps for the first bite of every meal, as a way of bringing yourself back to the mindfulness practice. My first litmus test was a piece of chocolate cake. I can't lie, I ate the whole slice! But the next time I tested this theory I ate just a little square of chocolate. I engaged all of my senses, inhaling its aroma, allowing it to slowly dissolve on my tongue. And guess what? It was just as pleasing as the cake. Try it — maybe one piece of chocolate will be all you need.
Don't Swallow Your Feelings
Ever have a lousy day at work, so you go home and treat yourself to a big bowl of ice cream in order to cheer yourself up? Not exactly a news flash: Most of us crave "comfort food" when we're feeling crummy. "Food does stimulate the release of brain chemicals that often makes us feel better," says Fletcher. "But it's a problem when we rely on food as a tool to medicate our emotions."
Slimming Strategy: When you reach for something to eat, stop and ask yourself whether you are actually hungry. If the answer is no, dig to find out your real motivation. "The emotions that trigger you to eat may signal a deeper issue you need to address in your life — a problem that can't be solved with food," says Quillian Wolever. "If you're eating because you're lonely, for instance, try strengthening your relationships rather than turning to food for companionship." And cultivate food-free ways to nurture yourself: Sign up for an art class, treat yourself to a pedicure, ask your partner to massage your neck, or take a walk.
Self-acceptance and positive reinforcement are critical parts of any lifestyle change. Pachella calls this principle "being on your own side." You may still have days when you instinctively go to eat without thinking or end a meal feeling way too bloated. But if you encounter setbacks, don't berate yourself. "Criticizing yourself is simply a waste of time," adds Pachella. Instead, use any extra energy to figure out what caused the slip and how you can better cope with it in the future.
Slimming Strategy: Stop identifying with who you used to be: the overweight overeater. "If you say you can't do something, you probably won't," says Pachella. "But if you trust in your ability to change your relationship with food and with your body, you're far more likely to succeed." You can be the one who takes it off — and keeps it off — and the first step is believing in yourself.
Vacation and Holiday Dining
To stay on track, try the following tips:
- Pick favorites. Sample the fresh fruit that's in season, the locally famous dish, or the seasonal dessert. "Eat only the foods you can't find anywhere else or at any other time of the year," says Pachella. At your friend's annual Memorial Day barbecue, go for the strawberry shortcake, but skip the plain old potato salad.
- Broaden your focus. Even though holiday activities may center on food, don't forget about the social aspect of visiting friends and family. Check out cultural events or engage in physical activities, so that wining and dining aren't your only vacation pursuits.
- Have an alibi ready. When you're feeling social pressure to clean your plate, prepare an excuse, says Kristeller. Try: "I'd love some of your delicious cookies, but I'm stuffed. May I take some home?" Or if all else fails: "My stomach's a little upset."
Your Stick-with-It Plan
Changing the way you think — and eat — doesn't happen overnight. So arm yourself with these extra tricks to stay sane and committed.
- Plan ahead. Restaurants can be a challenge, since I feel like I'm throwing money away when I don't clear my plate. I now ask for doggy bags at the beginning of the meal, so I can break up big portions before I begin eating. At social gatherings, when I'm overwhelmed by a smorgasbord of desserts, I remind myself that I can always ask for the recipe or go out the next day to buy a single serving of a treat if I'm still craving sweets.
- Set up a support system. I've started attending group meditation classes, which have been a great way to stay dedicated to mindfulness. I've also enlisted a few close friends for phone support. Now whenever I'm having a difficult day, rather than reaching for the cookies, I call one of my friends.
- Fall in love with movement. I used to force myself to run for hours on the treadmill to manage my weight. Just as I've given up on harsh diets, I've also let go of punishing exercise. Instead I've discovered the joy of gentle movement, including yoga, swimming, and ballroom dancing. While I'm still getting cardiovascular benefits, it doesn't seem like "work." As a result, I feel more in touch with my body throughout the course of the day.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the May 2008 issue of Family Circle magazine.