Try This If Diets Don’t Seem To Work For You

Relearning a behaviour humans are naturally born with

Jonathan Adrian, MD
BeingWell

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Diets do work for some people. For others though, deliberate food restriction — or more commonly referred to as diets — could ironically be counterintuitive for losing weight.

Several studies have demonstrated that the dieting mindset can lead to food preoccupation, binge-eating behaviours, and weight cycling. As illustrated by this 2006 study by Professor Neumark-Sztainer from the University of Minnesota, dieting predicts a 5-year weight gain and increases activation of areas in the brain that is responsible for attention and reward in response to food.

Why then, do we still fall to the temptation of diets? The same reason we fall for get-rich-quick schemes. Our brains are wired to find the temptation of all things instantaneous irresistible. Tiny wins can trigger the release of certain neurotransmitters that stimulate the reward centre in our brain. This is why orgasms and winning feel so good and addicting. Diets fall in the same category.

In 2012, nutritionists Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole introduced a non-dieting approach to eating, which they called intuitive eating. In their seminal book Intuitive Eating, they explain that “unlike diets, intuitive eating encourages eating in alignment with natural hunger and satiety cues, as opposed to emotionally or externally triggered eating.”

Though we may not realise it, babies are born intuitive eaters. Paediatrician Clara Marie Davis made this astute observation in an experiment done almost a century ago, and explained the occurrence using an intellectual model she called the “wisdom of the body”. Infants will eat when they are hungry, often signalled by a cry, and stop once they’re full. As they grow older, parents tend to step in and implant certain rules about food. Kids are pressured to clean up their plates, finish their milk, and a reward-and-punishment system involving food are practised at home. These man-made cues slowly strip away a child’s natural ability to intuitively eat.

“Intuitive eating encourages eating in alignment with natural hunger and satiety cues, as opposed to emotionally or externally triggered eating.”

Intuitive eating becomes a behaviour that most people have to relearn in their adult life, amidst the deafening temptation of quick fixes in modern diets.

One place to start is by rejecting the diet mentality and honouring your hunger. Resch & Tribole explain that keeping your body biologically fed with adequate energy and carbohydrates is important lest you trigger a primal drive to overeat. “Once you reach the moment of excessive hunger, all intentions of moderate, conscious eating are fleeting and irrelevant”, writes the pair.

To stop yourself from overeating, listen to the body for signals that tell you that you are no longer hungry. Observe the signs that show that you are comfortably full. Practice by pausing in the middle of a meal or a snack and as yourself how the food tastes, and what your current fullness level is.

Intuitive eating also encourages us to respect our bodies. “Just as a person with a shoe size of eight would not expect realistically to squeeze into a size six, it is equally futile (and uncomfortable) to have a similar expectation about body size”, writes Tribole & Resch. Respect your body, so you can feel better about who you are. It is difficult to reject the diet mentality if you are unrealistic and overly critical about your body shape.

As with most things, incorporating a new lifestyle change comes with limitations and drawbacks. A 2019 qualitative study involving 26 females from an earlier pilot study found 3 major barriers: emotionally triggered eating, accommodation of family food preferences and habits, and social occasions involving food. These barriers underscore the newness of this novel dietary approach and calls for further research still to help facilitate the transition, but shouldn’t undermine the strong case for intuitive eating.

To summarise, here are 4 actionable steps you can do starting from today:

  1. Reject the diet mentality. Realise that lasting, positive habits don’t come instantly. Like get-rich-quick schemes, instant weight-loss diet programs don’t work.
  2. Honour your hunger. Remember that for most people, restriction drives compensatory overeating.
  3. Listen to your body for early signs of fullness. It will tell you. Practise by pausing often in the middle of meals and evaluating your level of fullness.
  4. Respect your body. Not everyone gets to be Ryan Reynolds or Shakira. It helps to start realising that beauty comes in every shape and size.

Intuitive eating shifts the focus from body weight to well-being, encourages letting go of the idea of ‘forbidden’ or ‘bad’ foods and promotes unconditional permission to eat when and what food is desired.

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Jonathan Adrian, MD
BeingWell

Doctor, writer, photographer, and part-time social media strategist.