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Intuitive Eating Shifts the Paradigm of Dieting

At any point in time, one in three women and one in five men in the United States are on some kind of diet. Most dieters opt for traditional programs that count nutrients or servings of food or actually specify which foods to eat. Those diets produce short-term weight loss, but two or three years later, 95 percent of traditional dieters regain the weight. But the diet industry manages to hold on because hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Research shows that starvation, whether from natural causes or intentional dieting, increases the risk of overeating and binge eating disorder (binge eating disorder is a distinct entity and not the same as overeating.) On-again, off-again dieters regain lost weight by over-eating in-between periods of restrictive dieting. The human body is simply programmed to respond to starvation by hoarding food when it becomes available.

On-again, off-again dieters develop a “dieting mindset.” They lose touch with their thresholds for taste and fullness. For example, when normal eaters eat sweets or a meal, they cross over a threshold and lose their desire for more sweets or food. Chronic dieters, on the other hand, learn to ignore those signals. They decide when, what, and how much to eat based on whether they are on or off a diet. That leaves them susceptible to eating in response to external cues, like TV commercials and food pushers, and to non-food cues such as boredom and unpleasant feelings.

Intuitive eating, also called the non-diet approach, conscious eating, breaking free, and other layman terms derived from book titles, shifts the paradigm from weight loss to wellness, from food fear to food pleasure, from body dissatisfaction to body trust. The approach was popularized in the late 1970s by mental health and nutrition professionals working independently in the eating disorders field, all with the common belief that diets don’t work. Intuitive eating teaches self-regulation in response to the body’s internal signals of hunger and satiety. The journey is one of self-discovery, not a test of will.

Guide books exist to provide structured training in the non-diet approach. Authors Geneen Roth, Evelyn Tribole, Karen R. Koenig, Michelle May, and others listed in the Gürze Books Catalog of Eating Disorder Resources teach how to break free of restrictive dieting and relearn how to eat normally, which is not the same as healthy eating. When lifelong dieters relearn to make food choices based on body signals (with a reasonable understanding of good nutrition), intake seems to gravitate to the amount of food needed to maintain a healthy weight. Over time, when weight gain from the diet-binge cycle ends, with a reasonable intake and moderate activity, the body drifts towards a natural weight and the need for dieting ends. For very overweight individuals who need a radical short term approach, the switch to intuitive eating should be made to guarantee long-term maintenance.

March 28th, 2012

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