All posts,  Self development

The un-diet

You’ve just got to groove with the food man.

In previous posts I’ve explored how traditional weight-loss diets don’t work, how relying on nutritional labels might not help us as much as we think, and how being overly restrained probably leads to binges and over-consumption. So what’s the alternative?

Clearly, cutting out ‘unhealthy’ foods completely doesn’t work (that’s partly what we mean by ‘restrained’), and eating piles of junk food isn’t going to make anyone slim. In an unhelpfully concise nutshell, the alternative is ‘the middle way’. Having spent a couple of years reading research findings and conducting my own research on eating, I feel more strongly than ever that we should be aiming to get our relationships with food under control rather than living like saints.

Our bodies have some fairly sophisticated mechanisms built in to help regulate food intake according to our bodies’ requirements. we all have bodies that tend to get hungry after a long swim or which send signals of discomfort after too big a meal. That said, I’m not sure I buy the idea that cravings are all about your body “knowing what it needs”; I just haven’t found strong evidence of that yet.

I’m certainly not the first person, not even the first psychologist, to point this out. Lots of books and websites have been written about intuitive eating, mindful eating, and related programmes. I have a problem with many of these programmes however, not least because they leave a great big pink elephant standing in the room and don’t mention it. If your body is a perfectly honed homeostatic machine, why does every third person feel they have a weight problem? Why is heart disease on the rise?

There are a few answers to this, but mostly they boil down to the fact that we evolved in a pre-industrial environment and so our bodily mechanisms are set up for foraging berries, not raiding the fridge. Certain features of our modern environment short-wire or overload our homeostatic systems and can easily lead to weight gain. I suggest that if we built a clear picture of what these features are, we can learn when to trust, and when to be suspicious of, the signals our bodies are giving us. These dangerous foods probably include highly processed foods that contain lots of fat, sugar and salt.

In future posts I will look more closely at how certain nutrients, or perhaps the combinations of them, can encourage over-consumption. I’ve also got a few posts lined up about why I think my new way of eating works so well for me (and the dozen or so people I’ve shared it with). But let’s not wait any longer. Here are my rules for eating. (I wrote these for myself, but they’re in the second person because that seems to work better. Also it’s an enumerated list because, y’know, this is a website.)

Five rules for eating well:

  1. Pay attention to what you’re eating. Avoid distractions and don’t multi-task. We struggle with food because we like it so much, so let’s admit that to ourselves and actually savour the experience of eating.
  2. When you’re hungry, eat. Don’t don’t beat yourself up with “I shouldn’t” and “it’ll make me fat”.
  3. Keep paying attention, and as soon as you even think you might be full, stop eating. Don’t worry about cleaning your plate. The starving children in some far flung country won’t benefit from you putting on weight. And don’t worry either about going hungry yourself. The days of boom and bust are gone. You’re no longer going to force yourself to go without, so don’t stress about the possibility that you’ll be hungry again in an hour. If you are, you’ll simply allow yourself to eat again.
  4. Aim for fewer processed foods, with plenty of veggies and fruit. If you don’t like veggies and fruit, don’t make an all or nothing ’switch’ but just start having a teensy bit of veg every time there’s the opportunity. Treat yourself like the fussy kid who won’t eat Brussels sprouts. Hide a sprout under something else on the plate and just eat one. (It doesn’t really have to be sprouts.)
  5. Stop obsessing about nutrition advice and new diet books. Yes, some of the advice is great, but for now, focus on tuning out some of the noise and tuning into how your body feels when you’re hungry and when you eat.
  6. Notice how different foods affect your body. Sugar feels amazing for a few minutes, but how does it feel after ten, twenty, and thirty minutes? What energises you? What makes you slump?

The real keys here are points 2 and 3. When I started adopting this approach to eating a couple of years ago I rapidly discovered that if I let myself get really hungry, truly ravenous, then I lost all self control and would over-eat at the next opportunity. Similarly, I’ve found that even a little distraction is enough that I don’t notice the subtle ‘full’ signal and I can then easily over-eat. Like me, you might have to recalibrate what ‘full’ means. From now on, ‘I’m full’ means ‘I’m no longer hungry’, it does not mean, ‘I’m stuffed and my tummy is uncomfortable’.

Try it for yourself. Really enjoy your food, but as soon as you stop enjoying it, or feel a teensy bit full, stop. If you’re hungry again later, eat again. Same rules apply.

See how you get on. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

[Edited for clarity in August 2018.]