Two Books Suggest Weight Loss Requires Taking a New Approach to Food

By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A recent study showed that people wishing to lose weight could do so more or less equally well by following any of four diets featuring different ratios of fat, protein and carbohydrates (mimicking several popular diet regimens), so long as they consumed sufficiently few calories.

Even then, the 881 folks in the study lost only an average of 13 pounds over six months, then regained some, for an average net loss of nine pounds in two years. For those of us with more pounds to shed, it's not exactly cheering news.

I'm not a fan of diet programs. Ever since I cracked the pages of the restrictive Scarsdale Diet back in 1979 (I bought my copy at Crown Books!), I have bristled at others' telling me what to eat and when. Nonetheless, I've bounced between Weight Watchers and Atkins and several lesser-known schemes in hopes of losing these pesky 15 pounds, and along the way I've learned one thing: Diets don't work for me. They just encourage me to focus even more intensely on food during every waking moment -- exactly the opposite of what I need.

So I'm intrigued by two approaches to maintaining a healthy weight spelled out in two books that have recently landed on my desk, though my interest is tinged with hesitancy: These things look fine on paper, but do they really work?

While both feature the word "diet" on their covers, neither "Overcoming Overeating: How to Break the Diet/Binge Cycle and Live a Healthier, More Satisfying Life" by Jane R. Hirschmann and Carol H. Munter (http://www.overcomingovereating.com) nor "The Complete Beck Diet for Life" by Judith S. Beck (http://www.beckdietsolution.com) is really about what to put in your mouth.

Rather, both invite you to recast your relationship with food and to change things up so that you, not your cravings, are in control.

The Beck book applies the techniques of cognitive therapy (a form of psychotherapy developed by the author's father, Aaron Beck, in the 1960s) to weight control. There's a lot of writing down stuff to be done: To combat "sabotaging thoughts," for instance, you pull out a deck of index cards on which you've written "responses" to those thoughts. So when you find yourself thinking, "It isn't fair; other people eat whatever they want," you whip out your card that says, "I have a choice. I can let a sense of unfairness overwhelm me, cheat on my diet, and gain weight. Or I can accept that this is what I have to do if I want all of the benefits of permanent weight loss."

Beck also has you create an "advantages deck" of cards listing reasons weight loss is worthwhile ("My back and knees won't hurt" or "I'll be a good role model for my kids"); you're to review these daily to maintain motivation. A "distractions box" holds a list of pleasurable activities you can do instead of stuffing your face. You're also instructed to give yourself credit (say "I did it!") for everything from checking your cards to re-reading Beck's book.

Conscientious use of the cards should help you counter temptation, which in turn helps develop and exercise your "resistance muscle."

Every time you resist eating that unplanned-for doughnut, you strengthen that "muscle," but whenever you succumb, you weaken it. (For the record, you can eat the doughnut -- but only if you've accommodated it in your daily calorie count.)

The new book updates Beck's 2007 "The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person," which could be used in conjunction with "any nutritious diet." But Beck's research revealed that people weren't exactly making the best food choices on their own, so Beck decided she should offer healthful recipes and flexible meal plans, including a daily 150-to-200-calorie treat (remember that doughnut?); knowing you can have a candy bar every evening might take the edge off diet anxiety.

Beck's "Diet Solution" and Hirschmann and Munter's "Overcoming Overeating" share an emphasis on recognizing the various types of hunger and realizing that a desire to eat is not a disaster that requires immediate remedy. Both books highlight the difference between "mouth hunger" and true, stomach-empty hunger: Stomach hunger is what you feel when your belly's so empty it's growling; mouth hunger is what you have just about any other time you feel like eating.

"Overcoming Overeating" -- an update of a book issued 20 years ago -- is the more radical of the two, recommending that the whole notion of dieting be ditched; Hirschmann calls dieting the leading cause of obesity in America.

Two of her program's pillars are particularly tricky for a long-time dieter to get her arms around.

First, Hirschmann explains, you need to declare that no food is illegal, that a cookie and a carrot are equally legit, if not nutritionally then at least psychologically. Hirschmann encourages readers to stock up on the food object of their admiration, filling the pantry with what they crave and allowing themselves to eat as much as they want. When stock runs low, replenish it, she advises.

Once you've reassured yourself that, say, chocolate cake will always be available, she says, your body will eventually steer you -- no joke! -- toward the foods it needs when it needs them. "The whole notion of legalizing food," she writes, "is based on the knowledge that once you allow yourself to have, you will want considerably less." Scarcity, she says, breeds anxiety; abundance breeds calm.

That seems a little less crazy when you pair it with the book's other unusual proposal: that you eat only when actual stomach hunger demands it. Eat all the ravioli or chocolate or fat-marbled steak you want, but only when you're bona fide hungry. The "demand feeding" Hirschmann advocates might mean sitting down at the dinner table with your family without actually eating, unless you are truly hungry for that food at that moment. To accommodate demand feeding, Hirschmann suggests you carry with you at all times a bag containing favorite foods -- including M&Ms, if that's what it takes to satisfy you -- so that when true hunger strikes, you can feed it with food you really love.

I've necessarily oversimplified both books, and I can't say I've put either into practice myself. But I like both Beck's and Hirschmann's entreaties to would-be weight-losers that they learn to accept that we're not all born to be model-thin. Who knows? Maybe accepting our bodies for the size and shape they are could help us relax around food -- and release its mighty hold over us.

Check out today's Checkup blog post, in which Jennifer fields readers' comments about diets that work -- and those that don't. Subscribe to the weekly Lean & Fit nutrition newsletter by going to www.washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." Go to the Wednesday Food section to find Nourish, a feature with a recipe for healthful eating every week. And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at http://checkup@washpost.com.


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