A Kinder, Gentler, No-Diet Way To Start The Year

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Therapist and author Jean Fain
Therapist and author Jean Fain

Right around now, all the people who resolved to start the year with a diet are beginning to hit the "I'm starving!" crux point. And by all indications — including a cover story in Sunday's New York Times Magazine about the superhuman effort needed to keep weight off — the vast majority are doomed to fail in this New Year's effort. Jean Fain, a writer and Harvard-affiliated therapist, says there's a better way, and spells it out in her book, "The Self-Compassion Diet."

I'd been wanting to speak with Jean for months, and this finally seemed like the moment. So what, I asked her, would she tell all the dieters who are just about to fall off the wagon?

Most diets demand that dieters stick to the program no matter what. Even if you're starving, you're supposed to keep eating those tiny unpalatable portions, and even if you're going on vacation, you’re supposed to stick to the carbs, the points and the calories. It’s not a compassionate approach, it is not effective, and it’s absolutely no fun.

So rather than starving yourself thin and cranky, how about treating yourself with self- compassion? And by that, I mean treating yourself like a friend or a loved one, with care and concern, because when you do that, you’re more apt to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full — as well as rest when you're tired and move when you feel energized. And when you do that, you lose weight naturally and you're much more likely to keep it off.

[module align="right" width="half" type="pull-quote"]"People don't fail diets, diets fail people.'[/module]

That New York Times piece was really striking: Tara Parker-Pope, whom I consider the most prominent health journalist in America, effectively comes out of the closet as someone who's significantly overweight and just can't keep off the pounds. What would you say to someone like her, who clearly has a genetic propensity toward obesity?

We come in all sizes as human beings, and we're not all going to be equally slim and beautiful, and that's fine because that's just the way it is. But given whatever our genetic predisposition is, when you force yourself to eat this and not that, or you discipline yourself to stick to some kind of low-calorie diet, more often than not you get trapped in a vicious cycle of under-eating and over-indulging.

Just think about it: When you force yourself to eat these puny portions — or much-smaller-than-you’d-like portions — of so-called healthy food, it’s just a matter of time before you're raiding the cupboard for cookies and chips, or whatever your favorite treat is. So it’s not just genetics, it’s the mind-set that is tripping so many people up. They believe they have to force themselves to 'be good.' And I say we're naturally hard-wired to nourish ourselves and if you get out of the way, it’s not that hard. It doesn’t have to be really, really hard — as Tara Parker-Pope concluded at the end of her piece or as many dieters conclude at the end of their lives.

You've just posted an interview with two sisters who are both therapists who specialize in eating disorders. Among others gems they shared was the aphorism, "People don't fail diets, diets fail people." They also said that making a New Year's resolution to diet was the worst way to end overeating. What takeaways would you want to share from your talk with them? And why is it bad to make a resolution?

It’s the dieters' mind-set, just timed to one particular day: 'I’m going to start being really, really good on Jan. 1 I’m going to binge and drink too much till then, and then I’ll feel like crap and wake up and expect myself to stick to a diet that I couldn’t stick to any other day of the year.' And then it’s just a matter of time before you're starving and you're out of your mind with craving and you’re not going to make the sanest decisions, because nobody does.

If dieters are honest with themselves, there’s just no just denying the truth: That diets don’t work very well, not in the long run. Yes, you can lose weight in the short run. It's exhilarating, people love that. But the overwhelming majority of dieters will regain what they lose and often then some. So if you admit that dieting has been a setup for weight gain in your life historically, then why keep setting yourself up? Why not see what a difference self-compassion makes?


So what do you mean by self-compassion? Could you please sum up your whole book in a sound-bite?

In a nutshell, the self-compassion diet is a kinder, gentler more effective way to lose weight than dieting. Rather than calories, carbs or points, this step-by-step plan shows you how to lose weight and gain health and happiness by treating yourself with kindness.

Sounds lovely, but my immediate reaction is: I can't possible loosen my reins when it comes to food or I'll run totally amok!

That's assuming that taking care of yourself is over-indulgent, but think more like a mother would treat a beloved child. If the child is hungry, you don’t feed the child 10 gallons of ice cream — you might breastfeed the child or offer a couple of cheerios. Then the child will know before the mother does, 'Oh, I’ve had enough, I want to play with the toy train, I’m moving on.' That’s not indulgence, that’s care.

But what about our totally obesogenic environment?

We're surrounded by food, but if you pause for a moment and notice: 'What would really hit the spot, what would feel good in my body, what would give me what I need right now?' Whether energy or comfort or pleasure, you notice what you need, you give it to yourself and it doesn’t take 10 gallons of ice cream to satisfy that. If you want a soothing, comforting treat, do have ice cream, have a great time, enjoy it, and then notice when your taste sense diminishes, because very quickly your tongue says, 'Oh, this is boring, you can keep eating but it’s not for me.' If you pay attention, that’s all that’s required. It’s so simple it‘s almost embarrassing.

Your thinking might be considered part of a growing movement, is that right? What is that movement?

It's got many names, and people make a big deal about what name is the right name. Some people call it intuitive eating; some call it mindful eating; some call it attuned eating. I don't care what you call it but there seems to be more interest in it, especially when Oprah said, 'I’m done with dieting, i don’t weigh myself anymore, I’m going to pay attention like Geneen Roth, who’s the grandmother of the movement, suggests in all her books.' At that time, she was plugging the book "Women, Food and God," and said, 'I'm going to be kind to myself,' and a few more people said, 'Oh, maybe I should pay more attention.'

So it is a movement and it's surely growing. I’m a member of a listserv called "intuitive eating professionals," and they’ve got 1567 members.

And some studies have come out recently showing the effects of mindful eating?

Yes, there's a growing body of evidence that's showing that mindful or intuitive eating is exactly what the diet doctors should be ordering. Overweight subjects who practice mindful eating strategies lost weight and kept it off in a big NIH study, and those with binge eating disorder binged markedly less frequently and in smaller quantities when they did binge. In a 9-week study, they went from four binges a week to one.

What results do you see with your clients?

It's almost immediate, and it's quite inspiring to watch, because very quickly clients start feeling calmer, wiser and more hopeful. And not only that, they feel lighter, literally and metaphorically.

So here we are heading into 2012, how should we start the year, if not with resolutions and dieting?

How about shifting your attention away from external dietary measures like calories, points and carbs, and inwards toward the internal signals for hunger and fullness, as well as the range of feelings, thoughts and sensations that can fuel overeating?

That sounds likea tall order — but just pay closer attention to hunger and fullness, and with practice, you will learn what I’m talking about: To eat when you're hungry and stop when you’re full. And practice does not make perfect. No one pays close attention to hunger and fullness 100% of the time. That’s not the point. The point is to take the very best care of yourself that you can, moment by moment, and on occasions when you eat when you're not really that hungry, or eat too much because you’re starving, on those occasions, don’t beat yourself up if you can help it, but do have a little self-compassion.

Because when you’re self-compassionate, it’s only natural to stop striving for physical perfection and start accepting yourself just as you are, and then there's hope. Then the very changes you've been trying to force yourself to make, you’ll be more inclined to naturally make them.

When you're practicing self-compassion, what does it sound like in your head?

Say you ate a pint of ice cream and you're feeling badly about that. Rather than tell yourself, 'I'm fat, I'm disgusting, I'm a pig, I'll never lose weight,' say something silently like, 'Everyone overeats sometimes.' You'll get back to making healthy choices at the very next meal or snack or as soon as you can. And forge ahead, breathe. It’s not the end of the world.

Readers, thoughts?? Have you tried anything like this? How did it go?

This program aired on January 3, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.