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My friend Samantha and I were eating at a Caribbean restaurant when she told me the news: "I need to lose weight and I'm going on a diet," she declared. "Please don't roll your eyes or tell me this won't work."
Samantha has never been fat and she's never been an emotional eater. But she'd recently returned from traveling and had put on 20 pounds. It's always a little dicey when good friends of mine diet. They know that I don't believe in dieting and so the usual conversations about "how Mona lost weight" and what she did to shed the pounds and the latest version of the everything-but-white-food diet don't interest me. And although Samantha knew that I'd worked with tens of thousands of people who have failed miserably at dieting, she believed she was different.
"OK," I said, "I will do my best to keep my beliefs to myself."
The waitress offered us corn bread. Samantha said no thank you. The waitress offered us potatoes. Samantha said no thank you.
"So what can you eat on this diet?" I asked, eyeing the corn bread.
"Fruit, vegetables, protein nothing white, nothing that you couldn't eat raw."
"Sounds doable," I said in a very bright and supportive manner.
Samantha continued: "No pasta, no ice cream, no alcohol."
Since she seemed so positive, so confident, so absolutely determined to diet, I kept my mouth shut by eating both pieces of corn bread. And since Samantha never had an issue with food before, I thought, Well OK, maybe I am too adamant about my belief that the fourth law of the universe is that for every diet there is an equal and opposite binge. (I actually have some scientific support for this: University of Toronto researcher Janet Polivy, Ph.D., has found that people who diet or are deprived of their favorite foods eventually respond by consuming excessive amounts of those foods.) But I was willing to concede that maybe dieting is only a prelude to overeating for people who use food to satisfy their emotional hunger. Maybe it's only true of people for whom food is love.
I kept nodding my head, since if I had said anything, it would have been: "Talk to me in a few weeks. Let's see how this project of weight loss by dieting fares."
A month passed before Samantha and I talked again.
"How are you feeling?" I asked.
"Fat and full."
"So," I said in a very neutral tone, "what are you eating these days?"
"Pasta for dinner and half a pint of ice cream every night for dessert."
"Oh," I said. "The all-white-food diet."
She said, "I wasn't obsessed with food before this, but now I am. I can't stop eating everything I wouldn't let myself eat while I was on the diet." Then she asked me to talk to her about dieting.
And here's what I said:
Diets are like those one-size-fits-all T-shirts that hang on some people and gape on others. They don't work, because each of us has different needs. Some people do well on a vegetarian diet, for example, while others can't get through the afternoon with only a salad or a beef burrito to sustain them. Some of us can handle sugar; for others, it's like a mad burst of energy followed swiftly by a vegetative coma. You need to know what your body, your particular life needs to sustain itself and to thrive.
If anyone tracked what I ate during a given day, they would probably come to the conclusion that I was on a diet. I avoid wheat, alcohol, and sugar (chocolate doesn't count). I eat mostly what Samantha ate on her diet: fruit, vegetables, protein. But there is no feeling of deprivation or guilt or force involved in my relationship with food. I am not frightened that, after one day of overeating, all hell will break loose and I will gain 50 pounds. If someone hands me a piece of chocolate cake and I feel like eating it, I will. If I want some potatoes, I'll have them. I don't count calories or fat grams, and I don't weigh myself. What, when, and how I eat come from an inner sense of what would feel good in my body at any given moment, of what kind of energy I need to get me through the day, of how I want to feel when I finish eating.
I know what you're thinking. I receive hundreds of letters every week from people who have read my books and tell me that they just don't believe me. One person was so disgusted with my suggestions that she gave my book to her dog as a chew toy. But this same person wrote me a letter a few months later and said: "After my dog, Chili Pepper, ate your book, I realized that I might have overreacted to the idea of trusting myself. I bought another copy and decided that for one week only, I would follow your advice and stop dieting, eat what my body wanted when I was hungry, and stop when I'd had enough. An amazing thing happened: For the first time in my adult life, I turned down cake for dessert. I realized I was satisfied and that if I ate the cake, I would feel sick. When I told myself I could have it if I really wanted it, I could actually figure out if I wanted it and the answer was no. Without the threat of impending restriction and doom, I found that I could trust what I wanted."
Locking yourself up in a cage day after day will inevitably lead to strange behavior when you are set free. The fact that you overeat is not a sign that you are helpless to resist the call of ice cream from a freezer so you must never eat ice cream again. It is only an indicator that you locked yourself up and are now rebelling against being confined. You need to learn to trust the inner voice that tells you what feels good and what doesn't, and you can't do that by restricting yourself to someone else's menu plan.
Take a close look at your food-and-weight history. How much of your seemingly erratic behavior resulted from restriction? How many food fests were on the tail end of diets? Then start slowly by asking yourself and acting on these two very simple questions:
What foods give you energy?
What foods drain your energy?
Your body already knows the answers to these questions, although your mind might not like to hear them. Your body might say, "Kale and broiled fish for dinner please," while your mind was hoping to hear, "Carrot cake and fried sweet potatoes." But take it from me, there will be times when your body says, "Chocolate truffles, please!" and your mind says, "All right!" and it will be all right.
Geneen Roth is an international teacher, speaker, and writer of best-selling books on emotional eating. You can visit her at geneenroth.com.