How to finally make peace with food

Eating Well

July 30, 1996|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Willpower" is rarely a match for the combined physiological and psychological force that drives starving people to eat. And it doesn't matter whether you're being starved by someone else or you have voluntarily chosen to starve yourself, aka dieting. But take heart. Some skilled dietitians have found a way to help you sidestep the willpower trap and make peace with food forever.

First, let's look at the downside.

The psychological consequences of limiting food intake have been summed up by Dr. Janet Polivy, professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Toronto. Polivy includes both her own research and others', including Ansel Keys' classic World War II study of starving men. What she found will re-route your weight management thinking.

Whether food restriction is involuntary (prisoners of war), voluntary (dieting, food restricting) or results from emotional distress (anorexia, bulimia), all restricted eaters exhibit comparable behaviors.

While food-deprived, both men and women become progressively more focused on food. They collect recipes and plan a switch to food-related careers. Guys even replace calendar girls with pinup food pictures! Most become irritable and easily upset, more likely to fight with friends and lovers. Often they become lethargic and uninterested in sex.

After starvation, and even after normal eating and normal weight have returned, previously starved humans still experience food obsession and binge eating. Consequently, those with anorexia often face a bulimic phase. Research animals behave the same way, indicating a physiological drive rather than emotional weakness.

For yo-yo dieters, food deprivation is largely ineffective in producing weight loss. In any six-month period, weight may vary from week to week but, overall, remains the same. Worse, this deliberate training to ignore hunger cues creates other problems, increasing inappropriate eating. In research studies, for instance, dieters and nondieters react differently to food after a high calorie milkshake. Nondieters will eat only small servings of ice cream in a taste test, automatically balancing out total calories. Dieters eat more than usual, probably because the preload "blows" the diet, creating a what-the-heck attitude. Out-of-control eating also follows alcohol intake or emotion upset in chronic dieters. Both feeling especially good and feeling especially bad can trigger the chain of events.

Research also shows that, compared to nondieters, chronic dieters remember more food and weight-related information about fictional characters, are more easily distracted from boring tasks and respond more strongly to emotional slides, tapes and fear-inducing situations. And their taste buds fail, too. Even after a too-sweet preload, follow-up food is never too sweet.

On any given day in the United States, 40 percent of women and 28 percent of men are trying to lose weight. For some, being overweight is life-threatening, so risk/benefit analysis says to pursue weight loss. But for many others, weight loss is cosmetic. So mental and physical health might truly flourish with more realistic weight goals and healthier eating and exercise habits.

So how do we get out of this bind? Let's face it, we're stuck in the yo-yo diet loop.

Registered dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch have produced "Intuitive Eating," a small, jampacked paperback summarizing their approach for turning chronic dieters into normal eaters. They'll help you trust yourself with food and reject the diet mentality. If you want to make peace with food, honor your hunger, cope with your emotions without using food, and honor your health with gentle nutrition and exercise that feels good, then this is the book for you.

But be patient. This is no overnight quick-fix. It's a step-by-step approach to re-establishing your natural relationship with food. If you're a chronic dieter, you've already spent years in an unproductive, starve-binge cycle. This time, invest in a healthier, happier future.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant to the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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