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Can Dieters And Mindful Eaters Coexist?

08/04/2011 08:35 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

Can a diet researcher and a mindful-eating expert see eye to eye on antidotes to the obesity epidemic?

That is the question that inspires Susan Roberts, a Tufts University nutrition professor, to recently invite me, a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist, to break bread. The overweight majority may be able to imagine the sizable challenge we face at the dinner table, but maybe not the minority who've never dieted. In reality, the dieting and mindful-eating worlds rarely collide. And when they do, the collision is like a merciless tackle at a Harvard-Yale football game. Therefore, I expect us to butt heads before dessert, but (pleasantly) dinner defies my expectations.

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As she whisks my coat from my arms and dinner from the microwave, it's clear that this efficient career woman and I have a few things in common. We both live west of Boston -- but neither fashion ourselves like suburban housewives. With our no-fuss hairstyles and bookish glasses, our dinner wear is casual academic. I could have been as comfortable in her salmon buttoned-down blouse and black cords as I am in my floral peasant shirt and khakis.

We're both cat people, too, though her sleek Ocicats make my rescue kitty look portly. What's more, personal eating struggles set us on similar career paths. Yet professional experience couldn't have brought us further apart in our approaches to sustainable weight loss.

Susan insists clients trust her methods while they learn how to get weight loss working -- including a healthy respect for the five "instincts" that are pillars of her diet book, "The "I" Diet." Exactly why many clients put their trust in the British-Canadian nutritionist is probably some combination of her average 30-pound weight loss and her enticing claim that the diet cures cravings. In Susan's experience, overeaters shouldn't trust their current food preferences since being overweight changes what people like to eat. In fact, she retrains them to enjoy the foods that help weight control.

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I put more trust in my clients' innate interest in a nutritious diet. Cultivate awareness with self-compassion, I suggest, and let your inner wisdom be your guide. Rather than relying on the outer wisdom of diet experts, trust your tastebuds, feel your hunger and you'll become satisfied with the quality -- not the quantity -- of food. That's my message to current clients with eating issues and the theme of my new mindful weight-loss guide, "The Self-Compassion Diet."

Sitting down to recipes straight from Susan's diet, we dig into our differences through Northern Italian lasagna and spinach salad. Deprivation and self-criticism associated with dieting has fueled America's obesity problem, I assert. Self-compassion can help solve it. Susan disagrees: the toxic food environment has led people down the wrong path, and learning how to get your food instincts working for you rights that wrong.

"Failing dieters need practical help," she adds with sincerity. "They do better when they are shown what and how to eat to get weight loss working."

The earnest nutritionist in her brings out the frank psychotherapist in me. Or maybe it's the wine that emboldens me.

"Do clients enjoy your recipes," I ask, poking at my whole-grain noodles. Preferring pasta pearly white, this dish is not my thing.

"That's their favorite part of the plan," says the author, who, in her past career, worked as a chef. "Remember, most overweight people love good food. Between the comfort food, Mexican, Chinese, Indian and desserts, they get every kind of dish converted to tasty diet recipes."

"And you," she asks. "Is this the kind of food you enjoy?"

"To be perfectly honest," I admit, "I like my food spicier. This is kinda bland."

"You don't like comfort food," she asks without defensiveness. "What do you like to eat?"

That Susan's genuinely curious about my diet is a hopeful surprise. If we can find common ground, maybe other mindful eaters and dieters can, too. Not simply agreeing to disagree, but joining forces in the battle of the bulge.

Susan gets excited when I tell her my clients, too, have lost 30-plus pounds. I'm off thinking about the next dinner before I clean my plate. I'll cook. Spice things up. Invite her to taste my kinder, gentler recipe for sustainable slimness.

And then she brings me back to this meal.

"If we collaborate," she wonders aloud, "do you think the average person could lose 60?"

**

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com. Got a thing or two to say about dieting vs. mindful eating? Please share in the comments section.

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