THE BLOG
09/21/2012 03:32 pm ET Updated Nov 21, 2012

'Intuitive Eating' Authors on Freeing Yourself From Chronic Dieting

If you've got a back-to-school, back-to-diet mentality, now is the time to review your dieting history. Remember floating on cloud nine when you've dieted down to size? Never happened? How about plummeting to the pits of despair after regaining whatever you lost and then some. Remember that?

You're hoping against hope to get to happily [read: slimly] ever after as soon as possible, so what's the point of reviewing diets past right about now? Because a little reflection goes a long way toward freeing yourself from chronic dieting and finding that happy ending.

To open your mind to the healthier, happier, more effective alternative I'm about to describe, I recommend two things: 1) Do review the highs and lows of your dieting history in your mind or on paper, and 2) Get thee to a bookstore or library, press past the diet bestsellers and check out a copy of Intuitive Eating by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.

Even if you've already read the first or second edition of this no-diet classic, it's worth checking out the new, improved third edition. Tribole and Resch have done more than add a few chapters -- one on intuitive eating for kids, the other on the science behind the approach. They've fully revised this illuminating and instructive guide to making peace with food.

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For the record, I get no kick backs from the co-authors. I do, however, take professional and personal inspiration from their revolutionary approach to the twin epidemics of our time: obesity and eating disorders. In fact, their ideas helped shaped my self-compassionate approach to eating issues.

Two decades ago, this pioneering pair of nutritionists followed their own intuition by trading in menu plans and other tools of their trade for an unconventional, unproven approach. Today, there are 25 studies validating its effectiveness and no shortage of testimonials from intuitive eaters, including actress Katharine McPhee. You know, the brunette star of NBC's Smash, who sought treatment for bulimia during her American Idol stint.

In hopes of spreading the intuitive word as well as broadening the scope of this body-image series, I set up a bicoastal conference call. What follows are questions and answers from our recent phone conversation.

Q. What's your best definition of intuitive eating?

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Resch: Intuitive eating is about learning how to tap into all that internal wisdom. It's there at birth, then we get disconnected from hunger and fullness signals, food preferences, how the body feels upon eating in certain ways. So intuitive eating is about reconnecting with that wisdom.

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Tribole: Ultimately, what intuitive eating means is that you, and nobody else, are the expert of yourself. Only you know your thoughts, feelings and experiences as they relate to food.

Q. What led you two to reject the basic tenets of your profession and embrace such an unconventional approach to eating issues?

Resch: We were both frustrated with how difficult it was for clients to follow the plans we were giving out. They weren't really diets, but they were very instructive. We both realized separately and together that we needed to help people tune in to their own [inner] experience and not something external.

Tribole: It really was very frustrating. Conversely, what's so gratifying about intuitive eating is that people's lives really change. Once you start tapping into your own stuff [about eating], it's amazing how it transfers to other areas of your life.

Q. What's your approach in a nutshell?

Resch: It's respecting that inner wisdom. It's having very small and immediate senses of success in the moment of "Oh, that was so delicious!" or "I felt great after that meal." Rather than looking at the big picture, which is what people do when they try to lose weight, it's the moment-to-moment sense of connection with themselves.

Tribole: Ultimately, people learn to trust themselves. The truth is, if you're yelling [at yourself for dietary transgressions], that doesn't kindle a sense of trust.

Q. Your book has helped a lot of people ditch their diets and make peace with food, and yet dieting is as popular as ever, especially this time of year. What's your message to readers who've got a back-to-school, back-to-diet mentality?

Resch: We understand that people are looking for something that's going to organize their life. Maybe the summer was chaotic; maybe food's feeling chaotic. They're looking for control, [but dieting gives them] a false sense of control. People aren't trying to hurt themselves [by dieting]; they think they're doing something good. They're just not educated. Even if they are educated, they're bombarded [with expert opinions], so they start to mistrust themselves.

Tribole: I wish there were a public service announcement saying: "Warning: Dieting creates more weight gain." Study after study shows that dieting doesn't work; it actually makes the problem worse. If people really understood that dieting creates more weight gain, would they really want to do that?

Q. You've got a new chapter on raising an intuitive eater, so I know you've been thinking about childhood obesity. What I don't know is how you feel about The Biggest Loser enlisting teens for the next weight-loss contest.

Resch: It's criminal, abusive and a set-up for future eating disorders. It's also completely unrealistic. The amount of exercise and deprivation on a show like that is unhealthy for their mind and [growing] bodies.

Tribole: I completely agree. There are a number of important studies on what happens when teenagers diet. [Dieting] is the single most significant factor for increasing the risk of having an eating disorder. That's number one. Number two: [in a recent study, researchers] followed teenagers through young adulthood to see if dieting was just a rite of passage. They found it actually escalated eating-disordered behavior, and [the teens'] weight continued to go up and up.

Q. What do you tell people who say they'll stop dieting and start eating intuitively after they lose weight?

Resch: Before I give them the facts, I get their trust. I let them know I understand how hard it is to deal with whatever they're dealing with, whether it's feeling out of control eating or uncomfortable in their bodies. I get how much they'd like to fix that [their weight] first. The problem with [dieting before eating intuitively] is the deprivation [of dieting] is going to be followed by compulsive overeating.

Tribole: The studies on binge eating and dieting are quite striking. In a famous World War II study, researchers put a bunch of college-aged guys on a deprivation diet and observed the effects. [1] Their bodies got malnutrition, and they became so obsessed with food that their personality changed. They even became disinterested in girls. Some of the men developed eating disorders. That's what happens when you don't eat enough.

Q. How does intuitive eating help body image?

Resch: Intuitive eating helps people look at issues besides their body and weight, and see the bigger picture. It's such a positive, nurturing and loving experience. When people stop body-bashing and start treating themselves kindly in the way they dress, the way they take care of themselves, self-esteem increases.

Tribole: It's hard to become an intuitive eater if you don't have a minimum of respect for your body. You don't have to love your body, but you have to respect it. This is the only body you'll have for the rest of your life. Many people who go through this process get to a place of sadness, [if not real grief] about all the time they've wasted worrying about their body. The good news is that they're changing as they move forward.

Q. You two seem to agree on so much. Is there any topic that reliably sparks disagreement?

Resch: I don't think so.

Tribole: I don't think so either. We care so passionately for intuitive eating, that when we've had disagreements, it's never on the principles, but on the way it's expressed. We want the reader to get the best meaning out of it.

Q. Anything else you want to say that I didn't ask?

Resch: What's most exciting to me is the clients who have gone through this process who [now] have children. Their children are growing up as intuitive eaters. It's dramatic to see this process go on to the next generation.

Tribole: Elyse and I just launched an online intuitive eating community and it's really starting to take off. It's a safe place for readers talk about their successes or frustrations, where people really understand what you're going through.

Reference:

[1] Keys, A.; Brožek, J.; Henschel, A.; Mickelsen, O.; Taylor, H. L. (1950). The Biology of Human Starvation (2 volumes). St. Paul, MN: University of Minnesota Press, MINNE edition. ISBN 978-0-8166-7234-9.

Author photos by Mikel Healey

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.