Freeing Yourself from Food and Weight Obsession
By Jane R. Hirschmann
As a result of bad body fever, many of you have spent your lives trapped in a painful paradox. You are always trying to make yourselves smaller by dieting, yet you rebel against your own best efforts to be smaller by binging. To us, your binges are a sign that a fight for freedom is alive and well within you. Unfortunately, you have not been able to create a climate in which your fight succeeds. Each time you binge your way free of one diet, you simply find another to take its place.
When we wrote Overcoming Overeating, we went public with an approach to eater's problems that was based on our twenty years of experience working with compulsive eaters. Central to this approach is the idea that women can stop worrying about their weight and abandon diets once and for all.
Our readers were people who had signed up for Atkins, Jenny Craig, Weight Watchers, Optifast, Pritikin-you name it - and had then binged their way out of all of them. Their binging was an attempt, either conscious or unconscious, to free themselves from unnecessary and punitive food restrictions. Binging, however, does not free people; it is simply a reaction to the restrictions of diets. In terms of eating, freedom means abandoning diets and learning to live comfortably in a world of food. We knew that our suggestion to go for complete freedom from diets would be controversial and difficult for many women to hear.
Our View of Dieting
It was clear to us before we wrote our first book that diets simply do not work. Our own experience with dieting was the same as the experiences of the thousands of chronic dieters all over the country who attend our workshops. Everyone loses weight on a diet-and everyone gains it back. Indeed, the fact that ninety-five percent of all dieters regain their weight, plus some, is the foundation on which a $37 billion diet industry is built. The ultimate irony is that, if diets worked, there would be no diet industry.
Before we urged people to abandon dieting, however, we took a good look at what it is about diets that ensures their failure. Why, we asked, does dieting inevitably lead to binging?
Every diet is premised on two beliefs: that you are not okay the way you are and that food is an enemy from which you need protection. We will look at these two premises more closely later. For now, it is enough to understand that every time we begin a diet, we are seeking acceptability and protection-but in the end, we get neither.
Our View of Binging
In a culture that avidly supports dieting, it is easy to see why most women regard their inability to keep weight off as a personal failure. "If only I'd had more willpower," the standard lament goes, "I wouldn't have binged my way out of this diet."
We view the failure of diets from a very different perspective. Indeed, we see binging as a sign of healthy rebellion against the two beliefs on which all diets are based. We recognize that each time a woman binges, she is rebelling against the notion that there is something inherently wrong with her. Binging is also a rebellion against the restraints of diets, all of which declare certain foods off-limits, thus creating an exaggerated yearning for the forbidden foods. Indeed, dieting is the main cause of compulsive eating.
Rather than chastise the women in our workshops for their lack of willpower, we congratulate them on having the courage it takes to rebel against the totally senseless and demeaning rules of diets and we introduce them to our plan to cure compulsive eating. The truth is that for anyone with an eating problem, food itself is never the real problem. The real problem is their need to use food as a tranquilizer rather than as a fuel.
In recent years, much of the medical establishment has acknowledged the failure of diets to produce lasting weight loss. In March of 1992, the National Institutes of Health made an official declaration that diets do not work, thereby legitimizing a suspicion most diet-weary women already held. The medical world, however, has not yet offered an alternative to diets. From our perspective the alternative is self-evident: If diets don't work, get rid of them!
Our approach is designed to undo the damage caused by dieting. We teach compulsive eaters to trust themselves around food, to learn about their own appetites, and to recognize that there is nothing inherently wrong with them.
Chronic dieters spend most of their lives berating themselves for how much they eat and for having bodies that do not meet an idealized cultural standard. Their chastisements mimic our harshest cultural attitudes about eating and weight, and the more they denigrate themselves, the more they turn to food for comfort. Although there is no way to change this kind of behavior overnight, we urge our readers to ease the pain of self-inflicted condemnation, first by developing an awareness of it and, then, by gradually eliminating it.
All dieters categorize food as being either fattening or nonfattening. This dichotomized view of food further aggravates eating problems by creating cravings that, when indulged, lead back to bad body thoughts ... that lead back to dieting ... that lead back to binging.
Our solution is lo "legalize" and "equalize" all food-in other words, to do away with the notion that certain foods are forbidden. All foods should be abundantly available and regarded as equal. The goal is to learn to think about food as a way to satisfy physiological or stomach hunger, just as we all did at the beginning of our lives, and to eat whatever we are hungry for, whenever we are hungry.
If you are a compulsive eater, when you feel in trouble emotionally, you experience what we call psychological hunger, or mouth hunger, and you turn to food as a means of calming yourself. Under the dual pressures of dieting and your own anxiety, you have lost your basic hunger/food connection; you use food as a tranquilizer instead of as a fuel. Each time you use food in this way, you are actually using it as a symbol of the comfort that came from early nurturance and caretaking. The only way to break the cycle of turning to food for psychological hunger is to learn to feed yourself "on demand," just as mothers of infants today are encouraged to do by their pediatricians.
Demand feeding functions in the same way for you as an adult as it did for you as an infant. Each time an infant is fed when she is hungry, changed when she is wet, and comforted when she is upset, she learns that there is a world outside herself that cares about her feelings and meets her needs. This kind of attentiveness is the hallmark of good caretaking-and good caretaking is what you need in order to free yourself from dieting and compulsive eating.
Demand feeding reestablishes the basic hunger/food connection that was destroyed during your years of compulsive eating and dieting. Each time you feed yourself when you are hungry, you demonstrate that you are able to care for yourself in an attuned way. The more reliable you are as a self-feeder, the more emotionally secure you will feel and the less likely you will be to turn to food for reasons other than hunger. You will have less anxiety in general, and you will feel better equipped to name your problems and deal with them directly. Imagine never thinking about food except when you are hungry. Imagine thinking about your problems, rather than eating about them.