Barbara Taylor, a high school teacher in Scranton, Pa., was getting desperate. "I had been dieting since I was 12," says Taylor, 36. She had tried Weight Watchers, the Zone, and the high- and low-carbohydrate fads to no avail. Dieting so intensified her appetite that Taylor actually gained weight.
Then she signed up for a weekly course in "intuitive eating," a behavior-modification program that attempts to get people to tune in to their bodies' signals to recognize when they are truly hungry or full. After 16 weeks in her program, Taylor had shed 40 pounds. She has kept them off since. "It's amazing to me that I had to stop dieting to lose weight," she says.
Intuitive eating is based on the concept that the body knows naturally what nutrients it needs, and how much, and signals this through appetite. Weight loss or proper nutrition aren't the main goals per se, but people who learn to listen to their bodies will tend to gravitate to healthy foods, become more physically active, and lose pounds as a result. The antithesis of carefully measured and planned diets, intuitive eating has gained ground in recent years among nutritionists as well as frustrated dieters. Although there have been no controlled studies of this approach, "anything that gives back that ability to feel a clear, unambiguous signal that it's time to start or stop eating is a good thing," says Dr. George Blackburn, associate director of the division of nutrition at Harvard University Medical School in Boston, Mass.
INNER TODDLER. Proponents of intuitive eating say we all once had an ability to eat properly. "Look at toddlers. They eat only when they are hungry and stop when they are full," says Carol Beck, a nutritionist and co-author with Nan Allison of Full & Fulfilled. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine reports that, given free access to food, preschool children will consume calories according to their physical as well as nutritional needs.
This innate sensibility starts to degrade, intuitive eating advocates say, as children are bombarded by conflicting messages from parents, peers, and media about when, how much, and what to consume. By adulthood, they no longer can detect their natural biological cues. Combine that with frantic lifestyles that encourage noshing on the run or skipping meals, and many folks "completely lose touch with what it feels like to be hungry or full," says nutritionist Evelyn Tribole, co-author with Elyse Resch of Intuitive Eating.
The result is a cycle of under- and overeating, which ultimately tilts the scales against you. "The more you diet, the worse off you are," says Betty Nelson, a 50-year-old massage therapist in Sebastopol, Calif. After rejecting dieting and reclaiming her inner toddler, Nelson has gone from a size 22 to a size 12 over the past three years, an indication that learning intuitive eating is neither quick nor easy. Indeed, most longtime dieters face a step-by-step process to learn how to eat intuitively.
BIG MACS. Finding an expert to help you requires diligent research, because there's no comprehensive directory of professionals trained in the technique. You'll have to call dietitians in your area and inquire about their expertise. You can expect to undergo 10 to 12 weekly group or individual sessions with a nutritionist, who will train you to recognize your eating habits and monitor your body. Each session costs $90 to $150, which may be covered by health-insurance plans with wellness benefits. After the course, you can return periodically for booster sessions or join a support group, if you wish.
The hardest part of changing your eating habits is realizing that dieting doesn't work, says Carol Emery Normandi, who founded Beyond Hunger, an intuitive eating training center in San Rafael, Calif., and who co-wrote, with Laurelee Roark, It's Not About Food. "A lot of people drop out because they can't let go of that dieting mentality." In fact, high school teacher Taylor went back to Weight Watchers twice before wholly accepting intuitive eating. "It's difficult to just throw out your entire way of life," she says.
The next step is to keep track of your behavior, in your mind or in a journal, paying special attention to why you start or stop eating. This helps you also learn to forego eating until you feel an unambiguous physical signal that food is needed--real hunger. Some people find that they eat when they are bored, or simply because food was offered. Or consider Margot McGowen, 31, who runs the Woodhull Institute, a San Francisco think tank devoted to women's issues. She discovered that she confused physical hunger with anxiety. McGowen, who was bulimic, altered her habits in 1997 and is now a healthy, intuitive eater.
For those who have spent most of their lives denying their appetite and eating past satiety, learning to recognize true hunger signals can be a tall order. Christina Brecht, a registered dietitian in Cresco, Pa., suggests that clients rate how they feel on a starving-to-stuffed scale of 1 to 10--1 being painfully hungry and 10 being painfully full. They should eat only when they are minimally to moderately hungry, in the 3-4 range, and stop when they are minimally to moderately full, in the 6-7 range. Clients practice eating this way at home and report and analyze successes and failures during their sessions. Brecht also advises pausing before and halfway through a meal to assess how you feel. During these time- outs, ask yourself: "Is this what I really want to eat? Does it taste good?"
Unlike traditional diets, intuitive eating allows you to eat exactly what you want, even if that means Big Macs, potato chips, or chocolate cake. This "is frightening to a lot of people because they are afraid they will eat uncontrollably," says nutritionist Tribole. But the easy availability of such goodies will, over time, make the urge to binge dissipate, intuitive eaters say.
Most who have embraced intuitive eating say it has transformed their lives. To Harvard professor Blackburn, the discipline is a way to "get a life and quit jumping on every fad to lose weight." To some intuitive eating converts, it is far more. "You have a lot more time and energy to pursue your dreams and interests when you aren't obsessing about calories and what you can and cannot eat," says McGowen. Like others on the program, she found that listening to her body set her free.