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A Place for Nutrition in the Non-Diet Approach?

Editing Note: This post and the next post originally were one long article.


For people who have sworn off weight-loss diets, principles of nutrition can seem like just another set of eating rules to rebel against. The idea behind the non-diet approach is that you can trust your inborn body wisdom to tell you when and what to eat. If that’s true, then why do you need to learn anything? Isn’t this an intuitive, non-thinking approach?

If we were living in the Stone Age we could approach it that way. But we live in a time where the universe of foods to choose from is highly unnatural, so we can’t rely only on our natural inclinations, our body wisdom. At some point, we do need to learn about nutrition.

So how do you incorporate nutrition information so as not to feel like you’re back on a diet?

Making Nutrition Principles Your Own

Once you’re free from the grip of compulsion – Stage 4 of Normal Eating – discussions of nutrition are interesting rather than triggering. The Stage 4 chapter in Normal Eating for Normal Weight is where I address nutrition.

But even before that point, when emotional eating is still a struggle, you should be doing eating experiments. From the chapter on Stage 2:

Be a Scientist, Do Experiments

If you always eat similar foods, you may not be able to tell how a food makes your body feel because you have nothing to compare it with. Try pasta for dinner one night, then chicken with veggies the next night, and then cake for dinner the next. All three will satisfy hunger, but they have very different effects on your body. Notice how much better you feel when you eat foods that nourish. If you don’t try it, you can’t know.

Similarly, if you always eat before you’re really hungry, you can’t know how hunger heightens taste and pleasure. Try waiting to varying degrees of hunger before eating. At what hunger level does food taste the best? Do you notice that if you let yourself get too hungry (below a 2), you will tend to overeat?

To learn what satiation feels like (being “just satisfied” versus overfull), try eating to different levels of fullness and compare how your body feels. Does it take longer before you’re hungry again if you eat more?

See if it’s true that eating breakfast is good for you, even if you’re not hungry when you first get up. If it’s really true that energy is low and thinking impaired when you don’t eat breakfast, wouldn’t you notice that? Try it both ways and see how you feel.

Also, don’t forget thirst. Sometimes when you think you’re hungry, you’re really thirsty. See if you can tell the difference.

Note that you can trust your thirst to tell you when to drink water, just as you can trust your hunger to tell you when to eat. You don’t need drinking rules such as eight glasses of water per day any more than you need eating rules. You can trust your body to tell you what it needs.

Have fun with this; try things. I don’t mean just try junk food, but also try healthy food. Try a range of eating experiences so you can compare how your body reacts.

Eating experiments are a key element of Stage 2 that many people don’t pay enough attention to. It’s through eating experiments that you make nutrition principles your own.

The process is very similar to how a child learns to speak. First she experiments with putting words together – not following any rules, but intuitively figuring out what works. Then when she’s older, she refines her language skills by learning principles of grammar.

If you experiment in Stage 2 with different ways of eating, carefully monitoring how your body feels, the nutrition principles you learn in Stage 4 will feel like confirmation and refinement of what you already know, rather than a sudden diet sprung on you at the end.

Something to Try

To start you on the road to making nutrition information your own, do some eating experiments, letting your own experience be your guide. Make changes slowly and gradually – take it a meal at a time. Notice how you feel after eating different foods, and tweak your diet this way and that to see what feels best.

Pay attention not only to how you feel immediately after eating a food, but also how you feel one to three hours later. If you eat quick digesting carbs without fat or protein – for example, a candy bar or a sleeve of crackers – you will feel a sense of energy and well-being immediately after. Then one to three hours later, the pendulum will swing the other way. You’ll feel tired and anxious, and you’ll want to eat more carbs. If you have a snack high in protein and fat but low in carbs (a hard-boiled egg, a chunk of cheese), your energy will be much more stable, and it will take longer to be hungry again. But don’t take my word for it, try it and see if it’s true.

In my next post I talk about what constitutes good nutrition, and how to tell fact from fiction.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

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