Am I Hungry? What To Do When Diets Don't Work: Introduction
Why Should This Time Be Any Different?
You know the feeling. Maybe you have it right now. The one that says, "I can't take it anymore---I just have to lose this weight." Maybe you want to lose a few pounds or maybe you need to lose a lot. Anything may have triggered it: your 20th high school reunion, a Caribbean cruise, feeling winded as you chased your toddler running toward the street. Maybe you have nothing left in your closet that fits, or you felt uncomfortable sitting in a chair with armrests---or you can't even sit in a chair with armrests anymore. Maybe your doctor told you that the reason your knees hurt all the time is that they are carrying a heavier load than they were designed for and your joints are wearing out. Maybe she told you that you have high blood pressure or diabetes, or that you will get one of these conditions if you don't do something about your weight. It could have been any comment or situation, but it became the straw that broke the camel's back.
In a way it is a good feeling. You now have a plan. You feel so determined---this time you will stick to it no matter what. Your friend swears by her method---and she looks great. Or maybe you saw an ad on T.V., read an article in a magazine, or looked in the phone book. The plan seems a little weird or kind of strict but it doesn't matter as long as you can get some of the weight off. You are committed. You have chosen your diet, joined a gym, signed up for a program, or bought the book.
You are finally back in control. You weigh yourself and calculate how long it will take to get to your goal weight. You clean out your refrigerator, your kitchen cabinets, and your desk drawer. You throw away (or finish off) the chips and cookies and start eating celery sticks for snacks. You begin to read labels so you will know what you can eat and what you shouldn't. You take your lunch to work every day and try new healthy recipes on your family. ("Oh no, Mom's on a diet again!") You drink your eight glasses of water every day. You buy new walking shoes and get up early almost every morning. You feel great!
The weight starts to come off. Maybe that first week you lose three or four pounds. Never mind that part of it was water or even muscle. You already feel thinner---and a little smug. As you watch the others in the break room scarfing down donuts you think, "If they had self-control and willpower like me, they would know how bad those things are for them and they could resist them too." Eventually someone notices you are losing weight so you tell them about your new diet. They tell you about the one that worked for them and everyone within earshot chimes in with a favorite diet story or two. Eventually the conversation shifts to food and recipes and eating---a favorite theme in any gathering.
But one day you weigh in again and you haven't lost as much as you think you should. You vow to try harder, and you do. In the back of your mind a little voice says, "This isn't worth it." At first you remind yourself about all of the reasons you need to lose weight so you ignore the voice and keep going--- maybe for another day, maybe for another year. But that little voice gets louder. You see someone eating ice cream and the voice says, "It's not fair." One morning you wake up early for your walk, but you feel too tired and the voice says, "This is too hard."
You buy a bag of candy at the store and the voice says, "It's for the kids." You put it away in the cabinet but the little voice says, "You have been so good, you can have one piece." You eat one piece and you can't believe how wonderful it tastes and the voice says, "You can walk a little extra tomorrow, have another one." You eat one more, then another, and before you know it, half the bag is gone. Maybe it was a little bag or maybe it was a large bag; the point is you weren't supposed to eat it. So the voice says, "You already blew it. You might as well eat the rest so you won't be tempted when you go back on your diet tomorrow. Besides, how are you going to explain half a bag of candy?" So you finish the bag.
Then the voice changes. It is not a little voice anymore; it has become loud and cruel. The voice says, "I can't believe you did that after how hard you have worked! You couldn't stick to it, just like all the other times." So you vow to be good tomorrow. And you are, at first. But something has changed. You don't feel like you are in control anymore. You now know that you are just one piece of candy away from going right back to where you started. And the voice screams, "You are a loser!"
Before long, whatever motivated you in the first place doesn't seem that important anymore. Your willpower fades and the voice whispers, "Maybe next time it will be different." So you go back to eating like you did before. It's over, for now anyway. Because eventually, something will happen to give you that feeling again, the one that says, "I can do it this time." The roller coaster starts up the hill for another ride.
But this time, you are holding this book. Am I Hungry? Maybe your doctor told you about it, or you heard about it on a talk show, or your friend claims it changed her life. That sounds good. Too good. The little voice says, "You have been on this ride before. Why should this one be any different? You know you won't be able to do it."
You can do it, because this book is different. In fact, it may even seem a bit too different. Your little voice says, "No dieting? How is that going to help? You are already out of control. What you really need is willpower and some strict guidelines to whip you back into shape."
Yet that hasn't worked for you---or most people---in the past, so why do you keep going back to the same old thing camouflaged by a different name and a different set of rules? Deep down inside, don't you believe there has to be another way?
There is. In fact, you may be surprised to learn that the answers have been within your reach the whole time. The problem is that you have been reaching out instead of reaching in.
To be clear, this book is not going to give you a whole new set of rules to follow. In fact, we recommend only one "rule": Whenever you have an urge to eat, ask yourself, "Am I hungry?" Sounds simple? It is. But it is not always easy. In a way, it would be easier to just do what someone else tells you, than to really dig down inside and find the answers for yourself. But we believe that this is the only way.
To answer the simple question, "Am I hungry?" you will need to become aware, not only of your physical state, but aware of your thoughts and feelings too. You will need to restore the skills you were born with and develop new tools necessary for lifelong weight management and health. That is why you are holding this book this time.
Am I Hungry? is not just a book. It is a multidimensional system, a series of integrated processes, because the solution to managing your weight is more complex than simply knowing what to eat and how much to exercise. This multidimensional system combines expertise in the medical, nutritional, and behavioral aspects of weight management. An otherwise complicated process has been broken into a series of simple steps that can be mastered one manageable piece at a time.
Let us emphasize that this will be a process, a new learning process, so don't let that little voice tell you that you have to do this perfectly or not at all. You do not need to do it perfectly for it to be effective. In fact, you will make many mistakes along the way---we still do. This will also be a very personal process. Every choice you make is a learning opportunity, a chance to better understand why you do the things you do and how to do them differently next time. Be kind and patient with yourself; the rewards are well worth it.
The first section of each chapter, Decision Points, will guide you through the Am I Hungry? system by asking simple questions to increase your awareness of what you are thinking, feeling, and doing. You will build layers of important weight management skills and healthier ways of nourishing your body, your mind, and your soul---without dieting.
As you let go of restrictive and complicated diet rules, you will need a solid foundation of nutrition and fitness information to help you make the best possible choices for your health. The Fitness and Nutrition sections of each chapter will teach you the essentials of these topics and provide you with the motivation you need to create your own personalized plan for building optimal health.
You may be tempted to skip over the fitness and nutrition sections, believing that you have heard it all before. However, the information that you have been given in the past may have been inaccurate, confusing, or tainted with diet messages like "eating fat is bad" or "exercise helps burn off calories when you cheat." You may also be afraid that this is where we will slip in rules for you to follow. We won't. These sections will help you focus on one aspect of fitness and nutrition at a time to help you make important step-by-step adjustments to your personal plan. These small, focused changes are probably very different from the "all or nothing" approach you may have taken in the past, but as one of our participants said, "I have learned so much about taking good care of myself. It happened so gradually, that it didn't hurt a bit. In fact, it changed my life!"
We have walked this journey with thousands of people. Throughout this book, you will hear some of their stories. Some are almost word for word, while others are composites of several people with similar experiences. They will help us illustrate important points. But most of all, we hope they will help you see that you are not alone. This is Michelle May's story:
Michelle was chubby from an early age. Picture red hair, lots of freckles---and chubby. She was told that there were starving children in Africa, so her plate had to be cleaned. She had an athletic, skinny younger brother who could, and would, eat anything not nailed down---so she also had to make sure to get her share first. Soon after her parents divorced, a girl at her new dance school teased her about being fat, so she quit taking lessons.
Since she was the smart one, not the athletic one---she spent most of her free time just hanging around with her friends. They snacked to chase away boredom and she gained more weight. She also discovered that food was great for relieving stress, at least for a little while. In the long run though, it became a major source of stress for her. Subtle and not-so-subtle comments and embarrassing shopping trips to find clothes made it clear that she had to do something. The stage was set.
For the next twenty-five years, Michelle was on one diet after another. She had her favorite---the one that worked for her as long as she stuck to it. She also discovered that exercise helped too---as long as she stuck to it. But it was hard to stick to any of them for very long. She developed features of an eating disorder that helped her cope with her painful relationship with food.
Ironically, despite the fact that she couldn't stick to a diet forever, she had little trouble getting through college, medical school, and residency, and eventually found herself in the position of advising her patients to lose weight. Most of them didn't seem to fare any better than she had. That was little consolation.
She felt discouraged and ashamed. How do you help someone do something you haven't been able to do yourself? She knew it was time to try again but it didn't seem fair--- her husband and children never dieted and they never struggled with their weight. In fact, they ate whatever they wanted, but they rarely ate more than they needed.
Did they just have a better metabolism? That was probably part of it. She knew hers was a mess after years of overeating and dieting. Did they have more willpower? No. It seemed unlikely that they would have been able to follow a diet for very long either. But there was something else, something fundamentally different about the way they thought about food. In fact, they didn't really think about food at all---unless they were hungry.
Could the answer really be that obvious? Could she learn to listen to hunger again to guide her eating? Her little voice said, "I really don't want to go on another diet. Let's try it their way this time."
It was surprisingly simple, but it was not always easy. After years of trying to follow other people's rules about food, ignoring hunger, and eating for all sorts of other reasons, it was difficult to trust her body and her instincts. But she created a new path for herself and developed a system to manage her weight that really worked.
And something else completely unexpected happened along the way. She discovered parts of herself she had lost, or did not even know existed. She found health, happiness, and wholeness. She also discovered a purpose for her life and a passion for helping others find their paths to wholeness too.
Enjoy your journey!
Michelle May, M.D.
Lisa Galper, Psy.D.
Janet Carr, M.S., R.D.