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What is a Non-Diet Approach?

By Rebecca Johnson

Am I Hungry Woman ThinkingThis is the third of a four-part series dedicated to exploring the three tenets of the Am I Hungry? Program. Previously I defined the concept of weight-neutral and addressed the need for a paradigm shift away from a focus on weight loss to interventions that are weight-neutral. In this post, I’ll answer the question, “What is a non-diet approach?”  Hint: Non-diet means more than you might think!

What does non-diet mean?

One way to understand the non-diet approach is to think of it as non-restrictive, meaning that it doesn’t encourage restriction or deprivation of any sort. This is important because there are many examples of professionals and programs that label themselves as “non-diet,” “healthy eating,” or “lifestyle change” yet ultimately promote restrictive eating. Examples of more subtle restrictive eating messages found in many traditional interventions include:

  • Eating a certain number of calories, grams, or points
  • Eliminating certain foods or ingredients
  • Avoiding or limiting “tempting” foods
  • Eating on a schedule and/or not eating after a certain time of day
  • Earning food or the right to eat with exercise

In short, a non-diet approach promotes awareness of internal cues and application of internalized decision-making. Therefore, arbitrary rules like these (and thousands of variations) about food or eating are not compatible with a non-diet approach. (Read this blog post for a list of red flags that a program or approach to food is a diet, even when it claims it is not.)

Instead, a true non-diet approach encourages a more natural, instinctive way of eating. That means re-learning how to manage food intake by becoming attuned to internal cues such as hunger and satiety, rather than external rules that may be confusing and difficult to follow indefinitely. The non-diet approach shifts away from the concept of “good” and “bad” foods and supports the idea that, for most people, all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle. Instead of a rigid eating plan, the non-diet approach encourages individuals to meet their nutritional and fuel needs with attention to balance, variety, and moderation while acknowledging the legitimate role of pleasure in eating.

Why not diets and restrictive eating?

The short answer to this question is because they don’t work and they’re counterproductive.

There is significant evidence to support the ineffectiveness of restrictive eating and a growing body of research demonstrating the many ways it is harmful. A recent review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, “A Review of Interventions that Promote Eating by Internal Cues,” summarizes the research on this so well that it is worth quoting directly:

“…traditional diets that restrict energy [calories], or particular nutrients, to induce weight loss have achieved little long term success. These programs have high attrition rates; participants rarely maintain weight loss and sometimes gain back even more weight than they lost during the program. In fact, there is evidence that frequency of dieting is directly associated with weight gain. In addition to being an ineffective means to weight loss, dieting is a well-established risk factor for unhealthy weight control behaviors, binge eating and bulimic pathology, and eating disorders. Frequency of dieting is also associated with negative psychological attributes such as body dissatisfaction, depression, lower self-esteem and negative effect.”

Diets are ineffective because the innate physical and emotional human response to food restriction makes them virtually impossible to adhere to for the long term. Diets require an unsustainable amount of restraint, willpower, time, and energy. Caloric restriction results in physiological hunger, increased preoccupation with food, and strong cravings to eat. The high resource requirements, combined with a strong drive to eat, ultimately results in the dieter “giving up.” Dieting also activates the portion of the brain responsible for attention to and reward properties of food, increasing the likelihood of food intake. Therefore, breaking the restraint is often followed by a strong urge to overeat and, in some cases, binge eating.

Further, many dieters have developed triggers to eat when they’re not hungry, or overeat once they start. Instead of learning to cope effectively with these triggers, dieters may simply overeat the “allowed” foods to cope. Once they’re no longer on the diet, these unaddressed triggers continue to drive overeating, compounded by the guilt of breaking their diet.

This eat-repent-repeat cycle is damaging physiologically and emotionally. Among other things, it can result in weight cycling, disordered eating, low self-efficacy, depression and lower self-esteem. Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs use the non-diet approach and mindfulness-based strategies to help participants free themselves from this cycle to develop a truly healthy relationship with food and their body.

Are non-diet programs effective?

The short answer to this question is absolutely!

Research indicates that non-diet programs have positive and lasting effects on many dimensions of well-being, including improvements in total cholesterol, LDL, blood pressure, depression, and nutrient intake; lower body weight (even when that is not the focus of the program); reduced eating disorder symptomology; reduction of food cravings; and improvements in psychological and behavior outcomes, including self-esteem and eating behaviors.

What more could you ask for?

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

View all posts by Rebecca Johnson

4 Comments

  1. Cathy Dubre says:

    Mindful eating has been working well for me. I did the workshop at work a long time ago. Now I get hungry every 3-4 hours, usually choose vegetable, fruit, meat sometimes, just go for a balance. When I want a sweet I have and enjoy a serving or less. My weight has stayed stable, no more up and down. Cholesterol is in balance without pills. Wish I had run into this long ago but love it now

  2. Rebecca Johnson says:

    Thanks for your comment, Cathy. Wonderful to hear how mindful eating has really “stuck” for you for the long term. Isn’t it amazing how we really can be our own best expert once we learn to listen to and trust our innate wisdom? Congratulations on discovering and maintaining balanced eating, better health and freedom from the up and down!

  3. Tom Windsor says:

    Great post, thank you!

  4. […] it virtually impossible to maintain for the long term. Among others, these consequences include preoccupation with food, disordered eating, diminishing psychological well-being and eventual compen…. When exercise is prescribed in rigid terms and positioned primarily as a mathematical necessity […]

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