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In the United States, bookstores are packed with best-selling diet books, and magazine racks overflow with diet plans and promises. Yet more than 90 percent of dieters regain their lost weight, and then some. With such a profusion of creative diets, why does the obesity rate continue to grow?

It turns out diets themselves may be the problem. Some experts believe people become so accustomed to dieting as a way of life that they lose touch with their natural relationship with food. Caught in a vicious circle of weight cycling, they punish themselves with dieting, rebel by overeating and shamefully return to dieting. Some research has shown that in addition to causing negative psychological effects, weight cycling can increase a person's risk of developing diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

Controversy is also growing over the true health consequences of obesity. Various studies now indicate that being heavy, fit and healthy may indeed be possible. Accepting your body size, staying active and learning to eat in a natural, unrestrained way may be a healthier route than a lifetime of dieting.

Getting Out of Diet Jail

So how can you break free of dieting Aprison and learn to eat in a healthy, natural way? Karen Carrier, MEd, director of the Houston Center for Overcoming Overeating, suggests taking these steps, adapted from the Overcoming Overeating approach developed by psychotherapists Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter more than 30 years ago:

1. Look at Food as the Solution, Not the Problem. Instead of restricting and controlling your food intake, practice demand feeding, an unrestrained style of eating that involves eating consciously in response to internal cues. Try to ignore all the societal pressures to diet (such as media images of super thin models), and begin to listen to your body.

2. Eat in Response to Physical Hunger. You may currently be following family or cultural eating habits, or old dieting and overeating patterns. Instead, try to identify when you are truly hungry. (You can rate your hunger on a scale of one to 10.) Your goal is not to judge or control your hunger, only to recognize and respond to it.

3. Recognize and Respond to Emotional Hunger. Don't judge yourself when you eat to fulfill emotional needs. Find the kind of food you want and eat it without hiding it. Remind yourself that the closer you come to ending the cycle of depriving and judging yourself, the less need you will have to eat out of emotional hunger.

4.  Eat Exactly What You're Hungry For. Check in with yourself and determine what you really want. Something cold, hot or room temperature? Crunchy, chewy, soft or liquid? Sweet, salty, bitter or spicy? Permit yourself precisely what you want.

5. Learn to Know When You're Full. This often takes time. You will initially eat way past fullness but will gradually learn to stop eating closer and closer to fullness.

6. Practice Size Acceptance. It isn't easy to tune out messages that encourage the relentless pursuit of unattainable physical goals. Learning to recognize when you are negatively judging your body and when you are accepting and nurturing it is an important start. The more you practice self-acceptance, the more comfortable it will feel. Publications such as Radiance: The Magazine for Large Women (510-482-0680)  and organizations like the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (916-558-6880) and the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination (914-679-1209) can help.

7. Explore Movement as a Way to Nurture Yourself. Don't exercise to punish yourself or compensate for overeating. Instead, find movement you enjoy, and commit to an active lifestyle.

8. Get Help. You can't change your relationship with food and your body overnight. Remember that assistance is available. Fitness professionals, dietitians, psychotherapists, nurses and physicians are beginning to use nondiet and size acceptance approaches with clients. Books that can help include Overcoming Overeating: Living Free in a World of Food (Fawcett/Columbine, 1989) and When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies: Freeing Yourself From a Food and Weight Obsession (Ballantine, 1995) by Jane Hirschmann and Carol Munter. You can also call the Centers for Overcoming Overeating (212-875-0442).

Learning to eat in response to your hunger--instead of endlessly trying to sort out what you should and should not eat--will free you to move on to more satisfying endeavors and a healthier, happier life.

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Note: Information on this site is intended for general reference purposes only and is not intended to address specific medical conditions. Information on this site is not a substitute for professional medical advice or a medical exam. Prior to participating in any exercise program or activity, you should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional. No health information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.

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