Call it the undiet. You stop trying to arbitrarily restrict what you eat and instead learn to tame your cravings, whether youre at a party, dining out, or at home cooking treats.
The undiet isnt exactly new. A similar idea was offered up in the 1978 bestseller Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, a British psychotherapist who argued that you should stop dieting and simply eat when youre hungry. But the concept has been refined.
Newer variations use a simple scale to help you monitor your appetite. The process takes about 4 weeks to master, says University of Colorado psychologist Linda Craighead, PhD, author of The Appetite Awareness Workbook: How to Listen to Your Body and Overcome Bingeing, Overeating, and Obsession with Food. You start by filling out appetite-rating forms before each meal (like the one above). In Craigheads version, the scale runs from 1 (ravenous) to 7 (stuffed). The goal is to eat when youre moderately hungry (2.5) and stop when youre moderately full (5.5).
Many people wait until theyre ravenous to start eating, but then eat quickly and miss cues that theyre full. Craighead says this problematic pattern can be avoided if you know when youre moderately full—the point at which your body, though not necessarily your mind, has had enough food to fuel you for the next 2 to 4 hours. You know youve reached this threshold not when you feel totally satisfied, but at the first sign of stomach distension (when you feel your stomach press against your waistband).
Do appetite scales work? New research in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that chronic dieters in an appetite-monitoring program maintained their weights for 2 years and improved their outlooks on life. Thats not the same as dropping two dress sizes, of course. But contrasted with the 2 pounds women over 30 typically gain in that span, or the inability of most dieters to keep the weight off after losing it, maintaining sounds pretty good.
Whats more, the approach takes away the anxiety—and guilt—that conventional diets traditionally serve up. “When your meals satisfy your appetite, your life no longer revolves around food,” says Marsha Hudnall, RD, who teaches the technique at the women-only Green Mountain at Fox Run weight-loss spa in Vermont.
Weight Watchers suggests that dieters on its Core Plan (which recommends eating enough of specific foods to make you full) rely on an imaginary hunger scale and, through monitoring, stay in the middle—not too hungry, not too full. You could probably do that at a holiday party, assuming you go easy on the wine. But most experts believe the physical act of writing down how hungry or full you feel improves the learning curve. “It amplifies your attention,” Craighead says. The lightbulb moment comes when you discover that you feel better, physically and emotionally, when you dont overeat.
People who monitor their appetites but persist in eating high-calorie foods loaded with fat and sugar may not shed pounds until they change their food choices. For Craighead, this means moving from appetite awareness to food awareness; you start experimenting with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and fish to find out which lower-calorie foods make you feel good.