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“Do I Really Get to Eat What I Want?”

by Ellen R. Glovsky, PhD, RD, LDN

Ideas about nutrition and dieting are a common topic of conversation in my life. I am a Registered Dietitian, and once people find out what I do for a living, they often want to tell me about their struggles with diet, food, and weight. In this context, I often hear the argument that being overweight is bad for one’s health, and simply bad. Sometimes people don’t really know why they think being fat is bad, but they are sure it is. I try not to miss a chance to “carry the message” that there’s an alternative to the struggle with food and one’s body. This alternative is the Health At Every Size® (HAES) approach to weight and health. The HAES idea is just what its name says, a focus on health rather than weight. Part of HAES is a “non-diet” approach to managing one’s relationship with food. As I describe these ideas, some people are interested and curious, while others listen politely and change the subject. I’m guessing they think I’m simply insane, or at best, misinformed about the “truth” about “weight management”.

While I really don’t like the name “non-diet” because I feel it is negative, it tells the story clearly. We are not dieting, which implies restriction, and an outside authority telling you when, what, and how much to eat. Whether you are dieting for weight loss or other reasons, it is restrictive. There is evidence that restriction can actually cause bingeing. I’m guessing that if you have tried to diet, you have had the experience of becoming obsessed with food. I certainly have! It’s normal; the body interprets a lower intake of energy (calories) as starvation, and will work hard to find food to keep from starving to death.

The non-diet approach centers on three basic questions when you are thinking about eating:

1) Am I hungry, really physically hungry?

2) If I’m hungry, what do I really want to eat right now?

3) How much of this food do I need to feel satisfied?

“What do I really want to eat?” sounds like a simple question, but it’s always surprising to me that people either don’t know what they want, or are so used to “the rules” that tell them what they should eat that they are out of practice in discerning the answer. The first thing to consider is whether or not you are hungry. Food tastes best when you are hungry! Check it out next time you eat! Because of this phenomenon, it’s easiest to answer the question of what you want when you are physically hungry. If you are physically hungry, the next question is, “What do I really want to eat?” This question centers on what food would feel satisfying, really good right now in your body. If you have been dieting for a while, this question can be really hard to answer.

One way to begin to explore the idea of knowing what you really want to eat is to think of the four characteristics of food. The food you choose should be as close to perfect for you as possible in terms of flavor, texture, color and temperature. The table below offers some ideas of foods that fall into each category. If a hamburger and fries are what you really want, and you choose a green salad with chicken (to save calories, for example), it probably won’t be satisfying and is might make it more likely that you will overeat or binge at the next opportunity. These two example meals are not the same at all in the characteristics of food noted.

Another way to think about what you really want to eat is to ask yourself “what hums for you?” When we hum, our voices and chests vibrate. What are you “vibrating” for, or humming for? What food do you want from deep inside you? The idea here is that when we eat what we really want, that hum, or craving disappears. We have satisfied that urge.


Often I hear in response “But that can’t be possible! If I ate what I really wanted I’d eat junk food all the time and that’s not healthy.  I’d be as big as a house, too!” What that means is that you don’t trust yourself to stop eating if the food choice is something you really want. Well, that turns out not to be true. It’s the dieting mentality that tells us “You can’t possibly trust yourself. Look where trusting yourself got you. Do it my way and you’ll be all set.”  This diet mentality can sound good, but we know that dieting almost never works over time. Research has shown that, in practice, people actually eat less and binge less when they learn to tune into their own hunger and fullness signals. Further, the idea that left to your own devices you would eat “badly” turns out not to be true, either. Once all foods are possible, most people select the best choices for their own situation.

The main idea of the non-diet approach is that when we eat when we are hungry and eat what we really crave or “hum” for, we are more likely to be satisfied and ultimately need less food. This goes back to the basic HAES concepts described earlier in this article. These emphasize internal signals of when, what and how much to eat, and focus on moving one’s body in ways that feel good and leave you feeling strong, with little to no focus on body weight.

You really can trust your body to guide you towards a healthy life!

Ellen Glovsky, PhD, RD, LDN is a Registered Dietitian and a member of the teaching faculty of Northeastern University in Boston, MA. Dr. Glovsky conducts workshops and consultations for a variety of organizations around the country on Motivational Interviewing (MI). She is a member of the Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT), the professional group of MI practitioners and trainers. Dr. Glovsky maintains a private practice in which she offers treatment for eating disorders using a Health At Every Size approach. Her contact information follows:

Motivational Interviewing Trainer – Registered Dietitian – Nutrition Therapist –Author- Speaker

Author, Wellness, Not Weight: Health At Every Size and Motivational Interviewing

Coaching for Nutrition and Wellness

(781)890-1618 (office)       (781)290-8886 (cell)

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