Attuned Eating: The Antidote to Dieting

By Judith Matz, LCSW

If diets don’t work, then what is the solution to ending overeating? All kinds of plans and programs claim that they aren’t diets, but any time you make food choices with the intention of weight loss, it really is a diet in disguise. The most common statistic is that despite short-term weight loss, 95 percent of people who go on a diet will regain the pounds, and recent research finds that one-third to two-thirds of those people will end up heavier than their pre-diet weight.* If your doctor gave you a medicine that had a 5% success rate at best, would you try it over and over?

Using Internal Cues
Rather Than External Rules
To Realize Your Body’s Needs

Although the blame – and shame – for this failure is usually placed at the dieter’s doorstep, strong physiological-, psychological-, social-, and even economic forces make dieting a losing battle. If you’ve had the experience of losing weight only to gain it back, there’s a good chance you’ve blamed yourself. But the truth is you haven’t failed your diet; your diet has failed you.

Diets are always based on external rules and regulations. When you follow them you feel in control, but there almost always comes a point where you “break” the rules and feel guilty or out of control. In fact, at that moment you may decide that as long as you’ve broken the rules, you might as well eat as much as you want because starting tomorrow, or next week, or on January 1st, you’ll get yourself back in line. This type of thinking, known as the “diet mentality,” is such a common pattern that it can be considered a predictable consequence of dieting.

Attuned eating
The antidote to dieting is “attuned eating,” also known as “intuitive eating” or “mindful eating.” Attuned eating teaches you to reconnect with your internal, physical cues for hunger and satiation. Attuned eating guides you in deciding when, what and how much to eat, and helps you build a reliable, consistent structure for feeding yourself. Attuned eating is flexible, allowing you to meet your nutritional needs.

The first step to becoming an attuned eating is to ask yourself if you know when you’re physically hungry. When I ask that question of my clients, I find that people are frequently disconnected from the physical sensations of hunger. Typical hunger cues – headaches, irritability, poor concentration and weakness – actually indicate that you’ve waited too long to eat. Unfortunately, when you let yourself become ravenous you feel desperate, and you’re likely to eat whatever is available – and more of it than you need. Instead, identifying physical hunger as an empty or gnawing feeling can put you in a strong position to respond to your needs.

By honoring your physical hunger, you become better able to identify what food would feel right in your body at that particular moment. Do you have a specific craving? Do you prefer something hot or cold, crunchy or soft, spicy or bland? Protein, carbohydrate or fat? Through experimentation, you’ll learn that different foods feel differently in your body. You’ll notice that you are just as off-base if you eat an apple when you crave a piece of chocolate, as you are if you eat a piece of chocolate when you’re actually hungry for an apple.

Using internal cues – rather than external rules – you’ll realize that your body needs a wide variety of foods. By reconnecting with your stomach and paying attention, you’ll discover that when you eat exactly what you’re hungry for, you feel more satisfied. While in the past you may have eaten a salad when you craved pizza – and then eventually binged on the pizza – eating the pizza, when it’s truly the best match, leads to a feeling of satisfaction that actually helps you to stop eating when you notice a signal of fullness.

It’s important to remember that breaking the diet mentality and becoming an attuned eater is a process that takes time. The goal isn’t to control your eating by deciding you can eat only when you’re physically hungry. Rather, pay attention to the difference between physical (stomach) hunger and psychological (mouth) hunger.

Collect positive experiences of attuned eating whenever possible. As you begin to collect attuned eating experiences by eating when hungry, eating exactly what you’re hungry for as you choose from a wide variety of foods, and stopping when full, you’ll find that this way of feeding yourself is much more satisfying, both physically and psychologically. You can develop a calm, anxiety-free relationship with food that helps you end overeating and leaves you feeling in charge of – rather than controlling – your eating. Imagine the freedom!

*Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: Diets are not the answer.
Mann, Traci; Tomiyama, A. Janet; Westling, Erika; Lew, Ann-Marie; Samuels, Barbra; Chatman, Jason. American Psychologist, Vol 62(3), Apr 2007, 220-233.

Judith Matz, LCSW is co-author of two books on the topic of eating and weight issues: “The Diet Survivor’s Handbook: 60 Lessons in Eating, Acceptance and Self-Care” and “Beyond a Shadow of a Diet: The Therapist’s Guide to Treating Compulsive Eating.” She is the director of the Chicago Center for Overcoming Overeating, Inc. and has a private practice in Skokie, IL. Find her at and

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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