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BODY WATCH : A Sharper Image : Most of us fixate so much on food--watching calories and fat--that we've lost the link between hunger and eating. But a new book on weight obsession may be the answer

March 21, 1995|KATHLEEN DOHENY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Banish dieting from your life.

Forever?

The concept is foreign, even scary, especially for women.

But it's an idea whose time has come, say two New York therapists who have done just that.

Now Jane Hirschmann, 49, and Carol Munter, 51, hope to persuade others to get off the diet roller coaster and stop hating their shapes. In their new book, "When Women Stop Hating Their Bodies: Freeing Yourself From Food and Weight Obsession" (Fawcett Columbine), they offer alternatives to dieting: "demand feedings" and inner regulation in lieu of counting calories and fat grams.

The duo, who also wrote "Overcoming Overeating" (Fawcett Columbine Trade Paperbacks, 1989) has declared May 6 "International No-Diet Day" as part of their campaign "to end body hatred and dieting." By telephone from their respective offices, Hirschmann and Munter elaborated recently about life without diets.

Question: Who is this book meant for?

Hirschmann: This book is written for the millions of women who wake up every morning and look in the mirror and say, "Yuck." Women who spend many hours throughout the day having negative body thoughts, who think about what foods they should have and shouldn't have. Women who are chronic dieters, who have really lost the basic connection between physiological hunger and food.

Q: How do you define a dieter?

Hirschmann: A person who tries to regulate food from outside of themselves, whether they count calories or eliminate certain foods.

Q: What's wrong with diets?

Munter: First, they turn you into a compulsive eater and, second, they make you fat. The more complicated answer is that, first of all, a diet implies there is something wrong with how you look today, that as a result of somehow not fitting in or measuring up to a cultural standard . . . you should deprive yourself of certain things. And the minute a woman says to herself, "I shouldn't eat X," chances are simply because she said that, she is going to want to eat X more than she ever did before. Diets inspire rebellion, just like prisons inspire breakouts. That's why 95%-98% of people who go on diets eventually regain the weight plus some.

Q: In lieu of a diet, can you explain the eating plan you're suggesting?

Munter: When you say "No more" to dieting, what you are really saying is, "I am not going to artificially restrict myself from any food. What I am going to do is to 'legalize' all foods--make all foods equal in a psychological sense, regardless of their caloric content. I am not going to say 'Lettuce is better than cookies.' " What we say is, you were born knowing how to eat. Infants get fed when they are hungry and the caretaker stops feeding them when they indicate they have had enough.

We think adults need to go back to demand feeding so they can reconnect food with the experience of physiological hunger. Each time you feed yourself when you are hungry, you demonstrate you can take care of yourself. Psychologically, you feel much more grounded. There is much less need to use food as a tranquilizer. We're not saying, "Eat whatever you want, whenever you want it." (We are saying) if you give up dieting, there is a way to learn inner self-regulation. It's much harder to do than a diet. Once people give themselves full permission, they can live quite comfortably with all the (previously forbidden) foods in the house. They are no longer desperate.

Q: In the book, you talk about mouth hunger versus stomach hunger. What's the difference?

Hirschmann: Stomach hunger is the physiological need for food as a fuel. Mouth hunger is all the psychological reasons for which we eat.

Q: You also talk about the epidemic of bad body fever and bad body talk, such as "My thighs are gross." Can you elaborate on its origins and effects? And the cure?

Munter: Bad body fever is a syndrome that afflicts most women who grow up in a culture in which women are devalued. They grow up feeling that there is something wrong with them the way they are and they need to transform their shape in order to be OK.

Hirschmann: A bad body thought is never, ever about your body. At the moment you have a bad body thought, there was something else going on that you couldn't name directly. An example might be that you say, "Oh, my God, my stomach protrudes, how disgusting."

At that moment, if the woman is really brave, she might say to herself, "I treat myself worse than I would treat a bad enemy." First she would apologize and then she would go on to challenge the thought. Who said that every woman should have a flat stomach? She might ask herself, "What was I doing and talking about at that moment? Because 10 minutes before I did not have that thought and I had the same stomach." Perhaps she just got off from a phone call with her boss where she asserted herself and felt she "stuck out" too much in that conversation.

Munter: One woman told me, "If I could have back all the time I spent berating myself for my body, by now I could have a Ph.D."

Q: But what about the health risks associated with being overweight? Are you dismissing those concerns when you tell women to stop dieting?

Hirschmann: Not at all. There's a lot of research now on both sides of the fence. Some say it's better to stabilize at a higher weight rather than continue yo-yoing up-and-down.

Munter: If you're willing to say, "OK, absolutely no more diets; I'm going to figure out from the inside out what my body needs and how much," then you maximize the chance of returning to what for you is a natural weight, in a way that you are not going to regain. Everybody who jumps in (to this plan) feet first has a very good chance of getting to a point where it does not occur to them to eat unless they are physiologically hungry. And that's a miracle.

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