A weight off your mind? Thinking your way to a healthier body.

In Dr Stephanie Dowrick’s latest book, EVERYDAY KINDNESS, she writes extensively – and with compassion and great encouragement – about mood, food (what we put into our bodies and our minds), as well as our attitudes to our own and other people’s bodies. Here is an abridged extract from her book – now widely available. 

I’m no weight loss expert. On the other hand, most people who write diet books or promote diet products are not especially expert either. They may be able to tell you which foods to cut out or down. Or urge more exercise. What they can’t do is help you keep weight off in a sustained way.

In most Western countries, up to two-thirds of people are overweight or obese. Large afternoon teas, with laden plates, were commonplace in my childhood, yet when I walk around the streets I see far more heavily overweight people than even a decade ago. I also see parades of magazine covers shrieking about which celebrity has lost a few miserable ounces or gained them. Very often people’s sense of self or self-respect is determined by their weight. There is much that’s obscene about this. Yet for all this obsessive focus on food and body image (and surely in part because of it), people fail at dieting constantly.

The reasons aren’t hard to find.  Most diets are restrictive, boring and implicitly punitive. They remind you constantly of what you can’t have. And of what you should not have had or done in the past. They also keep your attention on your food and your body in unhelpful ways.  What’s more, because diets focus so drearily and intensely on what goes into your mouth, they cannot pay attention to the far more crucial questions of what’s happening in your mind and feelings when you think about food or long for it.

I want to say something provocative: that we will change our eating habits only when we think about food positively rather than punitively and when we think about our needs for food with love and appreciation.

When it comes to food and especially our attitudes towards it, thoughts matter far more than our stomachs. People who consistently eat too much are almost always using food to soothe emotional as well as physical hungers. Those hungers are real. They can feel as vast as a crater. But unless we can think about food and ourselves with far greater acceptance, trust and kindness, food will rarely fill us up.

It makes a real difference to think about what you can have, rather than what you can’t; what would be delicious rather than what is “forbidden”. Make your choices out of love not guilt.

Eat the very best food you can afford. If we feel guilty about food, we often stuff ourselves with fast food or other people’s leftovers. It’s as though we must acknowledge for the shortest possible time that we are indeed hungry. Deciding what food you most want already makes you more discerning. Eating the freshest, best quality food slowly enough to get pleasure from it, you will find that smaller portions take care of themselves.

Choose with love. Many people who struggle around food make their choices from guilt then douse them in shame. Choose what you want lovingly. Relish the pleasure that food can give rather than the comfort. Pleasure depends on taste not volume and tasting the food can become a positive part of your new eating rituals.

Know that some of your eating habits are simply habits. They can be changed.  If you think you “have to” eat vast quantities of bread, pasta, potatoes, fatty foods or sweets, try telling yourself that you will now choose your foods on a meal by meal basis, rather than feeling driven or compelled by unhelpful patterns.

Eat slowly.  When it comes to food, speed matters. You may be thinking about food almost constantly yet eat in a rush or a daze. (“What was that on my plate?”) Eat at half your usual pace. Chew slowly.  Put your cutlery down between bites. Even when you eat alone, set the table and re-discover ritual as well as pleasure.

Stop eating as soon as you are full.  While discovering what “full” feels like, visualise your stomach as the size of a fist. (Lots of fresh vegetables fit into a fist.)  Stopping may mean leaving food on your plate. Throw it in the bin. Don’t be the bin.

Eat lots of protein as well as vegetables.  Eating small amounts of protein frequently has made the biggest difference to my eating habits and weight. Sometimes I eat protein 4-5 times in a day, in small amounts. This reduces cravings and it cuts out the drive to over-eat because you’ve become too hungry.

Eat when you are hungry.  (But don’t shop when you are hungry.) Don’t eat because you are frustrated or bored. If you are not hungry, don’t eat. Check first to see if you are thirsty. Sometimes water is perfect. If you are “never hungry”, that’s a clear sign you are missing some vital signals from your body. Let delicious food wake up your senses.

Learn to distinguish between being hungry for food and emotionally hungry.  Ask yourself, “What am I needing right now?” When hungry for the “worst” foods it is often because you are anxious, bored or lonely. None of those feelings are comfortable but food doesn’t fix them. (If food could fix them that would have happened long ago!)  Noticing what’s going on gives you choice. Be aware, too, how often over-eating is an immediate reflex.  Let the moment pass and the craving with it.

Learn to soothe yourself.  The capacity to talk yourself “up” rather than “down” will improve every aspect of your life. It will also affect what and how you eat. Focus on your strengths. Discover new ways of living with greater vitality. Let your mind “settle” using a soothing phrase or with brief, easy focus on slow breathing.

Check your pleasure quotient.  Often people over-eat because there is too little pleasure in their lives. Think about situations where you feel stimulated, content and engaged. Do more of that.

Take many steps.  Slimmer people walk at least 6000 steps on average; overweight people walk on average only about 2000 steps less. Those 2000 additional steps count. Look for every opportunity to keep your body moving.

Love your life and body.  When you are not sure what this means, simply ask, “Is this kind? Is this uplifting? Is this nourishing my spirit as well as my body?” Let your instincts be your guide.

Please respect the author’s copyright. You are welcome to comment on Stephanie Dowrick’s Facebook page.