To Count or Not To Count

Inspired (or horrified) by the amount I just spent on my new belly ring, I've been concentrating these past few weeks on coming to terms, yet again, with my eating. For all those out there who might still be struggling, I cannot recommend highly enough Vikki Hansen and Shawn Goodman's The Seven Secrets of Slim People (New York: Harper Collins, 1997). The secrets are very simple:

1. "Listen to your body, not your mind."
2. "Eat with awareness and without judgment."
3. "Eat only when you are physically hungry."
4. "Stop eating when you are satisfied, not full."
5. "Eat what you want most."
6. "Notice how your body feels after eating."
7. "Honor your feelings, don't bury them under food."

That's it. Nothing to count (except, of course, the seven secrets), nothing to measure, nothing to weigh--above all, not yourself; nor, they recommend, should you even look at the size labels in your clothes. The point is to allow your body to find its natural and appropriate weight rather than trying to fit it into our cultural "one-size-fits-none" standard of beauty. Somewhat paradoxically, given their emphasis on listening to your body rather than your mind, Hansen and Goodman do recommend a 0-10 Hunger Scale, where 0 is "absolutely starved" and 10 is "in pain," with appropriate eating in the 2 ("seriously hungry--you must eat now") and 5 ("satisfied, comfortable--not hungry") range, but otherwise the book is remarkably free of rules any more specific than "don't read while you eat" (a pretty big one for me) and (most importantly) "don't count calories."

A quick crawl round the web just now suggests that not everyone is satisfied with things being so simple. "It can't be that easy." "No one solution can work for everyone." "The book is too cheap." "They don't really tell you what to do." Which, of course, is one of Hansen and Goodman's first points: dieters are addicted to rules; they want to be told what to do, how much and when to eat, how much they should weigh. They are also, one notes, addicted to counting. I'm doing fairly well this time around with the program. I turn my eyes away from the nutrition labels as I make my lunch in the morning, mindful of the research that shows people tend to eat more later in the day when they've been told their lunch was low-calorie. I put on the jeans that are looser without worrying about what size they are, rather than trying to fit into the smaller ones just because I would like to be able to say that I've dropped a size or two. I pay attention to how my body feels rather than trying to estimate how many calories I've eaten in the day. And yet, I still got on the scale this morning (I've lost six pounds in the past month) and got out the measuring tape "just to check" (an inch off my waist, about the same off my hips). And, of course, every so often, I succumb, reach for the calculator, and start adding.

I know this is wrong. I know that my goal is to become--as Hansen and Goodman promise--a normal eater, someone who doesn't think in terms of calories and pounds all the time, but only in terms of pleasure and comfort. I trust them absolutely that this is the right way to eat. It's the way my son eats and always has: whatever he wants, whenever he wants, but only, and this I know to be true because I asked him once, when he's hungry. He never feels obliged to "clean his plate" (how I regret that lesson from my childhood) or to eat something that he doesn't like (ditto), but neither is he ever embarrassed to eat what he wants (oh, that I could have enjoyed food this way when I was his age!). He doesn't worry about mealtimes, never eats breakfast (except when he's hungry), but never deprives of himself of something he actually wants. He is a picky eater, but not in the way that most people mean when they accuse children of being so. He will eat things I never eat--squid is one of his favorites--but refuses absolutely to eat things that make him feel bad or that don't taste fantastic. And he ENJOYS food. It is a pleasure (now that I am paying attention, rather than just obsessing over my calories) to watch him eat. He savors every bite--and then stops when he is full, just like that. Yes, of course, he is almost thirteen and boys famously get to eat whatever they want. But then maybe that is the problem: I didn't, not, at least, without it being an enormous cause for concern.

I'm not going to start pointing fingers here; this is my problem now, not (okay, yes, I will point one finger) my grandmother's, may she rest in peace. Curiously, however, as much as she obsessed about her weight--and she did--as far as I know my grandmother never counted calories. She tormented us about how much we ate and hid all the candies in the house whenever we came to visit (although, now that I think about it, maybe she was hiding them from herself), but her only test of whether she had gained weight was to look and see whether she could still see her hip bones (yes, she was that thin). I once replied that I liked to be able to see my collarbones, to which she answered: "Oh, I can always see those." And yet, she was the one who insisted that we clean our plates; she ran a daycare center (the first in her town, now a major institution for the community) and there was a "Clean Plate Club" for which the children got stars. Being as obsessed as I was then as now with achieving high marks, you can bet I always got a star even if I hated the food (which, sad to say, I usually did, despite the fact that my grandmother had made it).

And the battles that she and I had over my weight! She liked to buy me clothes, but shopping trips with her were excrutiating. Nothing ever fit; everything--and I mean everything--made me look fat, plus I had to feel guilty about not liking the clothes that were for sale in her town. Was it that I was always simply trying on the wrong size, being as I was already so much bigger (i.e. taller, as well as heavier) than she was from the time I was 10? What was I to do? If I ate what I wanted, I was wrong; if I cleaned my plate, I got fat. Do you wonder that I've been counting calories more or less since I could count? I even kept a chart of my weight when I was seven and, yes, in my mind, already fat.

It's a very hard habit to break, counting. I've depended on it for the better part of my life to reassure myself that it was safe to eat. Never mind whether I was hungry or the food tasted good; could I afford the calories? I now appreciate (thanks to Hansen and Goodman, along with a whole raft of other books that I have read in the past few years) that this kind of thinking is, quite literally, insane. I am enraged at how much time I have spent hating food rather than taking pleasure in it; at how I have never been able to look forward to celebrations for fear that the food might tempt me to eat more than I "should." "You are entitled to eat whatever you want in front of anyone regardless of your body size": oh, that my 10-year-old self could have known this! I might not have spent the next ten years eating in secret, ashamed of my body and of myself for not being able to "control" my eating, nor the next twenty still convinced that I did not know how to eat. And yet, even now, I still reach for the calculator to reassure myself that my not-diet diet is working. Perhaps the one I should really be enraged against is Galileo.

Here's a test: Would you have believed me that Hansen and Goodman are right if I hadn't included the information above about how much weight and how many inches I've lost?

I'm hungry. I guess that means it's time to eat.


  1. You have a right to be livid about all the guilt and judgment that surrounds food and eating in this culture, and I am so happy for you that you've discovered this NOW - you know how to get out of that way of thinking.

    Re: test: I believe Hansen/Goodman already. My question is: how do you feel? The body is a machine, does the food help it go?

  2. Hansen and Goodman are adamant that the only reason to eat is for pleasure. Their argument: food tastes best when we're hungry; when it stops tasting good, it's time to stop eating. Paradoxically, they argue, the more we know about nutrition, the worse we seem to eat because (again, their argument) we cease to pay attention to our body's signals as we should. I'm happy to report that they seem to be right: I am enjoying eating now more than I ever have, but I am also more attentive to when I am actually full, which means I don't leave the table feeling uncomfortable anymore. Another bonus: I seem to be sleeping better. All to the good!


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