Heidi Rabbach was 11 years old when she nearly collapsed from hunger while delivering newspapers.
It was the first low point in her life on a diet.
Rabbach wanted to be thin, come what may. Not that she was fat.
“But I was talked into thinking I was because I didn’t have the deer-like legs many other girls had.
“I didn’t meet the slimness ideal, and it made me miserable,” she recalls.
The now 40-year-old stress management coach based in Germany tried all sorts of ways to slim down, including a low-carb diet, rice days and weight-loss pills.
They all left her with a craving for cake, but she didn’t give in to it.
Her strenuous efforts were successful. Even into adulthood, her clothing size was small.
But she wasn’t happy. “I was constantly on a diet, and I came to realise that I couldn’t keep it up nor wanted to,” she says.
Countless people the world over are like Rabbach was, adrift and paddling madly in a sea of diet and nutrition guides that promise a fast track to a dream figure.
Does being slim really require suffering, iron discipline and forever watching what you eat?
“No,” says Dr Mareike Awe, a Dusseldorf-based physician and author of a book whose German title translates as “Feel-Good Weight”.
She’s a proponent of “intuitive eating”, an unconventional approach to nutrition and diet that dispenses with the usual rules.
“Intuitive eating means listening to your body, which tells us exactly what we need and what we don’t,” says Dr Awe, who takes a dim view of dietary rules, arguing they’re liable to lead to a vicious circle of self-denial and binge-eating.
“Eat when you’re hungry, and eat what you want”, be it carbohydrates or fat sometimes.
There’s a caveat though: “Consciously enjoy your food and stop eating when you’re pleasantly full,” she advises.
Rabbach happened to stumble upon the concept of intuitive eating and decided to give it a try.
“It wasn’t easy to trust my gut at first,” she says. “I started eating everything that I’d denied myself for years, so I naturally put on weight.”
But it didn’t take long before she’d had her fill of sweets.
“When I began to eat consciously, I noticed that my craving for certain foods subsided. Some of them I don’t even like any more.”
Eating consciously and listening to your body are principles also advocated by health scientist Nils Altner, a research fellow in the Department of Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Duisburg-Essen University in Germany.
“It’d be nice if we learned to heed our inner compass again,” he says.
But how do you keep yourself from polishing off a plate filled with goodies when you’re actually already full?
“By taking your time when you eat, and by regarding eating as an important activity,” says Dr Awe.
As a training exercise, she suggests really celebrating a meal: “It’s important that you concentrate solely on the meal, avoid distractions, and put down your knife and fork every once in a while.”
This way, she says, you’ll be able to hear when your body says, “Hey, I’m full now.”
Sometimes, circumstances make it hard to follow the golden rule of eating when you’re hungry, and not eating when you’re not.
What if hunger pangs hit before a meal set for a certain time, for instance?
“With a little practice, you can manage this,” reassures Dr Awe.
If a family dinner is planned, say, for 6pm, but you’re already hungry at 5pm, she advises eating a few nuts or some other small snack to tide you over.
Then you can calmly look forward to the meal.
Learning to look forward to meals took Rabbach a long time.
She had to discard her old restrictions and rethink her idea of beauty.
“I liberated myself from the goal of having a supposedly perfect figure,” she writes in her blog on intuitive eating.
“With this freedom of mind and less constrained eating behaviour, I gradually shed excess kilos naturally and got closer to my feel-good weight.” – By Sandra Arens/dpa
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