The diet that takes the fo­cus off food

It’s the age-old prob­lem: You go on a diet then the ki­los come back, plus some. We take a look at a new weight-loss ap­proach that doesn’t put the fo­cus on food

NEXT (New Zealand) - - Contents - BY TRUDIE MCCONNOCHI­E

YYou’ve done pa­leo, Atkins and raw food. You’ve quit sugar, farted up a storm on cab­bage soup and chomped on carrots un­til your palms turned an eerie shade of or­ange. You’ve fasted, at­tended soulde­stroy­ing weigh-ins and knocked back ex­pen­sive juices like your life de­pended on it. Some­times you got good re­sults, other times just tiny suc­cesses, but be­fore long the weight piled back on – and then some. It’s a sce­nario that plays out in homes across the coun­try time af­ter time – and lit­tle wonder, given that nearly 65% of dieters re­turn to their pre-dieting weight within three years, ac­cord­ing to the Weight and Eat­ing Dis­or­ders pro­gramme at the Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in the US. Which begs the ques­tion: even if you



find a diet you can stick with, if you gain back the weight later, can it re­ally be con­sid­ered a suc­cess?

Nu­tri­tion coach Eu­ge­nia Nik­i­forow does not think so, and af­ter notic­ing how many of her clients were tor­tured by what they were in­creas­ingly view­ing as an un­winnable bat­tle with weight, she de­cided the only way to help them achieve a healthy body mass was to take the fo­cus off food.

“The rea­son di­ets don’t work is be­cause they fo­cus on re­stric­tion – but as hu­man be­ings we naturally seek pleasure and avoid pain,” says the Hamil­ton-based coach. “When you go on a diet you get pain and you avoid pleasure – the op­po­site of what we’re naturally seek­ing. That’s why di­ets are un­sus­tain­able.”

Although she does give food guid­ance to en­sure her clients get ad­e­quate nu­tri­ents for good health, on the whole Nik­i­forow is less in­ter­ested in what you eat than she is why you eat it. Given most of us view food as a re­ward – as chil­dren, we’re given bis­cuits or lol­lies when we’ve been ‘good’, or to cheer us up when we’ve hurt our­selves – and a means to ex­press love, it’s not sur­pris­ing the pantry is the first place we turn when life just isn’t pan­ning out as we’d hoped.

“I had a client who al­ways ate choco­late in the evening,” Nik­i­forow says. “I said to him, ‘What is it you’d like to have more of in your life?’ He said, ‘Hon­estly, I’d just like to have a hug from my wife’. A lot of peo­ple are look­ing for love [in food]. He later said to me, ‘I’ve learned if I don’t have that love in my re­la­tion­ship I’ll look for it in choco­late be­cause it doesn’t re­sent me or re­ject me.’”


If all this sounds vaguely fa­mil­iar, it’s prob­a­bly be­cause ex­perts have been telling us for decades that only 5% of di­ets will suc­ceed. Although that fig­ure is now con­sid­ered ten­u­ous – it was based on a 1959 US study of just 100 peo­ple – you’d be hard­pressed to find a rep­utable nu­tri­tion­ist who would ad­vo­cate crash dieting. So how come we keep ea­gerly jump­ing on the band­wagon when a new diet trend emerges, even though we know log­i­cally it’s un­likely to work? Like so many of our life choices, it all comes down to emo­tions.

“When we are try­ing to lose weight, most of the time we’re look­ing for some­thing more from our lives,” Nik­i­forow ex­plains. “For women, when I ask them, ‘Why do you want to lose weight?’ they say, ‘Be­cause I’ll be at­trac­tive then’ or ‘I will be happy then’


or ‘I can spend more time out­doors with my fam­ily’. It’s the be­lief that, ‘Once I lose weight and get to a cer­tain num­ber, I will be able to find a part­ner or my hus­band will find me at­trac­tive’. It’s look­ing for hap­pi­ness, love and con­nec­tion.”

Nik­i­forow’s ap­proach is to teach peo­ple to build hap­pier lives where they are now, rather than de­lay­ing it un­til the scales re­flect some magic num­ber. Not sur­pris­ingly, many women strug­gle with the no­tion of be­ing con­tent with some­thing they des­per­ately want to change, but Nik­i­forow be­lieves the way we feel about our­selves now di­rectly af­fects our abil­ity to lose weight (or not).

“You don’t need to love ev­ery­thing about your­self right now,” she ex­plains. “In­stead it’s about meet­ing where you’re at with ac­cep­tance and look­ing at how you got here. Maybe it’s be­cause you didn’t look af­ter your­self. Maybe be­cause you pri­ori­tised other peo­ple. Maybe you’re ac­tu­ally re­ally bored and lonely so you use

food to en­ter­tain your­self. And from there we can turn that around.”

With the body ac­cep­tance move­ment gain­ing pop­u­lar­ity on so­cial me­dia, there is a strong up­ris­ing of voices urg­ing us to just be happy the way we are, re­gard­less of our waist­line mea­sure­ment. While that sen­ti­ment has its mer­its, it doesn’t res­onate for ev­ery­one.

“What I hear from women is, ‘I know I shouldn’t be look­ing at the num­ber or talk­ing about weight loss but se­cretly that’s all I want’,” Nik­i­forow states. “I’m never go­ing to say you shouldn’t lose weight. But it must be for the right rea­sons – such as for your health – and in a way that is sus­tain­able, be­cause if you don’t en­joy it you’re not go­ing to sus­tain it.”


Af­ter you’ve iden­ti­fied your emo­tional trig­gers that lead you to pull into the Macca’s drive-thru, how do you change your re­sponses to them? Nik­i­forow teaches her clients to in­cor­po­rate more pleasure into their lives, so they’re less likely to seek it in junk food when the chips are down (so to speak).

“One of the things women say is, ‘When I lose weight I want to wear beau­ti­ful clothes,’” she says. “Do it now – go and buy a beau­ti­ful dress. Or add more colour to what you’re wear­ing. When you’re wear­ing beau­ti­ful clothes, your pos­ture and the way you carry your­self changes, and you feel more con­fi­dent and hap­pier within your­self.”

She con­tin­ues, “If you want to lose weight to be more ac­tive, find a way of mov­ing your body now, in a fun and gen­tle way, rather than wait un­til you lose weight. When you move you feel so much bet­ter, and you’re not as likely to go and eat junk food as you would if you’d sat on the couch for five hours.”

The idea of mak­ing time for fun may be dif­fi­cult for many women, who could have spent years putting oth­ers – chil­dren, part­ners, par­ents and friends – first, and have for­got­ten how to look af­ter them­selves… or even why they should.

“I see a lot of women fo­cused on pleas­ing oth­ers, and they come last,” Nik­i­forow says. “When food is your only


pleasure in life it will be hard to fo­cus on be­ing healthy. For them, food is all they have at the end of a long day – that’s how they have a break. So in­stead, look at adding other plea­sures to your life.

“It’s about tak­ing time for your­self, even if it’s just 15 min­utes on your own to breathe, have a cup of tea, look through a mag­a­zine or read a book. Even if it’s just a hot shower – be re­ally present dur­ing that shower and en­joy it, know­ing that you’re do­ing it for your­self.”

Sure, en­joy­ing a hot shower isn’t go­ing to make you lose weight, but Nik­i­forow paints small ges­tures of self-love as be­ing part of a larger at­ti­tude shift that may help hack our ten­dency to reach for food as an emo­tional crutch.

And since know­ing what not to eat for years hasn’t done any­thing to re­duce obe­sity rates, surely tak­ing a dif­fer­ent ap­proach has to be worth a try. Any­thing’s bet­ter than enduring cab­bage farts, that’s for sure.

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