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2 Steps to Solving Your Diet Dilemma

Structure the way you eat and the excess pounds will begin to disappear, according to Gerard J. Musante, founder of The Structure House Center for Weight Control and Lifestyle Change, and author of The Structure House Weight Loss Plan.

Structured Eating is the eating you do each day to achieve two purposes: first, to nourish your body; and second, to maintain a desired level of weight. In practical terms, this means:

  • Three nutritious meals a day consumed in appropriate portions
  • No eating between meals
  • No eating after dinner

These guidelines also mean an appropriate level of calories of balanced nutrition per day (determined on the basis of your sex, height, weight, medical condition, and age). This is food you need in order to stay alive, stay healthy, and achieve a desired level of weight.

Structured Eating Is More than Just Good Nutrition
The field of nutrition has done a fine job over the years of defining what our bodies require, so proper nourishment isn’t hard to determine. How can we lose weight or attain a desired level of weight? That’s primarily a matter of calculating the calories we take in and the calories we expend. Simply put: if you take in more calories than you expend, you’ll gain weight; if you take in fewer calories than you expend, you’ll lose weight.

But Structured Eating is more than just good nutrition. It’s also a way of reaching two important insights:

Insight 1: If Structured Eating is the eating you do each day to nourish your body and attain a desired level of weight, all the other eating you do is unnecessary for achieving these two goals. This second kind of eating is Unstructured Eating. To put it another way: your body doesn’t need more fuel than it requires for nutrition alone. Eating more food than you need is like overfilling your car’s gas tank. Once you’ve filled the tank, it’s full, right? The same thing holds true for your body. Once you’ve filled up your nutritional “gas tank,” you don’t need more fuel.

Insight 2: Unstructured Eating will cause you to gain weight. Why? Simply because the nutrition it provides will exceed what your body requires. If you continue to engage in too much Unstructured Eating, your caloric intake is certain to exceed your nutritional needs, and your body will store that extra nutrition as fat.

Structured Eating: A Strategy for Change
You have two basic choices for how to eat. Either you can be in control of food — or you can let food control you. Structured Eating is a way for you to be in control of food. By accepting that there are two fundamental kinds of eating, Structured Eating helps you reach insights about your relationship with food — not just what and when you eat but also why you eat. But these aren’t just abstract insights! They have tangible, practical, day-to-day benefits. As a result of the insights you’ll gain, you can:

  • Isolate unhealthy kinds of eating
  • Identify antecedents, or “eating triggers,” that cause unhealthy eating to occur
  • Learn where you need to make specific changes in your lifestyle, including changes that will help you establish a more balanced relationship with food

In short, Structured Eating is far more than just a diet. It’s also a method of raising your consciousness about your habitual ways of eating. It’s a way to change those habits and then establish new, better habits that work to your advantage. It’s a specific, flexible set of tools that will help you change your life.

Acquiring and using these tools involves two steps.

Step 1: Accept that You Have an Eating Problem, Not a Weight Problem
Time after time, people tell me that they have a “weight problem.” This perception gives rise to a huge misunderstanding that damages even the most earnest efforts toward weight loss and weight maintenance. If you make this same claim — “I have a weight problem” — I’d argue that, no, you don’t have a weight problem at all; rather, you have an eating problem. Now say it to yourself: “I have an eating problem.” See how different that feels? Eating is what you’re doing that’s problematic. Weight is only a result of the eating. You can’t change the weight without changing the eating.

Most diets use only one measuring stick for progress: the scale. You go on the diet, you step on the scale, and you see if you’ve lost weight or gained weight. If you’ve lost weight, you’re thrilled. If you’ve gained weight, you feel let down. The number on the dial is all that seems to matter.

This cycle of measurement sets you up for trouble. First of all, the scale doesn’t tell the whole story. It focuses only on your weight, not on your behaviors that create the weight. Second, focusing on the scale simply substitutes one obsessive “high” for another. In the past, you got your “high” from food; now you’re getting your “high” from weight loss. But the weight loss high is risky because it sets you up for disappointment. When your weight loss slows, your “high” bursts like a bubble. Here’s the truth: the scale doesn’t really tell you enough about what you’re doing, and it’s not a good device for fostering change.

But if you don’t use the scale as a measuring stick, how can you judge if you’re doing well or poorly? My recommendation: judge yourself by your behavior. And to judge your behavior accurately you need a better, more effective “device” for recording your actions, understanding the consequences of your actions, and choosing different actions in the future.

Step 2: Understand the Structure House Diary
The Structure House Diary is that device. It’s a low-tech tool that is powerful not only by recording your eating behavior but also by helping to guide you toward change.

Now, I realize that as you read what I just told you, you may be thinking, “Great — another food diary! Just what I need!” Other weight loss plans certainly use food diaries. Perhaps you’ve used them yourself. Perhaps you’ve lost patience with food diaries!

Here’s the truth, though: the Structure House Diary is different. It shows you not only what you eat but also why you eat. True, the Structure House Diary reveals the full range of your eating behaviors — not just meals but also the kinds of eating you do on the side (or on the sly!). But what’s even more important, the Structure House Diary reveals the big picture for your eating: external and internal “events” (such as habit, boredom, and stress) that prompt Unstructured Eating in the first place. As a result, the Structure House Diary draws an important picture of your overall situation and your progress toward change much more accurately than simply noting what you’ve eaten. The detailed portrait it provides shows you the specific aspects of your lifestyle that will benefit from change.

The Structure House Diary is powerful and flexible in ways that go far beyond what other food diaries can accomplish. Here’s why:

The Diary Lets You Structure One Day at a Time
You can’t be aware of your eating behavior unless you track it. The Diary gives you a subtle but powerful tool to achieve that goal. But unlike the journals for other weight loss programs, the Structure House Diary lets you note not only what you’ve eaten but also what you plan to eat. That is, it structures future actions as well as recording present actions. You can see what a whole day’s food will be before the day begins; then you can also track what you actually ate as the day took shape.

Why is this dual focus on the future and the present important?

First, because planning your meals will help you stay Structured. You can make thoughtful, imaginative choices in advance. Planning your meals and noting your plans in the Diary is a great way to choose healthier foods in appropriate quantities.

Second, this dual focus is important because it reveals many aspects of your behavior: patterns of eating, habits you weren’t aware of, and connections between outside events at work, at home, and elsewhere that prompt Unstructured Eating.

The Diary Reveals Your Relationship with Food
By understanding not just what you eat when you are Structured but also why you eat when you are unstructured, the Diary reveals previously hidden aspects of your relationship with food. These are the behaviors that lead to weight gain. The insights you reach about your relationship with food will allow you to clarify what and how you need to change in your relationship with food. Since the Diary shows you the reasons for the “disconnect” between what you plan to eat and what you actually eat, you will gain a detailed portrait of which specific behaviors to change.

Suppose that you tend to eat a lot of chips or ice cream to “unwind” after work. You know that this behavior happens. But until you track your after-work snacks in the Diary, you probably won’t realize how often it happens — or how much you actually eat each time you snack. This insight will be a breakthrough in its own right. Using the Diary also starts to reveal how you often nibble “on the sly” following, for example, arguments with your spouse or kids — another instance of using food to ease the tension you feel. The Diary gradually shows you how much you eat in response to stress. You hadn’t noticed how often this happens — and you hadn’t spotted the cause-effect relationship.

The Diary Gives You Goals to Aim For
Better yet, seeing the patterns in your eating allows you to plan goals for changes in your behavior, including how and what you eat. To continue the example of after-work snacking: you might plan alternative forms of stress relief, such as going for a walk once you get home, listening to a favorite music CD, or putting on an exercise DVD and doing an aerobic workout to let off some steam. As you explore these options and note your activities, the Diary will also show you how close you’ve come to the goals you’ve set. Once you’ve reached your goals, the Diary gives you a sense of accomplishment for having completed what you set out to do.

The Diary Presents You with Options for Manageable Change
Rather than putting you in a position of striving for huge, ever-escalating goals, the Diary allows you to achieve steady, incremental progress that will add up more effectively in the long run. Using the Diary provides insights that will accumulate day after day You can plan your responses, too, and build on them over time.

Let me ask you a question: How much do you really eat? If you’re like most people, you don’t actually know. Do you keep track of your portions at mealtimes? Do you note when you snack — and how much? When you cook meals, do you ever sneak more than just a taste of what you’re cooking? And when you’re cleaning up after dinner, do you eat even more while you throw out the leftovers? Well, maybe you have a fail-safe memory of all the food you eat. Or perhaps you have “hard numbers” because you count calories. But that’s still not much information to work with, is it? And even if you have a pretty good idea of how much you eat, you probably don’t have a clear sense of the cause-effect circumstances that influence your eating. You probably aren’t entirely aware of the external events or the internal feelings that prompt you to eat in the ways you do. And because you’re not clear about many of these issues, it’s difficult for you to take hold of the situation and change the aspects of your behavior that are causing you some frustration.

But the Structure House Diary offers you a way out of this dilemma. How? By helping you answer these crucial questions:

  • What events prompt you to eat more than usual?
  • What emotions prompt you to eat more than usual?
  • What events disrupt your good intentions to regulate your eating?
  • What people around you may tempt you to eat more or less?
  • What other events, emotions, or people have influence on how, when, and why you eat?

Answering these questions over time tells you what you’re doing. It also helps you make the necessary changes to your behavior. And if you can change your behavior, many of your feelings and attitudes will also change. These changes, in turn, will further change your behavior. And more changes to your behavior will further change your feelings and attitudes.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gerard J. Musante, Ph.D., author of The Structure House Weight Loss Plan: Achieve Your Ideal Weight through a New Relationship with Food (Copyright © 2007 by Structure House, Inc. and Mel Parker Books LLC), is founder and director of the residential weight loss facility, Structure House Center for Weight Control and Lifestyle Change. Dr. Musante serves as a consulting professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center and the Duke University School of Medicine. He and his Structure House program have been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, People, USA Today, and on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper 360, and Good Morning America. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

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