Author's note: This is the second post in a three-part essay. The first post addressed weight stigma in healthcare. This post is about weight and the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs. The third post (next week) is about the conflict between mindful eating and weight loss.
Am I Hungry? is a weight-neutral program. There. The stake is in the ground.
But it wasn't always that way. In part 1, I had harsh words for healthcare professionals who stigmatize, threaten, shame, and/or fail to adequately care for their overweight and obese patients. I also expressed empathy for those whose misguided attempts to help their patients are a result of the current weight-focused model of health. I get it. I was one of them.
Perhaps the story about how my thinking has evolved will help others who are on the same path.
The Evolution from Non-Diet to Weight-Neutral
Out of my own personal struggle with food and body image, I desperately sought a "solution" for myself and my patients. Like many of my colleagues, I often referred my patients to Weight Watchers. After all, it was my personal diet of choice. Never mind that our results, if any, were almost always temporary. I had been "back on the program" 17 times! I just didn't know any better.
(If I had had to go back to medical school 17 times, somebody would have said, "Maybe this isn't right for you, Michelle." But nobody said that. They just took my money and congratulated me for trying again.)
When I finally healed my relationship with food by not dieting, I became an evangelist! I wanted everyone to experience the freedom and joy I felt. So in 1999, I worked with a psychologist, dietitian, and exercise physiologist to create a comprehensive non-diet program. Of course I promoted it as a "non-diet weight management program." That was all I knew. In fact, it was even called, "Changing Weighs" back then.
When we got ready to publish our first book based on our workshops in 2004, I changed our company name to "Am I Hungry?" to reflect the true purpose and benefit of the program: to increase awareness and choice about why, when, what, how, and how much we eat, and where we invest our energy. I developed a model called the Mindful Eating Cycle upon which all of our programs and books are based. The Mindful Eating Cycle gives people an internalized, non-restrictive method to manage their eating and learn to listen to, and trust, their body again.
But the title of that first book was, Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don't Work - as if Am I Hungry? and diets had the same goal. I understand now why they don't, but I just didn't know any better at the time.
The obvious need for a structured non-diet approach was so great, that in 2006, I retired from clinical practice. I started a train-the-trainer program to provide other health and wellness professionals with the skills and tools to facilitate mindful eating workshops in their communities, offices, and corporations. We didn't promote weight loss and we discouraged facilitators from weighing their workshop participants weekly. But we still called it "weight management."
As more and more people were using the Mindful Eating Cycle, it was becoming increasingly clear that this approach offered much more than a method of managing one's weight. I began to realize that a shift toward one's natural weight was a possible side effect of the process, rather than the reason to do it. Further, the benefits of the process were not dependent on the participant's starting or ending weight. We added the tagline, "Eat Mindfully, Live Vibrantly."
I knew that most participants "got it" once they started the program. But how would they find the program in the first place if it wasn't presented in familiar terms? After all, who had ever heard of mindful eating? Who was Googling "How to stop dieting"? I didn't want people to discover this approach as a last resort when they were desperate. By that point, how many years would they have suffered needlessly, caught in an eat-repent-repeat cycle?
Our approach is unconventional, and even counter-intuitive, so I was also afraid that other health professionals wouldn't listen to the message if they didn't understand what "it" was. They seemed to understand "weight management" so I continued to use those words, but only where necessary to catch the attention of those who needed what we offered: A way out of endless dieting and obsession with food and weight.I rationalized that, yes, people did learn to manage their weight without dieting. It felt like a necessary "bait and switch" to speak in a language they initially recognized, then teach them the language of their body. Afterward we often heard comments like, "Now I know that it was never about the food or my weight" and "This has changed my life."
Over time, the conflict between our culture's weight-based paradigm and the true nature and power of mindful eating has come into sharp focus. (More on the conflict between mindful eating and the goal of weight loss in the next post). It also became increasingly clear that if we continued to use that outdated paradigm because it was familiar to our audience and therefore easier, we would be limited by that paradigm.
Since wanting to lose weight in the first place is one of the causes of a disordered relationship with food, we have no business being in that business. Duh.
So, although Am I Hungry? has been walking this walk for a long time, and mostly talking the talk, it is time for us to declare which side of the fence we're on. Am I Hungry? is now officially a weight-neutral program.
Planting the stake
The process has already begun:
- We began the transition from describing what we do as "weight management" to what we really do, teach mindful eating, a year or two ago. We are now "Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Programs and Training."
- Once we decided to make our weight-neutral stance official, it was announced to our Am I Hungry? Facilitators during our quarterly update this summer. I am happy to report that the response from our facilitators was, not surprisingly, very positive.
- There is a brand new edition of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. I'd been moving in this direction for a long time so only a handful of changes were required but I felt that the changes were important and meaningful enough to make.
- There is also a new edition of the Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Companion Workbook and Awareness Journal.
- We will launch an exciting new website soon! In the process, we will comb through hundreds of pages of old articles and update, or delete, them as needed.
- Please be patient with us during this transition. This will be a long process, but we are committed to it.
- Please also recognize that there will continue to be old content on the Internet, in print, and in video format that doesn't fully reflect our current program. (For example, I took Am I Hungry? What to Do When Diets Don't Work out of print in 2010 but Amazon refuses to take it off their site!)
- As many people who work in this area know, you can't always control the spin that the media puts on your interviews and message, no matter how many times you repeat it! A completely weight neutral message is sometimes published with a headline like "How to Lose Weight with Mindful Eating." Frustrating! However, working with the media helps them become our allies, so all we can do is try.
- If a company wants to use Am I Hungry? as its "weight management program," I have no problem with that since we have always been clear about our approach. Enter any door that is convenient; it will still be the same house.
- Likewise, there may still be Am I Hungry? facilitators who have to promote their Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Workshops in terms of weight management because of their setting, payment structures, corporate initiatives, research funding, institutional bias, etc. However, change is rarely made from the outside, so as the world continues to shift, they will continue to advocate for weight-neutral language that focuses on the real benefits of learning to eat mindfully!
- An evangelist goes where people need to hear the message so I will continue to write for diet and weight loss websites and publications, as I have been, in non-restrictive and weight-neutral language.
Am I Hungry? continues to evolve. I foresee a day, hopefully not too far off in the future, when people will see "weight-neutral" and think, "Duh!" instead of "That's cool. But how much weight do people lose?"
Next post: I'll address the question, "Do people lose weight?" in the next post about the conflict between mindful eating and weight loss.