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Common sense approach to eating

Professor says intuitive diet helped him shed 50 pounds

By Katrina Woznicki
MedPage Today Staff Writer

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Steven Hawks shops for shrimp, his favorite food.

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PROVO, Utah (MedPage Today) -- Steven Hawks, a professor of health science at Brigham Young University here, says phooey to dieting.

Eat what you want, when you want, says Hawks. Just use common sense.

For most of us it sounds like a formula for obesity. Not so for Hawks. He was on the borderline of obesity when he gave up dieting. Now, living with his new credo, Hawks is 50 pounds lighter.

His secret, he claims, is "intuitive eating."

Clearly out of the mainstream in the conservative world of nutrition, Hawks proselytizes what he calls a common-sense, hunger-based approach to eating. Nothing in intuitive eating, he says, is taboo.

While intuitive eating doesn't involve measuring cups or calculators, it does entail a high degree of self-awareness. The individual must be constantly in sync with the body's satiety signals.

This doesn't mean that when the stomach starts grumbling, Hawks reaches for a candy bar.

"I'm not advocating nutritional ignorance," he said. "If a fruit or vegetable will solve that hunger instead of something from Cinnabon, then I'm going to be intelligent about it and choose the fruit or vegetable."

Nothing in Hawks' background, except 20 years of teaching and research, would seem to qualify him as a scientific guru in nutrition. His has an education doctorate in community health, an MBA in international business, a master's in international studies, and a bachelor's in East Asian studies, all from BYU.

But he teaches, among other courses, body image, self-esteem, and weight control.

And the 46-year-old Hawks practices what he preaches. He keeps a three-foot-tall refrigerator in his office stocked with everything from fruit to ice cream.

Intuitive eating isn't a license to eat badly, he says. Instead, it's a holistic approach that involves being highly attuned to hunger signals, sensible eating, and not denying the body treats like ice cream.

Now a lean 165 pounds at 5-foot-9, Hawks' intuitive eating style is getting increasing attention, most recently a prominent mention in a feature on the failure of dieting in U.S. News and World Report.

Chubby childhood

Hawks says he used to feel like a hypocrite, teaching nutrition while struggling with his own weight, a battle that had followed him since childhood.

"Third grade kids called me 'fatty,' " he said. This pivotal point was followed by years of dieting, short-lived weight loss, regained weight, and a constant undercurrent of failure, Hawks said.

Even though Hawks had jogged regularly since high school, the weight problems never went away. Junk food was banned from the house much to his six kids' dismay. He tried multiple diets, but nothing worked.

"Before I started intuitive eating, I would skip breakfast and then I would have a light lunch, like a tuna sandwich or an apple and a handful of carrot sticks."

By the time he left work at dinner time, Hawks was ravenous. He would lose control "and binge on whatever I could find, so that it was a constant struggle of restrict, restrain, feel hunger."

Epiphany in Thailand

Hawks' moment on the mountaintop came during a seven-week, work-related trip to Chiang Mei, Thailand, in the summer of 2001. He was working with his students at leper colonies and in poverty programs. During his almost two months in Thailand, he observed how the Thai people didn't obsess about their bodies or what they ate. They just simply enjoyed their food.

"Being in Thailand opened my eyes to seeing how people relate differently to food," Hawks said. The locals didn't have the kinds of anxieties about food that Americans experienced, he said.

He had an epiphany when he patronized a McDonald's in Thailand. "The portion size was about a third to what you get in the United States," he said. "My first reaction was 'What a rip off,' but then I started to see, 'Well, that was enough to be satisfied.' "

That got Hawks thinking. Perhaps the key wasn't so much about what he ate and when, but how he felt about what he was eating, he said.

By the time Hawks flew halfway around the world to return home, he was a changed man. He decided to change his relationship with food for good. His wife, who also wanted to lose weight, joined him in his quest. Within one year they each lost between 40 and 50 pounds following "intuitive eating." Five years later, they're still the same weight.

Intuitive eating not for wimps

Eating intuitively sounds misleadingly easy, but it's probably far more challenging than most fad diets. It involves round-the-clock conscientiousness about what you eat and why.

Hawks said there are three main types of unhealthy consumption intuitive eaters need to be hyper-aware of: environmental eating, such as snacking on chips in front of the TV; emotional eating, like nose-diving into Ben & Jerry's after an argument; and social eating, dipping the fingers into the plate of cookies a co-worker brought to the office. All three are unconscious ways of eating that quickly pack on pounds.

However, restriction just leads to lowered self-esteem and sets people up for binging, Hawks said, so he doesn't deny himself any food, including shrimp, his favorite, whether it's fried shrimp or a shrimp taco.

In his quest to lose weight, Hawks not only dramatically changed his eating habits, he also ate more food. While this may sound counter-intuitive to weight loss, Hawks said variety is critical to maintaining any sort of lifestyle change.

No eating solution would work without exercise, Hawks said. He jogs an average of 25 to 30 miles per week. Exercise enhances intuitive eating, he explained, because it strengthens the connection between mind and body.

Science supports intuition

Hawks published a small study a few months ago in the American Journal of Health Education on intuitive eating's potential. Carried out with more than two dozen female BYU students, it showed that intuitive eating reduced body mass index, lowered triglyceride levels, increased high-density lipoprotein levels, and also improved the students 'overall risk for cardiovascular disease.

Fad diets may, says Hawks, offer short-term weight loss, "but at one level or another they are not in harmony with what your body is telling you, which means you have to work against biological urgings and ultimately you're going to fail. It's not sustainable because it's not natural."

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