When Steven Hawks is tempted by ice cream bars, M&Ms and toffee-covered almonds at the grocery store, he doesn’t pass them by. He fills up his shopping cart.
It’s the no-diet diet, an approach the Brigham Young University health science professor used to lose 50 pounds and to keep it off for more than five years.
Hawks calls his plan “intuitive eating” and thinks the rest of the country would be better off if people stopped counting calories, started paying attention to hunger pangs and ate whatever they wanted.
As part of intuitive eating, Hawks surrounds himself with unhealthy foods he especially craves. He says having an overabundance of what’s taboo helps him lose his desire to gorge.
There is a catch to this no-diet diet, however: Intuitive eaters only eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.
That means not eating a box of chocolates when you’re feeling blue or digging into a big plate of nachos just because everyone else at the table is.
Not as many cravings
The trade-off is the opportunity to eat whatever your heart desires when you are actually hungry.
“One of the advantages of intuitive eating is you’re always eating things that are most appealing to you, not out of emotional reasons, not because it’s there and tastes good,” he said. "Whenever you feel the physical urge to eat something, accept it and eat it. The cravings tend to subside. I don’t have anywhere near the cravings I would as a ’restrained eater.' "
Hawks should know. In 1989, the Utah native had a job at North Carolina State University in Raleigh and wanted to return to his home state. But at 210 pounds, he didn’t think a fat person could get a job teaching students how to be healthy, so his calorie-counting began.
He lost weight and got the job at Utah State University. But the pounds soon came back.
For several years his weight fluctuated, until he eventually gave up on being a restrained eater and the weight stayed on.
“You definitely lose weight on a diet, but resisting biological pressures is ultimately doomed,” Hawks said.
Several years later and still overweight at a new job at BYU, Hawks decided it was time for a lifestyle change.
He stopped feeling guilty about eating salt-and-vinegar potato chips. He also stopped eating when he wasn’t hungry.
Slowly and steadily his weight began to drop. Exercise helped.
His friends and co-workers soon took notice of the slimmer Hawks.
“It astonished me, actually,” said his friend, Steven Peck. “We were both very heavy. It was hard not to be struck.”
Built-in forgiveness factor
After watching Hawks lose and keep the weight off for a year and a half, Peck tried intuitive eating in January.
“I was pretty skeptical of the idea you could eat anything you wanted until you didn’t feel like it. It struck me as odd,” said Peck, who is an assistant professor at BYU.
But 11 months later, Peck sometimes eats mint chocolate chip ice cream for dinner, is 35 pounds lighter and a believer in intuitive eating.
“There are times when I overeat. I did at Thanksgiving,” Peck said. “That’s one thing about Steve’s ideas, they’re sort of forgiving. On other diets if you slip up, you feel you’ve blown it and it takes a couple weeks get back into it. ... This sort of has this built-in forgiveness factor.”
The one thing all diets have in common is that they restrict food, said Michael Goran, an obesity expert at the University of Southern California. Ultimately, that’s why they usually fail, he said.
“At some point you want what you can’t have,” Goran said. Still, he said intuitive eating makes sense as a concept “if you know what you’re doing.”
Intuitive eating alone won’t give anyone six-pack abs, Hawks said, but it will lead to a healthier lifestyle. He still eats junk food and keeps a jar of honey in his office, but only indulges occasionally.
“My diet is actually quite healthy. ... I’m as likely to eat broccoli as eat a steak,” he said. “It’s a misconception that all of a sudden a diet is going to become all junk food and high fat,” he said.
Long-term weight control
In a small study published in the American Journal of Health Education, Hawks and a team of researchers examined a group of BYU students and found those who were intuitive eaters typically weighed less and had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than other students.
He said the study indicates intuitive eating is a viable approach to long-term weight management and he plans to do a larger study across different cultures. Ultimately, he’d like intuitive eating to catch on as a way for people to normalize their relationship with food and fight eating disorders.
“Most of what the government is telling us is, we need to count calories, restrict fat grams, etc. I feel like that’s a harmful message,” he said. “I think encouraging dietary restraint creates more problems. I hope intuitive eating will be adopted at a national level.”