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Two women were standing near a party buffet. One woman eyed the garlic-mashed potatoes and said, “Oh God, they look so good! But I promised myself I'd stay on a low-carb diet for at least three weeks, and this is only day two.” The other woman said, “I told myself I would lose weight this year, and I haven't lost a pound. Diets never work for me, though. The second anyone tells me what to eat or when, I feel like rebelling and devouring an entire cake.”
Most women, like the two described above, who are concerned about their weight fall into one of two eating types:
About half of women, the Restrictors, do well on diets—at least for a while. You find rules, tips, and lists comforting. When calories were counted, Restrictors knew how many were in a small apple, a baked potato, and a Krispy Kreme donut. When the standard measurement system became the glycemic index, Restrictors learned how many grams of fat, protein, and carbohydrates were in a serving of string beans, a hamburger the size of your palm, and a pat of butter.
Restrictors like regulations because they provide you sense of control over the uncertainty and unpredictability of being alive.
Permitters, on the other hand, abhor rules. You find them oppressive and suffocating. Although you know you could stand to lose a pound or 50, you're suspicious of programs and food lists. Permitters are the type of emotional eaters who say, “Gee, I can't understand how I gained 10 pounds in the past two months. I thought I was doing so well.” Whereas Restrictors maintain hyper vigilance about food, Permitters prefer denial. Your (usually unconscious) logic: “If I'm not aware of it, it can't hurt me. If I give up trying, I won't be disappointed when I fail.”
Like Restrictors, Permitters crave safety, but unlike Restrictors, you see no point in trying to control the uncontrollable; you prefer to join the party and have a good time.
The Struggles of a Restrictor
If you’ve binged and dieted over the years, Restrictor might be your middle name. You love the latest diet fads, adore the feeling of being good, trying hard, and doing what you are told—they filled you with hope that everything would turn out well. You were certain that since the size of your body seemed to be the cause of your suffering, you could control what was wrong in your life by controlling your weight.
It doesn’t work, of course. Eventually, the deprivation of dieting becomes intolerable and you begin bingeing on whatever you hadn't allowed yourself to eat. Then you’d feel out of control and tell yourself that your pain was because of your weight and diet again. Ahh, the life of a Restrictor.
The Struggles of a Permitter
You have only been on a diet once in your life; it was “like living in hell.” When you go out to eat, you don’t think for a second about the amount of fat or carbs in your order. Although you’re 30 pounds overweight, your motto is “carpe diem, darling.” You say you want to lose weight and your thighs are rubbing together, but then it's time for another meal. It’s another chance to seize the day—and the cupcake. Still, you suffer (in secret) as much as any Restrictor over the size of your body, and don’t know what to do, since you believe it's hopeless to follow a program or a diet.
Trust Your Body
Back at the party, the Restrictor said, “I am a Restrictor! What do I about it!” She caught herself and had a good laugh. She'd said what any Restrictor would say: “Great! Now give me the rules to follow so that I can fix it!” The Permitter's response was less enthusiastic. She grudgingly said, “Don't tell me what to do because I'll only rebel!” Her reaction was utterly typical of give-me-a rule-and-I'll-break-it Permitters.
The short-and-sweet message for both? “Listen to your body. Trust what it tells you. You won't go wrong.”
Tips for a Restrictor
If you're a Restrictor, you know when you're hungry and when you're full. However, you have so many rules and food facts in your head that it's hard for you to figure out what your body actually wants. The very idea of sweet potatoes with butter can trigger panic. You live in your head and eat in your head, so, as with Permitters, it is helpful for you to pay attention to what your body wants. For a Restrictor, part of breaking free from compulsive eating is trusting that your body wants to feel well, to be nourished, and to thrive. If you listen to it, it won't betray you.
Tips for a Permitter
If you're a Permitter, you already know that starting a program with rules is usually the first step in breaking those rules and going off that program. Here's a different approach: Forget the rules—begin with awareness. Just awareness. Since Permitters use food to numb themselves and thus block out body signals, begin by paying attention a few times a day to concrete physical sensations like hunger and fullness. Allow yourself to notice the plate of food in front of you and your body's response to it. It's important that you don't give yourself a hard time. If you find yourself standing in front of the fridge without knowing how you got there, be gentle with yourself. Remember that if you give yourself rigid rules to follow, you'll rebel. Eat according to your physical hunger, and stop when you've had enough.
Begin slowly. You can decide, for instance, that once a day, you'll eat only when you're hungry. When you've gotten the hang of that add stopping when you've had enough. The goal is to begin respecting your body by listening to its signals.
You may feel relief being able to recognize yourself as either a Restrictor or Permitter. You are able to become more aware of your needs and how to meet them, which helps you to begin the process of breaking free from your compulsive eating. There are plenty of other people out there like you.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.