Most of us have been on a diet at some point and dieting is very big business. There’s keto, paleo, Atkins, low-carb, no-carb, and it seems that every few months a new “eating plan” comes along that promises to change your life.
Licensed dietician Maria Abi Hanna does not believe in dieting. The founder of Nutrition Untold, based in Dubai, tells The Livehealthy Podcast why she is an advocate of the ‘no diet life’ and why we all need to recognize the 7 Types of Hunger.
What is the ‘no diet life?’
It’s about rejecting the diet mentality. In the 10 years I’ve been a dietician I have seen so many people struggle with their weight, with on-off dieting, and I‘ve seen how detrimental the effects can be physically, on the metabolism and most importantly, on their mental wellbeing.
Dieting imposes so many rules that you lose touch with your hunger and fullness cues. However, while I don’t believe in dieting, that doesn’t mean I believe in eating anything and everything you want.
So how do you work with a patient/client?
First we go through what I call the life and weight line. I ask people to take me through the journey of their life, from when they were a year old up to now, and we plot on a graph the ups and downs of their weight and link them to their life events.
You soon realize that the ups – the times you gained weight – are related to big life events, such as a death in the family or moving to another country or a job change. The weight gain was linked to emotions. When you see how someone’s weight fluctuates, you start to understand their behavior with food.
Then we talk about why you eat, how you eat. And a lot links back to childhood. Some people eat very quickly because their parents did or because they were fed only at set times so they had to eat as much as possible to stay full until the next meal.
When I ask people where in their body they feel hunger, often they have no idea. I ask if they know when they’re full and they say they’ve never thought about it. That’s when they realize they don’t have to eat everything that’s on the table.
Next we focus on setting behavioral goals. Weight loss is secondary. It will happen naturally anyway but it can never be the main goal, because if you focus only on weight, the lifestyle goals will go by the wayside. Doing it this way might take a bit longer, but my goal is to fix your relationship with food, so giving people permission to eat and food freedom is very important.
How do people react?
They like the fact that I say I don’t care about their weight, that they don’t have to get on the scales every week. The pressure is off. It is so tiring to think about food all the time, counting macros and managing portions, that they are ready to try something else.
So the approach is individual?
For sure. So much of how we eat is on autopilot. We’re told to eat five meals a day to speed up the metabolism, even though research shows that snacking is not right for everyone. Some do better eating just twice a day with one snack.
We’re told we should eat breakfast but some people just don’t want to. They get hungrier toward evening so the worst thing you can tell those people is to eat a light dinner.
There has also been lots of research on personalized nutrition according to your genetic make-up. Whether you prefer sweet over sour has to with your DNA.
The most important thing is to know your body and what works for you. I am not there to tell you what to do. I’m there to give people the confidence to trust their own bodies.
Years ago, nutritional counselling was very rigid, but it has evolved. Something like 95 percent of diets fail specifically because they put you in deprivation mode, so you end up bingeing and feeling guilty. If dieting as we know it worked, we wouldn’t be where we are today.
How do you stop them going overboard?
It’s a process. We start with mindful eating. We should take 20 to 30 minutes over a meal but most of us eat much more quickly. So we focus on eating slowly. Use a timer. Put your fork down between mouthfuls.
We have to normalize food and stop judging ourselves as good if we eat a salad and bad if we have a burger and fries. When those thoughts arise, scream a loud “no”’ in your head. In fact, I have clients who actually scream “No” out loud!
The point is, we have to stop giving food moral value. It’s food — it doesn’t make us better or worse people.
How is the pandemic impacting diets?
For a lot of people, their eating habits changed massively. In general, disordered eating is a way of coping with emotions. A lot of people in Dubai live alone so they’re lonely and feel like no one is there for them.
What are the 7 Types of Hunger?
There is only type of hunger that is real and genuine and that’s what you feel in the upper stomach – not the middle or lower stomach, but the upper end. The others are:
• Eye hunger, when you eat something because it looks good, even though you are not hungry
• Nose hunger, when you’re not even thinking about eating but you pass a bakery and smell fresh bread and suddenly you’re in there
• Mouth hunger, when you’re watching TV or working and you just want something in your mouth to crunch on. It’s a way of relieving stress
• Cellular hunger, when your cells are missing certain nutrients. For example, when we’re low on iron, we crave red meat. It’s also when we mistake hunger for thirst. We think we want to eat but in fact, you need to drink.
• Mind hunger, when you’re eating just because it’s 1pm, regardless of whether you’re hungry or even want to eat.
• Heart hunger, which is emotional eating when you’re sad or angry or feeling lonely.
Seventy percent of the time you should be eating because of that upper stomach hunger. The other 30 percent can be for any of the other reasons. When my clients write down what type of hunger they feel, they start to understand the pattern of their eating, which means they will think a bit more before grabbing a piece of cake.
Maria Abi Hanna is the founder of Nutrition Untold and was a guest on the Livehealthy podcast on January 27, 2021
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.