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Weight Loss Through Well-Being

by Paul Smith(more info)

listed in weight loss, originally published in issue 39 - April 1999

The bare facts about dieting are well known – only around one in twenty attempts to lose weight will succeed. Yet this doesn't stop millions of people trying over and again to reach their desired shape and weight. Despite all the available nutritional research, dietary aids and exercise programmes, there seems to be a simple, unassailable truth – that it is easier to put weight on than it is to take it off.

The reasons for people being overweight seem straightforward. Food is in plentiful supply, and intake often exceeds need, especially when people lead sedentary lives. As many observers have stated, it is natural for some species to eat above their immediate needs, and amass high body-fat levels. But it is also natural to do this for a reason. With our complex psychology, we overeat for many other reasons beyond short and long-term need. The energy we don't immediately need is stored and functions as a hedge against lean times – but in a world of fridges and supermarkets, lean times seldom, if ever, come.

Diets Work Against Themselves

The problem for the intending dieter is that the overall conditions of being on a diet activate innate metabolic and behavioural responses to deprivation. In short, not only is eating the easiest way of coping with the stress of dieting, it is bio-logical. The body does not necessarily oblige or understand the overweight person's desire to lose weight – the failure of so many diets seems to indicate the reverse.

The key to resisting external pressure is inner balance, not physical effort.

The key to resisting external pressure is inner balance, not physical effort. Once you have this it takes far more to upset or overwhelm you, in every sense of the word.

The key to resisting external pressure is inner balance, not physical effort.

 Centering Exercise

The first stage in discovering your inner balance and centerdness involves an intriguing reflex, which is very easy to key into. It graphically illustrates the difference between unproductive effort and natural poise.

Sit in a chair or stand up. Aim to stay in exactly the same position as the pusher applies gently increasing pressure to your shoulder.

See how much (or little) pressure you can withstand.

Check if you smile as you begin to lose balance: it seems to be a reflex reaction.

Now place your opposite hand softly on your shoulder.

As the person begins to gently increase the pressure again, let your hand be pushed against your shoulder. It is important they only press on your hand – their hand should not touch any other part of your shoulder.

Use your shoulder to push through your hand and counteract any pressure you feel.

Note how much more pressure you can withstand.

Our systems are tremendously adaptable. Although we live in a world of freely available food, and are conditioned to expect regular meals each day, our genetic and instinctive make up gives us the ability to cope with all kinds of privation. In times of shortage, our system is geared to use its energy stores very economically. It also makes no sense, biologically, to go sustainedly and electively short on food – our primary drives are towards satiation, not hunger. When people embark on a diet, they rapidly run up against their underlying survival instincts. Though we tend to see diets as a struggle against our own foibles and weaknesses, in reality the forces ranged against us are much more powerful than that.

Natural Reasons to be Leaner

However, though there are fundamental forces ranged against individuals' attempts to diet, there are also deep-lying checks against excess storage. Outside of certain specialised ecological niches, most animals need to balance the need to store energy with the need to remain mobile. In other words, survival-based imperatives operate on both sides of the food line. We may not live natural lives anymore, but we still live in natural bodies, and though more people tend to fatness than leanness, all our underlying drives and instincts still prevail. So even in a food-abundant, sedentary world, it is still possible to harness natural checks and balances against excess weight.

For a person unhappy with their weight, dieting generates a clash of differing desires. Every mealtime emphasises the choice between the pleasure and needs met by eating and the desire to be more slim (and be more in control of how one eats). Beyond its recreational pleasures, food gives life, and eating generates a fundamental sense of contentment. The one thing that links what people look for in food and wanting to lose weight is well-being. Without it, diets mimic difficult times – and inadvertently generate strong counter-active forces that make it hard for even the most determined person to lose weight.

Avoiding the Hardship

The Relaxation Diet is a new, more benign approach to losing weight. By providing a source of comfort outside of eating and reducing the stress and negativity of dieting, it frees up the body's positive capacity to use its excess stores, and avoids the strong counterproductive forces that normally make dieting so hard.

Making any kind of change of established habit is a challenge: diets are often a major physical and mental effort. We have been conditioned to expect regular meals, and we come to rely on the well-being that comes from satiation. All the time food is available, putting up with any voluntary reduction in pleasure, the reduction in well-being will always threaten a person's good intentions. To help counter this, the Relaxation Diet shows people how to use a combination of well-being and perceptual balance to benignly counter the stresses and difficulties that inevitably arise.

The programme has three main aspects.

Factor One: Meeting Need with Well-Being

One of the key effects in the process is to learn how to use natural relaxation and perceptual-balance to re-enhance the body's ability to respond to its own needs. In between meals we undergo shifts in satiation and energy levels. These act as both a signal to the person to eat and also signal the body to contribute to use its short-term stores to help maintain energy balance.

The programme shows people how to perceive these fine changes in satiation in a state of natural ease. This softens the need to eat – and gently encourages the body to use its energy stores to meet its needs more freely. Meeting the body's energy drops in a state of natural well-being starts a chain of effortless weight-loss. The crucial shift seems to be that the body's reserves become more of a primary source of energy, rather than a passive store. How this specifically happens can only be suggested at this stage, as the possible energy pathways are complex (especially as they relate to well-being). However, certain things seem apparent.

A Natural Boost

Being contented and sated food-wise is known to increase individuals' levels of serotonin, the neurotransmitter associated with well-being and pleasant states of mind. Serotonin levels also have a bearing on energy uptake: when individuals feel 'low', it is not just all in their head, their actual energy levels are lower too. This points to how stress and general negativity might work against the dieter – by suppressing both the fundamental contentment and energetic sustainment they get from food. The dieter who suffers from a lack of well-being runs doubly prone to compensatory eating – they are trying to give themselves a 'boost', in both the energetic and well-being sense. In addition, their level of energy usage (and hence weight-loss) would remain frustratingly low.

It is vitally important to be able to find a sense of well-being apart from eating. A vital aspect in the process is retraining people's sensitivity to their energy shifts. Awareness of the beginnings of need, whilst in a state of well-being, seems to allow the body to 'fine-tune' the demand by increasing its energy uptake. Relaxed awareness of the early energy drop allows a positive influence on energy usage at the most effective time. The 'need' to eat is at its least pressing, but the body's own cushioning effect can be most appreciated.

Avoiding Hardship

People might not normally notice the transition at such an early stage. For example, they may be busy at work, or involved in some pressing matter or another. There is every chance they might be stressed to some extent, which would unwittingly inhibit energy uptake. If they fail to notice the early signs, by being too busy or waiting until they are more hungry, the energy gap they then have to make up is bigger and has more momentum. Waiting until one is really hungry is not a good strategy – the bio-logical drives that counter and hedge against hunger make it harder to exercise reason or restraint in our choice and intake of food. This is how people can be on a diet all day, except for the times they eat.

The Relaxation Diet assuages the need to maintain dietary discipline. With the body's self-provision system playing a fuller role in energy supply, individuals feel less need to eat, since the body maintains itself in a state of energy balance for longer. The needs that do arise emerge more slowly and feel less urgent – making people less prone to overeating, or eating 'junk-food' for a quick energy fix. Typically people lose around two pounds a week, slowing down as they near their natural lean weight, appropriate to their body-type and lifestyle.

This suggests an energy-usage/reduced intake comparable to a successfully maintained conventional diet. The crucial difference is that the 'diet' is passive, and comes directly out of an absence of duress. The body uses the weight, compared to the person having to use it. As a result, the Relaxation Diet makes it as easy to lose weight as normal approaches make it hard.

Factor Two: Enhancing Body-Perception

If a person has spent a long time dwelling on the sense of being fat, it can be hard to shift away from the negative aspects of being overweight, and start to act towards positive change. To avoid the counter-active forces of stress, people need to move beyond the feeling of feeling fat. No diet can ever change the way people look as quickly as they would like – again another potentially counterproductive stress. However, the Relaxation Diet uses 'centering' exercises to transform how the body feels, and widen awareness beyond the sensitivity to being fat.

The successful dieter needs all the good feeling and help with stress they can muster. In the modern, mechanised world, the fundamental reasons to be in shape seldom apply in day-to-day life. Few people have to catch or cultivate their food, or even work physically hard for a living. Though we may not live natural lives, innate biological drives still reside inside us. These dormant instincts can be reawakened to powerfully reshape the way we perceive ourselves. Survival, the most powerful instinct of all, demands that we are 'centered', with the body poised for action, and our senses alerted beyond ourselves. This forms a powerful basis for going beyond self-consciousness.

The Relaxation Diet uses gentle physical prompts that re-stimulate the system at this fundamental level. They key into survival-based reflexes that revive body-tone and relaxed alertness. Previously flabby, 'unloved' areas feel different – the dominant sensation comes from the muscle underneath. The processes change people's self-image, benignly diverting the disproportionate awareness people have of their outer layer, and making it feel part of a whole once again. They help people to literally rise above and go beyond the feeling of being fat, by highlighting the leanness of the body within, and making the person aware of things beyond. It is also possible that reviving alertness and postural tone may make small but significant added demands on the overall energy requirement.

Factor Three: Resisting Compulsion and Pressure

Once people learn how to be centered, they can begin to use the effect to stand up to subjective, as well as physical forms of pressure. People often turn to food as a short-term respite from facing up to stressful, unrewarding moods, feelings or situations. Sadly, regularly eating above one's need only adds to the number of things to worry about. Participants on the Relaxation Diet learn to expand the relaxation and centering processes into robust stress-management techniques. The key to coping with any kind of pressure is balance, not physical or even mental effort. Knowing how to resist external physical pressure gives individuals a practical basis to learn how to resist the pressures and pulls around food. The more people know how to cope directly with the stresses in their lives, the less they add to their problems by trying to find solace in food.

The Relaxation Diet Programme

The Relaxation Diet is taught in a number of formats, depending on individual's needs and their available time. The basic format is a series of two-hour classes taught over eight weeks. People generally find the key relaxation and centering skills easy to learn and apply – they originally derive from a stress-management programme designed for individuals under severe constraints of time and pressure. Numbers are kept low – the small group size fosters a supportive, informal atmosphere. Participants work together to learn the key skills – it speeds understanding to see the effects from more than one side.

The method is also taught on a one-to-one basis. This is often suitable for more self-conscious people, and individuals with more stubborn weight problems. Courses are geared for people up to two and a half stone overweight – the method can work for individuals of larger size, but there are obviously more competing factors, and success depends on how the balance of motivations compare. Weekend courses also serve as an introduction to the basic principles.


Conventional dieting unleashes powerful biological forces that counter the hardship and undermine even the best-intentioned attempts at dietary discipline. The body reacts to self-imposed shortages and duress in the same way as it is programmed to respond to real shortages and threats to well-being. The key to successful and effortless weight-loss lies in being able to find well-being and balance outside of food, and reducing the negativity often associated with dieting. This trouble-free clime encourages other complementary natural forces to work, ensuring a comfortable transition to a leaner, sustainable weight.

Case Studies

Case Study I

Jane Clements, Teacher, 46
Height: 5'7" Previous Weight: 142lbs
Weight Loss: 13lbs (first 10lbs over 7-8 weeks) Maintained: 12 weeks

Jane had gradually lost around half a stone since her separation two years previously. Prior to this she had tried various diets, but the weight had always come back on. Because of this, she didn't think she had much weight to lose, as she ate fairly sparingly (apart from a good evening meal) and exercised regularly. She was initially concerned she might end up looking gaunt and feeling tired.

"The technique is very relaxing in itself. I think on former diets the feelings of anxiety and deprivation told my body to hang on to the calories and fat for well-being. I really like the lean look, it's distinctly different from the thinner, but straight-up-and-down look of former diets. I'm now slimmer than I have been since my teens, and consistently staying there regardless of circumstances."

Case Study II

James Stephenson, Admin Manger, 31
Height: 5'9" Previous Weight: 173lbs
New Weight: 166lbs over six weeks
Maintained: 8 weeks

James had joined a gym six months previously. He had improved his strength and fitness levels, but his weight had not changed beyond a couple of pounds. During the program he also added approximately 5lbs muscle mass, making an effective fat-loss of around 12lbs.

"After the first session I went on holiday with my friends, and was amazed I only put on two pounds in two weeks. After that it was easy to look at what I was eating, and do something about it. I cut out snacks and I didn't miss them. People have noticed a difference in how I look. I always wanted that V-shape look. I can see I've basically got a stocky build, but I am a lot firmer than before. There are a few pounds more I'd like to lose, but I have to admit I like to let go at the weekends with the lads."

Case Study III

Catherine Byars, Artist, 51
Height: 5'5" Previous Weight: 146lbs
Maintained: 3 months

Catherine had put on a lot of weight (for her) during the last couple of years. She had previously been quite slim, so the changes hit hard. Her lifestyle involves a lot of entertaining and dining-out, which was making it especially difficult to get back in shape.

"I was up to a size 16 and was very unhappy with my weight, and under a lot of stress. I used to think about dieting all the time. I have learned to be more relaxed about food and stay in balance. I have also learned to stay connected under stress. I have lost over a stone. Now I wear the clothes I want, and I am my old self again."


The instructions help you feel what's going on more widely. You start by feeling the need to eat and become more aware of what else is going on. I normally associate relaxation with drifting off, but this way you are really relaxed and more alert at the same time. It's like your body feels what's going on, as well as your mind. Over about twenty seconds the need to eat just goes. The first time I did it on my own I knew something was different. You realise you don't have to eat to stop feeling hungry. You feel better because you're not hungry, and you really feel good about yourself because you're on top of the problem.

– Alice Mears, Nursery Nurse

Considering how much I thought about being overweight, it was funny how little real awareness I had of the problem areas. You begin by not wanting to know how squidgy the fat feels, the exercises make you feel what's on the inside of that. You imagine someone pushing at your hips for example, and being ready to push back. You feel your body, you don't just see the fat. Even that feels firmer afterwards. I have no idea how it works, but you definitely feel different. I've even lost weight off my bottom and thighs, where I thought I would never change.

– Sian Donaldson, Teach


Further Reading

Eat Fat, Richard Klein. Picador, 1997.
The Fats of Life, Caroline A. Pond. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1998.
Obesity, Rosenbaum, Leibel and Hirsch. The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 337, Number 6.
Obesity Treatment, John Wilding. BMJ 1997: 315: 997 – 1000.
Insulin and Serotonin Actions and Interactions and the Control of Feeding and Metabolism, Oresco and Nicolaides. In Drug Receptor for Subtypes and Ingestive Behaviour, ed. Cooper and Clifton, Academic Press, 1996.


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About Paul Smith

Paul Smith has a background as an Alexander Technique practitioner and Stress- Management trainer, and is in practice at the Harbour Club Medical Clinic, London, and at Flint House Centre, Lewes. He is also qualified as a Craniosacral therapist. Noticing that a significant number of his clients were effortlessly losing weight, his research into the effect has given rise to the Relaxation Diet. For further information, please send a large SAE to: The Relaxation Diet, PO Box 3112, Brighton BN1 3SD.

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