December 17, 2008

‘Project Health’ offers new approach to weight loss

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- In a tug of war with food, you can win by letting go of the rope.

This paradox lies at the heart of a new weight-loss program developed at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Researchers there say focusing on living a life that’s personally meaningful works better than an emphasis on shedding pounds when it comes to helping people lose weight.

“We wanted to change (the participants’) psychological wellbeing, with the hope that that change would spill over to other aspects of their lives, including their eating and exercise habits,” says Professor Mark R. Dixon, who heads the behavior analysis program in the College of Education and Human Services’ Rehabilitation Institute. The institute is one of SIUC’s signature programs.

“I believe we have succeeded in doing this very thing. After eight weeks, all of our subjects felt better about their body image -- and 80 percent of them lost weight.”

Says Michael J. Bordieri, one of two graduate students conducting the program, “Since our goal wasn’t immediate weight loss, that was just icing on the cake -- though that might not be the most appropriate metaphor. But we’re also seeing reductions in depression and anxiety -- these are larger changes related to overall health.”

To get these results, Dixon, Bordieri and graduate student Nicholas K.L. Mui are using a short-term treatment style called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, or ACT. Earlier forms of behavior therapy stressed changing behaviors without regard to thoughts and feelings or trying to change the thoughts and feelings with the idea that behavior change would follow. This style says essentially, “See the feeling. Accept the feeling. Change anyway.”

“People believe they are their thoughts, but a thought isn’t something that has to control your life,” Mui says.

“Our approach is that you don’t have to fix your thoughts -- they’re part of being human. It’s normal to be unhappy sometimes.”

Each of the eight one-hour sessions begins with a client sitting quietly, observing his or her own thoughts. Partly, they do this to help quiet what Mui calls the constant “psychological noise” involved in thinking, partly it helps train them in becoming aware of what their thoughts and feelings are really saying to them.

“There’s an underlying cause for why they’re eating,” Dixon says.

“It’s often to escape another problem. We try to make people aware of that cycle so they can break out of it.”

Adds Bordieri, “For many we work with, food is a moment of comfort. We try to provide space to come in contact with their discomfort. Then we can provide help in going in another direction.”

How? Well, for one thing, they have their clients eat.

“Too many diet programs make war on food -- it’s something that’s to be avoided,” Bordieri says.

“We take the opposite approach -- we actually eat in the sessions. We teach them to sit there and enjoy the food for its own sake rather than using it as an escape. And every single client, once they became aware that they ate to escape from thoughts, feelings, problems -- they stopped.”

But Bordieri stresses that awareness and acceptance -- and the weight loss that can accompany them -- are only half the deal.

“It’s just the start of a process for living a life that’s healthful and meaningful,” he says. “It goes beyond an eight-week plan.”

In pointing the way to a more fulfilling life, Dixon says the therapists try to help their clients identify the larger “costs” of those extra pounds.

“One of the first things we ask is. ‘Are you living in a way you want to live? What could you do if you weren’t overweight?’” he says.

As clients become aware of their core values and what they truly want, they can focus on achieving goals related to their hearts’ desires. In doing so, they can draw on the energy they once expended on battling, rather than accepting, unhappy thoughts and feelings.

“Our goal is that when a person who has been through our program sees a piece of cake or a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign, the craving won’t be there any more because they understand it won’t give them the comfort that they once expected,” Dixon says.

“They won’t be the same person, and at that point, they won’t have to fight the food thing any more.”

The free program, now out of its experimental phase and dubbed “Project Health,” will enroll between 35 and 50 applicants for the spring semester. For information, e-mail Dixon at or call him at 618/536-7704.