Feature

Growing up, Liz Berney, PhD, battled bulimia for years--and won. After watching her teenage daughter struggle with and eventually overcome eating challenges of her own, Berney, an organizational consultant in Rockville, Md., decided to take the fight against disordered eating even further.

After pursuing more education to develop her competency in the area, in 2006 Berney developed Choosing You!, a program that helps people conquer weight and body-image issues by teaching them to give up mindless eating and nourish themselves in other ways, she says.

"When people start doing the things they love doing--whether it's a passion or a hobby or just taking walks--food takes a second seat," she says.

Stopping the yo-yo

Of the nearly two-thirds of Americans who are overweight, many spend years dieting and obsessing over off-limits foods, losing weight only to gain it back again, Berney says. Most diets promote deprivation, and they often don't address emotional eating habits, she says.

"A diet says, 'Don't eat those bad foods,' and then that's all you can think about," Berney says.

She uses her group dynamics training and other I/O skills to educate her Choosing You! participants on how to resolve conflicts and manage stress in their own lives to help them overcome emotional eating. Through a series of one-day educational workshops, group support teleconferences, one-on-one coaching sessions and weekend retreats, Berney helps her clients--mostly women age 20 to 60--shift their thinking to focus on eating what they like and stopping when they're full, two tenets of conscious eating. She also helps them get back in touch with their bodies by using a hunger scale. A score of one means "famished;" 10 means "stuffed."

No food is off-limits, Berney says, but she teaches participants eating awareness techniques to help them determine whether they want to eat because their bodies are truly hungry, or if their desire has been set off by some emotional event, such as an altercation with a spouse or boss. When participants feel hungry, Berney tells them to journal for five minutes about how they are feeling. After that, if they still want to eat, they can eat, but they have to enjoy the food.

"They have to eat it slowly, taste it, savor it and be present with it," Berney says.

In addition to helping participants become more mindful eaters, Berney--a former professional dancer--also incorporates movement and yoga into her sessions, to help people get in touch with their bodies. She also uses deep breathing, visualization and meditation to help people pinpoint triggering events that lead them to binge.

Most important, Berney says, she helps people identify their passions--things they enjoy doing, such as knitting or painting, or have always wanted to do, such as changing careers--and helps them get there.

Taken together, these techniques help her clients become more present--and more health-conscious--in all parts of their lives, she says.

"Ironically, the very moments when people want to eat when they are not hungry are the very portals to what people want, need or desire in their lives," Berney says. "By moving away from food in those moments and toward oneself, via journaling or meditation, people can begin to identify what is missing in their lives."

Filling body and soul

While many of the techniques Berney recommends to her participants may be behavioral in nature, she is quick to point out that her program is not a form of therapy. She does accept participants with more serious eating disorders into the program, but she requires that they also concurrently see a clinical psychologist for further help.

"We don't go into the pain like a therapist would," Berney notes. "We hear each other, reflect on it, and then we move forward."

Berney says she uses her psychology background and her skills in organizational development and group dynamics to help people understand their eating behavior.

"By teaching them to be an observer to what's happening in the moment, it helps them step aside," Berney says.

For example, one client who participated in one of Berney's first workshops, as well as a weekend retreat and teleconference series, says the program has provided her with permanent tools to deal with her compulsive eating.

"I am able to put words to what I am actually feeling, and I can ask myself, 'What is it that I really need, and how can I give myself even a little bit of that right now instead of eating,'" the client says.

Since this client started incorporating some of Berney's techniques, she has lost more than 35 pounds and started her own business selling nutritional fruit juice, Berney says.

"Many people are losing weight [through the program], but more importantly," she says, "they're feeling better about themselves."