Fill in the blank: Successful dieting is about __________. Many of us would probably write willpower, discipline or saying no…but the best choice might be sensuality.

I heard about this appealing and effortless approach to weight control from Jena la Flamme, founder of Pleasurable Weight Loss in New York City, who specializes in the psychology of eating. It’s all about being attuned to your body’s sensations and internal signals, she explained—because when that happens, you don’t need to count calories or analyze what you eat in order to achieve and maintain a healthy weight.

Recent research supports the notion. For instance, a New Zealand study of 2,500 middle-aged women found that the more aware and responsive women were to their own bodies’ signals of hunger and fullness, the lower their body mass index (BMI) was likely to be.

“People think that pleasure is the problem when it comes to weight loss. They figure, ‘I’m having too much pleasure with food, therefore I’m gaining weight.’ But actually, it’s the other way around, because your body is wired to need pleasure,” la Flamme said. So when you don’t get enough pleasure—from the foods you choose and from things other than food—you’re likely to overeat in compensation. That’s when weight becomes a problem.

What this means: The more pleasure you can find in your food and in other areas of life, the easier it will be for your body to feel satisfied. You’ll find that you take in fewer calories automatically, without needing to impose restrictions on yourself. Thus your pleasure increases even as your weight decreases.

When la Flamme discovered this for herself nine years ago, it was the end of her long-term battle with compulsive eating, excessive weight gain, constant fatigue, recurrent constipation and bloating. Since then, she has helped thousands of other women fill their lives with pleasure while dropping unwanted pounds.

Intrigued? Try these five easy steps…

  1. Consider what you really want to eat. La Flamme explained that, when you choose the food that will give you the most pleasure, you need less of it as a result. For example, a few spoonfuls of top-quality ice cream that is thoroughly enjoyed, without guilt, will be more satisfying and less fattening than a giant bowlful of fat-free, taste-free, fake “frozen dessert” eaten in a guilty rush. “Treat yourself to the foods you truly enjoy and stay present to the pleasure each bite gives you. A week, a month or even a year later, you’ll look back and remember how much you enjoyed them—and you’ll have lost weight,” la Flamme said.
  2. Before your first bite, take five slow, deep breaths to “charge” your metabolism. The idea is to consciously shift yourself into a more relaxed state. “Stress activates a response in the body whereby digestion is impaired, metabolism becomes sluggish and fat is stored rather than burned,” la Flamme explained. You can counteract that by triggering the relaxation response. “Think of your metabolism as a fire. Use your breath like a bellows, blowing air on your metabolism to stoke your digestive fire. This brightens your calorie-burning efficiency,” she added.
  3. Actively engage all your senses in the experience of eating. This is the opposite of the mindless low-pleasure, high-volume eating that many people automatically slip into. Make a point of noticing the appealing appearance of your food…breathe in its unique aroma…revel in its texture on your lips and tongue…and ponder with appreciation the taste of each bite. “When you’re truly seeing, smelling, feeling and tasting your food, you activate the hormone cholecystokinin, which I call the ‘satisfaction molecule.’ It enhances your digestion and lets you know when you’re full,” said la Flamme. Tuning into that feeling of fullness and satisfaction, you gain an intuitive sense of the portions that suit your needs. Soon you will find that you simply stop eating when you’re no longer hungry, without ever feeling deprived. Weight loss will follow!
  4. Destress with tea. If you do feel tempted to eat even when you know you’re no longer hungry, stress is probably to blame. A nice soak in a hot tub is a good way to calm down, but of course you can’t do that when you’re out and about. Convenient: Create a pleasure-filled ritual around a cup of regular or herbal tea. As you focus on the soothing warmth of the mug in your hands and the tea’s complex fragrance and flavor, your cares and cravings will slip away.
  5. Also seek out sensual rewards that don’t revolve around eating. “We are inherently sensual creatures, and if we don’t make space for sensuality in other areas of our lives, then food fills the gap,” said la Flamme. So rather than relying on food as your sole sensory pleasure, find additional ways to satisfy your senses. Listen closely to a stirring piece of music…admire each detail of a beautifully decorated room…sniff appreciatively when you’re near a fragrant bouquet of flowers…delight in the softness of the fabric caressing your skin. When you consciously take note of such things, food loses its power to control you and becomes just one more source of enjoyment amidst the myriad pleasures that surround you.