If you’re going to a party or event this weekend and think, “There’ll be so much good food there I won’t be able to resist remind yourself, “If I was a vegetarian and all the food had meat in it, I definitely WOULD resist, no question. I may not want to resist, but I know I can.”
When Jamie came in my office this week, she reported feeling disappointed. Jamie thought she had kicked her emotional eating habits because, through lots of practice, she became adept at not eating when she was feeling sad or stressed. This was something that Jamie had struggled with a lot at first because initially she thought she would not be able to handle feeling sad or stressed without turning to food. Through our work together, Jamie learned that negative emotions are not going to kill her and she can do other things to comfort herself which will not have the end result of jeopardizing her diet and ultimately making her feel worse. Jamie always gave herself a lot of credit for being able to handle these negative emotions without turning to food by using a multitude of other distracting techniques, like calling her sister or a friend, going for a walk, taking a shower, painting her nails, or listening to relaxing music.
Yesterday evening, however, Jamie was out with a friend for dinner and midway through she got a phone call from her mother who made her angry and they ended up getting into a fight. Jamie hung up the phone, still feeling mad. Even though she’d almost finished the amount of food she had carefully portioned off from her plate that she would eat at dinner (and was planning to bring the rest home for lunch the next day), Jamie told me that she then proceeded to eat almost everything that was left on her plate, seemingly without noticing what she was doing. It wasn’t until Jamie looked down at her near-empty plate that she realized she had just engaged in emotional eating, but this time it was in response to anger, not sadness or stress and felt discouraged. I asked Jamie what she did after she realized this and Jamie reported that she left the restaurant, took a walk with her friend, and then called her mother to work the situation out. I then asked Jamie if she had proceeded to order dessert at the restaurant or had gone home and eaten whatever was in her house. In an almost puzzled fashion, Jamie answered, “of course not.” I recognized what was going on here –Jamie was only focusing on the one mistake she had made that night and was not seeing all the multitude of great things she had done immediately after.
I asked Jamie what she might have done a few years ago when she felt angry or worked up like that and she reported that she probably would have gone on to eat a lot more food to soothe herself. I also asked Jamie what she would have done in a situation in which she made an eating mistake and Jamie acknowledged that she probably would have gone on to eat a lot more the rest of the night, thinking she had blown it. Jamie and I discussed how very differently she handled this situation and all of the important things that she deserved credit for. Jamie was able to see that she deserved credit for:
- Once she realized she had eaten more than she planned, she did not catastrophize and continue to eat out of hand the rest of the night
- After dinner she took a walk to calm herself down instead of turning to more food
- She got problem-solving oriented and called her mom to work out the problem
- She was able to identify what was going on – that she was eating because she was angry – and respond to sabotaging thoughts that were urging her to keep eating
- She was ready to learn from the situation and would be more aware of all forms of emotional eating in the future
I pointed out to Jamie what I point out to all of my dieters: that ALL dieters and maintainers make mistakes, they are just able to recover from them right away. Jamie and I discussed the fact that, without even realizing it, this is exactly what Jamie did because as soon as she realized she had eaten more than she planned, she put the brakes on eating right away. We also talked about the fact that instead of feeling good about this situation and how she had proved to herself that she can recover right away, Jamie was actually making herself feel worse by only focusing on the one thing she did wrong, instead of the 20 positive things she did right after. Jamie and I decided that as part of her homework this week, she would start focusing more on giving herself credit for all the positive things she did, both big and small.
Dieting is generally easy in the beginning because motivation is high but some point (whether it's in three weeks or three months) it gets harder. This is completely NORMAL and it happens to everyone, and as long as dieters keep at it, dieting will get easier again.
Sabotaging Thought: The internet has been down in our office all day so it's okay to eat this because I'm stressed.
Response: It's NOT okay to eat this just because I'm stressed. It wouldn't help solve the problem and would only wind up making me feel worse for going off my plan. Instead I need to get problem-solving oriented and call our cable company again right away.
Dieters can't have the expectation that will eat like everyone else around them because then they will feel deprived. Dieters need to redefine their definition of "normal" eating because they ARE eating in a completely normal way – for someone who is trying to lose weight and keep it off.
Dieting, like any other skill, gets easier the more you practice it. If you think, "this is so hard, there is no way I can keep it up forever," remind yourself that it WON'T be this hard forever so that's not an accurate concern. Even though it's hard now, in 2 months it will be easier and in 2 years it will be MUCH easier.
We received a lot of great questions after the latest issue of our newsletter went out which is wonderful because it helps us know what you would like to hear about on the blog and in future editions of our newsletter. Today I’m responding to a question that many dieters submitted to us in one form or another.
Q: Right now I eat in a pretty controlled and healthy way for meals but in between meals I’m struggling a lot to get my eating under control. I eat way too much for snacks, especially in the late afternoons, and it is very hard for me to control it. How can I overcome this?
A: Sometimes we find that if our dieters are eating too much for snacks, it means that they did not eat enough during meals and/or they didn’t eat enough lean protein and healthy fats to keep them feeling full. The first thing we suggest is that you look at the content of your meals – are you eating a healthy enough balance of foods? Yes, vegetables are VERY healthy but if that is all you’re eating for a meal, then no wonder you will want to eat a short time after.
Another thing that could be going on is that you’re not actually hungry, you’re experiencing the desire to eat. This could be for any number of reasons – you’re craving something, you’re stressed, you’re emotional, you’re tired, etc., and there are two very effective tools that you can use to combat this desire to eat. First, try eating according to a schedule. You don’t necessarily (right now, anyway) have to decide in advance what you’re going to eat, but decide in advance when you’re going to eat, including snacks between meals. This way if you’re having a strong craving to eat at 3:00, you can remind yourself that you have a snack coming at 4:00 and you only have to hold out 60 more minutes.
Second, spend some time identifying your sabotaging thoughts and coming up with strong responses to them. If you’re thinking, “Just this one little snack won’t make a difference,” remind yourself that it absolutely DOES make a difference and that every single unplanned snack counts because it helps reinforce old, unhelpful habits. Try writing these responses on 3×5 cards (we call them Response Cards) and read them every morning with your Advantages List so that they are fresh in your mind when you need to call upon them. When our dieters have identified a problem time, like in the afternoon or after dinner, we always have them prepare themselves in advance for that time by reading their Advantages List and Response Cards right before so it is most clear in their mind just why it’s worth it to them to resist.
And most importantly – don’t give up! Dieting is hard work and it takes practice, but the more you do it the easier it gets. Each and every time you stand firm and don’t eat unplanned food in the afternoon, you increase your chances of resisting the next time, and the time after that, and the time after that.
Since getting back on track, one of the hardest things for Jamie has been to try to eat things without too many distractions. She has a very busy professional life and (especially during lunch time) she does not want to take a break from what she is doing to eat and will often try to work and eat simultaneously. In session Jamie told me that the day before she was reading a research article while she was eating her prepared soup and sandwich. Since the article was somewhat hard to understand and took a lot of concentration, most of Jamie’s focus was going towards that.
After about three minutes Jamie tuned back into what she was eating and realized that she had eaten just over half her lunch and had barely noticed or tasted it at all. Jamie immediately became annoyed and chastised herself, saying “You should know better than this. I can’t believe you just ate half your lunch without paying any attention to it.” However, Jamie told me that as soon as she noticed what she was saying to herself, she thought about to things we had discussed in other sessions and reminded herself that beating herself up for mistakes will serve no positive function at all. She knew that the only thing it would do would be to make her feel worse and erode her confidence, which might then make it harder to get back and stay on track the rest of the day because it would cause her to doubt whether or not she was capable of it.
Jamie told me that she realized that what she had to do was take a moment to re-group and get over the fact that half her lunch was now gone, learn from the experience, and do things differently next time. Jamie then turned off her computer monitor and made sure that she ate the rest of her lunch slowly, while noticing and enjoying every bite. Jamie was once again reminded how crucial it is to enjoy ever y bite because she ended up feeling satisfied at the end of her lunch, but knew that she would not be feeling this way if she had continued to mindlessly eat while reading the article.
In session I gave Jamie a LOT of credit for being able to make a mistake and then recover from it right away. We discussed the fact that even successful dieters and maintainers make mistakes (because no one is perfect), but the difference is that they are able to recover from them immediately. Jamie and I also discussed how much confidence this situation gave her because she proved to herself that she could make a mistake, identify and respond to her sabotaging thinking, and get right back on track. I pointed out to Jamie that this situation is also interesting because it started out as something that could have made her feel bad and guilty – eating half her lunch without noticing or enjoying it – and because she was able to recover right away it actually ended up making her feel really good about herself.
Jamie and I also did some problem-solving and she decided that until she was able to split her focus better, for the time being she would work on not doing anything distracting while eating lunch and would instead focus on enjoying her eating. I helped Jamie formulate responses to some sabotaging thinking we predicted she might have about taking time away from work to eat so that she would be able to strongly remind herself just why it was worth it to turn off her computer monitor and take time to ensure that her lunch gave her both physical and psychological satisfaction.
Q: How do I get myself back on track after I slipped up on my diet and not just give up? This is something I have really struggled with over the years and has stopped me from keeping off any weight that I lose.
A: You’ve hit the nail on the head because being able to recover from mistakes right away is one of the most important skills needed for permanent weight loss. Our most successful dieters are not those who never make mistakes (because, let’s be real, we’re all human and we all make mistakes), but those who can get themselves back on track right after. How do we teach our dieters to do this?
One of the first things we do is help dieters identify and respond to their sabotaging thinking about making mistakes. Usually after they slip up they are having thoughts in one of two categories. Either they’re thinking something along the lines of “Oh I’ve really screwed up this time, I guess it means I can’t do this,” and having a lot of defeatist thinking, or they’re tell themselves “Since I made a mistake today I might as well just continue eating and get started back on my diet tomorrow,” and are having a lot of ‘fooling themselves’ thinking.
For those in the first category, we remind our dieters that one mistake does not mean that they’re a total failure but it would be a failure if they used that as an excuse to give up completely. We help dieters to see that if they were learning a different skill, like how to play the piano, they would not think that hitting one wrong key meant they should give it up completely because they wouldn’t have the expectation of being perfect; rather they would most likely just take it as a sign that they need to practice the piece more to get it right and learn from their mistakes.
Often dieters have years and years of failed dieting attempts behind them so it makes sense that they would catastrophize about a mistake because in the past it might very well have derailed them. We help dieters learn to forgive themselves for making a mistake, which then allows them to be able to look at the situation more objectively so we can learn from it. Frequently dieters make mistakes because they weren’t properly prepared ahead of time and weren’t able to respond effectively enough to sabotaging thinking in the moment. We help dieters figure out how they can be more prepared for similar situations in the future and what new responses they need to formulate and practice. The truth of the matter is that mistakes can be extremely useful because we can learn invaluable things from them which helps prepare the dieter for future successes. So, no, one mistake never means total failure unless dieters allow it to become that way and they are a natural and unavoidable part of the learning process.
For dieters in the second category, we help them realize that the thought “I’ll start again tomorrow” makes no sense because it’s not like at a certain point the calories stop adding up. One mistake, like eating a piece of unplanned cake, will probably not show up on the scale at the end of the week. However, one piece of cake, a bag of chips, a donut, and a piece of pizza probably will. And one piece of cake, a bag of chips, a donut, a piece of pizza, some candy, ice cream, chocolate, etc etc definitely will so the sooner they can get themselves back under control the better. We always tell dieters that there’s no such thing as blowing it for the day because at ANY point they can decide to draw the line and get back on track.
We discuss with dieters the fact that there are very few (if any) other areas in life where people think it makes sense to compound one mistake with another. We give dieters the red light analogy: imagine you are driving in your car, run a red light, and get pulled over by a cop who then gives you a ticket. You wouldn’t think, “Well I’ve messed up today, I might as well run red lights for the rest of the day and then start driving carefully again tomorrow.” No! You would stop at the very next red light and get on with your day. Dieting is the same thing – one mistake never justifies continuing to make more. Another analogy I like is reminding dieters that if they fell down a few stairs, they wouldn’t say “screw it” and then throw themselves down the rest of the flight of stairs. Of course what they would do is pick themselves back up and walk down the rest of the way. Continuing to eat off track once dieters make a mistake is like continuing to run red lights or throwing themselves down the rest of the stairs – completely irrational.
We also help dieters realized that the thought “I’ve messed up so I might as well just give it up for the day,” is a classic example of all-or-nothing thinking. All or nothing thinkers see situations as completely one way or the other, not realizing how much middle ground there is in between. All-or-nothing dieters think that they are either completely perfect on their diet, or they are totally off of it, not realizing that dieting is never black or white because everybody makes mistakes. We examine with dieters the costs and benefits of continuing to hold onto this all or nothing thinking, and help them make cognitive shifts away from it.
Lastly, we remind dieters that thinking they’ll just start again tomorrow has NEVER helped them to lose weight in the past and keep it off. And a lot of times it doesn’t work that way and it may take dieters several days or months to get themselves back on track. The sooner they can recover from mistakes the better and they never have to wait until the next day/month/year to do it. Dieters often need many, many experiences of getting themselves right back on track to prove to themselves that they can do it effectively. And the more times they successfully get back on track, the more confident they become and the easier it is to do the next time. As I said in the beginning, ALL successful dieters and maintainers make mistakes, they just recover from them right away.
The Beck Diet Program was developed by Dr. Judith S. Beck with Deborah Beck Busis, LCSW.
Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy is a leading international source for training, therapy, and resources in CBT.
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