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.