My client, Jen, recently gave up all sugar and desserts for a month leading up to her birthday because she wanted to prove to herself that she could do it. She knew that she wouldn’t give them up forever, but she wanted a bit of a reset. I worked with Jen to create a clear dessert plan, a helpful Response Card, and a compelling activity to help her achieve her goals.
Jason started to get off track and stopped counting calories for the rest of the day. This is very common. Often when dieters get off track, they don’t want to face how many calories they’re eating so they tell themselves, “I’m already over for the day. I’ll just stop counting and start again tomorrow.”
I use the skills in the Beck Diet Program for myself as well. After I graduated college I lost weight and more or less kept it off in the ensuing 12 years. On January 30th of this year, I had my daughter, Diana, and things changed. You might think that since this is what I do for a living I’d have an easy time returning to my healthy eating habits – and that’s what I thought, too. But, boy was I wrong!
This week, I had a session with my client, Jane, who last week returned home from a vacation. Before she left on vacation, Jane was feeling very good about her eating, and while she was on vacation, she felt she did really well (and, in fact, didn’t gain any weight). However, in the six days between her return and our session, Jane hasn’t been feeling on track. Jane and I discussed what has been going on since she got back, and Jane told me that once she arrived home, lots of things seemed to hit her all at once – she had a big work project to get done, her elderly mother was having problems with her nursing home, and there was a leak in Jane’s bathroom. Jane said all of these things combined made her feel like she just couldn’t deal with anything else, and that being on track with her eating felt too difficult.
Jane was clearly having many thoughts typical of someone who is off-track, such as, “I can’t do this,” “This is too hard,” and “I can’t handle it.” I discussed with Jane that these thoughts were not a true reflection of reality; this was her off-track mentality talking. Even though she was thinking it was too hard, it didn’t mean it actually was too hard. I pointed out to Jane (who is herself a therapist) that this is similar to someone who is experiencing depression. We often say that depression lies. Depression tries to convince someone that she has always been depressed, that she’ll always be depressed, that she’s weak and that she’s not worth anything. But that, too, is not a true reflection of reality. That’s the depression talking.
Jane felt enlivened by the idea that her thinking about not being able to handle her eating was not necessarily accurate and was just her off-track mentality lying to her. When she was able to take a step back from these thoughts and really evaluate them, Jane, too, was able to see that they weren’t true. She was able to remember other times when her life felt really stressful but she maintained control. She was also able to remember that, when she’s on track, on a day-to-day basis it really doesn’t feel overly hard because she has positive momentum built up. Jane and I discussed that while it is true that getting back on track can be hard, it’s not true that staying on track is too hard to manage. By the time she left session, Jane told me that she felt much stronger and willing to do what she needed to do to get back on track. She knew she could do it, and she knew that once she did, it would feel so much easier again.
My dieter, Diane, is going through a hard time. In session she told me that, over the past week, it has been much harder for her to get herself to do what she needs to do, and she hasn’t been as focused on skills like eating everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully. I told Diane what I tell every dieter going through a hard time: hard times are normal, they happen to everyone, but they always pass and things will get easier again.
In order to help this hard time go away more quickly, Diane and I first discussed how she could get herself to be more focused on her skills. Diane said that part of the reason she was having trouble getting herself to eat sitting down is because she was having sabotaging thoughts like, “It’s just some grapes, so it’s really okay to eat them while I’m walking to my car.” I reminded Diane what she used to remember very clearly – that it’s not about the calories, it’s about the habit.
“Every time you eat something standing up,” I told her, “whether it has 20 calories or 2,000 calories, you’re still reinforcing the habit of giving in and making it more likely you’ll give in the next time, too.” Diane and I discussed that not only was eating sitting down every single time important to reinforce the habit of sitting down, but it was also important because every time she ate standing up, she reinforced the more general habit of giving in and sent herself the message, “It’s okay to not do what I say I’m going to do.” Because Diane was going through a hard time, it was particularly important for her to focus on small, as well as big habits, because once she allowed leniency in one area, it would quickly extend to other areas, making it much harder for her to do what she needs to do.
Diane told me that she had also been having sabotaging thoughts about not wanting to follow the “rules” and feeling rebellious. “I don’t know,” she said, “I just don’t feel like following the rules lately. I guess I want more freedom.” To help with this, I said to Diane, “If you think about it, we’ve never used the word ‘rules’ in session, and part of why you’re struggling with this right now may be because you’re using that word with yourself. I wonder if, when you say that you don’t feel like following the rules, it brings back memories of being a kid and having rules imposed on you by sources of authority – and usually those rules were things you didn’t want to do and weren’t happy about. Right now, it’s completely different. No one is imposing these diet rules on you. Instead, these are thing you’re doing for yourself in the service of reaching really, really important goals.” Diane agreed that it would be helpful for her to remind herself that these are not like the rules she had to follow as a child, and that if she didn’t practice good eating habits, the only person she’d be rebelling against is herself.
Next, Diane and I discussed her wanting ‘freedom.’ “Let’s talk about you feeling a lack of freedom,” I said to her. “You’ve already lost 30 pounds. Let’s think back to what your life was like 30 pounds heavier. How much freedom did lack when you had to carry around 30 extra pounds? How much freedom did you have when you had to stop midway up a flight of stairs to catch your breath, or when you couldn’t easily take the laundry down to the basement? How much freedom did you have when you felt at the mercy of your hunger and cravings, and when you spent so much time thinking about needing to make changes but felt helpless to do so? How much freedom did you feel when you went to your closet to find something to wear and worried about whether or not something would fit?”
Diane and I discussed the fact that, while she now doesn’t have the freedom of eating everything she wants whenever she wants it, she does have the even greater freedom that comes from not being at the mercy of her hunger and cravings, from knowing that she can wear anything in her closet, from not worrying that people will judge her based on what she eats, and from going into a party or event and not being concerned about how she’ll be able to stay on track.
Diane told me that this was all very helpful, but the last thing that was still on her mind was the persistent question she had lately about whether or not it was really worth it to her keep working on healthy eating. I asked Diane if she wanted to return to her old weight and gain back 30 pounds (or more) and she told me that she definitively did not. “Therefore,” I said to her, “we know that it’s worth it, if for no other reason than you not wanting to go back to the way things were.” I also discussed with Diane that when she is not going through a hard time and when she is consistently doing well and on track, she doesn’t struggle with this question of whether or not it’s worth it, because she just knows that it is. “Because of this,” I said to her, “It’s not even worth engaging in the mental struggle of questioning whether or not it’s worth it. We know that it is, and we know that once the hard time passes, you won’t doubt this anymore. So whenever you have the thought, ‘is it worth it?’ just strongly remind yourself that it is and move on.”
I recently had a session with my client, Allison, with whom I’ve been working for a few months. In session, Allison told me about an experience she had over the weekend that she wasn’t feeling very happy about. Allison explained that one of her close friends was moving out of state and so over the weekend she had a goodbye party. At the party, there were drinks and passed appetizers. Allison found herself taking appetizer after appetizer and eating them while talking with her friends. Midway through the party, Allison realized that she was overeating and that she had lost track of how much she had already had. Allison told me that she went to the bathroom and read her Advantages List and her Response Cards, both of which she keeps on her phone. After taking a few moments to fortify her resolve and refocus, Allison went back to the party and didn’t eat another bite.
When Allison explained this to me she, she expressed disappointment over getting off track during the party. I, on the other hand, had a different view of the situation. Even though Allison had gotten off track during the party, she did something that can be extremely difficult to do: she got back on track in the middle of the party. She didn’t say to herself, “Well, I’ve already blown it for the party, I might as well keep eating whatever I want.” She also then didn’t go on to say to herself, “Well I’ve blown it for the day so I might as well keep eating whatever I want and get back on track tomorrow.” No! The moment Allison realized she had gotten off track, she immediately turned herself around and didn’t wait for the end of the party/the day/the week/the month to get back on track. I pointed out to Allison how significant this was because she has now proven to herself that whenever she gets off tack, she never has to wait even one moment longer to get back on track.
I reminded Allison that the most successful dieters and maintainers are not those who never make mistakes; rather they are those who make mistakes but get immediately back on track. Allison and I discussed the fact that she will continue to make mistakes for the rest of her life, but as long as she recovers from them immediately (as she did at the party), they will remain very minor and won’t negatively impact her weight.
Allison and I also took a few moments to assess the situation and figure out what had led her to get off track in the first place. Allison realized that the major problem was that she hadn’t gone into the party with a strong plan. She went in thinking she would have “just a few” bites to eat, but had nothing specific in mind. Allison also realized after the fact that she overate partly because she didn’t have a plan, partly because she was distracted talking to her friends, and partly because she was feeling upset and emotional about her friend leaving town. In order to better prepare herself for a similar situation in the future, Allison decided that she would ahead of time formulate a strong plan and make the effort to deliberately eat everything slowly and mindfully. And, if she knew that she might be going into a potentially emotional situation, like a good-bye party, Allison decided that she would read Response Cards ahead of time that specifically reminded her that eating for emotional reasons ultimately always has the opposite of the intended effect, meaning it makes her feel worse, not better.
This week I had a session with my dieter, Rachel, whom I previously hadn’t seen in about eight months because she no longer needed weekly sessions. Rachel got in touch with me because she noticed that her weight had gone up a few pounds and so we agreed that we would have a session or two to help her get completely back on track.
In session, the first thing I did was give Rachel lots of credit because she was able to recognize that she was slipping in places (which was causing her to gain weight) and she faced the problem head-on, instead of waiting a few weeks or months or more (which could easily have turned a 5 pound weight gain into a 15 pound or more weight gain).
Rachel and I then discussed what things she had led slide lately and what old habits had been slowly creeping back. Here are the areas that Rachel identified as needing work:
1. Eating standing up. Instead of really being aware of everything that she was eating and making it a priority to eat sitting down, Rachel realized that she had lapsed back into eating while she was cooking, while she was clearing the dishes, and while she was making her kids’ lunches. While it wasn’t a whole lot of extra food, it certainly did start to add up at the end of the day/week.
2. Snacking with her kids. Before we began working together, Rachel would always snack with her kids and eat whatever they were having, without really thinking about it. One of the changes we had instituted was that Rachel had specific snack times during the day when she would have healthy snacks, not the crackers and snacky foods her kids ate. Rachel realized that she had slowly started getting away from deliberate snack times and had again started to eat whatever and whenever her kids did.
3. Eating whenever she felt hungry or just wanted to eat. Another change that Rachel and I had worked on was helping her overcome her fear of hunger and eat at specific times, to ensure that she didn’t overeat during the day (which was a risk because she worked from home). Rachel told me that she had started to do things like go into the kitchen whenever she felt like eating and having something, instead of waiting until her next meal or snack.
4. Keeping serving bowls on the table at dinner. Rachel had also decided a while ago that it was best to not keep big serving dishes on the table during meals because the extra food would tempt her and she would often end up having seconds, even though she didn’t need them. Removing the serving bowls enabled Rachel to just concentrate on what was on her plate and not constantly fight against the temptation to have more. Rachel realized that over the past few months, serving dishes had reappeared on the dinner table, which meant that Rachel sometimes took and ate more food than she needed.
Rachel and I then discussed exactly how she would get herself to correct these old habits and fortify her new, helpful habits. We also reviewed Rachel’s Advantages List and all of the wonderful benefits she has already experienced from losing weight, so that Rachel would remember exactly why it was worth it to her to get herself back in line and how much better she would feel as a result of doing so.
Have you made a resolution to eat more healthfully and/or lose weight this year? Have you started to lose motivation on that resolution? Many, many dieters make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and keep it off. And very likely, many of these dieters have made this same resolution in previous years and ultimately haven’t been successful. One of the biggest stumbling blocks that dieters face is what happens once they get off track. One of the most common sabotaging thoughts that we hear from dieters is, “I’ve made a mistake. I’ve really blown it for the day so I might as well keep eating whatever I want and get back on track tomorrow.” Of course the danger with this is that tomorrow may never come, or it may end up being next week, month, or even year. And if getting back on track takes that long, likely by the time the dieter has been able to do so, she’s already gained back any weight she was able to lose before she got off track.
We always remind dieters that the most successful dieters and maintainers are not those who never make mistakes (because we’re all human and we all make mistakes). Rather, they are those who make mistakes and immediately get right back on track so the mistake is very minor. In order for dieters to be successful, and in order for this year to finally be the year they follow through with their weight loss resolutions, dieters need to learn to recover right away from mistakes. Otherwise, one mistake will continue to be their undoing, as opposed to a very normal and minor part of their day.
Here’s one technique we use: We first remind dieters that in almost no other area of life do we think that making one mistake is a valid reason to continue making mistakes. Dieters tend to believe the sabotaging thought that, “since I’ve made one dieting mistake, I’ve blown it for the day and I might as well keep making mistakes and get back on track tomorrow.” We give them the following analogies: If you were walking down a flight of stairs and stumbled down a few, would you think, “Well, I’ve really blown it now!” and then throw yourself down the rest? No, you’d get up right where you were and walk down the rest. If you were washing your fine china and dropped a plate, would you think, “I’ve really blown it now!” and throw the rest of your plates on the floor? No, you’d continue washing and treat the rest of your dishes more carefully. If you were driving on the highway and missed your exit, would you think, “Well, that’s it, it’s over, I’ve blown it!” and continue to drive five more hours in the wrong direction? No, you’d get off at the very next exit and turn yourself around. We help dieters see that once they make one eating mistake, continuing to make more is like throwing yourself down the rest of the steps, smashing the rest of your plates, and driving further in the wrong direction. It makes no sense!
We also remind dieters that, if they’re off track, any point along the way they get themselves back on track puts them in a better position. It’s not as if your body stops adding up calories for the day and once you take in certain amount of extra calories, you might as well keep taking in more because your body won’t process them. Of course, that’s not how it works. Your body will continue to process every additional bite that you take, so getting back on track after 500 extra calories is much better than getting back on track after 800 calories, 1,000 calories, 2,000 calories or more.
Additionally, we teach dieters to, once they’ve made a mistake, immediately get problem-solving oriented and not beat themselves up. If a dieter makes a mistake and says to himself, “This is so terrible! I’m such a weak person, I can’t believe I let this happened,” the only thing it will do is demoralize him further and make it harder for him to get back on track. We help dieters view every mistake as an important learning experience and remind them that we learn just as much from challenges as we do from successes. When dieters make mistakes, we teach them to ask themselves three important questions: What happened? What were the sabotaging thoughts I had that I wasn’t able to respond to? What can I do differently the next time? In this way, dieters are actually able to learn from mistakes and decrease the likelihood they’ll make the same ones again.
Once dieters are able to accept that mistakes are a part of life and learn to recover from them right away, they’re able to lose weight and keep it off because they don’t constantly undo all their hard work.
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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