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.
I have found that many dieters I work with initially have a “witching hour:” a period of an hour or two each day where cravings are strong and staying on track feels much harder. For most dieters, this is either the period right before dinner (around 4 PM – 6 PM) or in the hours after dinner but before bed (8 PM -10 PM). Dieters often think that they just can’t get through it without eating, but this is only because they don’t have skills that they need.
A client I worked with a few years ago recently had her second baby and was having trouble getting her eating back under control. Lara told me that during her pregnancy, she let herself eat whatever she wanted and ended up gaining more weight than was healthy. Now at six months postpartum, she’s still struggling to put the skills that we had worked on back in place.
Halloween is just around the corner! It’s important to start thinking about what plans and Response Cards you need to navigate it successfully!
One of the biggest challenges that makes staying on track with healthy eating difficult during the holidays is what dieters find when they walk into their office kitchens. The fact of the matter is, it often seems like there is extra (tempting) food everywhere during the holidays, but the office kitchen is definitely one of the biggest culprits. We’re not going to sugar-coat this (no pun intended): managing the office kitchen during the holidays is difficult but it absolutely can be done with three key elements:
- A really good plan
- Strategies to put that plan into action
- Extra determination
The first part of managing the office kitchen is having a plan. For most dieters, it almost never works to just “wing it” (meaning, go into a situation without a firm plan and with the thought that they’ll just figure it out when the time comes) but this is especially true during the holidays. When there are so many extra temptations around, having a clear plan is critical. When making a plan for treats at the office, it’s important that your plan is both reasonable and realistic. If your plan is too restrictive or unreasonable, then ultimately you won’t be able to follow it anyway and will likely end up throwing it out the window and eating way more than you would have, had you made a more reasonable plan that you were able to stick with.
Some of our clients have plans such as: one reasonable treat a day from the office kitchen; one treat every Friday; one treat every other day; etc. A plan that we, ourselves, use and that many of our clients have since adopted is this: no treats from the office kitchen ever (unless it’s an office party). If there’s something in there we really want, we take a portion home and have it after dinner. This plan works so beautifully for us. It makes it so much easier to resist treats at work because we’re able to remind ourselves, “It’s not that I’m not having this food, I’m just not having it right now. But I absolutely can have it later, and when I do, I’ll be able to really enjoy it fully without guilt.” It also works well because we only bring home one portion at a time so even if we really want more when we’ve finished, there’s no more to be had!
Once you have your plan, you then need strategies to help you stick to it. One extremely helpful strategy is to make Response Cards for any sabotaging thoughts you think you’re likely to have about sticking to your plan. Here are some sample sabotaging thoughts and Response Cards.
Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay just this one time to not stick to my office holiday treats plan.
Sabotaging Thought: I’m going to eat this unplanned treat because I just don’t care.
Sabotaging Thought: It’s too hard to stick to my plan.
Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay to eat [this unplanned treat] because everyone else is.
Just making Response Cards and looking at them every once in a while is probably not good enough during the holidays. Once you have your cards, it’s important to start reading them every day, at least once a day, as a matter of course. Doing so will start cementing these helpful thoughts in your head. In addition to reading them once a day, consider reading them again during difficult moments at work. If, for example, you know that 4:00 is a vulnerable time for you, set an alarm on your phone and read your cards again every day at 3:45. Or if you know going into the office kitchen to get your lunch puts you in direct contact with tempting treats, read your cards right before venturing into the kitchen.
Another strategy that can be helpful in dealing with office treat cravings is to have distractions at the ready. Remember that cravings really are like itches in that the more you pay attention to them, the worse they get. The moment you get really distracted is the moment the craving goes away. Having a list of distracting activities to try when a craving strikes can help you even more quickly turn your attention to something else. Some potential distractions are: take a walk, go talk to a co-worker, call a friend or family member, write an email to someone, check news or sports headlines, look at social media, do a crossword puzzle or Sudoku puzzle, read your Response Cards, read a blog post, online shop, and so on.
You may also want to pay attention to how long your cravings actually last. Most of the dieters we work with tell us that their cravings usually last somewhere between three to fifteen minutes. Even if your craving lasts a full fifteen minutes, it will eventually go away. Seeing how long they last can help you remind yourself that the discomfort is temporary, and that you’re only x minutes away from success.
We know that office treats are tough to handle, but the more you work on it, the better you will get. Make a plan, make Response Cards, and have distractions ready. Then you’ll be ready to do battle and win!
My client, Rachel, was having trouble resisting cravings. While she was able to resist them much of the time, she told me in session last week that it was really hard for her and the whole experience was causing her distress. In order to figure out what was going on, I asked her to tell me in detail about a craving that she had over the past week – what she thought while she was having the craving, what she said to herself that enabled her to resist, and how she felt about it afterwards. Rachel described the following scenario to me:
Rachel’s daughter, Samantha, had a birthday that weekend and Rachel had planned a big celebratory dinner for her, including Samantha’s favorite chocolate cake. Rachel had decided in advance that she would stick to one piece of cake and she would forgo the ice cream, knowing that she was already taking in more calories at dinner than she usually would have. Once dessert rolled around, Rachel ate her piece of cake and then had a strong craving for another piece, plus some ice cream. Rachel thought to herself, “I really want more cake. It tasted so good. It stinks that I can’t have more, and I didn’t even get to experience it with the ice cream.” Rachel was able to resist the extra cake, though, telling herself, “No, you’re just not having any more. You said one piece and that’s it. You can have more another time.”
I asked Rachel how she felt after she resisted the cake and she told me, “I felt terrible! I was so resentful that I couldn’t have more.” This, I realized, is why Rachel was finding it such a painful experience to resist cravings. When she was able to resist extra food, instead of giving herself so much credit for doing so, and reminding herself of all the wonderful things she would get as a result of resisting, she was instead focusing on how deprived she felt, how much she wanted to eat the food, and how terrible it was that she couldn’t have it. Because Rachel was saying such negative things to herself, it’s no wonder she didn’t feel good about resisting.
To help reverse this, Rachel and I wrote out a script of exactly what she would say to herself when she resisted a craving. I asked Rachel to read this script every day, at least three times a day, plus every time she overcame a craving. Here is what Rachel’s script said:
Good for me for resisting this craving. I deserve so much credit for this! This will help me reach my weight loss goals which are so important to me.
When Rachel came back to see me this week, she told me that she had a much better week in terms of resisting cravings. Instead of feeling badly and deprived when she didn’t eat something, she began to feel proud of herself because she gave herself lots and lots of credit. By reading this script every time she resisted a craving, it helped Rachel begin to refocus her attention; instead of thinking about all the negatives of not eating something, she began to pay more attention to why it was worth it to her to resist. Rachel realized that resisting, and giving herself credit for doing so, felt great, and it was a good feeling that lasted (as opposed to giving in and eating something, which is a pleasure that is much, much more fleeting).
If you’re finding resisting cravings to be a painful experience, think about what you say to yourself when you resist. What are focusing on? Are you thinking about how deprived you feel for not eating it, or are you paying attention to all the great benefits you’ll get as a result of resisting? If you need to, consider writing out your own script, as Rachel did, and read it multiple times a day. Eventually these new ideas will take root in your mind and make a difference. Resisting cravings can feel great –as long as you give yourself lots of credit for when you do.
Last week I had a session with my dieter, Joe. Joe works in a large office and told me that this time of year, holiday treats are everywhere. Over the past few weeks, Joe had been having a very hard time maintaining control over his sweet tooth and his sugar cravings.
In session last week, I told Joe that one of the strategies that works well for many dieters is to make the decision to have one treat per day. It could be at any time of his choosing, but most of our clients decide to have one treat per day after dinner. That way, they get to look forward to having dessert all day long and it is easier for them to turn down treats during the day because they are able to say to themselves, “I don’t need to have this now, I know I get to have something after dinner.” Joe thought about this and decided that that would work well for him because he really likes to have dessert after dinner with his wife, and so he knew that if he had his one treat during the day, he would really miss it in the evening. Joe and I discussed the fact that if there was something that looked really good at work, he could always take a portion of it home and have it after dinner.
Joe told me that while he realized that having one treat per day, after dinner, was a good plan which would help him get through the holidays without gaining weight, he knew it wouldn’t be easy to stick to. Joe and I discussed what thoughts he might have that would get in the way of him sticking to his plan and came up with Responses to them. Here are the sabotaging thoughts and response:
Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay just this one time to have a treat at the office.
Response: It’s not okay just this one time! Every time matters because every time I’m either strengthening my giving-in muscle or my resistance muscle. If I give in and eat this treat now, I’ll make it so much harder to stick to my plan the next time. This time matters because every time matters so I have to stand firm and strengthen my resistance habit.
Sabotaging Thought: This treat looks really good. I just want to eat it.
Response: While I want to eat this treat right now, I so much more want all the benefits of losing weight. Even though I want it, it’s worth it to me not to eat it right now. Besides, if it’s something I really like, I can always take it home and have it later. It’s not that I can’t eat it, it’s just that I’m not going to eat it right now.
Sabotaging Thought: I can’t resist those cookies – they look too good.
Response: It’s true that it’s hard to resist but it’s not true that I can’t. There is a difference between things that are impossible and things that are hard. Telling myself I ‘can’t’ resist is really just an excuse to give in. I’ve resisted plently of cravings before, and I know I can now, too. Besides, when I give in I feel crappy and when I resist I feel great!
Sabotaging Thought: I don’t want to have to think about healthy eating right now so I’m just going to give in and have this treat.
Response: There’s no such thing as ‘not thinking about it.’ If I decide to ‘not think about it’ and eat the treat now, I’ll definitely think about it a lot later when I’m feeling guilty and badly about my eating. On the other hand, if I do put in the effort to think about it now and resist, I’ll feel so great and proud later that I did.
Sabotaging Thought: Maybe I should have just one cookie right now. I can’t decide
Response: I’ve already made the decision not to have any! There is no decision to be made in this moment. Move on and get distracted with something else.
When Joe came in to see me this week he told that things had been going really well and he was feeling much more in control both during work and after. Joe told me that there were many days that he was tempted to eat treats at the office but by reading his Response Cards each day, he was able to respond to his sabotaging thoughts and resist – and that he always felt so great about it once the craving had passed. What Joe experienced is what many dieters eventually come to experience – he found that not eating the treats (as a result of giving in to a momentary craving) felt even better than eating them because he was able to maintain his sense of control and he didn’t have any guilt or regret about his eating. Joe told me that sticking to his holiday treat plan was often not easy, but it was always 100% worth it.
A few months ago my client, Susan, went on vacation with her friend, Caroline, and Caroline’s two kids. After the trip, Susan and I spent some time in session discussing what had gone well and what could have gone better. This was especially important because we knew that Susan was again going away with Caroline and her children in a few weeks.
Susan told me that the major area that needed improvement was dessert. While it was great that she and Caroline took a walk every morning, they also stopped at a local donut and bagel shop on the way home so that Caroline could get breakfast for her kids. Susan told me that more often than not, she would go inside with Caroline, be tempted by everything she saw and smelled, and would end up buying and eating at least one donut before she walked out the door. Not only was this problematic from a calorie perspective, but Susan told me that it also threw off her eating for the rest of the day, because when she got home she wasn’t hungry for her usual healthy and satisfying breakfast, but then got very hungry an hour or two later, and would eat something which would throw off her lunch, and so on.
Susan also struggled with treats when she, Caroline, and the kids would take their after dinner boardwalk stroll during which everyone picked out a treat for dessert. This was difficult for Susan because not only would she eat what she bought, but she would also end up eating some of Caroline’s dessert, too (because Caroline, lacking a big sweet tooth, always had extra and Susan always developed a craving for it).
In session Susan and I first talked about how she would handle the stop at the donut and bagel shop. Since Susan knew she’d prefer to have dessert at night when everyone else was eating it (and since she also knew that she couldn’t eat two desserts a day and not gain weight) and because donuts were always gone very quickly and then negatively impacted her eating the rest of the day, Susan decided that she would rather just not have any donuts in the morning. To help her follow through with this, we came up with a two part strategy.
1. Susan wouldn’t even go into the donut shop with Caroline, thus limiting her exposure to temptations, and would wait outside to do stretching or check her email on her phone.
2. While Caroline was in the shop, Susan would read the following Response Card:
I have a healthy, satisfying, and delicious breakfast waiting for me at home. I’m not having a donut because it will be gone too quickly, negatively impact my eating, and make me feel guilty. It’s worth it to wait!
Susan and I then discussed how she would handle dessert at night. Since Susan knew that she was highly susceptible to craving what everyone else was eating, and since she was in the habit of sharing some of Caroline’s desserts, she decided that the best course of action would simply be to order whatever Caroline ordered. Having just been on vacation with Caroline, Susan knew that she, too, would enjoy whatever Caroline decided to have, and if they both had the same thing, then Susan didn’t have to worry about going overboard eating two desserts. To help her stick to this plan, Susan made the following Response Card:
Whatever Caroline gets for dessert, I’m sure to like. If I get something different, the whole time I am eating my dessert I will be craving whatever Caroline has, thus diminishing my enjoyment in my own dessert and causing me to eat Caroline’s extras. Just order what Caroline orders.
In session with Susan last week, she told me that she had just gotten back from her second beach trip with Caroline and her kids – and it was a huge success. Susan said that these strategies, along with the Response Cards that helped her implement them, took her from overindulging and feeling guilty, to enjoying her food and feeling great.
In session this week my dieter, Amy, told me about a major triumph she had during a long and stressful work meeting the day before. Midway through the meeting, someone started passing out a big bowl full of Valentine’s Day candy, and everyone started digging in. When the bowl was passed to Amy, Amy looked down at the treats and thought about how much she wanted one. But instead of taking one (or many) treats and eating them, Amy did something different – she didn’t take any and passed the bowl onto the next person.
I asked Amy what she said to herself that enabled her to resist the Valentine’s Day candy. Amy told me that although she really wanted the candy, not only because everyone else was eating it but also because she was feeling really stressed, she reminded herself of the following ideas:
If I give in, I’ll enjoy this for a few moments but then I’ll feel guilty about it the rest of the meeting, and probably afterwards.
This meeting is already stressful and I’m going through a stressful time at work. If I eat this, I’ll just feel even more stressed because I’ll worry about gaining weight.
Just because everyone else is eating it doesn’t mean I can. My body doesn’t know or care what they’re eating. It only knows what I eat.
I asked Amy if, looking back, she regretted not having eaten the candy and she told me that she absolutely didn’t regret it and, in fact, she hadn’t really thought about it again until our session that day. I also asked Amy if she was actually feeling good about not having eaten the candy and Amy said that she really did because she felt proud of herself. Amy and I then discussed some important things for her to remember based on this experience:
- She now was proven to herself that she can resist eating something, even when the situation is really difficult. Amy has also now made it easier for her to resist the next time because she has made her resistance muscle stronger.
- Once Amy did resist, she didn’t spend the rest of the day regretting it. In fact, she didn’t even think about it once the situation had passed. It wasn’t as if she spend the rest of the hour/day/week thinking, “I really wish I had eaten that candy.” It just didn’t come up again.
- Not only did Amy not regret resisting the candy, but she actually felt good about it because she gave herself a lot of credit for doing so. Although Amy continued to feel stress about her work situation, she didn’t add to that stress by also feeling guilty about her eating.
What I did with Amy is important for you, yourself, to also do. Whenever you have a success, ask yourself:
1. What was the situation and what were my sabotaging thoughts?
2. What did I say to myself that enabled me to stand firm? How did I feel when I did so? How am I feeling now about doing so?
3. What do I need to remember about this situation for next time?
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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