Holding Out

After dinner and evenings have always been the hardest times for Jamie to maintain her control.  She finds that she has the urge to snack all evening long and often struggles very hard to not overeat after dinner. For Jamie, it wasn’t that she kept getting hungry over and over after dinner; rather she had a very strong and compelling urge to eat at those times which didn’t seem to have much to do with hunger.  Jamie finally sat down to try to figure out what was going on in the evenings so that she could get her eating under control during that time. 

Jamie thought about the rest of the day and realized that it was much easier for her to maintain her control up to and during dinner, and that she was often pretty easily able to stick to her planned meals and snacks.  Upon further reflection, Jamie began to formulate the hypothesis that the reason the day was so much easier for her than the night is because during the day she always knows when her next meal or snack is coming, and therefore she is able to “hold out” until then.  Jamie knows that food tastes better when she is hungry and she enjoys sitting down to meals and snacks with a reasonable degree of hunger.  Jamie realized that her biggest pitfall was not planning her evening snack or snacks well enough (because she would often just have a general plan of having some snack sometime) so therefore she wasn’t able to tell herself to just hold out until the next planned time to eat, because there wasn’t necessarily a next planned time to eat. 

This concept of “holding out” was very important for Jamie because it shows that she clearly has the ability to exert control over herself and her actions.  Jamie realized that it wasn’t that something suddenly overtook her in the evenings which made her want to eat constantly, it was just that subconsciously she didn’t know when her next meal or snack was coming so she wasn’t able to respond effectively enough to the sabotaging thoughts that were urging her to eat.

Once Jamie figured out what was going on, it made figuring out a way to solve the problem pretty easy, and she gave herself a lot of credit for being able to do this. Jamie decided that it would probably work best for her to plan two evening snacks – one a little while after dinner and one right before bed so that she would always have a next snack for  hold out for during the evening and night.

Talk Back to Cravings


This past week, I met Jon socially, at a party. We had known each other slightly. He told me he had read my cognitive therapy books on dieting and wanted me to know which technique had helped him the most. It had been emailing his “diet buddy,” when he was tempted to eat something he wasn’t supposed to. With his permission, I cut and pasted below an old email he forwarded to me.

Okay, I really want to eat the pizza in the kitchen. Everyone (okay, not everyone) in the office is having some but I already had lunch. My sabotaging thoughts are back….It’ll be okay. I’ll make up for it later.
But I really know it’s NOT okay. Not if my goal is to lose weight. I don’t want to fall back in to the habit of eating extra food just because it’s there. It’s what I used to do.

Hey, it happened again. The craving went away as I was typing this email. I’m actually fine. I feel like…it’d be nice to eat the pizza. But I know I won’t. Back to work.

It was important for Jon to email his diet buddy like this. After doing so about ten times in a row (over the course of several days), he really learned that cravings do go away. He doesn’t have to eat. Now he doesn’t need to email his diet buddy very often, either. He knows that telling himself, “No choice. I’m not eating this [food] I hadn’t planned” and engaging in a compelling activity makes his cravings go away, every time.

Turning Challenge into Success

cake.jpgOur dieter, Rebecca, told us this week that she had given in to an impulse and bought a large slice of chocolate cake that she hadn’t planned for.   Because the slice constituted two portions, Rebecca decided to have half of it that afternoon and save the rest for the next day.  Once she started eating the cake, Rebecca was struck by two things: the cake didn’t taste nearly as good as she thought it would, and her sabotaging thoughts nevertheless urged her to keep eating. Rebecca ended up finishing the piece of cake and soon felt extremely bad about it.

Rebecca had characterized this experience as a complete failure on her part. We helped her see, though, that the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as she believed and in fact, she deserved credit for many things she did afterwards. 

First, Rebecca didn’t continue to eat out of hand for the rest of the day, let alone the rest of the week or month, as she likely would have in the past.  Second, Rebecca adjusted her eating for the rest of day by marginally cutting down dinner and skipping her evening sweet snack.  Most important, Rebecca learned a lot from the experience.  She learned that she doesn’t like eating off her plan because it undermines her confidence and makes her feel weak.  She learned that if she’s not enjoying something very much, it’s better to get rid of it immediately than to waste her calories unnecessarily.  She also proved to herself that she can get right back on track immediately. Rebecca made herself new Response Cards to prepare her for future times of temptation.  All in all, although it wasn’t ideal that she ate off plan, the event was actually an important experience for Rebecca and she deserves a lot of credit for how she handled it. 

Holiday Cookies

choccookies.jpgThis week, our dieter Alex walked into his office kitchen to make a cup of coffee and discovered a big plate of homemade holiday cookies one of his coworkers had brought in.  Seeing and smelling the cookies set up a craving for Alex and he had the sabotaging thought, “It’s ok to have a cookie because it’s holiday time and everyone is eating them.”  Alex had to remind himself that the fact that it’s holiday time is not a reason to eat unplanned cookies, and he’d much rather be thinner.  He firmly told himself, “If I hadn’t walked in the kitchen I would never have seen the cookies and would never have wanted them.  Just make your coffee as planned and leave the kitchen.”  Alex did exactly that, and five minutes later was glad he had resisted. 

This is a good strategy for dieters to employ this time of year when they are faced with a multitude of special holiday foods in stores, at the office, at parties—not to mention the gifts of food they may receive.  Just as Alex did, it’s useful for dieters to remind themselves that if they hadn’t seen the goodies, they may not even have thought of them or wanted them. This helps diminish their sense of entitlement and if dieters can say to themselves, “I only want [this food] because I’m seeing it right now, but I can move on, as if I’d never seen it,” it will be easier to resist.

Dealing with Hunger

Mark, a dieter that we recently began working with, reported that during the past week he’s been feeling extra hungry, which is making it more difficult for him to stay within his calorie limit for the day.  The first thing we discussed with Mark is the fact that this is completely normal.  All of our dieters have periods of time when they are hungrier than others. Although they often say, “I had such a hard week; I was hungry all the time,” it usually turns out they were only hungry for a couple of hours during a few days that week, but let the memory of that hunger color the entire week.

We told Mark that if it’s not time for one of his preplanned snacks or meals and he’s feeling hungry, there are lots of things he can say to himself.  First he can remind himself that hunger is never an emergency – it can be somewhat uncomfortable but he’s lived through much worse physical discomfort in the past (a badly broken arm, a root canal, and a popped kneecap).  Mark can also remind himself that there’s always another meal coming and that he’s going to be eating again fairly soon. Last, Mark can tell himself that just because he’s hungry doesn’t mean he should eat – if he wants to get and stay thinner, he simply can’t eat every time he feels like it. 

We also asked Mark if what he’s been feeling lately is always hunger, or whether he might be confusing it with a craving or a desire to eat (Day 11 of The Beck Diet Solution).  We urged Mark to pay attention to the physical sensations attached to his “hunger” and try to discern whether it really is true hunger.  Mark related that he had been working fewer hours this week, and it’s possible that he felt at loose ends and therefore felt like eating, as opposed to being hungry.   

We proposed an experiment for Mark to try: for one or two days this week, he’s going to spend almost all of his calories on protein and vegetables and limit carbohydrates and starches.  Many of our dieters have tried this experiment and were surprised to see how much more full and satisfied they felt when they varied their diet in this way.  We told Mark to give it a try, and if the same is true for him then at least for now, when he’s feeling more hungry, it’s probably worth his while to incorporate more protein into his diet. 

The First Session

We recently started working with three new dieters and, as always, we covered a lot of material in the first session.  The first thing we go over with new dieters is the importance of making their Advantages List – a card that lists all of the reasons they want to lose weight.  Most dieters can come up with fifteen to twenty reasons for their Advantages List, among them being such things as:

  • I want to have more self-confidence
  • I want to look better.
  • I want to be healthier.
  • I want to have more energy.
  • I want to be less self-conscience.
  • I want to wear more fashionable clothes.

In the beginning, dieters need to read their Advantages Card every single morning so it is always fresh in their mind exactly why they are putting forth all this effort.  Dieters also need to read the card every time they are tempted to eat something they shouldn’t.  This way, they have to squarely face the question, “Do I want the momentary pleasure from eating [this food] or do I want all the advantages on my list – to feel better, to look better, to be healthier, to be able to keep up with my kids, etc.”  In this way, it’s much easier for dieters to resist tempting food, even in the moment, because they are able to see that they’d much rather have all the things on their list. 

Another important topic in our first session is the importance of eating everything slowly, while sitting down, and enjoying every bite.  For some dieters, eating everything sitting down can be a big adjustment, because whether they realize it or not, many people do a significant amount of eating standing up.  Opportunities to eat standing up abound – hor d’oeuvres at cocktail parties, free samples at the grocery store, taste-testing while cooking, picking at leftovers when clearing the table, etc.  And many times dieters just simply don’t remember the food they eat while standing up.  Eating everything slowly, while sitting down, and enjoying every bite is crucial not only so that dieters can be aware of everything they’re eating, but also so that they feel both physically and psychologically satisfied by their meals.   

We also discuss how important it is that dieters not be ashamed of themselves or see themselves as failures because they’re overweight. We emphasize that the reason they haven’t been able to lose weight and keep it off in the past is because they didn’t know how.  Dieting is a skill just like any other, and it takes instruction and practice to become adept at it.  No one would expect to be able to sit behind the wheel of a car for the first time and drive perfectly.  They would need a teacher, practice, and road experience before they became good at driving.  Dieting works in exactly the same way; it’s comprised of a specific set of thinking and behavioral skills. We always leave our dieters with a sense of hope, that this time is going to be different, that this time they can be successful, because this time they are going to learn how! 

Credit Where Credit is Due

Some dieters in our new class are struggling with giving themselves credit (discussed on Day 4 of The Beck Diet Solution), which is a very important skill. So many aspects of dieting are difficult—at first: withstanding cravings, making food plans, resisting emotional eating, turning down food pushers, etc. The more dieters do these things, the easier they become, but this only happens if they are able to give themselves credit.  For example, every time a dieter resists a craving and praises herself, she builds up her confidence that she is capable of resisting cravings and she increases the likelihood that she’ll be able withstand the next craving she has.  If she withstands a craving but doesn’t credit herself for it, then the next time she has a craving she won’t be sure she’ll be able to hold out and may struggle a lot more. 

Dieters need to give themselves credit for every positive diet and exercise-related behaviors they do.  For instance, every time they stop eating before they’re overfull (Day 18), get back on track after straying (Day 20), eat slowly and mindfully (Day 5), or do any kind of exercise (Day 9), they need to say something to themselves, such as “Great,” or “Good, I did it.” Many people who have struggled with their weight are hard on themselves and overly self-critical.  By consciously recognizing the dozens of things they do right each day, dieters build up their self-confidence and awareness that they’re strong and in control.

At the beginning or end of each class we go around and have everyone tell some things they did in the past week that they deserve credit for.  In the beginning it was difficult for some of our dieters to come up with credit-worthy behaviors, but because they’ve been practicing this—and hearing what the others say—throughout the past several weeks, they’re getting much better at it. They are also noticing that the things they consistently give themselves credit for (such as eating sitting down) are becoming easier and easier to do – and this is no coincidence! 

Our New Class: Starting Their Diets

We have started a new weight-loss class here at the Beck Institute.  Our new dieters have just finished the tasks from the first two Weeks of The Beck Diet Solution and today are embarking on Week Three: starting their diets.  Our dieters are feeling nervous about starting yet another diet.  This is, of course, a perfectly legitimate concern because all of them have had experiences, over and over again, of starting diets, falling off the wagon, and giving up. We asked our dieters to tell us why this time will be different.

This time is different because never in the past have they had two weeks of preparation before they actually started following a diet.  Now they know so much more going in and have many more skills than they did before.   Now they know how to get themselves to eat everything slowly, while sitting down, and enjoying every bite (Days 3 and 5 of The Beck Diet Solution).  Now they know how to create both the time and energy in their daily lives to accomplish diet and exercise-related activities (Day 8).  They have learned to differentiate between hunger, cravings, and the desire to eat (Day 11), and have proven to themselves that they can tolerate feeling hungry (Day 12).  They have learned coping strategies for when they are experiencing intense cravings (Day 13), and they have learned to give themselves credit (an essential tool for building confidence) for the many positive diet and exercise-related things they do each day (Day 4). 

We advised our dieters to go back and read through the To-Do lists from the previous Days so that they can clearly see how much they’ve learned and how much better prepared they are this time than ever before.  We are confident that, like our other dieters, our new class is now ready to start losing weight, and to keep it off for good. 

Craving Chocolate: Diana

Diana was tempted by chocolate this past week. She reported to our group that there was a few days ago, she stayed within her calorie limit for the day, but she deviated from her plan and ate unplanned chocolate.  Diana had planned to have an after-dinner snack that consisted of both some chocolate, and some nutritious food. But after she started eating chocolate, Diana found it very difficult to stop and ending up spending all of her snack calories on chocolate, instead of half on the healthy food she had planned. chocolate.jpg

We discussed in group how important it is to learn to stick to your plan 100%.  Dieters could stay within their calorie limits for the day and eat only chocolate the whole day, or only pasta, and because they were taking in fewer calories, they would lose weight. But an unhealthy, unbalanced diet like this is completely unsustainable over the long term, so dieters who don’t learn to spend their calories in a nutritious, balanced way will almost definitely gain back any weight they lose (discussed on Day 2 of The Beck Diet Solution).   This is why having a plan, and sticking to it completely is so crucial – because it forces dieters to become accustomed to eating in a way they can maintain for their lifetime. 

We went around the group and gave Diana ideas for things she could do in the future if she’s tempted to continue eating chocolate.  Our dieters suggested that she go distract herself (Day 13), firmly tell herself NO CHOICE (Day 13), read her Advantages List (Day 1), and remind herself that even if she’s feeling at that moment that she doesn’t care about sticking to her plan, she most definitely will care in a few minutes. 

Diana is committed this week to absolutely stick to her plan without any exceptions because she intends to lose weight and keep it off for good. 

Nighttime Demons: Brenda

Brenda has been having a bit of trouble lately with “nighttime demons” – those voices in her head  that around 9 or 10pm every night urge her to eat, even though she’s already finished her planned food for the day.  Brenda has been able to figure out that what she’s feeling at this time is not actually hunger, because by that point in the evening she’s already eaten a substantial dinner and snack.  And because she doesn’t usually want any one food in particular, Brenda knows that she’s not really having strong cravings either.  What she is experiencing is the desire to eat (discussed on Day 11 of The Beck Diet Solution), and we helped Brenda brainstorm ways in which she could combat the demons.

First of all, having Brenda label what she is feeling as “desire” instead of “hunger” makes it easier to resist eating.  What Brenda needs to say to herself is, “I’m not hungry. I just have a desire to eat. That’s not a good reason to eat. In fact, just because I feel like eating doesn’t mean I should. No choice; I’m not eating.”

We also discussed with Brenda the fact that the moment she definitively decides not to eat, the desire will begin to diminish and the struggle will significantly decrease (Day 13). Brenda made a Response Card to read every evening at 9 pm that reminds her that the desire to eat doesn’t last, that it always goes away, and that she certainly can tolerate it.  Last, Brenda decided that she will read her Advantages List every evening after dinner to keep very fresh in her mind exactly why it’s so worth it to her to withstand the desire and stick to her plan. 

With this arsenal of tools, Brenda is confident that she will be able to effectively and permanently fight off her nighttime demons.