Ask the Diet Program Coordinator: Sugar Cravings

Question: I’m in the process of losing weight and have been doing fairly well. However, the one thing that keeps getting to me is sweets!  Somehow, even with all my best intentions to cut out sugar from my diet, I am not able to resist and keep finding myself giving in to the craving for sweets. This seems to happen most in the afternoon or when I unexpectedly come in contact with sweets, like at someone’s house or at a meeting.  Can you help?

Answer: I’m sorry that sweets have been difficult for you, but I do have some suggestions that may be helpful:

1.  It’s important to make sure that you don’t have an all-or-nothing mentality about sweets and desserts.  Often dieters may say to themselves, “Since I have trouble controlling myself around desserts/sweets, I’m just not going to have any.”  This is problematic because if dieters really like sweets, then guaranteed at some point they’ll find themselves eating them (as happens with you), and when they do they may tell themselves, “I don’t know when I’ll allow myself to eat sweets again, so I better eat as much as I can right now while I have the chance.”  On the flip side, if dieters know that they can have a dessert every single day (if they plan for it), then they don’t feel the same sense of urgency to “load up” because  they no longer believe that this might be their last opportunity to eat them. 

2. It is so helpful to plan in advance when you’re going to have dessert and what you’re going to have.  Many of our dieters end up instituting a rule about dessert for themselves:  one dessert a day, and not until after dinner.  Planning to eat dessert after dinner is helpful as it more easily allows dieters to turn down any sweets that they come in contact with during the day because they are able to say to themselves, “I don’t need to have this now, I’m going to have that brownie/cookie/ice cream after dinner.”  If you institute a similar rule for yourself, then you don’t have to worry about what sweets you see during the day because you’ll just know: if it’s not on my plan, I’m not having it.

3. Another important piece of this is to figure out in advance what sabotaging thoughts you are likely to have about eating sweets, and come up with responses to them.  Some common sabotaging thoughts are: Just this one time won’t matter; it’s just a little bit; everyone else is having it so it’s okay; I just won’t have my dessert tonight.  Do any of these sound familiar to you?  Dieters find it helpful when they make Response Cards with responses to these thoughts and read them throughout the day, and especially when they are going into a situation in which they are likely to be tempted.

Here is a sample response:

Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay to have dessert now (before dinner) because I just won’t have it later.

Response: Actually it’s NOT okay to have dessert now because if I do, I send myself the message that it’s okay to not do what I say I’m going to do; it’s not about the calories, it’s about the habit. Every single time I give in to a craving and have dessert before dinner, I increase the likelihood that I will the next time, and the time after that. Every single time I resist, I make it easier to do so the next time. 

4. If afternoons are difficult for you, then it may be a good idea to figure out ahead of time: am I hungry in the afternoons or is this just a craving? If it is hunger, then it may be worth it to plan (in advance!) to have an afternoon snack and make sure that you have that food available.  If it’s not hunger, then it may be worth reading your cards and your Advantages List and remind yourself why it’s worth it to not eat at that time.

And remember: the more you practice this, the easier it will get! The more and more times you prove to yourself that you can stand firm in the face of cravings (even sugar cravings) the easier it becomes to do so.

A Peek inside a Diet Session: Overeating Pizza

My dieter, Jason, had a major victory this week.  He was, for the first time in a long time, able to eat a single slice of pizza and not go on to eat many, many more. In the past, Jason would often order a whole pizza, telling himself, “I’ll only have one or two slices and stop there,” but inevitably he would continue eating until the whole pie was gone. 

In session this week, Jason told me about his triumph and then stated that while he was happy he had only eaten one slice, he did wish that he could have gotten that “happy” feeling from eating the whole pizza.  I asked Jason to think about the last time he ate a whole pizza and how he felt about it after.  Without any hesitation, he immediately replied, “I feel terrible. I feel so mad at myself and guilty.”  Jason and I discussed this idea further, and he came to the realization that the thought of eating an entire pizza is actually much better than the reality of doing so because in his (sabotaging) thinking about overeating pizza, he does not accurately recount how he’ll really feel. 

Jason and I then talked about how he felt after eating only one slice, and how that was different from eating a whole pizza.  Jason realized that, although he did want more, once the pizza was out of his sight he felt really happy and proud that he had only had one slice.  He was actually able to have pizza without feeling guilty about it, because he knew that it was on his plan and that it would help him reach his goals.

Jason made the following Response Cards:

Overeating NEVER feels as good as thinking about it does.  My sabotaging thoughts try to convince me that I’ll love it and feel really happy if I overeat, but in fact, that’s never the case. When I do this, I end up feeling bad, guilty, and angry with myself.

When I stick to only eating one piece of pizza, I actually enjoy it more because I know that it will help me continue to stick to my diet and reach my weight loss goals.

Although I may think ahead of time that having a whole pizza feels better than only having one slice, that is completely untrue because when I only have one slice, I feel proud and good about myself and I get closer to my goals. Having a whole pizza feels terrible and takes me further and further away from my goals.

It’s not all-or-nothing. It’s not as if I can either have a whole pizza or no pizza at all. I can plan to have one slice of pizza when I want to, and in doing so, I get to enjoy the experience of eating pizza AND enjoy the experience of losing weight.

A Peek Inside a Diet Session: Cravings

I recently had a session with one of my dieters centered on cravings and we came up with a “Cheat Sheet” of important things for him to remember about cravings based on his own experiences and new things we discussed in session.  I sent him home with the homework of reading this at least once a day for the next week so that he becomes more and more familiarized with these ideas.  Here it is:

CRAVINGS

Cravings go away one of two ways: either when I decide to definitely give in to it, OR when I decide definitely not to give in to it.

Usually when I’m having a craving there is a sense of anxiety attached to it (Will I give in? Will I stand strong?). The moment I decide one way or the other, the craving starts to diminish. If I decide to give in to the craving, it starts to go away even before I put food in my mouth because the anxiety related to having to make the decision goes away.

Cravings do not just get worse and worse and worse until I can’t stand them.  They will ALWAYS go away, even if I never eat a bite of food.

The more and more times I resist cravings, the easier it will be for me to do so because I build up evidence that proves that I can withstand them and that they do always go away.

At worst, a craving might last 15 minutes, but it will go away MUCH more quickly if I distract myself.

What to do when I’m having a craving:

1. Label it.  This is just a craving, it doesn’t mean I have to give in. Just because I want to eat this right now doesn’t mean I should.

2. Firmly make the decision to NOT give in. 

3. Distract myself.  The moment my attention is on something else is the moment the craving starts to go away. If I’m highly distracted, there is no way I’ll be able to focus on the craving.

Things to try to distract myself: check emails, search the internet for interesting things, take a walk, call a friend, play a word game on my phone.

When I’m having a craving, remind myself, “THIS IS TIME LIMITED.  I will not be feeling this craving forever.”

Every single time I have a craving I have the opportunity to either strengthen my tendency to give in, or my tendency to not give in. This is why every single time matters because every single time will reinforce one of these things.

When I’m having a craving, the more I focus on that craving, the worse it will get.  The more I distract myself, the less and less I’ll think about it.  Just like an itch – the more you focus on an itch the itchier it becomes.  When I get distracted, the itch goes away.

It’s worth it to me to not give in to cravings because it will enable me to get everything on my Advantages List!

When the Struggle Just Isn’t Worth It

Jamie came to see me a few weeks ago and one of the items she wanted to put on our agenda for the session was her trouble with ice cream. In the past Jamie has described ice cream as her Achilles heel, and it seemed that it had once again become problematic for her. Jamie told me that she was having difficulty keeping ice cream in her house because she would end up eating way more than one serving at a time, and way more than she had planned.

At that point, Jamie and I had discussed several strategies for her to try. I helped Jamie to identify some of the sabotaging thinking she was having in the moment she was tempted to eat more ice cream than she had planned and came up with responses to them. Some of Jamie’s sabotaging thoughts and helpful responses were:

Sabotaging thought: “It’s okay to eat more than I had planned just this one time”

Response: “It’s not okay to do it this one time because every single time matters. Every time I eat more ice cream than I had planned, I make it more likely I will eat more the next time, too. I need to exercise my resistance muscle, not my giving in muscle.”

Sabotaging Thought: “I deserve more ice cream at night because I was so good during the day and I turned down lots of holiday treats.”

Response: “My body doesn’t know or care how many things I didn’t eat today, it only knows how much I did eat. If I eat more calories than I had planned, I will gain weight.”

In session, Jamie made some new Response Cards with these helpful ideas on them and committed to reading them right before she had her nightly ice cream treat. Jamie and I also devised a plan for what she would do when she finished her serving of ice cream, including immediately putting her bowl and spoon in the dishwasher and turning to a list of distraction techniques to employ until the craving for more had passed.

Jamie came back to see me the following week and reported that ice cream continued to be a problem for her and she was feeling bad about her lack of control. Jamie reported that even though she was reading her Response Cards, sabotaging thoughts were continuing to hound her and she was struggling on an almost nightly basis. She said that every time she set out to have ice cream, she would have the thought, “I’ll be able to stop after one serving,” although that rarely was the case.

Jamie and I then talked about what our next plan of attack should be. I reminded Jamie that, while the ultimate goal is for her to be able to keep anything in the house and know she can stay in control, if a particular food item is consistently giving her trouble it can be a good idea to just not keep it in the house for the time being. Jamie and I discussed the fact that she was constantly putting herself through a struggle each night because even when she was able to limit her intake to one serving, it was very hard for her to do so. On any given night, the thought, “I’ll be able to stop after one serving,” was either not true, or it was true but required a lot of struggle and effort on Jamie’s part.

By the end of the session, Jamie came to the conclusion that right now, even though she really liked ice cream, it just wasn’t worth it to her to keep it in the house. I reminded Jamie that she doesn’t have to keep ice cream out of her house forever; rather this is just for a limited time while she builds back up her resistance muscle. Jamie also decided that if she really wanted ice cream, she could go out and buy a single serving of it so she wouldn’t have to struggle to stop eating. Undoubtedly Jamie will keep ice cream in her house in the future, but for right now the negatives outweigh the positives.

Sabotaging Thoughts and Unhelpful Cognitions

When dieters first come into our office, they have all kinds of unhelpful cognitions (which we call “sabotaging thoughts”) about everything related to diet, food, and weight loss:

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Dieting

Once I lose weight I won’t have to diet anymore

Dieting should be easy

Dieting should not take a long time

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Food

I should eat as little as possible to help me lose weight more quickly

I should cut out all high-fat or high-calorie foods while I’m dieting

It’s not okay to waste food

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Hunger

Hunger is bad and something bad will happen to me if I get too hungry

If I get hungry, the hunger will just get worse and worse until I eat something

I shouldn’t ever be hungry

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Cravings

If I am really craving something, it means I need to eat it

I might as well eat what I’m craving now because I will just end up eating it eventually

There is nothing I can do to make cravings go away

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Weight Loss

Weight loss should be really fast – all the magazines say that it is

Weight loss should be easy – all the magazines say that it is

If I’m dieting, I need to lose weight every day/week or it means it’s not working

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Permission

It’s okay to eat this food because….I’m stressed; I’m tired; everybody else is eating it; it’s just a little piece; it’s free; I’ll make up for it later; I’ll exercise more later; someone will be disappointed if I don’t have it; no one is watching; I’ve already blown it for the day so I’ll start again tomorrow; I’m celebrating; it will go to waste; I’m really upset; I’ve been so good lately, etc.

Dieters have unhelpful cognitions about Perfectionism and Cheating

Either I’m 100% perfect on my diet or I’m totally off of it

I’ve already eaten too much today so I’ll continue to eat whatever I want and start again tomorrow

If I make mistakes while dieting, it means that I just can’t do it

Sabotaging thoughts like these are at the root of why dieters are overweight in the first place because they cause dieters to act in a certain way. Let’s say it’s 4:00pm and a dieter passes by a vending machine on the way to the bathroom. If she says to herself, “Those cookies look really good. I’m really hungry and dinner won’t be for another few hours and since there’s no way I’ll be able to hold out, I might as well just have these cookies now,” she’s probably going to end up having them.

But take the same situation – it’s 4:00 and a dieter passes by the vending machine on the way to the bathroom but this time she says to herself, “Those cookies look really good. I’m really hungry but I know that if I have these now, then I can’t have the dessert I’ve already planned to have after dinner. I absolutely don’t need these cookies and I just need to either go have the healthy snack I have at my desk or wait until dinner,” then she’s probably NOT going to have them.

Once we help dieters figure out which sabotaging thoughts they are having in any particular situation, we can help them come up with really strong responses to them so that dieters are no longer at the mercy of these thoughts.

 

 

 

Ask the Diet Program Coordinator

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.

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.