In Session with Deborah: Do Cravings Really Go Away?

Earlier in the week I had a session with my dieter, Jeremy, during which we talked mostly about cravings. In previous sessions, Jeremy and I had spent time discussing cravings and the fact that they go away one of two ways: either when he decides to give in to them, or when he decides to definitely NOT give in.  Through effort and practice, Jeremy had been able to prove to himself:

  • He is capable of not giving into cravings
  • Cravings go away, and they go away much more quickly when he gets distracted
  • He feels so much better and he is so proud of himself after the fact when he has stood firm

However, when Jeremy came in to see me this week, he told me that he has been struggling more with cravings lately and has been having a hard time making them go away completely.  I asked Jeremy to describe a situation in which this happened, and he told me that over the weekend, he and his wife held a birthday party for their daughter in which they served chocolate cake – Jeremy’s favorite.  Jeremy had planned in advance to have a slice of cake after dinner that night, knowing that he would enjoy it so much more if he ate it then, as opposed to at the party when he was responsible for supervising 18 six-year-olds. 

However, once dinner was over that night and he had had his planned cake and stowed the leftovers in the refrigerator, Jeremy started having a craving for more.  Jeremy was able to accurately label what he was experiencing as a craving (as opposed to hunger) because he knew he was feeling it in his mouth and not his stomach.  In order to combat the craving and distract himself, Jeremy got busy doing things like reading to his daughter, doing household chores, and catching up on one of his favorite television shows. Despite these distractions, Jeremy kept picturing the cake in his mind, beckoning to him from the refrigerator.  Jeremy felt frustrated because although the craving for cake would temporarily go away when he was distracted, it kept coming back throughout the rest of the night.  While he was ultimately able to stand firm (and asked his wife to bring the cake in to share with her colleagues the next day) he felt unsteady because his cravings never really went away that night.

Jeremy and I discussed this situation in session and I reminded him of times in the past when he has had a craving and has definitively said to himself, “No choice, I’m absolutely not giving in,” and the craving went away completely.  Jeremy confirmed that this was true and said he couldn’t figure out why that night with the cake was different.  I asked Jeremy to reflect back on what he said to himself each time he had a craving for the cake.  Did he definitely say to himself, “No way, I’m not having any,” or was it possible that each time he had a craving, he took a moment to consider the possibility of actually having the cake, and then was able to ultimately make the decision to not give in at that time.  Jeremy thought about it and recognized that because the cake was so good, and because it was his favorite, each time he thought about it he probably had a dialogue in his head that went something like, “Maybe I should have a little more cake. Just a little bit won’t hurt, and besides, it’s my daughter’s birthday.  No, you’re not supposed to have any more tonight.  But it was so good and it’s my favorite so maybe just this one time it’s okay.  No, you know that ‘just this one time’ doesn’t work and so you shouldn’t any more tonight.  But maybe it really would be okay, and besides, it would taste so good,” etc.  

Jeremy and I discussed this further and I pointed out to him how different and how much more indecisive that was from how he used to answer to cravings not that long ago.  He realized that the reason the craving probably never went away for good that night was because each time he had it, he gave himself the option of giving in, thus psychologically opening the door to more cravings.  Likely if Jeremy had been able to conclusively say NO to himself (like he has in the past), the craving wouldn’t have kept reoccurring because he would have sent himself the message, “no matter what, I’m not having any more.”   Jeremy left session armed with the knowledge that he can and does have the power to make cravings go away completely, but that one surefire way of making them continue is to think about giving in each time he has one.

In Session with Deborah: Memorial Day Weekend

This week I had a session with my dieter, Amy.  Amy told me that while she is excited for the long weekend, she’s also nervous because she has a lot of events over the weekend and she’s worried about how she will handle her eating.

The first thing I did was reassure Amy that she had nothing to do be nervous about. I reminded her that if she makes a mistake over the weekend, it’s not the end of the world, and she has already become adept at the skill of making a mistake and getting herself right back on track.  In the event that she did get off track, I asked Amy to tell me exactly what she would do.  She replied that she would:

1. Label it a “mistake” and not castrophize.

2. Read her Advantages List and some Response Cards and remind herself that she will feel so much better if she gets right back on track that minute.

3. Think about other times when she’s made mistakes and how proud and great she felt when she got right back on track.

4. Think about what sabotaging thoughts led her astray and what responses might be helpful in the future.

5. Resume normal eating for the rest of the day and give herself lots and lots of credit.

Amy and I then discussed what events she had this weekend so that we could come up with a plan.  Amy reported that she is going to the beach Friday through Monday morning and will likely eat out for dinner all three nights, and then she will be attending a barbeque on Monday afternoon.

Amy and I first tackled how she will handle eating out three nights in a row while she’s at the beach. As a lover of bread, wine, and dessert, I reminded Amy that she probably couldn’t have all three at all three meals.  Amy and I talked this over and we realized that it is unhelpful to think of each meal out as a separate event, because if she did, then she might feel deprived not having bread, wine, or dessert at any of one of them.  Instead, we decided to conceptualize the three meals as one package deal, and figure out during which of the three Amy would have these treats.  In doing so, Amy is much less likely to feel deprived at any one meal because she can say to herself, “I don’t need to have bread tonight, I’m going to have it tomorrow. And besides, tonight I’m having wine.” 

Next, Amy and I talked about her strategy for the barbeque.  We came up with the following guidelines:

  • Look at all the food before deciding what to have.
  • No nibbling and no eating standing up! Make a plate of food and deliberately sit down to eat it so I can see how much I’m having and be visually and physically satisfied.
  • If we’re there for a long time, have a snack if I’m hungry but make sure to sit down and eat it mindfully.
  • No dessert at the barbeque – if I really want something, I can bring it home and have it after dinner.
  • No more than two drinks.  Remember, I’ve already had a big weekend and I don’t need more alcohol.
  • Spend time talking to people. I’m there for the social aspect, not for the food!
  • Bring and read the following Response Cards:












Armed with these plans and strategies, and a renewed confidence in her ability to handle mistakes in the event that she makes any, Amy reported that she was feeling a lot less nervous and a lot more excited about the weekend to come.  I reminded Amy that she has the ability to handle any eating event, especially when she has a strong plan and a firm belief in why it’s worth it to her to follow it.

In Session with Deborah: Fantasy vs. Reality

Earlier this week, I had a session with my dieter, Mark. Mark had had a hard week and was struggling to get himself to do the things he knew he needed to do in order to reach his goals. Mark said that he was plagued by [sabotaging] thoughts this week such as, “This is so much work, is it worth it?” and, “I just wish I could eat whatever I want, whenever I want it.”

One of the first things I did with Mark was bring out his Advantages List – the list of all the reasons why he wants to lose weight. Mark and I went through the list, item by item, and I asked him how important each one was on a scale of 0 to 10. Some of the things Mark rated as a “10” in importance were:

  • Reduce many health risks, especially for diabetes and heart disease
  • Set a good example for his children
  • Improve his chances exponentially of being able to watch his children grow up
  • Have a good quality of life

When faced with these things, Mark admitted that he wanted to keep trying and keep working because the advantages of doing so were indisputably worth it. This was a very important exercise to do with Mark in session because if he doesn’t retain a of sense of exactly why it’s worth it to him to continue working hard, why wouldn’t he give up?

Next we tackled Mark’s second sabotaging thought: I wish I could eat whatever I want, whenever I want. I asked Mark how he felt when he ate that way, which for him means overeating (especially unhealthy foods), constantly giving in to cravings, and doing things like eating a whole pizza instead of just one or two slices. After thinking about it, Mark replied that this makes him feel “terrible, guilty, and sick.” Mark and I discussed this further, and Mark came to the realization that what he was essentially trying to hold on to was a fantasy: he always thinks that he’ll be happy when he eats whatever he wants, whenever he wants, but in fact this makes him feel just the opposite. The “eating whatever I want = happiness” idea is truly a fantasy and not grounded in reality because, in reality, that feels bad and being in control of his eating feels good.

Mark was able grasp this idea intellectually, but it still wasn’t quite hitting home for him yet. In order to help him further assimilate this idea, we discussed other ways in which Mark has given up fantasies for realities – and has been happier for doing so. Mark said that when he was younger, one of his dreams was to become a basketball star and play in the NBA. Although Mark played basketball in high school, he eventually gave up that particular fantasy when he realized his skills would never enable him to play professionally. Now a high school math teacher, Mark says that his career is extremely rewarding and important to him and he gets fulfillment from it in a way he never did from basketball.

Mark also said that he used to have a fantasy of marrying his favorite actress – but let that fantasy go completely when he met the woman who is now his wife. Mark has a healthy, happy, and stable relationship with his wife (while his fantasy woman has gone on to numerous divorces) and he knows 100% that his fantasy would never have turned into a happy reality.

Through discussing all of this, Mark was able to see that in many other areas of his life he has been able to give up impracticable fantasies in favor of realities that make him very happy and fulfilled – and his fantasy about food is no different. Mark realized that once he gave up the fantasy of being able to eat in an uncontrolled way (which never left him feeling good anyway) he would be happier because he would get very real satisfaction from being in control of his eating, struggling much less, and achieving the enormously important goals on his Advantages List.

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: Going on Vacation

My dieter, Lisa, is leaving soon to go on vacation for a week.  While Lisa is very excited for this trip, when she came into session this week she also noted that she was feeling somewhat nervous because she doesn’t want to undo all of the progress she has made over the past few months.  In session yesterday Lisa and I discussed specific strategies and guidelines she would use while she was on vacation as well as the mindset she wants to maintain. 

Here are some of the strategies and guidelines we formulated:

Since she doesn’t really enjoy the taste of alcohol all that much, Lisa decided on having a 2-3 drink limit for the whole week because, in general, she’d rather eat her calories than drink them.   Even though Lisa initially stated she didn’t want to have any alcoholic drinks on her trip, we discussed the fact that if her rules are too rigid and she ends up having a drink anyway, she may then be tempted to throw in the towel, thinking, “Well I’ve blown it for this trip. I might as well just get back on track when I get home.”  By having a reasonable range, Lisa is able to keep the option open so that if she does decide to have a drink, she doesn’t have to feel bad about it and she will still maintain a sense of control over her eating (and drinking). 

Lisa also decided that since there will be a gym in her hotel and she knows that she will have a lot of down time to use it, she will plan on getting there at least two of the seven days she’ll be away. Lisa also decided that on the days she’s not going to the gym, she will take at least a 20 minute walk.  Again, Lisa originally wanted to set a guideline of going to the gym at least 5 of the days she’ll be away, but I discussed with Lisa that if her plan is too hard, she may just abandon it completely and instead buy into the idea that if she can’t get to the gym 5 days, then it’s not worth going at all. 

Additionally Lisa decided that she will allow herself one reasonable sized treat each day and that she will take the time to really sit down and enjoy it.  Lisa and I discussed the fact that while she likely won’t be able to eat everything she wants on the trip, she can still get a lot of enjoyment from the things she is eating and it’s certainly not all-or-nothing: it’s not as if Lisa will either be able to eat everything she wants or she won’t be able to eat anything she wants – rather by choosing to have one treat a day Lisa is finding the middle ground.

Lisa and I also discussed many different ideas and sabotaging thoughts that may arise while she is on her vacation and we formulated responses to them.  We also came up with a general mindset that Lisa will maintain while she is away. Here are some of the helpful ideas that Lisa will remind herself of:

Everything that I eat and drink on this trip is 100% within my control. No one will force me to eat anything, so that means it is entirely up to me whether I lose weight, gain weight, or stay the same while on this trip.

I will enjoy the trip MORE if I stay in control of my eating! Every time I eat off track I feel terrible, and that will not change even though I’m on vacation.  If I maintain control, I will be able to feel proud of myself and I won’t have to feel guilty about anything, and I know for a fact that feeling guilty about my eating would take away from my enjoyment of the trip.

While I will be eating less than I probably want while on this trip, I am doing this for very important reasons! I would so much rather have everything on my Advantages List then the momentary pleasure of any one food.  It’s worth it to stay my plan and it’s not worth it AT ALL to undo my last few months of hard work.

I know I can do this! I’ve been in challenging situations before and I’ve triumphed and I know how amazing I feel when I do.  I’ve got this!

There’s no such thing as “blowing it for the entire trip.”  Even if I make a mistake one day, as long as I get back on track right away it won’t make any difference. And I know that the moment I get back on track is the moment I again start enjoying the trip more.

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 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!