Treats in the Office Kitchen

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:

  1. A really good plan
  2. Strategies to put that plan into action
  3. 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.DSC_0051

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.

Response Card - It’s okay just this one time to not stick to my office holiday treats plan. (1)

Sabotaging Thought: I’m going to eat this unplanned treat because I just don’t care.

Response Card - I’m going to eat this unplanned treat because I just don’t care. (1)

Sabotaging Thought: It’s too hard to stick to my plan.

Response Card - It’s too hard to stick to my plan.

Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay to eat [this unplanned treat] because everyone else is.

 Response Card - It’s okay to eat [this unplanned treat] because everyone else is. (4)

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!

Handling Hunger

Jamie came in to see me this week and discussed a situation that had happened the day before. Jamie told me that she woke up, had her normal breakfast, and then went to work. At 10:00am she had her usual snack to tide her over until her 12:30 lunch break. However, at about 10:30 she started to feel very hungry. Because Jamie and I have spent time in the past helping her learn to differentiate between hunger and non-hunger, she could tell that it was hunger she was experiencing, not thirst, a craving, or just a desire to eat. Looking ahead, Jamie knew he lunch was still a formidable two hours away and she was sitting at her desk with a hungry stomach.

When Jamie first came to see me she had a fear of hunger that was leading her to load up at meals and carry snacks with her just in case hunger should choose to strike. This is why I had had Jamie do a hunger experiment (which is to skip lunch one day and eat nothing between breakfast and dinner) twice over the course of a month to prove to herself that hunger comes and goes and that at its worst, hunger pains rate as only mildly painful. Before Jamie did this experiment she wrote out a pain chart and assigned numbers, 1 through 10, to her most painful experiences. For Jamie, 1 was a mild headache, 5 was a bad toothache, and 10 was the time she broke her leg and needed surgery. When Jamie did the hunger experiment, not only did she find that the hunger came and went and she forgot about it when she got distracted, but when she was feeling hunger pangs they only rated, at their highest, at about a 2 or 2.5. Through the hunger experiment Jamie definitively learned that hunger will not kill her and that if she gets busy she won’t even feel it most of the time.

However, Jamie had done these hunger experiments a few months ago and by the time her hunger before lunch rolled around this week, Jamie had begun to forget what she had previously proved to herself. Jamie told me that she started to have thoughts like, “Oh no, I’m hungry and lunch isn’t for another two hours. This is really bad and I’m going to get so hungry and be too distracted to get any work done. I’ll never make it until lunch time.” Because of these sabotaging thoughts, Jamie seriously considered having another snack and began to look for one until she realized that didn’t have any other food packed and so she couldn’t. Jamie told me that was the best thing that could have happened to her because she was forced to wait out her hunger and not put a band aid on it, like she would have done in the past. When Jamie accepted that she wasn’t going to be able to have a snack despite her desire to have one, she was able to turn her attention back to work and start tackling a project that had been hanging over her head.            

Like she experienced in the past, before Jamie knew it an hour had passed and she realized she had barely been feeling much, if any, hunger during that time. Jamie did experience some hunger pangs again when she took a breather, was no longer distracted, and turned her attention to thoughts of food, but by that point she was easily able to tell herself, “Lunch is only an hour away. I can definitely wait an hour to eat and I know I’ll be so happy I did. I just have to get myself involved in work again and the hunger will go away like it always does.”

In session, Jamie and I discussed her triumph and what she has learned from it. Jamie reported that she was glad she was forced to undergo another smaller hunger experiment because it helped remind her of things she already knew but had forgotten somewhat. Jamie and I discussed the fact that she might continue to be a little bit vulnerable to fearing hunger, but whenever she needed to she could always do another hunger experiment and prove to herself, over and over again, that hunger is not an emergency and she can definitely wait it out.

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.




Are You a “Normal” Eater?

People who have never been overweight and have not had significant issues with their weight eat, think, and behave differently from chronic dieters. If you’re a chronic dieter, do you have a tendency to:

  1. “Graze,” i.e., eat a larger amount of food than you intended throughout part of the day, or binge-eat
  2. Feel a lack of control over your eating
  3. Try not to notice how much you’re eating
  4. Eat until you feel uncomfortably full
  5. Overeat and stop only when the food is gone
  6. Eat alone (maybe in secret) because you’d be embarrassed by how much you’re eating
  7. Obsess (think too much) about food throughout the day or evening
  8. Feel depressed, guilty, or disgusted with yourself after overeating
  9. Eat as a primary coping strategy when you’re upset
  10. Eat when you’re bored
  11. Significantly overvalue body shape and weight
  12. Weigh yourself more than once a day
  13. Become pre-occupied with how heavy your body feels or how tight your clothes are after meals or throughout the day
  14. Plan ahead so you never have to be hungry
  15. Avoid the scale when you think you have gained weight
  16. Feel unable to control what you order to eat or what kind of food you buy
  17. Make one “mistake” (i.e., “cheat”) and then eat with abandon
  18. Feel helpless when you gain weight
  19. Continually make exceptions to your eating rules
  20. Eat whenever you feel like it, regardless of your level of hunger
  21. Try to fool yourself about the amount you consume or the consequences of your consumption
  22. Skip meals to lose weight
  23. Outlaw certain foods completely

These characteristics are generally not shared by “normal” eaters and they can make it difficult to lose weight—or to keep it off. You may be able to curb these tendencies for a period of time, especially if you’re highly motivated. But chances are you will revert to these behaviors at some point and regain weight—unless you learn a different way of thinking and eating that allows you to make permanent changes in your behavior.

Reworking the Plan

Melanie, a dieter who consulted me a few months ago, recently contacted me for a “booster” session. She was doing great, still losing about 3 pounds a month. She was no longer writing down her food plan in advance, nor did she need to. Instead, she was able to decide at each meal and snack what she wanted to have and to eyeball her portions instead of measuring her food. She made sure to have plenty of (usually) lean protein and vegetables for lunch and dinner (along with a portion of healthy fat and a grain or starch). She mostly ate fruit or nuts for snacks. And she continued to eat whatever junk food she wanted (about 200-250 calories) at night. Melanie wanted to branch out in her selection of dinner entrees. Her husband wanted her to start cooking some old favorites such as lasagna and corned beef brisket. We had the following conversation:

Melanie: I’m afraid if I start to eat foods like that, I’ll gain weight.

Dr. Beck: Not if you keep your portion small.

Melanie: I’m afraid if I have less protein, I’ll be hungry.

Dr. Beck: And what are you afraid will happen if you’re hungry?

Melanie: I don’t know. I guess I just don’t like the thought of it.

Dr. Beck: Do you remember when you did the hunger experiment? (pages 121-125) What did you find out?

Melanie: I know, I know. Hunger is never an emergency. I do remind myself of that some times. But, I don’t know, it seems worse at night.

Dr. Beck: Well, do you want to do some experiments? For example, you could use your protein calories for corned beef. It will be a smaller portion than chicken. But here’s what I want you to do. Don’t linger at the table when you’re finished. Plan an activity beforehand to do right after dinner. And set a timer for 20 minutes. When the timer goes off, check your hunger level. If you’re still hungry, just tolerate it—leave the house if you think you need to. And the next day, do a similar experiment. But this time, skip your morning snack and have it sometime after dinner (immediately if you want to or later on). Plus you’ll still have your regular evening snack. What do you think?

Melanie tried the experiment with various dinner entrees, and to her relief, found that she wasn’t overcome with hunger. But she really liked the idea of eliminating her morning snack so she could have two evening snacks. She’s been sticking with her new plan for a couple of weeks now and is glad to be able to branch out and eat more in the evening.

Rules for Traveling

When traveling and staying in a hotel, dieters may be tempted by the treats in their hotel rooms. Hotels are smart – they often leave a basket of snacks in full view so they can tempt people to spend money (Day 32 of The Beck Diet Solution). But dieters can take the basket and put it in a closet or cover it with a towel and develop a rule to always carry their own treats with them instead of eating anything from a minibar, basket, or snack machine. If they’re hungry, it’s important for dieters to remember that they’ll have their next planned meal/snack within a few hours or have breakfast the next morning (Day 16 of The Beck Diet Solution).  We ask dieters to imagine if this were thirty years ago when there was no food in hotel rooms.  What would they have done then? 

Our dieter, Jason, had to apply this rule in a different way.  He travels for business once or twice a month and there is always an abundance of snack food at the back of the meeting room. He often feels either bored or somewhat stressed during meetings and it is particularly difficult for him to resist the high fat, high sugar foods. Jasonknows that eating these snacks is contrary to his plan, that he will soon feel weak and guilty, and that he could gain weight, he still has a hard time resisting in the moment.  Jason needs to read the advantages of losing weight just before each meeting. He’s also decided to make a rule for himself that he will not eat any snack food provided at meetings. It’s helpful for him to realize that he’s not alone—not everyone at the meeting eats these snacks between meals. Just like the minibar, he can’t give himself a choice about this or he will struggle every single time.  As soon as Jason makes this rule and practices following it ten times in a row, it will become so much easier for him to resist and stick to his plan.

Back to Maintenance Weight

Our veteran dieter, Brian, came in for a booster session this fall. He had maintained his sizable weight loss for over a year but had recently gained back 4 pounds. Because he had developed a general plan of what to eat everyday, he was no longer writing down meal plans and so wasn’t sure where the extra weight had come from. We discussed what he had been eating and asked him if he was doing any unplanned snacking.  Brian realized that over the past few weeks he had slowly started eating more snacks.  The problem was that as he became accustomed to eating more frequently, it began to feel normal to him to eat all throughout the day.  After a little while, Brian got into the habit of eating whenever he felt a little bit hungry or just felt like eating.  At first he didn’t even realize that he had made this shift because it was a gradual but steady process. He had stopped weighing himself daily, too, and the 4 pound gain came as a surprise.

We discussed with Brian all of the skills he had initially learned that helped him stick to his food plan:  telling himself “No Choice,” reminding himself that he would be eating again soon, that hunger is never an emergency, and that he can’t have it both ways – he can’t snack whenever he feels like it and lose weight and keep it off (Days 12 and 16 of The Beck Diet Solution).  Since maintaining his weight loss was still a very important goal to Brian, he knew that it was worth it to start practicing all of his skills again, including making food plans. 

For a couple of weeks Brian wrote food plans each night and made sure to include a reasonable number of snacks (Day 15 of The Beck Diet Solution Weight Loss Workbook).  Because he had practiced it so much in the past, Brian was able to stick to his food plans and cut out the unnecessary snacking he had been doing.  Brian reported that since doing this, the 4 pounds have come off easily.  But more importantly, not only is Brian back to only eating at planned times, but he has also proven to himself that if he does in the future gain a little bit of weight again, he has all the necessary skills and techniques to get back to his maintenance weight. 

Feeling Hungry: Evan

Before he started working with us, our dieter Evan had lost a significant amount of weight following an all liquid diet (which we don’t endorse but understand can be useful for some people).  When Evan came to see us, he wanted help transitioning to regular food and maintaining his weight loss.  One of the first roadblocks Evan encountered during his transition phase was that he began to feel an increased level of hunger. While he was on the liquid diet, although he was taking in a very limited number of calories every day, he very rarely felt hungry.  Once he began eating solid foods, his hunger returned.

We discussed with Evan the fact that experiencing some degree of hunger is produce.jpga normal part of life. Most successful maintainers, for example, report feeling hungry before meals. People who have never struggled with weight or dieting know that they can tolerate hunger, that it’s never an emergency, and that if they distract themselves it will go away more quickly.  Evan realized there was a trade-off. Although he now has to deal with the (relatively minor) discomfort of hunger from time to time, in exchange he gets to experience all the pleasures from the rich variety of foods he can now eat.  And, Evan decided, the tradeoff wasn’t even close. 

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.