Creating a plan allows you to eat a reasonable amount, enjoyed the food you eat, and feel proud of yourself for making healthy decisions. Learn what Kate could have done before attending a potluck dinner to make a helpful plan for her eating.
When we first start working with new clients, they often report that they have trouble staying on track when they get home from work, and that the hour or two between arriving home and eating dinner is often filled with unplanned eating. We think that there are several reasons why this is such a troublesome area: Read more
This week I had a session with my dieter, Audrey, who is having a holiday-themed housewarming party on Sunday. In session we discussed how she would handle this – although we didn’t spend very much time talking about what she would do during the actual party. Over the last few months, Audrey has had a lot of practice going to parties and has gotten very good at doing things like making plans in advance, eating everything sitting down, not taking seconds, reading Response Cards, and saying no to food pushers. Audrey is also a classic secret eating – she is able to control her eating when other people are around and watching, but once she is alone, staying on track becomes much more difficult. Because of this, we knew that the main struggle for Audrey would be staying on track once the party was over and everyone had left, so that is what we focused on in session. Here is the After Party Plan we came up with:
Get rid of as many leftovers as possible. Knowing that she has trouble when she has crunchy, snacky food and sweets lying around the house, Audrey decided that she would send home as many leftovers as she could with her family and friends to minimize what she had left once the party was over.
Assess what leftovers are left and make a plan. Audrey knew that she would make her life much easier if she had a plan for each component of leftover party food and so for each one she would decide whether to keep it, throw it away, or bring it to her office the next day.
Put the office leftovers right into the trunk of her car. Audrey knew that, even if she had a pile of leftovers specifically ear-marked for her office, there was still a chance she would get into them Sunday night if they were hanging around on her counter. Because of this, Audrey decided that out of sight-out of mind was her best strategy and so she would put the office leftovers right into the trunk of her car where she couldn’t see them or easily access them.
Immediately throw away what leftovers she was planning to toss. Audrey knew it might be difficult to get herself to actually throw away certain leftovers, and identified that these are the sabotaging thoughts she’s most likely to have: “I paid for it so I should eat it,” and, “I might have company over again soon so I should save the half box of crackers for then.” To help her overcome these sabotaging thoughts, Audrey made the following Response Cards:
I’ve already paid for the food and so the money is already gone. Eating the food won’t bring the money back, it will just cause me to take in extra calories and gain weight. Just throw it out!
The cost of keeping a half box of crackers is so much higher than the cost of throwing it out and buying another one the next time I have company. If I keep it, I’ll likely end up overeating them, getting off track, and feeling badly and guilty. It’s worth the cost of a new box of crackers to stop this from happening.
Individually portion the leftovers she was keeping and make a plan for when she would eat them. Audrey decided that there were some leftovers that would be worth keeping because she could bring them as part of her lunch over the next week or have them for dessert in the evening. However, Audrey also knew that having large bags of snacks has been problematic in the past, so she decided that she would immediately divide the leftovers into individual portions and then wrap them up. Audrey also knew that having highly tempting food around her apartment with no specific plan of when she would eat it was a recipe for causing lots of struggle, so she decided that she would figure out ahead of time exactly when she would have it. That way, she was much less likely to go overboard when she did eat this tempting food because she would be able to say to herself, “I don’t need to eat more now, I know I can have it again tomorrow. And, if I wait until tomorrow, I’ll enjoy it more because I won’t feel guilty about eating it.”
With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it’s high time dieters begin to think about how they’ll handle their eating on that day. While Thanksgiving is considered by many to be a day in which it’s just too difficult to control their eating, it doesn’t have to be that way. When we help dieters formulate their Thanksgiving plan, we always ask them to think about one important thing: How do you want to feel going to bed once Thanksgiving is over?
Asking dieters this question reminds them that the experience of Thanksgiving is not limited to the time when they’re eating with family and friends. The experience also extends to how they feel afterwards. Dieters often have sabotaging thoughts such as, “If I have to limit how much I eat, I just won’t be able to enjoy myself.” If they then overeat, they may wind up feeling sick – physically and psychologically: physically, because they consumed way too much food and psychologically, because they feel out of control and guilty for overeating.
When we ask dieters how they want to feel once Thanksgiving is over, they usually say something along the lines of, “I want to feel full and satisfied and I also want to feel good about myself.” We then ask, ” Will getting off track and overeating on Thanksgiving lead you to feeling that way?” Because the answer is no, we suggest coming up with a plan that will make them feel good. It makes sense to dieters that they simply can’t have it both ways: They can’t way overeat during Thanksgiving and still wind up feeling proud and in control – these are incompatible goals.
We remind dieters, that it’s not all-or-nothing. It’s not as if they can eat every bite of food that they want or they can’t eat any food that they want; in fact, there is a huge middle ground between these two extremes. While it’s true that they may not be able to eat as much of everything they want and still go to bed feeling good that night, it’s also true that they can eat reasonable portions, enjoy every bite that they take, and feel really good.
We sent this out last year (if you want to receive our free e-newsletter, you can sign up here), but there are probably people who haven’t seen it before and/or people who would benefit from reading it again! Here are some Halloween-specific strategies that will help you stick to your plan this October 31st and the days surrounding it.
Remember: Candy is available year-round! Dieters tend to load up and eat lots of candy on Halloween, saying to themselves, “Well, it only occurs once a year.” That’s true, but Halloween is once a year, every year, and candy is available every day of the year. Drug stores and supermarkets sell fun-sized candy bars year-round, so you don’t need to load up now. You can buy candy any time.
Don’t buy candy until you need it. This may seem like an obvious piece of advice, but it’s an important one. Many people buy Halloween candy a few weeks in advance, perhaps rationalizing that “it will be good to have that task over with,” “I won’t have to worry about stores running out,” and “I can get the candy on sale.” And then what usually happens? They end up eating some (or all) of it before the big day. Even when dieters are able to wait to break into the candy until Halloween itself, it can be a daily struggle to resist. There is a very simple solution to this problem: Don’t purchase candy in advance. Even if it adds a small amount of cost or an additional chore on your already busy October 31st, isn’t it worth not having to worry about giving in and expending the mental energy to resist until it’s time?
Buy candy that you don’t like so much in bulk and just a single serving of your favorite candy. You’ll obviously have the most trouble resisting your favorite candy, so buy candy in bulk that you don’t enjoy as much—you’ll have an easier time resisting it, and when Halloween is over, it will probably be easier for you to throw away the leftovers, give them away, or donate them. You can and should buy a single-serving of the candy you like the most. This way, you’ll be able to savor your favorite candy without worrying about having to stop yourself from going back for more.
Remember, the Halloween experience lasts for longer than one day. Even though the holiday itself is just a day, it is highly likely that you will come in contact with Halloween treats on the days leading up to and following October 31st. Be on the lookout for the common sabotaging thought, “I’m going to eat a lot of extra candy on Halloween, but it’s okay because it’s only one day.” This thought does not take into account the candy that you come in contact with before Halloween, the candy you might have left over, the candy in your office kitchen, at your friends’ homes, and at the parties and events you attend, before and after October 31st. If you’re making a plan for Halloween, it’s important to factor in the days before and after, too.
Get rid of left overs! If extra candy is in your house, you’re likely to be tempted to eat it at some point. If you want to avoid having to resist leftovers, there are plenty of ways to get rid of them. Give them away, donate them, bring them in to work, or simply throw them away. If you have the sabotaging thought, “I can’t throw the candy away because it would be a waste of money,” remind yourself, “Either way the money is already gone. Eating the candy won’t bring it back.” One way or another, if you can limit your amount of exposure to leftover candy, you’ll make it so much easier on yourself. And if your kids go trick-or-treating, it’s also a good idea to immediately get rid of the candy they don’t like or can’t eat. If you keep it around, you may end up eating it or struggling to resist it. Remember, even though it may cost you a bit, in the long-run, you’ll probably end up saving yourself thousands of calories by getting rid of extra Halloween candy and instead buying yourself a single serving of your favorite candy that you’ve planned to eat. This will help guarantee that you enjoy your favorite treat, when you really want it, and without the guilt.
In my work with dieters, I find that many of them tend to fall into either the category of “Social Eaters” or “Secret Eaters.” Social eaters are those who have a lot of trouble staying in control when they are out and eating with other people. They are highly influenced by what everyone around them is eating and drinking and often feel deprived if they don’t eat in the same way. By contrast, secret eaters often have a much easier time staying in control when they are eating in front of other people and tend to lose it when they are back at home, alone. Regardless of which type of eater you may be (and some dieters fall into both categories), your greatest defense is figuring out in advance what sabotaging thoughts you’re likely to have in either situation and come up with responses to them. Here are some examples:
Social eating sabotaging thoughts
Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay to eat this because everyone around me is eating it.
Response: My body doesn’t know or care what everyone around me is eating; it only knows what I eat. So just because everyone around me is eating a lot, doesn’t necessarily mean that I can.
Sabotaging Thought: I’ll be deprived if I can’t eat what everyone around me is eating.
Response: Either way I’m deprived. Either I’m deprived of some food some of the time (but not all food, all of the time), or I’m deprived of all the benefits of losing weight. Which would be the bigger deprivation?
Sabotaging Thought: It’s not fair I can’t eat normally like everyone else.
Response: I have to redefine my definition of “normal” eating. In fact, I am eating 100% normally for someone of my age and my gender with my weight loss goals.
Secret eating sabotaging thoughts
Sabotaging Thought: I was so good when I was out and there so much food I didn’t eat, so it’s okay to eat this now.
Response: My body doesn’t know all the food I didn’t eat, it only knows what I do eat. So just because I turned down lots of food before doesn’t mean that I can eat extra now.
Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay to eat this because no one is watching.
Response: Although it may feel okay to eat extra because I’m alone, the reality is that my body doesn’t know if 100 people are watching me eat or if no one is watching me eat, it processes all calories the same. So it’s absolutely irrelevant whether or not I’m alone when I overeat – overeating is overeating.
Whether you’re a social eater or a secret eater, another helpful technique is to make a plan, in advance, of what you’ll eat in those situations. For social eaters, if you know you’re going out to dinner with friends, decide in advance what you’re going to eat and then respond to sabotaging thoughts in the moment to ensure that you stick to your plan. Remember that, if you want to lose weight, what everyone else around you is eating has no bearing on what you eat. Stick to your plan and you’ll be so happy, once the event is over, that you did.
For social eaters, plan in advance what, if anything, you’ll eat when you arrive back home. If your plan is to eat nothing, avoid the kitchen entirely. If your plan is to have either a snack or a mug of hot tea when you get home, get everything together before you leave (for example, put a tea bag in a mug on your table) so that way when you get home, it will be easy to remember exactly what your plan is and you won’t have to go rooting in the cupboards. Respond to sabotaging thoughts that would encourage you to eat something you hadn’t planned to eat. Stick to your plan and you’ll be so happy, once the night is over, that you did.
I recently had a session with my client, Allison, with whom I’ve been working for a few months. In session, Allison told me about an experience she had over the weekend that she wasn’t feeling very happy about. Allison explained that one of her close friends was moving out of state and so over the weekend she had a goodbye party. At the party, there were drinks and passed appetizers. Allison found herself taking appetizer after appetizer and eating them while talking with her friends. Midway through the party, Allison realized that she was overeating and that she had lost track of how much she had already had. Allison told me that she went to the bathroom and read her Advantages List and her Response Cards, both of which she keeps on her phone. After taking a few moments to fortify her resolve and refocus, Allison went back to the party and didn’t eat another bite.
When Allison explained this to me she, she expressed disappointment over getting off track during the party. I, on the other hand, had a different view of the situation. Even though Allison had gotten off track during the party, she did something that can be extremely difficult to do: she got back on track in the middle of the party. She didn’t say to herself, “Well, I’ve already blown it for the party, I might as well keep eating whatever I want.” She also then didn’t go on to say to herself, “Well I’ve blown it for the day so I might as well keep eating whatever I want and get back on track tomorrow.” No! The moment Allison realized she had gotten off track, she immediately turned herself around and didn’t wait for the end of the party/the day/the week/the month to get back on track. I pointed out to Allison how significant this was because she has now proven to herself that whenever she gets off tack, she never has to wait even one moment longer to get back on track.
I reminded Allison that the most successful dieters and maintainers are not those who never make mistakes; rather they are those who make mistakes but get immediately back on track. Allison and I discussed the fact that she will continue to make mistakes for the rest of her life, but as long as she recovers from them immediately (as she did at the party), they will remain very minor and won’t negatively impact her weight.
Allison and I also took a few moments to assess the situation and figure out what had led her to get off track in the first place. Allison realized that the major problem was that she hadn’t gone into the party with a strong plan. She went in thinking she would have “just a few” bites to eat, but had nothing specific in mind. Allison also realized after the fact that she overate partly because she didn’t have a plan, partly because she was distracted talking to her friends, and partly because she was feeling upset and emotional about her friend leaving town. In order to better prepare herself for a similar situation in the future, Allison decided that she would ahead of time formulate a strong plan and make the effort to deliberately eat everything slowly and mindfully. And, if she knew that she might be going into a potentially emotional situation, like a good-bye party, Allison decided that she would read Response Cards ahead of time that specifically reminded her that eating for emotional reasons ultimately always has the opposite of the intended effect, meaning it makes her feel worse, not better.
In session last week, my client Joe told me about a big conference dinner he would be going to the following week in which there would be passed appetizers, soup, salad, bread, multiple entrees and sides, alcohol, and tables of dessert. Joe wasn’t sure how he would handle all that excess of food, so in session we made a plan for him to follow.
When making a plan for this dinner, the first thing we considered was the fact that it will be in the middle of a four day conference during which he’ll be eating lots of meals in restaurants and be out of his regular routine. Because of this, and the fact that it was Joe’s goal to not gain weight on the trip, we knew that Joe simply couldn’t go overboard and still maintain his weight because he would already have so many other opportunities to take in extra calories. Bearing this in mind, here are some of the components of Joe’s plan for that dinner:
1. No appetizers. Joe decided that since there would be so much other food being served, he would rather not use up calories during the cocktail hour when the time could be better spent mingling and networking with other conference attendees. Joe also knew from past experience that he gets much more satisfaction from food that he eats sitting down as opposed to food he just pops in his mouth standing up (which he’s likely to forget even having eaten by the time he sits down to dinner).
2. Joe will have salad with dressing on the side and no soup. Knowing how many calories are in salad dressing, Joe decided that he would make sure to request his salad with dressing on the side, so he could be sure of how much he was having. Joe also decided to forgo the soup, knowing that the salad would be enough food before dinner.
3. When Joe’s entrée plate comes, he will immediately decide how much to eat and section off the rest. In doing this, Joe is at much less risk for cleaning his plate because he’ll know from the get-go how much he’s having. Also, if Joe winds up getting involved in conversation, he’s less likely to overeat because even if he eats mindlessly, he still won’t take in more calories than he had initially planned. If Joe is tempted to keep eating after he has finished his allotted portion, Joe will remind himself, “I’ve already had enough to eat. The only reason I want to eat more is because it tastes good, but if I continue to eat, it won’t taste nearly as good as the first part of my dinner because I’ll be feeling guilty as I’m eating it. Guilt tastes bad!”
4. Joe will have one alcoholic beverage, one dessert, and no bread. Joe decided that once he’s actually at the dinner, he’ll decide whether he wants to have a glass of wine during the cocktail hour or with dinner. He also knew that with everything else he would be eating and drinking, he probably didn’t have enough calories to have bread and dessert, and Joe decided that he would much rather forgo the bread in favor of dessert. If Joe was really tempted by the bread, he would remind himself, “It’s worth not having bread now because I’ll get to have dessert later. Besides, I’ve had bread before, I know what it tastes like, and I’ll definitely have it again.” If Joe is tempted to have a second dessert, he’ll remind himself, “I definitely will later regret having a second dessert, but once the dinner is over, I definitely won’t regret not having eaten more dessert. Do I want to have regrets or not?”
5. Joe will eat everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully. Joe knew that this was extra important during this dinner because he’ll likely be eating less than many other people, and therefore he wants to draw out and enjoy what he is eating for as long as possible.
In session with Joe this week, Joe and I discussed how it went and he told me how helpful it was to have a plan because it allowed him to feel in control and confident during the whole dinner. Joe also told me that even though he knew there would be a lot of food served, he was still somewhat astonished by how much there was and how much everyone else was eating. Joe said that he looked at all the food and just knew, “No question, of course I’m not going to eat it all.”
I asked Joe how his eating during this dinner was different from how it might have been six months ago, before we started working together. Joe replied, “Oh, I would have eaten everything. No question.” In saying this, Joe demonstrated a fundamental mindset shift he has made over the past few months. He went from, “No question, of course I’m going to eat all this food,” to, “Of course I’m NOT going to eat all this food. No question!”
Over the past few weeks, my dieter, Jennifer, has been working hard on all of her initial skills, like reading her Advantages List every morning (and often right before dinner, too), eating everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully, and giving herself credit. She has also been working on limiting junk food to just one portion per day, after dinner, and adding more fruits and vegetables to her diet.
In session this week, Jennifer told me that she is going on vacation with her family next week and one of their traditions is to get ice cream in the afternoon and walk around while they eat it. Jennifer really loves to do this with her family, but she was concerned because it would mean eating standing up. Jennifer and I discussed this and we agreed that, while she was on her trip, it was perfectly fine to eat ice cream standing up before dinner as long as she planned to do so in advance. I pointed out to Jennifer that wanting in the moment to eat something standing up and telling herself, “It’s okay to have just this one thing standing up, it won’t matter,” is very different from deciding in advance when and where specifically she would eat something standing up. In the first case, it would mean exercising her giving-in muscle and listening to sabotaging thoughts. In the second case, it wouldn’t be exercising her giving-in muscle at all because it would just be part of her plan.
Similarly, it’s fine for Jennifer to plan to have junk food before dinner while on vacation because she’ll be deciding to do so in advance. Again, this won’t be a case of Jennifer seeing a junk food that she really wants to eat and spontaneously deciding to have it before dinner, which would definitely strengthen her giving-in muscle. Rather, it will be a deliberate and thought-out exception to her rule.
Jennifer also decided that, once she was back from her trip, she would go right back to not having junk food before dinner and wouldn’t let exceptions filter into her everyday life. If Jennifer started eating junk food before dinner on a normal day, it would become so much harder to resist (as it was when she first started working on this skill) and every time she saw junk food she would once again enter into the painful and exhausting struggle of, “Should I have some? No, you know you shouldn’t. But it looks really good. But you don’t have it before dinner. But I had it yesterday before dinner and it was okay, so maybe now it’s okay, too, etc. etc. etc.”
So you can see that, at times, it can be 100% fine to make exceptions to your rules, as long as you decide to do so in advance and don’t give in to momentary sabotaging thoughts. But, like Jennifer, if you do decide to make an exception, it’s important to set parameters (like only having junk food before dinner on vacation) so that you’re not tempted to make an exception (and have to struggle about whether or not to) every time it comes up.
Last week, my dieter, Kim, and I spent time in session coming up with a strong Easter plan. This week, Kim reported that not only was she able to follow through with her Easter plan, but she felt great about it, and she lost weight this week – something that would have been unheard of in years past. What did Kim do that made her Easter so successful?
1. Kim made it a priority to read her plan and Response cards before she left for the day. In session last week, Kim and I had written out a plan for how she would handle Easter. Usually coming up with a mental plan doesn’t work as well because it’s much easier to erase and cross out things in your mind than it is when it is actually written out. Not only did we write down the plan, but Kim made sure to review it in the days leading up to Easter (so it would be etched more firmly in her brain), and right before she left to go to her sister’s house that day. She also read Response Cards about cravings, holidays, and reminding herself how she’ll feel if she stays in control.
2. Kim looked at all of the food being served before deciding what to have. Although Kim had a pretty good idea of what was being served (she had contacted her sister ahead of time and asked what the menu would be), when it came time to eat, Kim made sure to survey all the dishes and decide deliberately what she would have. This way, she didn’t end up eating a full plate and then see something else she really wanted to have, and end up overeating.
3. Kim was also careful about how much food she served herself. Kim and I had discussed how important it would be for her to only put on her plate what she intended to eat. In doing so, she could eat everything that was on her plate and feel satisfied, and not have to question whether or not she was eating too much or whether or not she should go back for more.
5. Kim had no candy and only one portion of dessert. Deciding how much, if any, candy and desserts Kim would have on Easter was a big part of the plan. Kim is a self-proclaimed chocoholic and loves any and all Easter candy and desserts. Kim told me that in Easters past, she would go overboard on sweets and end up snacking on candy all day long. Kim and I decided that, for her, the best course of action would be to have no candy on Easter and one portion of whatever baked good she wanted. We decided on this plan because we knew that if Kim got started snacking on Easter candy, it would make it very easy for her to continue going back for more and more. The baked goods being served (mainly cupcakes) were already portion-controlled, and not as easy to keep dipping into. This way, Kim wouldn’t have to struggle against whether or not to have more candy and instead she could focus on enjoying her cupcake. Because Kim really likes candy, we also decided that she didn’t have to deprive herself of all candy – she just wouldn’t have any on that day because she was eating so many other delicious things. We also planned that post-Easter she would buy her favorite Easter candy (on sale!) and she enjoyed it even more the day after, when she could really appreciate it. When Kim was tempted by the candy on Easter, she was able to tell herself, “I don’t need to have this now, I’m going to have some tomorrow, instead. Besides, I’m having a cupcake today.”
6. Kim made sure to eat everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully. By doing so, Kim told me that she was able feel very satisfied (even though she was eating less than previous years) because she really took time to savor and enjoy every bite that she ate. She also didn’t feel guilty about what she was eating, which made the food taste better.
7. Kim didn’t take home any leftovers. Kim knew that it might be difficult for her to control herself if she had lots of Easter leftovers lurking in her refrigerator, so she decided that his year she just wouldn’t take any home, thus eliminating the potential struggle altogether. Kim reminded herself that if there was something there she really liked, she could either wait until next year to have it again, OR make it for herself at some point in the near future. It wasn’t as if she either had to have it right then, or she’d never get it again.
To sum up her day, this is what Kim told me: “At the end of the day, I felt great. I didn’t feel deprived about what I didn’t eat, because I did get to enjoy good food, and instead I really did feel proud and happy about staying in control and following my plan. I was surprised that I also didn’t struggle much because I just knew, ‘If it’s not on my plan, I’m not having it.’ It made the day so much better.”
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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