Especially during stressful times, unexpected food is an inevitable obstacle. These guidelines will provide structure and advice for making smart eating decisions for any unexpected food in your house.
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.
In session last week, my client, Jeremy, told me that he was feeling worried because he had two events to attend on Saturday night. He explained to me that there would be a lot of food at each one and he was nervous about his ability to stay on track. I reminded Jeremy that it’s never the situation in and of itself that would cause him to get off track –it wouldn’t be the fact that he was at an event surrounded by a lot of appetizing food that everyone else was eating that would cause him to overeat, it would be his thinking about the situation. So we needed to do two things: first, come up with a plan for how he would handle his eating, and second, figure out in advance what sabotaging thoughts he might have that would lead him to stray from this plan and come up with responses to them.
Jeremy and I discussed the two events and decided that a reasonable course of action would be for him to have dinner at the first event and a reasonable portion of one dessert, or smaller portions of two desserts, at the second event. Jeremy also decided to stick to water or club soda, knowing that he would rather spend his calories on food, and also because he would be driving.
Next I asked Jeremy to think about what sabotaging thoughts he might have at either even that would lead him to get off track. Here are the sabotaging thoughts that Jeremy came up with and our responses:
Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay to eat extra because I’m celebrating.
Response: My body doesn’t know or care that I’m celebrating; it processes all calories in the same way regardless.
Sabotaging Thought: I’ll make it for it later by eating less during the week.
Response: “Making up for it later” just doesn’t work because there’s no guarantee that I’ll actually be able to get myself to eat less later on. It also doesn’t work because if I overeat, I reinforce my giving-in muscle and make it more likely I’ll overeat the next time, and the time after that. It’s important to continually reinforce the habit of eating consistently. It’s not about the calories, it’s about the habit.
Sabotaging Thought: I really want it.
Response: It’s true, I do really want that food. But I EVEN MORE want all the benefits of losing weight (better health, fewer aches and pains, improved self-confidence, getting to feel like myself again). Either way I’m missing out on something I want. If I overeat, I miss out on the advantages of losing weight. But if I miss out on extra food, then I GET all the advantages of losing weight.
Sabotaging Thought: Everyone else is eating a lot, why can’t I?
Response: My body doesn’t know or care what anybody around me is eating, it only knows what I eat. So just because everyone else is eating (and drinking) a lot, doesn’t mean that I can. My body doesn’t care what they’re doing.
Sabotaging Thought: My wife won’t know about it, so it’s okay.
Response: My wife won’t know about it, but I’ll know about it, and my body will know about it. If I overeat, I’ll negatively impact myself psychologically and physically. Psychologically because I’ll reinforce old, maladaptive habits and I’ll also feel badly and guilty about my eating. Physically because I’ll likely feel overly full, take in too many calories, and possibly gain weight.
Jeremy decided that he would review his eating plan, his Advantages List, and these Response Cards before each event (and during them if he felt vulnerable to overeating while he was there).
When Jeremy came back to see me this week he reported that the events had been a success and that, with the strategies and tools we put in place, he was able to stay completely on track. This is a great example of how any situation can be handled, no matter how difficult it may seem initially, when dieters take time to formulate a plan, think about what sabotaging thoughts might get in the way of them sticking to their plans, and then coming up with responses so they don’t give in.
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.
This week I had a session with my client, Rachel. Historically, Rachel was a dieter who was able to eat healthfully during the week but would tend to “lose it” during the weekends. Over the last few weeks, Rachel and I have been working hard to come up with strategies, techniques, and responses to her weekend sabotaging thoughts so that she would be able to maintain her control throughout the weekend. When Rachel came to see me this week, she told me that things have finally turned around for her and that she’s noticed a significant change in her ability to stay on track during the weekend. How did Rachel do this?
Rachel ate the same way she did during week days. Rachel says one of the most important shifts she has made is finally accepting that, if she wants to lose weight and keep it off, her weekend eating just can’t be all that different from her weekday eating. Rachel started reminding herself that her body doesn’t know or care that it’s the weekend and that it will process all calories the same no matter what day of the week it is.
Rachel stuck to a weekend eating schedule. One strategy that really helped Rachel gain control over her eating during the week was following a set schedule of eating. This enabled her to cut out the all-day grazing she used to do because she had defined times for when she would eat and when she wouldn’t. Initially, Rachel resisted following this schedule during the weekend, saying that she wanted her weekends to have more spontaneity. Rachel found, however, that not having an eating schedule on the weekend led her back to constantly grazing in the kitchen and continually asking herself, “Should I have eat now?” This meant that she struggled with whether or not to eat so much more often than she did during the week – and it also meant that she took in many more calories. Rachel realized that it was worth giving up her eating spontaneity (but not necessarily her activity spontaneity) if it meant she regained her sense of peace!
Rachel began exercising at least once during the weekend. Rachel was always good at getting herself to exercise during the week, but she used to think that weekends were an excuse to not move a muscle. Rachel knew that, on the days she exercised during the week, it made her feel better, more energized, and more easily able to stick to healthy eating. Rachel realized that not exercising on the weekend played into her “unhealthy weekend” mindset, and that getting herself to do at least 30 minutes of walking outside, either Saturday or Sunday, made her feel just as good as it did during the week. Rachel changed her thought from, “Exercising on the weekend will make my weekend worse,” to, “Exercising on the weekend will make me feel great, just as it does during the week. It makes my weekend better, not worse.”
Rachel got out of the kitchen when it wasn’t a time to eat. During the week, Rachel works in an office and can’t spend the whole day hanging out in her work kitchen. During the weekend, however, Rachel was in the habit of spending a lot of time in her kitchen because it’s one of her favorite rooms in her house. Rachel realized that this was really working against her because the more time she spent in her kitchen, the harder it was for her not to think about food and eating. Rachel instead set up a nice area for herself in her living room, with a new chair she really liked, and decided that, at least for the time being, the kitchen would only be for eating, not for hanging out. This made a huge difference for Rachel because once she wasn’t constantly looking at food, it made it easier to focus on other things.
This week I had a session with my client, Mark. It was Mark’s birthday last week, and when I asked him how he handled birthday treats, he proudly told me that on his birthday he didn’t eat anything “bad” or “wrong,” and he hadn’t had any “transgressions” because he didn’t eat any of the cupcakes that someone had brought in to work that day. He told me that he had been thinking about having a cupcake ever since, but so far he was able to hold out.
In hearing this, there were a few things that immediately concerned me. First, when I asked Mark about eating dessert on his birthday, I called it a treat. Mark, on the other hand, called treats “bad” and “wrong,” and noted that eating one would be a “transgression.” It was clear to me that Mark had fallen into some all-or-nothing thinking about dessert and had started to view having any treat as a slip-up. This type of thinking can be extremely problematic for dieters in the long run because at some point they’re going to give in and have dessert, and if they have the thought, “I shouldn’t ever be eating this,” then they’re going to go way overboard because they’ll also be thinking, “I don’t know when I’ll allow myself to eat dessert again, so I might as well load up on it now.” And thus they enter into a pattern of deprivation and over-indulging.
We work with our clients to teach them to be moderate about dessert and incorporate treats into their diets in a one portion, one time per day way. When a dieter has finished eating his ice cream bar and wants another one, he’s able to say to himself, “I don’t need to have a second one now because I know I can have another one tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that.” Therefore, the dieter doesn’t have that sense of urgency to load up where and when he can.
Another advantage of eating one dessert per day is that it allows dieters to eat it without guilt because they know it’s part of their overall healthy eating plan. Dieters are able to sit down and enjoy the treat that they’re having, instead of trying to get it down quickly without really noticing it, as dieters tend to do when they’re eating something they consider to be a bad food. In this way, even though dieters are having less dessert, they often end up feeling more satisfied because they have truly noticed and enjoyed every bite of what they eat. The point is, if dieters like dessert, then they’re eventually going to eat dessert, and if they don’t know how to handle it, they’ll go overboard and gain weight. Incorporating treats into their diets in a moderate way allows dieters to not be all-or-nothing about them, to really get enjoyment from them, and to still lose weight.
In session with Mark, I reminded him that eating dessert was an important part of rest-of-your-life eating, and that cutting out all desserts in the past (which he had tried to do many times) has never helped him to lose weight and keep it off. Mark and I discussed the fact that the longer he waits to have a cupcake, the more and more it will feel like he was committing a transgression by having one, and therefore the more likely he’ll be to say to himself, “Since I’m finally allowing myself to have one, I might as well go all out and have as many as I want, since I won’t have them again any time soon.” Mark decided that he would stop by a bakery on the way home and buy a cupcake and eat it that night – and he would eat it guilt-free and enjoy every bite of it. And if he was tempted to get more, Mark would remind himself:
I just ate one cupcake and I really enjoyed it. If I eat a second, I won’t enjoy it as much anyway because I’ll feel guilty about eating it. Besides, I don’t need to eat another cupcake now because I can have another one tomorrow if I want.
Fact or Fiction: If my weight is up one day, it means what I’m doing isn’t working.
Fiction. On any given day, your weight might be temporarily up for a myriad of different reasons: hormones, water retention, biological factors, etc. It’s important to remember that even if you are following your diet perfectly, your weight won’t go down every day, or even every week. All dieters have days and weeks where their weight temporarily goes up or stays the same – it’s just part of the process. Because of this, it’s important to not put too much stock on any one weigh-in. As long as you keep doing what you’re supposed to be doing, your weight will go down again.
Fact or Fiction: Calories don’t count on holidays, like Labor Day.
Fiction. Unfortunately your body has no idea that it’s Labor Day, or that it’s Thanksgiving, your birthday, or Christmas. Your body processes all calories the same, 365 days a year. However, it is perfectly reasonable to plan in advance to have an extra treat on certain days – but make sure you do so in a controlled manner so that you don’t end up taking in way too many calories.
Fact or Fiction: If I can’t follow my diet right away, it means I just can’t do it.
Fiction. Learning to diet successfully is like learning to play the piano. Nobody would expect to sit down at a piano for the very first time and play a difficult piece of music flawlessly. Of course not! They would know that they need to learn to read music, start out with scales, then move on to easy pieces of music, practice them until they get better, and eventually move on to more complicated pieces. They would also expect to hit wrong notes and make mistakes along the way, and wouldn’t think that one mistake means they should give up. Dieting is the same. You need to learn certain skills, practice them over and over again, move on to harder skills, practice them, and eventually you’ll get better and better. You’ll make mistakes along the way – but that just means you need more practice, not that you can’t do it.
Fact or Fiction: “Just this one time” is a legitimate excuse to eat something.
Fiction. Every single time counts because every time you eat something you’re not supposed to, you reinforce your tendency to give in, and make it more likely you’ll give in the next time, and the time after that. Every single time you resist unplanned food, you reinforce your tendency to stand firm and you make it more likely you’ll be able to do it the next time, and the time after that. There is never a time when you’re not reinforcing one of these two tendencies, which is why every time matters.
Fact or Fiction: If I’ve made an eating mistake, I’ve blown it for the day and might as well just start again tomorrow.
Fiction. There’s no such thing as blowing it for the day. It’s not as if you reach a certain point and your body will stop processing any additional calories. The more you continue to eat on any given day, the more weight you may gain. It’s never too late to turn a day around and start having a good eating day, because guaranteed you’ll take in fewer calories than if you keep eating out of control. And remember, being in control of your eating feels so much better than being out of control, so the moment you get yourself back on track is the moment you start feeling better.
In my last blog post, I detailed a session I had with my dieter, Amy, in which we focused on her mindset and plan for her upcoming birthday. When Amy returned for her session this week, we first discussed how things went on her birthday. Amy reported that it had all gone “amazingly well” and that she followed her birthday plan exactly as it was laid out.
Debbie: Last week we discussed some of the sabotaging thoughts you’ve experienced on previous birthdays. The thought, “I won’t be able to enjoy my birthday if I stay in control of my eating,” seemed particularly strong. Did that come up this time?
Amy: It did, actually, when I was reviewing my plan before the guests came—I was thinking, “This just doesn’t seem like enough for my birthday.”
Debbie: And were you able to respond to that thought?
Amy: Yes, I did. I reminded myself that I still get to eat two pieces of dessert. . . that I’ll be full after two pieces anyway, and that I really don’t need more food, whether or not it’s my birthday.
Debbie: That’s great! Did reminding yourself about these things help?
Amy: It did, and I also read my Response Cards which helped.
Debbie: Great. Were there other times throughout the night when you had sabotaging thoughts?
Amy: The only other time was after I had two pieces of dessert. I was looking at this really delicious cake that my sister had made and I was thinking, “I really want to have another slice. I know that cake tastes so good.”
Debbie: What did you do when you had that thought?
Amy: I excused myself and went to the bathroom to read my cards – again. And I kept thinking, “You won’t be happy when you go to bed tonight if you eat more cake. You’ve done so well all evening; don’t give in now.”
Debbie: And so you were able to resist?
Amy: I was, and once everybody left and all the leftovers had been put away, I was really happy I did.
Debbie: So, this may seem like an obvious question, but looking back – do you regret not eating more cake that night?
Amy: No! Not at all. And it was one of the first birthdays I can remember in which I went to bed not feeling stuffed. . . and instead, feeling really good about my eating. It was great.
Amy did really well on her birthday, although, as we predicted in our previous session, she did experience sabotaging thoughts. However, because we had taken time in advance to formulate responses to possible sabotaging thoughts and she had taken the time to prepare before her party, she was able to effectively respond to them and not give in. And, Amy experienced what most dieters eventually find to be true: once the event was over, she didn’t regret not eating more. In fact, instead of feeling deprived, she felt proud of herself for the things she didn’t eat because she was able to go to bed feeling good about herself and her eating.
Amy next told me about a challenging experience she had later that week. Two evenings after her birthday, she was reading before bed and found herself thinking about (and having a craving for) the leftover cake that she had wrapped up and put in the freezer after her party. Amy told me that she struggled for a while about whether or not to give in to her craving, but ultimately her sabotaging thoughts got the better of her; she ended up going downstairs and eating a large piece of cake.
Amy and I discussed this situation in more depth, including the sabotaging thoughts that led her to give in to a craving that night. Amy realized that one of her strongest sabotaging thoughts was, simply: “That cake was so good. I really want to eat some of it right now.” I asked Amy what her plan was supposed to have been for the leftover cake and she responded, “I don’t know, I hadn’t really thought about it.” Amy and I discussed this further and we realized that one of the reasons she was unable to effectively respond to her sabotaging thoughts that night was because she didn’t have a plan for when she was going to enjoy the rest of the cake. Because she didn’t have a plan, she was unable to say to herself (something like), “Even though I want to eat the cake right now, I’m planning on having it tomorrow, and I can definitely wait until then. Besides, if I eat it tomorrow when I’ve planned to, I will be able to enjoy it so much more because I won’t feel guilty about it.”
Amy and I then came up with a new rule for her: whenever she has a highly tempting food in her house, she is going to make a plan for when she’s going to eat it. We agreed that this will make it so much easier to resist cravings that arise at any one given moment, because she will know exactly when she does get to eat it.
This session with Amy is a good example of the importance of both successes and challenging “slip ups”. Even though Amy ended up giving in to a craving, we learned something very important from her experience. And we were able to figure out an important guideline for her which will help her handle similar challenges more easily in the future.
Earlier this week I had a session with my dieter, Amy, whose birthday is coming up this weekend. Amy and I discussed her plans for her birthday — she explained that she and her husband will host a dinner party at their house for a few close friends and family. Amy told me that she was feeling somewhat anxious about this because, in the past, she has used her birthday as an excuse to overeat. She’s told herself things like, “Since it’s my birthday, it’s okay to eat whatever I want,” and, “I’ll have a bad birthday if I don’t eat everything I want,” which often led her to overeat on her birthday AND to continue to overeat for days, even weeks, later. Amy and I first discussed what we thought her mindset should be going into her birthday. We had the following conversation:
Debbie: Let’s talk about your birthday last year, if that’s okay with you.
Debbie: Okay, so what happened last year? Did you end up feeling good about your eating?
Amy: Oh no. I remember I was out to dinner with my husband and I was definitely thinking something like, “It’s my birthday, so I should order whatever I want,” and, “I won’t be able to have any fun at dinner or on my birthday if I restrict myself.” I ended up eating way too much at dinner. Then my husband had the waiter bring over a slice of carrot cake, my favorite dessert, with a candle in it—and I ended up eating all of that, too. By the time I got home, I was feeling out of control and ate lots more from the kitchen, even though I was really full by then and already feeling badly.
Debbie: And so was your thought true? Did you end up having fun because you didn’t restrict your eating at all?
Amy: No, it was just the opposite. I ended up feeling physically sick, and I was so mad at myself for my eating. It wasn’t a good night. I also ended up staying off track for at least a week afterward, which made the whole thing even worse. It’s definitely my destructive pattern.
Debbie: So in terms of this year, what do you think now about the thought, “I won’t have any fun on my birthday unless I eat everything I want?”
Amy: Well, I guess I’ve proven to myself that that’s just not true. When I ate that way last year, it made me not have any fun at all because I felt sick and guilty. I want this year to be different.
Debbie: So what do you think you could do to make this year different?
Amy: Well, first of all, I want to stay in control of my eating. I guess I should make a plan for what I’m going to eat, and remind myself that I’ll feel better if I follow it, even though it’s my birthday.
Debbie: I think that’s a great idea. It’s so important to remind yourself that even though it’s your birthday, it’s not worth eating out of control because doing so will still ruin your night by making you feel sick and guilty. The same things that make you feel badly on a normal day, like overeating, will still make you feel badly on your birthday. And, the same things that make you feel great on a normal day, like having a plan and staying in control, will still make you feel great on your birthday. In fact, it will probably help you to have an even better birthday night, too, and better days following your birthday.
Amy: You’re right. I want this year to be different and I want to go to bed that night feeling good about my eating, not regretting what I’ve eaten.
With this mindset in place, Amy and I began to construct her birthday eating plan. We discussed the fact that it’s perfectly reasonable for Amy to eat some extra food on her birthday, as long as she does so in a planned manner. Eating a little extra in a planned manner will enable Amy to retain a sense of control over her eating, which will mean that she’ll actually get to enjoy what she’s eating. As Amy has proven to herself in the past, the moment she starts to feel like she’s out of control is the moment she stops really enjoying what she’s eating.
Amy’s birthday plan looked like this:
Drink between 0-2 glasses of wine
One piece of bread
One serving of the main course and starch, and two servings of vegetables
Reasonable portion of two desserts (birthday cake and something else)
Amy also made the following Response Cards to read on the morning of her birthday and again right before dinner:
Armed with a plan and Response Cards, Amy told me that she felt much more confident going in to her birthday this year than she ever has in previous years. She felt determined to avoid repeating mistakes from her past and to set a new precedent on her birthday so that she can go to bed feeling happy this year and for years to come.
Q: The Super Bowl is this weekend and historically I have used this as an excuse to have a free-for-all eating day. I really, really want to keep losing weight, so how I can I stop that from happening this year?
A: The Super Bowl is ultimately about watching football, not about eating. Sometimes dieters say to me, “I can’t watch football without eating,” and I remind them, “If you were in a situation where there was no food around, and no chance of getting food, you absolutely would watch football without eating.” Just because you’ve linked football and food in your mind, doesn’t mean that link can’t be broken. That being said, if you want to reach your weight loss goals, you don’t have to watch the whole game without eating, but you do have to maintain control over your eating. Here is my Super Bowl Cheat Sheet:
1. Plan in advance how much you will eat. This will help you resist tempting food because you will know how much you’ll be having, and it will help you maintain a sense of control over your eating. Remember: feeling in control of your eating feels GREAT. Feeling out of control of your eating feels BAD. Don’t taint the Super Bowl by feeling bad about your eating.
2. Decide in advance how much alcohol (if any) you will drink. Remember: it has calories and it can lower inhibitions and lead you to eat and/or drink more.
3. Bring or prepare some healthy foods that you know you will feel good about eating.
4. Think about Super Bowls past and how you felt after they were over. Think about events in general in the past during which you overate, and how you felt when they were over. Do you want to feel that way again? Is it worth it to you to keep undoing all your hard work by overeating at certain events?
5. On the flip side, think about how you will feel going to bed Sunday night and getting on the scale Monday morning if you’ve stayed in control. How much better will you feel? How triumphant will you feel? How good will it feel when you prove to yourself that you can stay in control?
6. Identify in advance what sabotaging thoughts you might have and come up with responses to them. Here are some possibilities:
Sabotaging Thought: It’s not fair that I can’t eat what everyone around me is eating.
Response: My body doesn’t know or care how many wings or slices of pizza everyone else around me is eating. It ONLY knows how much I’m eating, so it doesn’t matter at all what anyone else is consuming.
Sabotaging Thought: It’s not fair I can’t eat everything that I want.
Response: It’s true that I can’t eat unlimited portions of everything that I want to eat, but I can plan ahead and eat reasonable portions of some food. This way, I’ll likely get to enjoy it even more because I won’t have to feel guilty during and after I eat.
Sabotaging Thought: It’s not fair I can’t eat normally at least on this one day.
Response: Actually I AM eating normally with someone who has my same weight loss goals. If I eat like a football player, I have to expect that I will look like one.
Sabotaging Thought: It’s too hard to resist food when I’m craving it.
Response: If I were a vegetarian and all the food had meat in it, I would definitely resist. Just because I’m having a craving for food doesn’t mean I have to eat it. While it may be uncomfortable momentarily to resist a craving, once the craving is over I’ll be so glad I didn’t give in.
7. Make sure to make a plate of food and deliberately sit down to eat it. If you’re constantly taking small bites and going back for more food, it is extremely hard to keep track of how much you are eating. Remember: satiation is a combination of both physical and psychological satisfaction, so it’s important to really see how much you’re eating so that you can feel satisfied by it. If you grab food all day long, you’ll likely end up taking in a whole lot of calories, but not feeling all that full because you won’t be getting the same sense of psychological satisfaction.
8. Consider setting some basic rules to make eating easier, like “no chips.” That way, every time you glace at the bowl of chips you won’t have to engage in the struggle of deciding whether or not to have any and it will be easy to resist because you’ll just know: I’m not eating chips.
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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