Not having a strong plan can exponentially increase the chances of getting off track because of how many spontaneous decisions you’ll have to make all day.
A realistic strategy is the most important thing to bring on vacation. Eric lists the Sabotaging Thoughts and responses to help him stay on track.
Make a reasonable vacation plan and stay committed to being in control. You’ll feel successful throughout your trip and enjoy new, exciting foods.
Everyone knows that it’s harder to stay on track with healthy eating during the holidays, and most people assume that it’s because there are so many more parties, eating events, and treats out during this time. While that’s accurate, it’s only part of the picture. The truth is that what really makes the holidays so hard are the sabotaging thoughts that people have that they aren’t able to respond effectively to. It’s never a party that directly gets someone off track, it’s when she has sabotaging thoughts while at the party, like, “I won’t be able to have fun unless I indulge.” Learning to identify, in advance, what sabotaging thoughts you’re likely to have and coming up with responses to them ahead of time is the missing link between wanting to stay on track during the holidays and actually being able to do so. Below are four of the most common diet sabotaging thoughts that we hear and some helpful responses to them. If you find any of these responses helpful, consider making your own Response Cards and reading them every single day from today until January 1st.
1. I only get this food once a year.
When dieters are telling us about a holiday meal that didn’t go as well as they’d have liked, part of the problem tends to be that they overate food and justified it with the thought that they “never get this food” or “it’s the only time of year I can eat it.” The truth of the matter is that in this day in age, there is almost no food that can’t be bought, ordered, or made 365 days a year. While it’s true individuals many never think to make a certain food at other times during the year, or only come in contact with it organically during the holidays, that doesn’t mean that they can’t find/make/buy it at other times. Also, it’s good to keep in mind that it’s true the holidays are only once a year, but they’re once a year every year, so it’s never the last opportunity to have something. While it is certainly fair to eat reasonable portion of favorite holiday foods, it doesn’t work to go overboard on those foods. Reminding yourself that you never need to overeat a food because you can and will have it again can help you stay on track around favorite holiday foods.
2. I have to do things the way I’ve always done them or someone will be disappointed.
Dieters often put themselves in traps when thinking about the holidays. They think that they have to do things the way they’ve always done them or there will be negative consequences, such as disappointing someone or themselves. The truth of the matter is that they way they’ve always done things probably just doesn’t work, not if they’re trying to stay on track with their eating during the holidays. If dieters want this year to go better, it means they have to do things differently. While it’s true that others may be temporarily disappointed if you, say, decide to only make three kinds of Christmas cookies instead of ten, or go out and buy some holiday food to save yourself the time and energy of making it, it’s likely that the disappointment won’t be as great or as long-lasting as you’re fearing. And they’ll get over it, probably in much less time then it will take you to lose the extra pounds you put on as a result of not making changes. It’s important to keep in mind that traditions can always be changed and new ones can always be instituted. If you start the tradition this year of taking a walk after Thanksgiving dinner instead of picking at leftovers, in few years that will start to feel like a time-honored tradition – and one that will help you reach your goals instead of taking your farther away from them.
3. I’ve already been messing up, I’ve blown it so I’ll just wait until the New Year to get back on track.
This is a thought that often plagues dieters who start out trying to have a healthy holiday season, get off track at some point, and just decide that their efforts are wasted and they might as well wait until January 1st to start working on healthy eating again. We are here to tell you: Don’t buy into that thought! And here’s why: First of all, it is impossible to blow it for the holiday season. It just doesn’t work that way. It is possible to get off track at one party, and then get off track at the next, and then get off track again at the third. But it’s also possible to get off track at one party, recover, and do fantastically well during the rest of the parties. There is always, always the option of recovering and making the rest of the days until January 1 great days. And in doing so, it means that you don’t gain weight (or gain less weight), start out the New Year in a much stronger position, and likely have a happier holiday season. Remind yourself – just because you were on the highway and missed your exit, it doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of the day driving in the wrong direction. You can always get off at the next exit, turn around, and get right back on track. The same is true with dieting. Just because you make a mistake, you can always catch yourself, recover, and get right back on track. In the same way you wouldn’t’ keep driving in the wrong direction, don’t keep making mistakes!
4. I won’t be able to enjoy myself during the holidays if I have to work on healthy eating.
In reality, the opposite of this thought is usually true. When dieters decide to throw healthy eating out the window and get off track, it actually puts a negative tint on the holidays because they spend time feeling badly about their eating, worrying about gaining weight, and dealing with the nagging knowledge that they’re going to have to face up to all this in the New Year. By contrast, when dieters work on staying on track, it often helps them feel so much better during the holidays because they feel confident in themselves and what they’re doing. No one (at least no one we’ve ever met!) has ever gone to bed after a really great, on-track eating day and thought, “Well, I shouldn’t have done that.” It just doesn’t happen!
My client, Deanna, just came back from a week-long trip and something great happened upon her return: She found out she lost a pound and a half. In almost every previous trip Deanna had taken, she had gained weight, and sometimes a significant amount of weight, so this was an entirely new experience for her. In session this week, Deanna and I talked about everything she had done that made the trip so successful so that she could remember it for next time.
- Deanna told me that the first thing she did was take time before she left (which she partly did in session with me) to really think through the trip and make a plan for how she would handle her eating. Never before had Deanna had a deliberate plan for what she would eat while traveling; she always just had the idea that she would “wing it” and try to make good decisions. Having a written plan of how she would handle her eating, and reviewing that plan each and every morning, really enabled Deanna to stay in control of her eating while traveling. Deanna’s written plan had the following components:
- Bring healthy food for the airplane
- One glass of wine every other night
- ½ a piece of bread and half my starch at dinner
- Ask for fruit instead of potatoes at breakfast
- Try to have some type of salad for lunch
- No dessert before dinner and ½ dessert after dinner, or dessert every other night
- Deanna told me that, since she was eating more caloric meals than she normally did (because she ate almost every meal at a restaurant), she didn’t snack during the trip.
- Deanna also made it a top priority to be active on this trip. She made it a goal to go to the fitness center in her hotel at least three times during her seven day trip, and made sure to take opportunities for spontaneous exercise whenever possible, like taking the stairs instead of elevators, walking around the airport instead of sitting at her gate, walking places instead of taking cabs (when possible), etc.
- Deanna gave herself lots of credit during the trip whenever she made a healthy decision. Instead of focusing on everything she wasn’t eating, she made sure to tell herself how great it was that she way staying on track, and how resisting food would help her reach her important goals. In doing so, Deanna was actually able to feel good about staying on track because the focus was on what she was getting, not what she was giving up.
- When Deanna got home and saw that she hadn’t gained weight, hadn’t even maintained her weight, but had actually lost weight, she captured how great she felt on a Response Card to read before every trip in the future.
For the first time that I can remember, I actually lost weight while traveling. This feels SO AMAZING. Although there were times on the trip it felt difficult to make healthy decisions, now that I’m back I don’t regret a single thing that I didn’t eat or drink. I just feel so proud of myself and have such an huge sense of accomplishment. It was 1,000% worth it.
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 I had a session with Edie, who was leaving the next day to go on vacation with her husband for a week. We spent most of our time formulating a strong vacation plan so that she would be feel comfortable and confident on the trip.
One of the main challenges Edie faced was that all of her meals would be served in the restaurant of the mountain lodge where they would be staying. Edie knew ahead of time that breakfast would be a buffet, and lunch and dinner would be menu service. Edie also told me that her main goal for this trip would be to maintain her weight, and so we talked about what she would need to do to make that happen.
Edie and I first discussed breakfast buffet strategies, and decided that she would:
1. On the first day, look at all of the options before deliberately deciding what to have that morning.
2. Remind herself that she didn’t need to eat everything she wanted all at once because she would have many other opportunities to do so. If, for example, she wanted an omelet, oatmeal, and yogurt with granola, she could have one option each day. She didn’t need to have all three in one day.
3. Make sure to eat every bite sitting down, slowly, and mindfully, instead of snacking while she was going through the buffet line.
4. Not put more on her plate than she was planning to eat.
Then Edie and I talked about how she would handle lunch and dinner each day, and came up with following strategies:
1. It’s important for Edie to remember that almost every restaurant meal is too big and contains too many calories, and if she wants to maintain her weight on this trip, she probably can’t ever finish everything that is served to her. She’ll likely need to leave food behind during every single lunch and dinner, and so it’s necessary for her to go in with the expectation that she just won’t clean her plate.
2. Edit decided that she would do her best to make healthy food decisions and, whenever possible, order food that she knew she would find satisfying and filling, even if it wasn’t what she most felt like eating at that time.
3. Edie and I also discussed that she shouldn’t be afraid to ask for special requests, such as sauces on the side or vegetables steamed without oil. I reminded Edie that one of her major reasons to lose weight had to do with her health, and it was perfectly legitimate to ask for what she needed to ensure her good health.
Edie also decided that she would bring some healthy snacks with her so that she wouldn’t have to rely on less healthy options, and that she would make sure to take advantage of available activity/exercise options, like going snow shoeing and light hiking.
Edie came back to see me this week and reported that not only did she have a great time on her trip, she also didn’t gain a pound. Edie told me that one of the things that most helped her was going in with the expectation that she wouldn’t clear her plate at lunch and dinner, which made leaving food behind so much easier. Edie and I also discussed the fact that she felt great about her eating both during the trip and after, especially when she didn’t have to struggle to get back on track once the trip was over. I asked Edie if it was worth it to her to continue working on healthy eating during future trips, and she told me, “Absolutely, 100% YES!”
My dieter, Mark, came in to see me this week. Over the past month, Mark’s weight loss has slowed down and, in general, he and I have been working on consistently maintaining his healthy eating habits with the awareness that he may or may not continue to lose more. This week, one of the things Mark wanted to put on the agenda was his upcoming trip with his wife and kids. Mark and his family are driving to Maine and spending two weeks there before driving back home. Mark told me that he wanted to discuss how he would handle both eating during the car rides and also while he was in Maine.
I first asked Mark: What is your goal for this trip? Is it to lose weight, gain a little, or stay the same? Mark replied that since he has been in such a good eating groove lately and has been feeling good about himself, about the way his clothes fit, and about how much easier healthy eating has become now that he’s gotten in control and stayed in control, his goal for the trip is to stay the same – not lose any weight over the next two weeks, but not gain any, either. The reason I posed this question to Mark before we talked about anything else is because defining his goals for the trip was necessary in order to figure out what his plan should be; Mark’s vacation plan would differ depending on the answer.
With the goal in mind of maintaining his weight, Mark and I then began figuring out what a reasonable plan would be. Mark and I first discussed the car rides to and from Maine, because in the past Mark has used being in the car for long periods of time as an excuse to continuously overeat junk food snacks and unhealthy foods he would buy when he stopped for gas. Mark and I came up with the following plan for the car trips:
1. Make sure to eat three normal meals. Eat breakfast before I leave and take the time to stop and eat a real lunch (getting there 45 minutes later won’t matter in the long run). Stop for dinner on the road or wait until we get there to sit down and eat dinner.
2. Bring all snacks with me. Continue to eat like I do on normal days: one snack between breakfast and lunch and one snack between lunch and dinner. Bring snacks with me so I’m not tempted to buy unhealthy food when we stop for gas.
3. Respond to my Sabotaging Thoughts. Remind myself that just because I’m in the car doesn’t mean I can snack all day long. My body doesn’t know or care that I’m in the car and it, and I, will be so much happier if I eat the same way as I do on a normal day.
Mark and I then discussed what he wanted his plan to be for while he was in Maine and he told me about a homemade ice cream store that his family frequents whenever they are in Maine. Mark said that he would feel deprived if he couldn’t eat ice cream with his family if they went during the day, but, at the same time, he also didn’t want to give up his nightly treat. Here is a snippet of our conversation:
Mark: I think maybe the plan should be that, while I’m on vacation, I have two treats a day. What do you think?
Debbie: Well, do you eat two treats a day now?
Mark: No, I only eat one.
Debbie: So you only eat one treat a day now and in general have been maintaining your weight. My guess is that if you eat two treats a day while on vacation, you’ll gain some weight. Let’s take a look at your goal again. At the beginning of session you said that you wanted to maintain your weight on this trip, and that goal seems to be incompatible with the plan of eating two treats a day. So – do you want to change your goal, or do you want to change your plan? The choice is entirely up to you.
Mark: No, I really don’t want to gain any weight while we’re away, especially since we take this trip every year and I don’t want to gain weight every time we’re in Maine. I guess I’ll cut it back down to one treat a day while I’m on vacation.
Debbie: Okay. And remember, it’s reasonable to have a different plan when you’re away than you do normally. I know that you follow the rule, “No dessert until after dinner,” but I’m wondering if that’s one you might want to amend while you’re in Maine. Maybe in Maine, the rule should be, “one treat a day,” but you can choose when to have it. That way, if your family goes out for ice cream during the day, you can have it then, but not have your treat at night. What do you think of that idea?
Mark: I think that’s a good idea because I really don’t want to miss out on our favorite ice cream, but sometimes it just doesn’t work to get it after dinner.
Debbie: So what do you want to say to yourself on a night when you’ve already had ice cream during the day, but now want to eat your nightly treat?
Mark: I guess I need to remind myself that I’ve already had my treat that day, and I can always have another one tomorrow. I can’t eat two treats and maintain my weight, and not gaining weight is so much more important to me than having an extra treat.
Debbie: That’s a great response! Do you want to make a Response Card to remind yourself of that idea?
Mark and I continued to hash out his vacation plan, and I frequently asked him: What is your goal for this trip? Do you want to change it or keep it the same? This made our planning easier because it helped Mark remember that he had the choice of changing his goal, but since he didn’t want to, he had to make a plan that would enable him to reach it. Here are some of the items on Mark’s vacation plan:
1. Eat three meals a day – brunch just doesn’t work for me.
2. Eat one treat a day except on my daughter’s birthday, when I’ll have two.
3. Make sure to do some form of exercise every day, even if it’s just taking a short walk on the beach.
4. Limit alcohol consumption to just on the weekends – when I don’t have it, I don’t miss it anyway.
5. Go with Emily to the grocery store to ensure that I have healthy foods readily available.
6. If we’ll be out for the day, bring snacks with me whenever possible so I don’t have to rely on finding something healthy on the fly.
7. Continue to read my Advantages List and Response Cards every day and practice my healthy eating habits.
8. Continue to weigh myself everyday with the scale in Maine.
9. Remind myself that my goal for this trip is to prove to myself that I can go to Maine every year without gaining weight.
10. Remember that I will feel GREAT if I stay in control of my eating, and that it will put a huge damper on my trip if I feel out of control.
At the end of our session, Mark told me that he felt much more confident in his ability to stay in control while in Maine. He also decided that if he was tempted to eat or drink something that wasn’t on his plan, he would ask himself, “Is this going to help me reach my goals or not?”
By centering our discussion on Mark’s goal for the trip, and by reminding him that he could change his goal if he wanted to, Mark was able to come up with a plan that felt reasonable and doable, and one that he felt good about, knowing it would help get him to where he wanted to be.
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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