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!
Over the weekend I want to a holiday party. And I got off track. Yes, even professional diet coaches make mistakes. The party started at 2:00pm and I ate (a healthy and satisfying) lunch before I left. My plan for the party was: no alcohol (in part because I was driving) and just raw vegetables (which I was pretty sure they would have), and then once I got home, eat a good dinner and have dessert. The first hour or so of the party went smoothly. I was able to stick easily to my no alcohol rule and I didn’t even go look at the food. Then, a while later, I found myself sitting around the food table talking to people. It seemed like everyone around me was eating from the delicious looking spread. They did have raw vegetables, and for a while I was able to limit myself to just that by placing the bowl of carrots and cauliflower directly in front of me.
But after a while, my resistance seemed to go down and I started eating the junk food. What were my sabotaging thoughts? It wasn’t, “Everyone else is eating it so I can, too,” because I know that my body doesn’t know or care what anybody around me is eating, it only knows what I eat. It wasn’t even, “It’s the holidays and I should be able to indulge,” because I knew that I had many more holiday-related events coming up where I was planning to eat more food than just vegetables. I think it started with, “Just a little bit is okay,” and as frequently happens, a little bit turned into more, and then even more. Before I knew it, I found myself taking chip after chip and even eating the candy that I had already decided I would take home and have after dinner. I was most definitely off track.
And then I remembered a situation one of my dieters was in a few years ago. She was at a party at a bar and got off track by eating too many of the bar snacks being passed around. Instead of just thinking, “I’ve blown it for the party, I might as well keep eating and get back on track when I get home/at the end of the day/tomorrow/the day after tomorrow,” she went to the bathroom, read her Advantages List and Response Cards, refocused, and didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the party. I have recounted this story countless times to my clients as a reminder that it’s possible to gain control in the middle of a party and that they never need to wait even one more moment to get back on track. With that in my mind, I realized that if my client could do it, I could, too. I made the decision that I would get back on track right that moment, and just like my client, not eat anything else for the rest of the party. And that’s exactly what I did.
I ended up staying at the party for several more hours and didn’t leave until after 8:00pm. By the time I left the party, I was hungry again and looking forward to dinner – but I knew I wouldn’t eat it until I got home. As I was leaving the party, I took a moment to reflect back on my experience and give myself a whole lot of credit. I acknowledged how great it was that I was able to get back on track and what a triumph it was that I managed, after getting off track, to stop eating completely and actually leave hungry. What could have turned out to be a bad experience in which I continued to eat off track for the rest of the party (and potentially the rest of the day), and felt really badly about it, turned into a major success. Although I had overeaten earlier in the party, because I recovered and got right back on track, it became an experience I was proud of, not one I regretted.
The moral of the story is that even diet coaches get off track from time to time. We’re not perfect, no one is perfect. But a mistake doesn’t have to be a painful thing. In fact, a mistake that you recover from right away can turn out to be something that makes you feel even stronger and more confident, instead of less, because it gives you the opportunity to prove to yourself that you can bounce back right away. If you get off track during the holiday season, get right back on. Just like my dieter did at her party, and just like I did at mine, you never need to wait even one more moment to get back on track. And remember – the moment you get back on track is the moment you start feeling good again.
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.
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.
One Belmont Avenue, Suite 700
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004-1610