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In Session with Debbie: Being Too Restrictive

This week, my client, Katie, told me that she was having trouble staying on track during the weekend.  She said that she did really well during the week, but was consistently “losing it” once Friday night hit.  I first asked Katie to describe to me what her weekday eating was like. After hearing what a typical Monday-Friday looks like for her, one thing stood out to me very clearly: Katie was eating almost the exact same thing day in and day out.  6835999820_ab1d0a905a_mI questioned Katie about this and she told me that she had just fallen into the habit of eating the same thing for breakfast each day, lunch each day, and dinner each day because she found meals that were easy, convenient, and filled her up while tasting good.

It was clear to me that Katie was being too restrictive during the week.  Being too restrictive can come in different forms – sometimes dieters are too restrictive from a calorie standpoint and eat too little food. This eventually backfires on them because after a few days of eating too little, they’ll inevitably end up overeating.  Dieters can also be too restrictive in terms of the types of food they let themselves eat. If they try to cut out favorite foods entirely, this eventually backfires because when they inevitably give in and have their favorite foods, they eat way too much of them.  Katie was not being too restrictive during the week in terms of the number of calories she was eating, but she was being too restrictive in terms of the types of food she was eating. While Katie wasn’t limiting her food options because she thought certain foods were bad, per say, but more because she didn’t feel like putting in the effort to think about and make something different, it was still backfiring on her all the same. She ate the same foods during the week and then would use the weekend as her time to finally have variety. And because the weekends were the only time she was having any variety, it was no surprise that she was going overboard and was having trouble staying in control.

To help her combat this, Katie and I decided that having the same thing for breakfast during the week every day was probably okay, but she should have at least two different lunches that she switched off between.  We also agreed that it would be best if she didn’t have the same thing for dinner more than twice in a row and she committed to trying at least one new recipe each week during the week, and not waiting for the weekend. Even if she shopped for and prepped the ingredients on Sunday, she would wait until a weekday to actually make the meal. This way she would have plenty of variety during the week and wouldn’t have to cram in everything she wanted to eat once the weekend hit.

If you’re having trouble staying on track during the weekend, ask yourself: Am I allowing myself enough of my favorite foods during the week?

Inflexible Eating

When I introduced the notion of following a food plan inflexibly to Robert, he initially experienced both anxiety and skepticism. Robert asked me why he couldn’t just make substitutions when he felt like it as long as the calorie count remained the same. Here’s what I told Robert:

It’s essential for you, and all dieters, to learn the skill of inflexible eating before you move on to flexible eating. By inflexible, I mean making a plan ahead of time (either the night before or that morning) for the coming day, and learning how to stick to it exactly, with no substitutions. Once you can do this, you’re ready to start flexible eating—making a plan and then sticking to it but making substitutions if/when you want to. And to start to calm your [very normal and expected!!] fears, I can tell you that really learning inflexible eating is one of your best insurance policies against regaining weight down the line.  Once you become really get good at this (and of course it will take practice, but the more you practice the better and better you’ll become), you won’t have to worry about regaining weight. If five, ten, or fifteen years from now you begin to see the scale creep up, all you’ll have to do is return to making your food plans ahead of time and sticking to them, and your weight should begin to drop. It’s SO important to learn this skill now—so that you can use it in the future and for the rest of your life.

Hearing this, Robert understood why it is important for him to learn the skill of inflexible eating. He was still nervous about trying and failing, but I told him that every one makes mistakes when learning new skills; it’s what makes us human!  I expect Robert to make mistakes, but as long as he learns from his mistakes and keeps trying, he will eventually become good at this.

Cindy’s Anxiety

Cindy has been having some anxiety about the future. She successfully lost 43 pounds and has been maintaining that loss for over 8 months, but she still has negative thoughts and images that pop into her head from time to time. The most common one is that she sees her future self standing in front of the mirror, trying to zipper her jeans, and realizing that they have become too tight. She experiences a sickening realization that none of her clothes fit anymore. Her heart sinks as she steps on the scale and sees how much weight she has regained.

I discussed with Cindy the fact that this visual in her head of trying to zip her jeans is making things so much harder for her! I helped Cindy replace that visual with a much more realistic one. In this picture, her future self steps on the scale and notices that it has gained 3 or 4 pounds. But instead of experiencing that sickening feeling in her stomach, she immediately becomes problem-solving oriented. Cindy breaks out her diet notebook and her Beck Diet Solution book, reads her advantages of losing weight list, reads back to the times when she was doing inflexible eating, and sets up an eating plan for that very day. Because she has already firmly mastered the skill of following a plan inflexibly, it is not difficult for Cindy to put herself back in that mindset, especially because reading her advantages list has concretely reminded her why it’s worth it to do this. Within a week or two, Cindy already sees the scale going back down. This is completely realistic, and helped put Cindy’s mind at ease.

Katherine’s Changing Tastes

A dieter, Katherine, was recently talking to me about a subject matter I hear over and over again from dieters. She told me that one of the biggest changes she has undergone since starting the program is that now she is much happier and satisfied with less food. In the past, Katherine said she always liked to eat very large portions of food, and didn’t feel satisfied until she had eaten an enormous amount. But once she started making plans and really working on eating slowly, while sitting down, and enjoying every bite, she found that she didn’t need nearly as much food. Katherine said that the simple act alone of really tasting each bite gave her so much more satisfaction than when she used to eat so many more bites – but without really tasting any of them. 

Katherine was also surprised by the fact that her tastes have really changed.  She said she used to eat a lot of fast food and fried foods, but ever since she started eating less but enjoying her healthy food more, she can’t really stomach her old way of eating. She says that really fatty or fried foods have completely lost their appeal, and when she does eat them, she often feels unwell after.  While this isn’t necessarily true of everyone, I do hear, again and again, exactly what Katherine was telling me.  People’s tastes truly do change, even if they are convinced in the beginning that they never will.

When Did Special Treats become the Everyday Norm?

When did it happen? When did we Americans go from an occasional piece of pizza to having multiple slices throughout the week? When did we go from the occasional soda to drinking sugary soft drinks throughout the day? When did we go from a weekly overindulgence, such as a big dinner on Saturday night, to excess food every evening?

Now, I’m not against special treats. In fact, I advise people to have a moderate portion of a favorite food every day. But not more than ONE. And they have to make sure the rest of their food intake is healthy and moderate, too.

I asked Marc, a dieter who consulted with me, what a typical day of eating was like for him. Here’s what he described: He would have some kind of sweet pastry for breakfast; packaged cheese crackers and/or chips for a mid-morning snack; a large hamburger, fries, coleslaw and soda for lunch; cookies and/or a doughnut with another soda for a mid-afternoon snack; a large entree such as lasagna, bread, salad and two beers for dinner; and candy and ice cream for a snack. He knew that he was eating too much unhealthy food. But at some level, it felt “right” to him, even though he was borderline obese and suffering from health problems. He felt entitled to eat that way. After all, it wasn’t very different from how his brother and best friend ate—though he saw that they had gained a significant amount of weight in the previous five years, too.  

Over time, I helped Marc change his attitude toward food. He began to see that his way of eating was “right” if he wanted the negative health consequences of carrying around excess weight to continue—and to likely grow worse. He began to see that his way of eating was “wrong” if he wanted to be fitter and healthier. Even as he was losing a significant amount of weight, Marc still occasionally mourned not being able to eat as he had in the past. At these times, he needed to review his list of all the reasons it was worth it to stick to a healthier way of eating. And he needed to read a response card that reminded him that the excess and unhealthy food he had been accustomed to consuming was “right”, only if he wanted to be obese. The concept of “only one favorite food a day” eventually became Marc’s new norm; he stopped grieving and was able to fully celebrate how much better he felt.

Regaining Weight

Many dieters and maintainers are mystified when the scale starts to go up. “But I’m doing everything the same!” they usually proclaim. That’s when I ask them a series of questions to try to figure out what has changed:

  • Are you taking any new medication?
  • Are you eating all your food sitting down, slowly, and enjoying every bite?
  • Are you eating at others’ houses or in restaurants more often—or doing take-out?
  • Have you been traveling or going to special events that involve food?
  • Have your portions slowly become larger?
  • Have you added more food to your daily intake? For example, are you having an extra snack? Have you added an extra side dish to a meal?
  • Are you drinking more alcohol or caloric beverages?
  • Are you getting less exercise?

What often happens is that dieters/maintainers either start to eat out more or get a little looser, or both. They allow themselves to make changes, such as eating grapes straight from the refrigerator or adding more ingredients to a salad, without reducing their intake elsewhere. They “get away” with these changes for a short period of time—the scale may not go up initially and they start to think, “I guess I can eat a little more.” Then they slowly increase their food intake in other ways. But biology always catches up with them. Take in more calories than you expend and you WILL gain weight. 

There is always a reason why the scale has gone up, even if we can’t figure it out. But if it goes up and stays up, dieters/maintainers need to go back to carefully monitoring everything they eat (and they need to monitor their exercise, too). They may decide that they like being able to eat a little more and are willing to maintain at a higher weight. This is a perfectly reasonable decision, if they are in good health. But they should make a conscious decision to do so, and not let a lack of vigilance lead to continuing weight gain.

Fast Food Dieting

A recent article in the New York Times asks, “Can fast food help you lose weight?” I applaud the restaurant industry for offering healthier food choices. But for the consumer, it’s buyer beware. Of course fast food can help you lose weight–if you take in fewer calories than you expend. Any change you make in your eating that reduces caloric intake will lead to weight loss. But the moment you return to your previous way of eating, you gain the weight right back. There is no sense in making changes in your eating that you can’t keep up for life.

Think of it this way: Let’s say you cut your calories to 1800 a day, lose weight, and then plateau for a period of time. The moment you start eating 1900 calories a day is the moment you start to gain weight back.

Short-term changes in eating only lead to short-term changes in weight.

Time to Get Serious

Okay, it’s 2010. Time to get serious about your health and lose weight for the last time. Do you really want to find yourself in January 2011 heavier than is healthy for you?

If you don’t, then you will need to tell yourself, every morning and every time you’re tempted to eat something you shouldn’t, that it matters. Yes, it matters if you eat something you haven’t planned: having an extra potato chip, finishing the crumbs left in the bag of cookies, eating off your kids’ plates, or going beyond your limit at a party or restaurant. It matters if you grab food on the run instead of sitting down and enjoying it properly, if you skip exercising, if you substitute a higher calorie meal because you didn’t make the time to go to the supermarket. EVERY TIME MATTERS. Every time you eat something you shouldn’t, you strengthen your giving in muscle, your tendency to give in–which makes it likely that the next time, you’ll give in and the time after that, and the time after that. Every time you stick to your plan, though, you strengthen your resistance muscle, your tendency to resist food you hadn’t planned to eat–which makes it more likely that the next time, you’ll resist and the time after that, and the time after that.

So every time matters. Don’t fool yourself into thinking it doesn’t. After all, how has allowing yourself to make exceptions worked for you in the past? Just think, if you had never said to yourself, “It’s okay. This one time won’t matter,” you probably wouldn’t have a weight problem today.

Eventually, as I describe in The Complete Beck Diet for Life, it will be important for you to learn how to make exceptions. But first you have to develop a powerful resistance muscle so when you do make exceptions, they will be reasonable and will still allow you to lose weight or maintain your weight loss.

 2010! You can make a fresh start if you’ve been struggling. (Actually, you should make a fresh start any moment you need to, throughout the year. There’s never a good reason to wait–if you do, your giving in muscle will get stronger and stronger.) Go back to the beginning of the program and make sure you have mastered every skill before you move on to the next one. Don’t pick and choose. If you really want permanent weight loss, there are no short cuts. You have to do it all. But remind yourself–the rewards will be great!       

I’m rooting for you!

BACK TO BASICS

 

Marta was dismayed. After 20 months of maintaining her weight loss with relative ease, she had gone off track and had gained back five pounds.

 

“I wouldn’t mind it so much if I had decided in advance to eat more,” she said, “but that’s not what happened. A couple of weeks ago, we had company for the weekend. I was fine at first, but then everyone else was eating and drinking so much, that I wanted to, too. I just stopped using my usual weekend plan. So by Monday morning, I had gained two pounds. I felt really bad about that, and I was okay for the next couple of days. But then, for some reason, I started snacking too much after dinner. I’d have that old sabotaging thought, ‘I’ve eaten too much. I might as well start again tomorrow.’ I didn’t go way overboard the way I used to, but I did eat more than usual for the rest of that week and this week, like larger portions at meals, bread and butter at dinner, and extra snacks at night. I keep promising myself that I’m going to get back in control but I can’t seem to do it. My weight is up and I’m afraid I’ll just keep gaining more.”

 

Marta and I talked about the two choices she could make:

 

  1. She could plan to eat extra food, including bread and butter at dinner and an extra snack at night. It would be planned eating, though, not spontaneous deviations from her plan. Depending on how many extra calories she planned to have, she might gain a little more weight, plateau at her current weight, or lose a little.
  2. She could go back to her previous plan and lose the five pounds she had gained.

 

Either plan was completely legitimate and either way, she’d need to go back to practicing her daily CT skills (e.g., reading her Advantages Deck and Response Cards right after dinner, going to her Distraction Box if she felt the urge to eat unplanned snacks).

 

Marta called me several days after our “booster” session. She was back on track, felt in control, and didn’t need another appointment. I asked her what had made the biggest difference. She said going back to the basic CT skills had done the trick.

How to Keep Your Weight Loss Resolution

 

If you want to be successful, DON’T START OUT BY DIETING! In my experience, the major reason that people have difficulty losing weight or keeping it off is that they jump right into following an eating plan before they have learned how to diet.

           

Almost anyone can lose at least a little weight; you don’t necessarily need dieting skills to do so. But you do need these skills if you want to continue to lose weight and keep weight off. You need to learn exactly what to do when dieting gets harder. And it does get harder—for everyone–sometimes within the first week or two, sometimes not for a month or two. People often give up because they don’t have the skills to push through the difficult times. Then they regain whatever weight they have lost.

           

 If you’ve only sailed a boat in calm waters, you don’t want to leave on an extended trip without knowing what to do when the going gets tough. You might be able to navigate well when the ocean is calm, but look out if the weather gets rough! You need to learn foul weather skills in advance.

 

It’s the same with dieting. You don’t want to run into a rough patch and be ill-equipped to handle it. You need to learn, before you run into a squall, how to motivate yourself when you’re feeling unmotivated, how to refocus your attention when you have a craving, how to stick to a plan when you’re eating out, and how to get back on track immediately when you make a mistake. These skills are not intuitively obvious, but they can be learned in a step-by-step program. It’s too difficult for most people to focus on changing their eating while they’re learning these skills. That’s why I recommend postponing the start of your diet until you know what to do in stormy weather.