Fantasy vs. Reality

My client Jeff was in the habit of eating a whole pizza several nights per week. While he knew this was sabotaging his health and weight loss goals, he found that he kept giving in to the lure of the pizza. In session, I asked, “What’s so great about eating a whole pizza?” Jeff thought about it and said, “I don’t know. It’s just so great. There’s so much sauce and cheese, and it’s so filling and satisfying.” I said, “Let’s look at this objectively. How do you feel psychologically when you finish eating a whole pizza? Are you thinking, ‘That was a great decision?’” Jeff answered that he often felt pretty regretful. I responded, “How do you feel physically when you finish a whole pizza? Do you feel pleasantly full?” Jeff responded that he often felt stuffed and somewhat uncomfortable.Pizza

This was very interesting to me: when asked what eating a whole pizza was like, Jeff said it was great and satisfying. When asked how he specifically felt psychologically and physically after eating a whole pizza, the answer was very different. No wonder Jeff kept eating a whole pizza! He kept buying into the fantasy of what eating a whole pizza would be like: satisfying and great. He would either not recognize or not pay attention to what the reality of eating a whole pizza was like: full of feelings of regret and being overly stuffed. Jeff made the following Response Card:

It’s true the idea of eating a whole pizza is great, but the reality is not great at all. I end up uncomfortably stuffed and mad at myself. In giving up eating a whole pizza, I’m really not giving up anything that actually feels good. It’s worth it to stop at a reasonable amount.

I’ve seen this fantasy vs. reality concept play out in many other ways in my clients throughout the years. When we first started working together, my client Jen would overeat ice cream every time she got very upset. We worked hard on building up alternate coping mechanisms for Jen to employ when she got upset that helped her feel better and continue to feel in control of her eating. In time, she saw that eating to soothe her upset feelings ultimately caused more upset: she ended up mad at the situation and mad at herself.

There was one instance a few weeks ago when Jen had a really bad day at work and fell back into her old pattern. She stopped at a convenience store on the way home from work, bought a pint of ice cream, and ate the whole thing. In session, I asked, “What were the thoughts at play?” Jen said she was thinking, “I don’t care. I had such a bad day, and I just want to feel better.” I asked, “And did you feel better? How did you feel when you finished the ice cream?” Jen answered that she actually didn’t feel better. She felt mad at herself for reengaging in old, sabotaging habits. But the reason she lapsed back into it was because she was thinking about how overeating ice cream used to make her feel, and not how it makes her feel now. Jen made the following Response Card:

It’s true that overeating ice cream used to make me feel better when I was upset, but it no longer does. Now that I know how great being in control of my eating feels, letting go of that control makes everything feel worse. Overeating ice cream no longer provides me the relief it once did.

Think about your own thoughts. Might there be times when you think something will be better than it actually is? If so, make a Response Card and start reminding yourself of the reality, not the fantasy!

All About Response Cards

Response Cards are helpful phrases written down on 3×5 cards or kept somewhere on your phone. They are one of the most powerful tools in the journey towards gaining control over your thinking, which will ultimately help you gain control over your eating.

CBT for weight loss and maintenance teaches us that it’s never the situation or the trigger that automatically leads someone to eat something, it’s their thinking about the situation. For example, my client Rachel got in a big fight with her sister and ended up going to the kitchen to eat a lot of cookies. It wasn’t the fact that Rachel got in a fight that automatically led to her eating cookies, it was her thinking about the situation. When she gets really upset, Rachel has the thought, “I’m so upset, I deserve to eat to help myself feel better.” Once she has that thought, of course she then goes and eats cookies.

In other applications of CBT, we call these “automatic thoughts” because they’re thoughts our brains make without deliberate effort on our part. In CBT for weight loss and maintenance, we call them “sabotaging thoughts” – thoughts that sabotage one’s overall eating, health, and weight goals.

While we can’t stop anyone from having these sabotaging thoughts (after all, they’re automatic), we can teach people to respond to them effectively so that they have a different outcome. This is where Response Cards come in. Whenever someone has a sabotaging thought, we ask them, “what would you like to say to yourself the next time you have thought? What might be helpful to hear?” Then, we have them write it down and read it every single day. Coming up with a great response to a sabotaging thought is wonderful, but it won’t do much unless you read it over and over and over again. The repetition of reading it is what will help it start to make new inroads into your brain.

In response to her sabotaging thought, “I’m so upset, I deserve to eat to help myself feel better,” Rachel made the following Response Card:

If I’m upset, I do deserve to feel better, but I also deserve to achieve my health goals. Instead of using food as a means to feel better, I can go call my mom, take a walk, do a mindfulness meditation or some yoga stretches, or listen to some music. These activities will help me feel better without sabotaging any other goals. Woman writing a Response Card

When I first started working with him, my client Mark was often going to a friend’s house and overeating pizza. He told me that his friends were all eating many slices of pizza, so it felt normal for him to do it, too. We discussed that Mark had to make choices that worked for him, based on his goals, not choices based on what other people were doing. Mark made the following Response Card:

My body doesn’t know or care what anyone around me is eating, it only knows what I’m eating. Just because other people are eating something, doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work for me. I have to make choices based on my goals and what will work for me.

Read every day, these Response Cards are a powerful tool in helping you to shift your thinking and response to triggers in a different way. There are no right or wrong answers about what Response Cards should say; it’s only important to figure out what responses are persuasive and resonant to you. Any time you catch a sabotaging thought, make sure you think about what you’d like to say to yourself the next time you have that thought (because if you’ve had it once, chances are very high you’ll have it again), and write it down. Read it every day! That’s what will enable you to have a different outcome the next time the sabotaging thought pops up.

Is It Time to Reevaluate COVID Habits?

Now that we have passed the one-year mark since life changed dramatically, I started thinking about habits that some of my clients fell into during COVID. While many of these were understandable in the chaotic and scary first few months, they are not serving them well anymore.

Like many, my client Mark started drinking alcohol much more frequently in the early days of COVID. While he used to be a social drinker, we realized that somewhere along the way he started drinking about two glasses of wine every day – which is roughly 1,600 extra calories per week! Because his eating is relatively healthy and he has still been exercising, the extra alcohol calories weren’t causing him to gain weight. They were, however, probably the culprit for why he stopped losing weight.

Mark decided he didn’t want to rely on alcohol every night to relax; he wanted to get back to only having some on the weekends. We decided he would cut back to one glass a night for two weeks, and then work on cutting it out entirely on weeknights from there. Since alcohol was acting as a stress reliever, it was critical to put other deliberate coping mechanisms in its place. Mark decided that every night before cooking dinner, he would do a 10-minute meditation. Instead of watching the news while he cooked, he would instead listen to music or entertainment podcasts. This way, he would still get stress relief but not the extra calories.

My client Kara was also having trouble losing weight. Like Mark, we looked for where the extra calories might be coming from. For Kara, it was extra indulgences when she ordered takeout. When restaurants shut down and Kara started ordering takeout more frequently, she might order a salad and French fries, because she felt the need to indulge. Kara realized that pre-COVID, she never would have ordered takeout French fries, but it was a habit that stuck around. Kara decided that she would make list of reasonable takeout options and stick to that moving forward.

When he shifted from his office to working from home last year, my client Jeff started staying up too late. Since he didn’t have to commute to work anymore, he rationalized staying up later and sleeping in. Jeff hasn’t been able to institute a regular bedtime or sleep routine for himself over the last year. He man running along pathoften stays up late snacking in the evening.

Jeff acknowledged that this habit wasn’t working for him anymore, and he was ready to reinstate a regular bedtime. Not only would this ensure he got enough sleep, but it meant he wouldn’t be up too late snacking. He would once again be able to get up early enough to exercise in the morning – a habit he had in place for years and helped him thrive.

If you’ve let some bad COVID habits creep in, now is the time to reevaluate them! It’s been over a year, so it’s high time to make sure your habits are working for you, not against you

A Different Type of Food Pusher

My client Megan had several hard days this past week. She told me that, on three separate occasions, she ended up eating things that she knew she shouldn’t – food she hadn’t planned that made her feel overly full and exceeded her limits for the day. In session, we discussed how all three situations involved her partner saying he was going to order a specific food. She said she didn’t want any, and he ended up getting food for her anyway. Once the tempting food was in front of her, Megan found it too difficult to resist.

I reminded Megan that this would be an incredibly difficult situation for anyone to be in and was not a personal weakness on her part. It’s hard to resist food that you enjoy – even if it’s not on your plan – when it’s staring you directly in the face. While it would be easy to blame her partner for sabotaging her and think, “He just needs to stop ordering food when I tell him I don’t want any,” it’s important to remember that it’s not the food pusher’s job to stop pushing food on you. They’re food pushers; that’s what they do! It is, however, your job to start saying no or to start not eating the food that you said you didn’t want.Food on table

Megan thought about this and realized that by always giving in and eating the food that her partner ordered for her, she was teaching him to continue doing it! She was training to him know that if he ordered food, regardless of whether she said she wanted it, she would eat it. Because of this, we knew that the crucial step in changing this would be for Megan to start standing firm and not eating food she said she didn’t want. This will probably mean wasting food, but if it’s in the service of reaching health and happiness goals that are incredibly important to her, it’s worth it.

Megan decided that the next time this happened, she would take the food he ordered for her and put directly in the trash – both to make a point and to decrease the chances she would end up eating it. We don’t know for certain, but it’s likely that after she does this multiple times, he’ll get the message and eventually stop ordering her unwanted food. The good news is that he doesn’t have to stop ordering Megan unplanned food for her to stay on track. She’s not in control over what he orders, but she is in control over what she eats.

Entitlement vs. Treat

Most of the clients I work with have “slippery slope” habits – old habits that they’ve managed to leave behind but continue to be vulnerable to reactivating. For some, it’s once again starting to leave the serving dishes on the dinner table and taking seconds. For others, it’s forgetting to prioritize making a healthy lunch and falling back into just snacking in the afternoons. My client Erin’s habit is drinking wine during the week.

When we first started working together, Erin was drinking wine most nights. We added up the calories from her two-glass-per-day habit, and she realized she was consuming more than 2,000 calories each week in alcohol. No wonder she was having trouble losing weight! Erin worked hard to deliberately cut out wine on weekdays, instead enjoying it just on weekends. Doing so had a lot of benefits – she always woke up with a clear head and her sleep improved during the week, she felt better about the amount of alcohol she was drinking, and, of course, she started losing weight.Woman holding a glass of wine

When I met with Erin this week, she was feeling frustrated because not only had her weight loss stalled, but she had actually gained a few pounds. We discussed what might be contributing to this. I asked her, “Is there anything you’re doing now that you weren’t doing when you were losing weight? Or anything you aren’t doing now that you were doing before?” It didn’t take Erin long to realize that wine had crept back in, and she was now drinking it close to every night again, not just on weekends. For Erin, the creep was pretty slow, so she didn’t really notice it as it was happening. Before long, she had reactivated her old habit of daily wine consumption.

We discussed that in order to start losing weight again, she would likely have to cut back on the amount of wine calories she consumed each week. Erin acknowledged that this was true, but the thought of it felt really hard. Wine had once again entered her “entitlement” category – something she felt entitled to have every night. If she couldn’t have it, she felt deprived. The opposite of the entitlement category is the “treat” category – something someone doesn’t expect to have every night and, instead, views it as a treat or a bonus when she does.

I reminded Erin that once she gets used to having wine only on weekends again, it would shift from the entitlement category to the treat category, and not having it every night wouldn’t feel so hard. Erin thought back and realized that after about a week of only having wine during the weekends, she typically didn’t even think about it during the week. Most nights, it didn’t feel hard at all.

To take wine out of the entitlement category and into the treat one, Erin and I decided that she would create a new nightly ritual. Instead of pouring herself a glass of wine, she would brew some special tea that she really loves and do a five-minute meditation. That way, she would still get to drink something she enjoyed and that felt special, feel relaxation and stress relief from the meditation, and not sabotage any other goals. A win/win!

Let It Slide?

My client Tara helps run conferences (which are currently all virtual), and she is in the thick of a busy time at work. In session this week, she told me that she’s been having trouble prioritizing healthy eating and exercise because she has so much work to do. She keeps having though sabotaging thought, “It’s okay, just let it slide until the conference is over next week.”

I asked Tara to think about the pros and cons of “letting it slide” until the conference is over. Here is her list:Woman working on a laptop

Pros:

  • I won’t have to take time away from work to exercise.
  • I’ll be able to justify eating whatever I want.
  • I won’t have the added burden of trying to make healthy choices.

Cons:

  • Exercise is a huge stress reliever. When I don’t exercise during busy work times, I end up overeating every evening to help me calm down.
  • “Eating whatever I want” doesn’t actually make me feel good. It makes me feel overly stuffed and bloated, which impacts my sleep and concentration.
  • While trying to make healthy choices IS a burden, feeling out of control of my eating is a much greater burden.
  • Going into full “work mode” and not taking time for myself isn’t good for my mental health.
  • There is always another conference coming. If I reinforce that it’s okay to “let it slide” during this one, I’ll continue to do it for the next one. This will completely sabotage my ability to achieve the things on my Advantages List, which are really, really important to me!

When Tara took a more objective view of what “letting it slide” actually meant, she realized that it was not something she was willing to do! Her health and mental health were at stake here, and she couldn’t sacrifice them. Plus, when Tara really thought about it, she realized that she always got her work done, regardless of whether she took time to exercise and be mindful of her eating choices.

If you are tempted to “let it slide” during a stressful work or life phase, think objectively about what that means. Does feeling out of control of your eating make you feel less chaotic? Does not exercising help you feel better, or does it make things worse? Would gaining weight every time things got busy help you achieve your goals or sabotage them? Even though working on healthy eating and exercise can be harder during stressful periods, it’s ALWAYS worth it!

Thursday Think Tip – February 11, 2021

Thursday Think Tip: Taking care of yourself is a necessity, not a luxury. If you think, “I can’t take 10 minutes to sit down and de-stress in a healthy way,” remind yourself, “Yes I can! There is no better use of 10 minutes than taking care of myself.”

Wednesday Sabotage – February 3, 2021

Wednesday Sabotage: I’m too stressed to worry about my eating right now.

Response: Even though I think maintaining control over my eating will make me feel more stressed, it actually makes me feel less stressed because I feel more in control in general.

Planning in Advance

This week, my client Jennifer told me that while her days have been going well, things have been falling apart around dinner. The first question I asked Jennifer was, “Are you planning dinner in advance, or are you getting to dinner time and then trying to figure out what to eat?” Jennifer told me that most nights it was the latter. She often thought about making a dinner meal plan but resisted the idea because she didn’t want to feel hemmed in. She wanted to be able to eat whatever she was craving that night for dinner and not something she had predetermined earlier in the week.

While I sympathized with this desire, I reminded Jennifer that in-the-moment decisions are the hardest to make effectively. In-the-moment decisions require us to use our “hot” brains, an id-driven brain that mostly focuses on what it wants in the moment and doesn’t take other goals into account. Future-oriented decisions, by contrast, allow us to use our “cool” brains, a rational brain that thinks through big goals and consequences and makes decisions based on them. It’s not a guarantee that an in-the-moment decision will lead us awry, but it is far more likely.

It’s no surprise that dinners haven’t been going well for Jennifer. End-of-the-day Jennifer, when she was tired and worn out, was not a great Jennifer to be making dinner decisions. Morning Jennifer was a great Jennifer to be making decisions! Morning Jennifer was fresh and sharp and could formulate how a successful day should go. Even though Jennifer understood this intellectually, something was still standing in her way. She still didn’t like the idea of planning dinners in advance.Hand writing out a list.

I asked Jennifer if she ever planned in advance or if she always waited until the last minute to make dinner decisions, and she said that sometimes she and her partner would decide in advance what to have for dinner. “How does that usually work out?” I asked her. “Are you happy when you get to dinner, or are you resisting the plan?” Jennifer told me that usually she was fine with the plan, and it sometimes was helpful because she and her partner often get frustrated with each other trying to figure out dinner every night.

I said to Jennifer, “I wonder, then, if the idea of planning dinner in advance is actually worse than the reality of doing so. The idea of planning dinner in advance makes you feel trapped, but the reality is that it keeps the peace between you and your partner, and it means you feel on track all evening long.” We discussed this idea more, and Jennifer was able to see that this was probably the case, at least some of the time. The idea of not being able to make spontaneous dinner decisions was worse than the reality. She made a Response Card to remind herself.

Jennifer also admitted that even though she resists making dinner decisions in advance, she often ends up eating the same things anyway, so it wouldn’t be that much of a hassle to make the plan more formalized, and that way it would cut down on tensions with her partner, she could make sure to have the food that she needed, and she increased her likelihood of staying on track all day. We also agreed that she should have an escape clause: for the first week, at least, if she really doesn’t want what she planned to have for dinner, then she didn’t need to have it! We decided that she would put some backup meals in her freezer that she could pull out if this happened.

I reminded Jennifer of one more thing: the reason to start planning dinners in advance was not to take away her freedom. It was because not planning in advance wasn’t working for her, and doing so would be in the service of a greater goal: achieving everything on her Advantages List. She would be doing it for hugely important reasons. Jennifer made a Response Card to remind her of this idea, too.

Evening Treats

In session this week, my client Lisa told me she was struggling in the evenings. While she found it fairly easy to stick to her plan of healthy meals and snacks during the day, in the late evening (usually around 9pm) she was going into the kitchen and eating treats, telling herself, “It doesn’t matter.”

The first thing I asked Lisa was, “What’s in your kitchen? Do you have a lot of treats in the house right now?” Lisa said that she did. She had a lot of leftover holiday desserts, plus she loads up on groceries (including junk food) when she grocery shops, since she now goes less than usual. I told Lisa that having a house full of a variety of desserts would be hard for anyone, no matter how long they’ve been working on these things. The greater variety of treats there are, the more it tricks people into thinking they should eat.

Lisa said, “That’s true. When I think about having the ginger snaps I have planned, that doesn’t sound as appealing as all that other stuff.” I responded, “Exactly! But if ginger snaps were the only dessert you had in the house, chances are they would sound more appealing. You would eat them and feel satisfied.”People eating and drinking outside

Another reason having so many treats in the house was sabotaging Lisa was because whether or not she was fully aware of it, she was probably actively resisting eating them all day. The more times in a day she tells herself, “No, you can’t have that,” the more decision fatigue starts to set in, in addition to real fatigue in the evening! Saying “yes” starts to feel more reasonable.

I told Lisa, “It’s not as if your body tells you, ‘You said no ten times, so the eleventh time you can say yes and I won’t process the calories.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. Saying ‘no’ ten times doesn’t necessarily mean it’s okay to say ‘yes’ the eleventh time, especially if it’s not on your plan.”

Lisa and I discussed her thought, “It doesn’t matter.” I said to her, “Actually, I’m wondering if it’s just the opposite. I’m wondering if those late night decisions actually matter the most because by giving in in the evening and taking in too many calories, it’s stopping you from being able to lose weight. So, it does matter; it matters the most.” Lisa and I discussed that by staying on track all day but giving in late in the evening, it’s like she’s run 24 miles of a 26.2 marathon. It’s still a huge achievement, but she won’t get the finisher’s medal without the last 2.2 miles.

Lisa and I made some Response Cards for her to read in the evening, and we agreed on a three-part plan: First, she’ll get rid of most the treats in her house. Second, she’ll make a strong plan for what she’ll eat in the evening, and third, she’ll read Response Cards to remind herself exactly why it does matter.