Delaying Instant Gratification

Last week, I had a session with my client Sarah, who told me about an experience she had the previous day overcoming a big craving. It was late afternoon, and she was feeling tired and stressed about an important work project. She started to have a strong craving for something sweet, specifically the cookies that she had bought at the grocery store the previous day. Although Sarah and I have been working on the guideline of “no dessert before dinner,” her sabotaging thoughts tried to convince her that, “just this one time was okay,” and that she “would have dessert before dinner but not have it again later.” (Both of these are clear sabotaging thoughts because every time has consequences for the next time. Even if she didn’t go on to have dessert after dinner, she would still be strengthening her giving-in muscle and reinforcing the notion that if she didn’t feel like sticking to her plan, she didn’t have to.)

Sarah got up from her desk and started walking to the kitchen when something lucky happened. A coworker called her with a question, and it took Sarah about 10 minutes to finish her phone call. Once it was over, she realized that the urgency of the craving had gone away. While she still wanted to have a cookie in that moment, she recognized that doing so would sabotage her goals, and it wasn’t worth it. She ended up making herself a cup of tea and got back to work.

Sarah and I discussed this in session, and we realized that the delay between wanting to eat a cookie and being able to allowed her rational mind to intervene and recognize the consequences of giving in before she did so. This is hard to do – like most people who struggle with their eating, Sarah focuses on how much she wants the food and not why it’s worth it to her to resist a craving. Especially for most people currently working from home with their kitchens only steps away, having a craving and giving in to the instant gratification of fulfilling it is way woman writing notestoo easy.

We decided that whenever Sarah had a craving, she had to set a timer on her phone for 10 minutes and find something distracting to do in the interim (call someone, take a short walk, play a game or do a puzzle on her phone, organize a drawer, do a meditation, read Response Cards, etc.). Once the timer went off, she could decide whether to eat the food. Doing it this way meant she couldn’t rely on instant gratification to make decisions for her. By taking some time before acting, it would allow her rational mind to be more deliberate.

When I met with Sarah this week, she told me the timer strategy had been enormously effective. While it was hard to get herself to set the timer and not give in immediately, she found that it almost always did the trick in terms of allowing her enough time to make a choice that supported her goals.

If you’re struggling with having the kitchen available to you all day, consider this strategy! When you have a craving, remind yourself that you can have that food, you just have to wait 10 minutes to decide. In those 10 minutes, find something distracting to do so your brain stops thinking about eating and starts thinking about something else. Chances are by the time your timer goes off, the urgency of the craving will have passed and you can think more clearly about what you want to do.

Three Things You Can Do When You Feel Like Eating, But It’s Not Time To Eat

Intuitive eating is a great concept, but we find that for many people who have struggled with their eating, their intuition can be unreliable. It urges them to eat when they’re bored. It tells them to eat when they’re stressed, anxious, celebrating or angry. Their intuition doesn’t differentiate between hunger, being tired or having a craving. For this reason, we work with many of our clients on eating according to a set schedule throughout the day. In doing so, they rely on the clock and their predetermined eating structure to tell them when to eat, not what is going on internally.The witching hour

Because of this, many of our clients find themselves in the position of wanting to eat but it not being time to eat. What motivates this desire to eat? It could be one of 100 different things: hunger, stress, boredom, fatigue, anxiety, anger, wanting to procrastinate, sadness, loneliness and so on. Here are three things that we work with clients on doing when they want to eat but it’s not yet time.

  1. Mindfulness Meditation

My client Jason found that his mind often strayed to what food was in his kitchen mid-morning. He’d already had a good breakfast, and lunch usually wasn’t for at least another hour or two, yet Jason found himself with very strong food cravings many mornings. Jason and I discussed what was typically happening around the time of his food cravings, and he realized it was usually right around when he was figuring out his work schedule for the day and trying to figure out how to accomplish everything he needed to do. We determined that the desire to eat wasn’t about hunger, it was about stress and/or having trouble getting work started. Jason came up with the strategy of doing a 10-minute mindfulness meditation every day after breakfast and before he started work, to help get centered and focused for the day. He found within the first week that this made a huge difference in getting through the mornings without wanting to eat.

  1. Go for a walk/get some exercise

My client Rachel found that she had developed a food “witching hour” – usually around 4 or 5 p.m., during which her food cravings were very strong and she had a hard time not going into the kitchen and eating snack after snack. Like many people, Rachel is now working from home and we realized that much of her “witching hour” food cravings were not actually about a craving for food, it was Rachel’s brain craving a transition from her work day to her evening. In the past, Rachel would walk home most days (which took her about 25 minutes) and without even meaning to, that walk was likely the signal that her workday was over. We decided that every day (weather permitting) at 4:30 Rachel would go out for a walk (or do yoga inside if she needed to). This way, not only would she be out of the house and away from the kitchen, she would be giving herself a transition between work and home and getting in some exercise.

  1. Read Response Cards and do a distracting activity

My client Jen was struggling to maintain control over her eating in the evenings. After dinner and getting her kids to bed, Jen would settle in front of the television with her husband and just want to eat and eat. For Jen, we did two things. First, we instituted a set evening snack time of 8:30 p.m. This was the midpoint for her between settling in for the evening and going to bed. When Jen was tempted to eat before her snack time, the first thing she would do was read Response Cards and remind herself exactly why it was worth it to her to wait. Then, she would do an activity. While watching TV with her husband was great, it still left enough of Jen’s mind idle, and when her mind was idle, it turned to food. We decided that while she watched TV, she would do another activity to fully engage her brain, like an adult coloring book, knitting or playing a game on her phone.

If you are struggling with wanting to eat too often throughout the day, consider if any of these strategies might work for you, too.

Leave the Struggle at the Store

A big way COVID-19 has changed many people’s lives is that they are grocery shopping far less often than they used to. I was discussing this with my client, Lauren, in session this week. She told me that now that she’s only going to the grocery store about once every week and a half to two weeks (instead of multiple times per week as was her habit in the past), she’s been struggling to figure out how much and what food to buy.cookies in a bowl

She described to me that when she’s at the store, she’s always tempted to buy things that weren’t necessarily going into her shopping cart in the past (like chips and cookies) because she feels a degree of anxiety: “What if I really, really want these things over the next two weeks?” If she wanted to insert cookies into her food plan in the past, she would just go to the store the next day and get them. Now, that’s no longer an option.

I asked Lauren, “What happens when you do end up bringing the chips and cookies home?” She thought about it and described how having those highly tempting foods in her house was really taxing her resistance muscle. Throughout the day, and especially at night, her mind wanders to those foods in her pantry and she has to overcome a craving to go eat some. In short, it was causing her lots and lots of struggle once she brought them home.

Lauren came up with an amazing response to record on a new Response Card: Leave the struggle at the store. She realized that when she gave in to her sabotaging thoughts and brought cookies and chips home, it caused her many minutes and hours of struggle throughout the week, trying to overcome cravings. When she put in the work at the supermarket to overcome her thoughts and not buy those foods, she left the struggle at the store. When they’re not at home, sitting in her pantry, they don’t tempt her.

If you, too, are bringing home foods from the grocery store that are causing you a lot of cravings, consider leaving the struggle at the store! Work on overcoming bringing them home, and you will save yourself so much struggle for the next week.

Working from Home

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been talking to most of my clients about how to manage their eating now that they’re all working from home. While there are eating challenges when people work in an office (break room goodies, lunch meetings, tempting restaurants close by), working from home and being near the refrigerator and pantry all day can be hard to manage.

The number one biggest strategy I’ve been working with my clients on is follow an eating schedule. Without the structure of a day in the office to guide their eating, many of my clients found themselves wandering into the kitchen multiple times a day looking for a snack (boredom, stress, wanting to procrastinate, etc.). Without some type of eating schedule in place, every time they thought about eating – and right now they’re thinking about eating a lot – they have to make the decision whether or not to eat. Every time a food thought pops into their Cutting board of healthy food.head, they have to ask themselves, “is this hunger? Is this just boredom? Should I eat? Should I try to wait?”

Having to engage in those questions over and over throughout the day can get exhausting and leaves a lot of room for error. When they follow an eating schedule, every time they think about eating, they just look at the clock. If it’s time to eat, they eat. If it’s not time to eat, they don’t eat. They don’t have to worry about figuring out whether it’s hunger, or a craving, or emotions welling up, or boredom. It just doesn’t matter why they want to eat. If it’s not time to eat, they don’t eat. Period.

My client, Rachel, started following this eating schedule last week:

  • Breakfast: 7:00-8:00
  • Lunch: 12:00-1:00
  • Snack: 3:00-4:00
  • Dinner: 6:00-7:30
  • Dessert: 8:30-9:30

In session this week she told me that following her schedule made a huge difference in helping her feel in control of her eating. She said it took so much stress off of eating during the day because it was so clear cut when it was time to eat and when it wasn’t. On one day when she started thinking about food around 11:00am, she said to herself, “It’s not time to eat right now. Lunch is in an hour, go find something distracting to do and it will be here before you know it.” On another day when she wanted to eat around 5:00pm, she said to herself, “You just had a snack an hour ago. This isn’t about hunger, it’s about feeling stressed. Go take a walk, that will help me destress just as much as eating would.”

While following an eating schedule puts restrictions on when you can eat, most people actually find it incredibly liberating because it frees you from having to make food decisions all throughout the day. If you’re struggling to control your eating right now, follow an eating schedule! Figure out what times it makes sense for you to eat throughout the day and whenever you want to eat at an unscheduled time, remind yourself that your next meal or snack isn’t so far away and find something else to do.

Don’t Push the Lazy Domino!

As I help my clients navigate this unsettling time, one major topic of discussion has been helping people learn to control their eating (and their lives) in their sudden and new work-from-home lifestyle. Most of my clients work the majority of the time in an office setting, so suddenly being home 24 hours a day is a huge change. I had a session this week with my client, Sarah, who works in software sales and is now working from home. She has been struggling to find a new sense of normalcy now that she doesn’t have to get up every morning, shower, and drive to work. She told me that when her alarm goes off in the morning, she often has the thought, “What does it matter if I stay in bed a little bit longer?” So, I asked Sarah, “Does it matter?”

Sarah thought about it and said that yes, it does matter because when she starts out the day by not getting up at her normal time, it sets off a domino effect that negatively impacts the rest of her day. It means she doesn’t get up in time to eat her healthy breakfast, and sometimes doesn’t end up eating anything until lunch, by which point she’s overly hungry, feeling deprived about not eating breakfast, and often ends up making poor choices. When she doesn’t get up, she also starts work later, which means she works later into the night, which throws off dinner and means she gets to bed way later than she knows she should. Additionally, it decreases the chance that she’ll end up getting some exercise that day (either a walk or run outside, or an exercise video at home), because her timing is all thrown off, which is highly detrimental because exercise is so critical to helping Sarah release stress and boost her mood. In short: Getting up when her alarm goes off matters, and it matters a lot.

Sarah realized that when she ignores her alarm and stays in bed, she’s setting off her “lazy domino,” which then spirals down the rest of her day. When Sarah gets up with her alarm and gets her day started, she sets off a much different, much happier and more productive chain of dominos. Sarah made a Response Card that said, “Don’t be the lazy domino!” as a reminder of exactly why it mattered, even in this uncertain time, to get up and get her day started when her alarm goes off.

Why It Matters

I’ve had many sessions with clients over the past two weeks who are understandably very uneasy, scared, and thrown off of their normal healthy eating routines. One common thought I’ve heard them relate is, “What does this really matter with all that is going on with the coronavirus?” While I understand that the state of the world can be overwhelming and frightening at the moment, I would argue that working to control your eating is important now more than ever.

Why is this? Well, one thing we know for certain is that when people have a good eating day, they feel good, period. They feel physically better as a result of eating good food, and they feel mentally better because they feel in control and proud of themselves. When people have an off-track eating day, they feel regretful and out of control. They sometimes feel physically uncomfortable, and psychologically they feel mad at themselves, knowing they were degrading their health. Right now there is so much going on in the world that you can’t control – eating is something you can control. Taking control of the things you can will feel so much better than letting everything slide out from under you. Right now when we’re all holed up at home and everything is closed, many of our usual sources of pleasure aren’t available to us (movies, meeting friends, dinners out, concerts, museums, etc.). Maintaining control over your eating is one major thing you can do to help boost both your physical and mental health, which is sorely, sorely needed right now.

When I was in session with a client this week (all of which are done remotely), she recognized that she was giving in to coronavirus-related stress eating, and felt determined to turn things around. We made this list of things she could do when the stress and anxiety felt particularly strong:

  1. Go for a walk, either outside or in her house.
  2. Call or video-chat a friend.
  3. Use her meditation app and do a 3-5 minute meditation.
  4. Give herself permission to not be productive for 30 minutes and read a book, listen to a podcast, take a nap, etc.
  5. Declutter something.
  6. Make a gratitude list – either of things she will be grateful for when this is over (stocked shelves at the supermarket, giving a stranger a handshake, meeting a friend for lunch) or something she’s grateful for right now (food delivery service, spending more time with her daughter, reading more).

If you don’t have a list of things to help you de-stress, make one now! Consult it daily and remind yourself why it matters to care about your eating right now. Regaining control or staying in control is guaranteed to make you feel better than the opposite, and we need all the good feelings we can get. This matters. This is important. You can do this.

The Number on the Scale

In a follow up to my previous blog post, I’d like to return to my client, Jessica, who got off track during the holidays. This week, Jessica and I added getting back on the scale every day to her list. This is another habit that Jessica got out of while she was off track. She dreaded getting back on the scale because she hatedWeight Scale seeing the higher number.

Jessica and I discussed that the number on the scale is subjective. If someone had just lost 50 lbs and now was at 186 (where Jessica is now, up from 163 where she was for over two years), she would be thrilled to see 186 on the scale. So not everyone feels bad about seeing that number on the scale, and the reason Jessica felt bad about that number was 100% due to what she was saying to herself when she got on the scale. I asked Jessica what went through her mind when she got on the scale. She said it was something like, “This number is so high and so terrible. I can’t believe I let things get so far off track. I’m so mad at myself.”

Jessica and I made some Response Cards for her to keep right by her scale and read before she gets on it:

Even though this number is higher than I’d like it to be, I’m doing what I need to be doing to make it go down again.

I’m in control of my eating which means I’m in control of the number on the scale. It will go down, and I’ll get to enjoy feeling on track and feeling at peace with my eating while it does.

It’s so important to say the right things to yourself before and during getting on the scale. Keep in mind that if you feel terrible about the number on the scale, it’s due in large part to what you’re telling yourself about that number. Berating yourself will do nothing but demoralize you and make it harder to do what you need to do. No matter what that number is, give yourself lots of credit for taking accountability and getting on the scale in the first place, and remind yourself that you’re doing what you need to be doing to make it go down. If you were at the lowest weight you’d been in 20 years but were out of control of your eating, it wouldn’t make any difference that the scale was down because it would be about to go up. Being on track with your eating (even if it means taking the first few steps and working up to doing the rest) is what is most important because it means you’re in control of the number and it’s going to go down.

I’m Doing It

My client, Jessica, got off track during the holidays (which is far too easy to do!). When I met with her this week, she told me she was tired of feeling out of control, tired of avoiding the scale, tired of worrying about her clothes fitting, and tired of not feeling good about her eating choices. Her mind and her body were suffering as a result of being off track, and she was done with it! We discussed what steps she would start taking in order to rebuild her resistance muscle. We decided that this week she would concentrate on eating Hand writing out a list.everything slowly and mindfully while sitting down, write down/track everything she eats (but not worry about total calories yet), and give herself credit.

While Jessica wanted to immediately get back to putting a calorie cap on how much she was eating per day (knowing that this is what will help her lose weight again), I reminded her that just doing the things we discussed would be a stretch. When trying to rebuild her resistance muscle, consistency is key. It’s critical to commit to goals that she can actually accomplish and follow through with every day. If we made goals that were too much of a stretch, she likely would be able to do it some days but not every day, and that doesn’t build the resistance muscle.

Jessica said she understood but just wanted to be “doing it” already since she was so motivated. I said to her, “By doing these things this week, you will be ‘doing it.’ ‘Doing it’ doesn’t just mean doing every single thing you ultimately need to do to get back on track and see the scale go down. ‘Doing it’ is also every step that leads you there. You can’t get there without these steps first, so from this moment on you are doing it!” Jessica made a Response Card to remind herself that in doing these things, she absolutely is “doing it.”

Other Sources of Pleasure

This week I had a session with my client, Sarah. Like many dieters, Sarah has been having a lot of trouble limiting her dessert portion in the evenings. This isn’t happening all the time. Some days it doesn’t feel very hard – but most of the time it does. I asked Sarah if there were any commonalities among the days she has an easier time (or among the days it feels harder), and one thing she realized is that on days when she’s taken the time to have coffee with a friend, or do fun errands, or in some way build in some pleasure, it feels easier to contain dessert. On days when she hasn’t given herself a break (which happens much of theWoman looking away from a dessert. time), she struggles in the evening. On those days, right before dinner, Sarah often has the thought, “Finally it’s time for dinner and then dessert! I’ve been depriving myself all day, and now it’s finally time.”

When Sarah has the thought, “I’ve been depriving myself all day,” it feels extra hard to limit dessert because she feels entitled to make up for a perceived deprivation. Sarah and I discussed the fact that by limiting herself to one reasonable portion of dessert in the evening, she’s not depriving her body of either calories or nutrients that it needs. Instead, she may be depriving her brain of pleasure it needs – if dessert is her only source of pleasure.

I discussed with Sarah that when in the evening her brain is saying, “Finally, it’s time for dessert; I’ve been depriving myself all day,” what it’s really saying is, “Finally it’s time for some pleasure. I’ve been depriving myself of pleasure all day.” Sarah and I decided that one of her goals this week was to build more pleasure into her daily life, even if it’s in very small doses. In doing so, she won’t need to rely on dessert to fulfill her pleasure need and staying at one reasonable portion won’t feel as depriving. If she gets to the evening and has the same thought, “Finally it’s time for dessert; I’ve been depriving myself all day,” she’ll remind herself that what she really needs that night is extra pleasure (a walk, a call to her sister, buying a new magazine, watching her favorite show, doing a beauty routine, etc.) not extra dessert.

Not Every Day Can Be Thanksgiving

I recently had a session with my client, Mark, who has lost twenty pounds and would like to lose more. Mark has set himself a reasonable calorie cap that he tries to stay under each day, although occasionally there are times when it’s reasonable for him to plan to eat extra. In session this week, Mark noted that his weight had plateaued for the past several weeks. The first thing we did was look at his calorie counts over the last month. Mark realized that there were many days when he ate over his cap. Most of them were things he had planned in advance (his birthday, a vacation with his wife, his son’s graduation, a wedding, celebrating a friend’s retirement, etc.), but they clearly added up to too many calories overall.Turkey Dinner

Unfortunately, Mark fell into the trap that many dieters fall into – treating too many days like Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving it’s absolutely reasonable for most dieters to plan to eat extra calories, simply because sticking to their normal amount isn’t realistic. And if planning extra calories happens only occasionally, it doesn’t sabotage weight loss or maintenance. However, we all have to draw the line somewhere because not every day can be Thanksgiving – i.e., an extra calorie day. While all of Mark’s extra calorie days seemed reasonable in the moment, when taken in total they were too much if he wanted to continue to lose weight.

I pointed out to Mark that he was lucky! It’s great that he has so many special occasions to celebrate, both his and those of his family and friends. But since they occur so frequently (something he hadn’t realized before), he can’t treat every one of them as an opportunity to plan to eat extra. Mark made the following Response Card to help remind him of this idea:

Not every day can be Thanksgiving! When I plan extra calories for every special event, it means I stop losing weight. Thanksgiving calories have to be the exception, not the norm for special events.

It’s likely to be hard initially for Mark to pull back his calories on days when he has a special event. But rereading his Advantages List has motivated him to commit to doing so because losing more weight is his top priority. We decided that for the next month, he wouldn’t make any exceptions to his normal calorie plan (because there are no actual Thanksgivings in the next month!) to give himself a reset and prove to himself he can stick to a calorie cap even when it feels hard. To help him do this, we decided that he’ll make very careful plans before challenging events, read Response Cards right before he goes, and really focus on his Advantages List and the enormously important reasons he has to keep the scale moving down.