Usually when dieters are faced with eating something they want to eat, in that moment they’re thinking about how good it will taste and how deprived they’ll feel if they can’t have it, rather than looking at what will happen once the food is gone.
For the last few weeks, my client, Jenna, has been working hard on overcoming emotional eating.
My client, Scott, has had a really hard two weeks. He’s been dealing with a lot of stress at work and his eating has definitely suffered. He’s struggled to track his calories (something he was fairly easily getting himself to do before) and was feeling too worn out to get himself to prepare healthy dinners at night, and consequently fell back into old habits of ordering takeout.
My client, Megan, is going through a really hard time. Her mother is facing a major health crisis and when Megan and I met this week, she told me she was having trouble staying in control of her eating. She kept having thoughts like, “I just can’t deal with worrying about my eating right now. It’s too hard.”
A client I worked with a few years ago recently had her second baby and was having trouble getting her eating back under control. Lara told me that during her pregnancy, she let herself eat whatever she wanted and ended up gaining more weight than was healthy. Now at six months postpartum, she’s still struggling to put the skills that we had worked on back in place.
This week, I had a session with my dieter, Emily. Emily told me that she and her sister are planning a trip home this weekend to celebrate their mother’s birthday, and that she thought it would be hard in a number of ways: Emily would be off of her usual routine, she would be spending a long time in the car, she would have fewer occasions to exercise, and she would not be in control of her food. Beyond these practical matters, Emily also told me that saying in control of her eating might be difficult because she would be experiencing more stress, which puts her in danger of engaging in emotional eating. Although Emily loves her family, she also finds that being around them for an extended period of time can be stressful (in part because they often comment about what she does and doesn’t eat).
In session, Emily and I spent most of the time coming up with strategies for both her practical and psychological concerns. Emily knew that one the most helpful things she can do for herself is to make a general plan for her eating and exercise over the weekend. Emily decided that she would plan ahead and bring meals and healthy snacks in the car so that she wouldn’t have to worry about finding healthy choices on the road or being tempted by unhealthy food. Emily also decided that she would make it priority to take at least a 20 minute walk each day that she at home, which would have the dual benefit of getting in some exercise and also being a stress-reliever.
Emily and I also discussed what sabotaging thoughts that might come up this weekend. Emily said that her family often watches what she eats and makes comments, and although they are usually well-meaning, they cause Emily stress. I pointed out to Emily that because she is now an adult, she doesn’t have to worry about “rebelling” against family by sneaking food or worry about what they will say about her eating because the only person she has to answer to is herself. Emily I discussed this idea further and she made the following Response Card:
Emily and I also discussed the emotional eating aspects that might come into play this weekend and what strategies she can use if she’s feeling negative emotions, like taking a walk outside, working on deep breathing and relaxtion, or calling a friend. We also discussed the fact that going home is more of an emotional experience for her, and therefore it’s normal that Emily would feel that way. Just because she’s feeling stressed doesn’t mean anything is wrong, and just because she’s feeling stressed doesn’t mean she has to do anything about it. It will go away on its own, as it always does. Emily made the following Response Card:
Emily and I also discussed the fact that she should go into the weekend knowing and expecting that it will be more difficult to maintain control over her eating; this way she won’t be surprised when it happens. As long as Emily knows this ahead of time and fortifies herself, when the difficulty hits, she will be ready and prepared.
In our work with dieters, one of the first things we let them know is this: When they start out, dieting may be fairly easy because they are highly motivated, and then as they practice their skills more and more, dieting gets easier. But at some point, dieting will get more difficult. This is normal and inevitable and it happens to everyone. We also let dieters know that when this happens, it doesn’t mean that they are doing anything wrong, and if they keep pushing through dieting will get easier again, 100% of the time. The problem is that most dieters don’t know that dieting is supposed to get hard at some point and when this happens they panic, thinking that something has gone wrong, it will continue to be this hard, and it’s just not worth it. And then what happens? They give up. But this giving up is entirely unnecessary because dieting will get easier again if they keep doing what they’re doing.
What dieters can do when the dieting gets hard:
1. Make sure that their Advantages Lists are not feeling stale. During hard times it’s usually more difficult for dieters to remember just why it’s worth it to them to put in the necessary time and energy, so it’s important that they frequently remind themselves by reading their Advantages List. However, not only is it important for dieters to read their list, it is also important for these lists to resonate with them and to feel fresh and inspiring. If dieters have been reading the same list over and over again, it may start to feel rote. To help with this, dieters try strategies like reword their list, add new items, read just the top three each day, take a few minute to really visualize some of the items, etc.
2. Think about past experiences. When dieters are going through a harder time, they often forget how good it feels when they’re in control of their eating. If dieters take time to really think about a recent experience when they stayed in control and remember not only how good it felt, but also simply the fact that they were able to do it in the first place, it can help remind them that dieting is not always so difficult and that, most of the time, it feels worth it.
3. Focus on the basics. When dieting gets rough, it can be helpful for dieters to take a few steps back and concentrate just on some of the most essential dieting skills, like reading their Advantages List, reading Response Cards, eating everything sitting down, slowly, and mindfully, and giving themselves credit. Doing so can help dieters regain their focus and also feel more confident about what they’re doing because they already know they can do these things.
4. Respond to Sabotaging Thinking. Often when dieters are going through a hard time, they have lots of sabotaging thoughts like, “This is so hard, I just can’t do it,” and, “It’s not worth it to me to continue trying to lose weight.” If left unanswered, these thoughts can lead dieters to give up so it’s critical that they take time to identify what sabotaging thoughts they are having, make Response Cards, and practice reading them every day. For example, dieters can remind themselves:
The things on my Advantages List are worth fighting for so just because it’s hard doesn’t mean I should give up. I’ve worked hard and accomplished other things in my life that weren’t immediately easy, and I can do this, too.
Hard times always pass. This is temporary and as long as I keep doing what I’m doing, it will get easier again. Just keep working!
5. Make sure they are giving themselves credit. Sometimes when dieting gets difficult dieters forget to give themselves credit for all of the good things they are still doing. This is particularly likely to happen if they are only focusing on how hard or bad things feel. When going through a hard time, it’s critically important for dieters to give themselves credit because they often begin to lose their confidence and sense of self-efficacy and question whether or not they can really do everything. By recognizing the things that they are still doing, and doing well, they can fight against this and regain (or maintain) a sense of pride and achievement.
My dieter, Jeff, is a police officer and after a long shift he usually feels exhausted, both physically and emotionally. Because of this, whenever he gets home from work he usually ends up eating a huge meal (of unhealthy foods) because he feels a lot of self-pity and stress and has the sabotaging thought that he “deserves” to eat to feel better. Jeff told me that the thought of coming home and not eating a big meal makes him feel deprived and more self-pitying. Although Jeff knows that this is something that was sabotaging his weight loss efforts, he couldn’t figure out how to break the cycle.
Jeff and I discussed this situation in depth during our last diet session. The first thing I did was ask Jeff how he felt after he got home and ate a big meal and whether or not it achieved his goal of feeling better. Jeff reported that while he did temporarily feel better while he was eating because he was distracted from thinking about his long shift, towards the end of his meal, or almost immediately after, he started feeling a lot of guilt, regret, and self-recrimination. When he thought about it, Jeff admitted that he actually ended up feeling worse than he did before he started eating.
I pointed out to Jeff that this was good news: it’s a good thing that eating didn’t ultimately satisfy his goal because that would give him extra motivation to work on making changes and figuring out what would actually make him feel better, both in the short term and in the long term.
Jeff and I discussed the fact that after a hard work shift, he certainly does deserve to relax and he certainly does deserve to calm down and de-stress, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to go off his diet, feel even worse, and maintain his unhealthy weight. Jeff and I discussed a number of strategies that he could use when he gets home which would help him relax and shed the burden of his job without turning to food. We also came up with a number of Response Cards for Jeff to read while he was still in his car, before he even walked into his house. Here are some of Jeff’s Response Cards:
When I think I deserve to eat something that will make me feel good, remember: THIS WILL ACTUALLY MAKE ME FEEL BAD. And it will cause MORE self-pity because then I’ll also feel bad about myself, guilty about my eating, and weak.
When I’m feeling stress/self-pity and I’m tempted to eat, ask myself: Do I want to feel better or do I want to feel worse?
Eating when I’m feeling stressed is effective – but ONLY IN THE SHORT TERM. It has 100% negative consequences in the long term – I’ll gain weight, I’ll stay overweight, I’ll reinforce the tendency to give in, I’ll feel bad about myself, I’ll feel guilty about what I ate, it may cause me to continue having a bad eating day, etc.
If I feel “deprived” because I can’t eat everything I want when I’m stressed, remind myself: either way I’m deprived. Either I’m deprived of EVERYTHING on my Advantages List, or I’m deprived of some food, some of the time. Which would be the bigger deprivation?
Jeff and I also discussed the fact that when he maintains control over his eating, regardless of the situation, he feels great about himself. Because of this, we knew that if Jeff stayed in control of his eating after a long shift at work, this in and of itself would help him feel better because he would at least be able to feel good about his eating.
Q: I was doing really well following my diet and using my skills for a few months and now all of a sudden dieting feels really hard! Does this mean I can’t do it anymore? Should I give up?
A: What happened to you is what happens to every dieter. Usually what happens is dieters start out and their motivation is high, and so they find it fairly easy to stick to their diets. And they get fooled, because they think that dieting will and should always be that easy. But unfortunately it doesn’t work that way and at some point (it could be in 2 days or 2 months) dieting gets harder for every single dieter. Sometimes it’s clear what contributed to the harder time, like something stressful happening or a big change in routine, and sometimes it’s not clear. But for whatever reason the hard time happened, it’s important to know that it’s 100% normal, it happens to everyone, and if you keep doing what you’re doing, the hard time will pass. Here are five things you can do to make it pass more quickly:
1. Remind yourself of past successful experiences. When dieters are going through a harder time, it’s almost as if they lose access to memories of how good it feels when they are feeling strong and in control of their eating and how much easier it feels a lot of the time. When this happens, it’s important for dieters to remind themselves of a time when dieting felt easier and they felt great about it, like when they stayed in control at a party or went on vacation and didn’t gain weight. As long as dieters keep pushing through, they will more and more of those positive experiences.
2. Use visualization techniques. Another technique that can be helpful is having dieters to visualize a day not too long ago when they were trucking along and doing well, and none of it felt acutely hard or overwhelming. It can be helpful for dieters to walk through that day step by step and really think about how they were thinking and feeling on that day, compared to how they are right now during this temporary rough patch.
3. Read your advantages list more often. During hard times it can be very difficult for dieters to remember just why it’s worth it to them to do all of this hard work. Dieters may easily lose sight of the fact that they are doing all of these things for reasons that are so important to them. Especially when the going gets tough, dieters need to have it clear in their minds at all times why they will continue to put in the effort and what they are striving for. While dieters may have the sabotaging thought, “I don’t feel like doing any of this, it’s not worth it,” if they continue to keep their Advantages in mind then they likely won’t honestly be able to tell themselves, “this just isn’t important to me anymore.”
4. Count the hard minutes or hours. Often when dieters are going through a rougher time, they tend to generalize and think that all day, every day, is difficult for them when this is usually not the case because they let the memory of a few hard minutes or hours color their perception of the week as a whole. It’s important for dieters to really think about whether every minute of every day was hard, or if some of the time it was actually easier. Doing so well help dieters keep a more realistic mindset of what’s going on and realize that it might not actually be as bad as they are thinking.
5. Think about if other things are hard right now, too. Sometimes when dieting becomes difficult for dieters, it coincides with other things becoming more difficult, too. Maybe dieters are having a taxing time at work, are experiencing a problem in their personal lives, or have some other stress going on that was recently introduced. When this happens, dieters may actually confuse the stress and negative thoughts they are having about other things with those that they are putting into dieting. For example, dieters may feel like they had a really hard day and everything was just bad and difficult, dieting including. But if they think about the day, they might realize that most of the negative thinking and the effort was really about other things and not about dieting.
In short, it’s important to keep hard times in perspective and realize that it may not be quite as hard as you are thinking and that if you keep doing what you’re doing, it will get easier again.
What’s the secret to holiday success? Having a plan. Yes, it really is that simple. Every dieter’s plan is different, and the plans can range from very general to very specific. For dieters who rebel against the notion of having a plan, we ask them, “When has not having a plan in the past ever helped you to reach your weight loss goals?”
My dieter, Jamie, came in to see me this week and we spent most of the session formulating her Christmas Eve plan. Jamie told me that she spends Christmas Day at her sister’s house does well staying in control while she’s there. However, on Christmas Eve Jamie’s whole family comes to her house and she is in charge of cooking for a large crowd. Jamie said that in previous years, the stress of entertaining a lot of people, combined with eating a lot while she was cooking, has led her to eat way too much, feel sick, and then just completely throw in the towel. This year, however, Jamie was determined to have a great Christmas Eve which she could feel good about, both during and after.
Before we made her plan, Jamie identified several areas that have been difficult for her in the past: she gets really stressed, she excessively tastes everything while she cooks, she skips breakfast and lunch, she doesn’t take any time for herself, she usually avoids the scale for the next few days, and she doesn’t respond to sabotaging thoughts like, “I’ve blown it so I might as well start tomorrow,” and “It’s Christmas Eve so it’s okay to eat whatever I want.”
Here is the plan that Jamie and I formulated:
1. Plan in advance to have breakfast and lunch. In the past, Jamie has skipped breakfast and lunch, thinking she will “make up” for it later in the day. This caused her to be extremely hungry when she started to cook, which then led her to eat a lot while she was cooking and during dinner and after, thinking “I skipped breakfast and lunch so it’s okay to have extra now.” For the day, Jamie usually ended up eating way more calories than she would have if she had had a reasonable breakfast and lunch.
2. Read Advantages List and Response Cards several times throughout the day, especially right before cooking. Jamie knows that she is more susceptible to sabotaging thoughts around this time, and she also knows that she will be tempted by more food than usual. In session Jamie and I made some Response Cards with responses to sabotaging thoughts that she has had in the past, and she committed to reading those cards, as well as her Advantages List, throughout the day so it would be fresh in her mind exactly why it’s worth it to her to stay in control.
3. Take a walk sometime during the day. While in general Jamie is good at getting herself to exercise, during the holidays, and especially when she is busy all day getting ready for a celebration, her exercise plans can fly right out the window. This year Jamie decided that she would make sure to get some exercise in at some point that day, not only to prove to herself that she can continue to make exercise a priority even when she’s busy, but also so that she can have a few moments to herself to de-stress and calm down.
4. Eat everything sitting down. This, too, is a skill that Jamie is usually pretty very good at. However, when she is cooking and preparing food, setting out appetizers, and wrapping up leftovers, she is much more likely to engage in eating standing up. Jamie realized that having the very strict rule of eating everything sitting down would help her to eliminate a lot of extraneous eating because, by sitting down, it will force her to be more aware and more accountable for every bite that she eats.
5. Limit consumption of alcohol and desserts. Jamie decided that her favorite part of Christmas Eve was the dinner, and she didn’t want to spend too many calories on alcohol and sweets. Jamie realized that she might feel deprived if she cut these things out of her plan completely, but by choosing to have a small amount of each she would still be able to consume them, and as an added bonus, she would be able to enjoy them guilt-free because she would know that she was having a controlled amount that was on her plan.
6. Take time to refocus if stress sets in. Jamie knows that at any point during the day she might start to feel stressed or frenzied, and in the past she would turn straight to food to calm herself down. Jamie realized that if she wants to lose weight and keep it off, she can’t keep eating as a cure for stress. Instead, Jamie and I made a list of several different things that she should immediately start trying if she notices herself getting stressed so that she can calm herself down, refocus her energy, and get right back on track – all without eating a bite.
7. Weigh in the very next morning. One of the biggest reasons dieters get off track, and stay off track, is because they are not accountable for their actions. By knowing that she will have to get on the scale the next morning no matter what, it will be easier for Jamie to stay in control because she will know that she’ll have to face the consequences, either positive or negative, of her Christmas Eve eating.
8. Remember that staying in control feels great, and eating off track feels really bad. This is one of the most important ideas for Jamie to remember because any time she is tempted to start eating out of hand, she can think about how bad that will feel and realize that it’s really not what she wants to do. Jamie has had enough experiences of feeling happy and proud when she staying in control, as well as enough experiences feeling sick and terrible when her eating was out of control, to know 100% that she will feel so much better and be so happy with keeping her control in spite of the numerous temptations.
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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