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Trick, Not Treat

This week, my client Julie told me that she had gotten a little off track the previous night and had eaten too many cookies. Julie had been working on one planned dessert every night, which wasn’t always easy for her to stick to. She had previously been eating dessert throughout the day, but she had made big progress. We talked through what happened the night before, and she realized she had the sabotaging thought, “I’ve been so good at just having one dessert recently, so it’s okay to have a little extra tonight.” This type of thinking is very common: often, my clients feel justified in having extra, unplanned food as a reward for having done so well.cookies in a bowl

I reminded Julie that by having extra dessert, what she was doing in that moment was rewarding her hard work by undoing her hard work. She was rewarding great, on-track behavior by exercising her giving-in muscle, strengthening unhealthy habits (using food as a reward, eating beyond fullness, not sticking to her plan), and jeopardizing her weight loss. We discussed how, in virtually no other area of life, we would think it made sense to reward progress by undoing it. For example, when Julie was learning to drive and had months of accident-free driving, would she “reward” herself by purposely getting in an accident? Of course not!

Julie and I discussed that when she’s doing well and consistently making on-track food decisions, she absolutely does deserve a reward. She doesn’t, however, deserve a reward that ultimately sabotages her, like extra, unplanned food. Julie made the following Response Card to help her remember these ideas:

When I’m doing really well, I do deserve a treat. I don’t deserve to use extra, unplanned food as a treat because that’s really a trick, not a treat. I can’t reward hard work by undoing it!

Julie and I made a list of some other things she could try that would really be a treat, and not a trick: getting a new candle, buying a new book, scheduling a massage, or picking out a fun, new recipe to try that week. All of these things will help reward Julie for her hard work without undoing any of her progress!

Huge Hunger

Right from our first session, my client Ellie told me she always has an incredibly difficult time stopping at a reasonable amount of food. She always wants to eat more, even if she’s just eaten a lot. Ellie described herself as having a “huge hunger” and initially felt powerless to make changes in her eating.

I asked Ellie if we could first look at the phrase “huge hunger” and examine whether or not that was entirely accurate. The problem with telling herself that she had a huge hunger was that it legitimized eating. If you’re hungry, you should eat, right? I said to her, “This week, pay attention. When you’ve eaten dinner and then you want seconds, where is that urge coming from? Is it an empty rumbling in your stomach, or is it coming from somewhere else?”person at restaurant table

Ellie came back the following week and said that once she’s eaten a meal and wants to continue eating, it’s her mouth and her mind that want more. Her stomach didn’t feel empty, but she still felt like eating. Because it wasn’t an empty rumbling in her stomach that was demanding more food, and instead a psychological urge, I proposed to Ellie that we reconceptualize her “huge hunger” as actually her having a “huge appetite.” Telling herself she was hungry for more dinner after she’d eaten a reasonable amount legitimized her continuing to eat. Recognizing that her appetite – her desire to eat – was motivating her to want more, not a lack of sufficient food or physical fullness, is crucial in helping her stop at a reasonable point.

Ellie made the following Response Cards to help her start working on this idea:

I have a huge appetite, not a huge hunger. I don’t physically need a lot of food to feel full, but it’s true that I do like to eat a lot. Working on slowing down and eating mindfully will help maximize my psychological satisfaction and get my appetite more aligned with my hunger. I need to remember that I’ll never give up eating, but I will have to give up overeating in order to lose weight. But, in doing so, I won’t be depriving my body of food that it needs.

While Ellie and I have more work to do in uncovering and addressing other beliefs that get in her way, helping Ellie realize that it was her appetite, not her actual hunger, that was leading to a lot of her overeating is an important first step in Ellie ultimately learning how to eat but not overeat.

Friday Weekend Warm-up – September 4, 2020

Friday Weekend Warm-up: Remember that staying on track and having a fun time are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they often go hand in hand! When dieters are off track and eating whatever/whenever, they often don’t feel great. Either they’re feeling bad about it even as they’re eating, or they know in the back of their minds they’re going to feel bad when they face the consequences. Feeling good about the choices you’re making (and fueling your body with good food) feels great and leads to a VERY fun time.

TV Plus

One of the most frequent conversations I have with my clients centers around helping them gain control of their eating in the evenings. This week, my client David he told me that he was struggling to not snack all evening as he watched TV with his wife. He said, “I sit down in front of the TV in the evening after the kids are finally in bed, and I immediately feel hungry.” I reminded him that if he had a reasonable dinner, it probably wasn’t physical hunger he was feeling in that moment; rather, it was a psychological need.

It’s what David was saying to himself that matters. If he tells himself, “I’m hungry,” then it legitimizes going to the kitchen and getting a snack. The first step is to accurately label what’s going on. Instead of saying, “I’m hungry,” it’s more accurate for him to say, “I’m tired, I had a long day, and I need to unwind right now.”Snacking while watching TV

The problem with watching TV in the evening is that it is often an entertaining but not fully immersive experience. When people are watching TV in the evenings, they may still feel a little bit bored and want to do something else while they watch to fully engage their brain. TV plus snacking does that for people – it fully engages them, and they’re able to watch TV without feeling that tinge of boredom. But, the important thing to recognize is that eating is only one option of something to do while watching TV, and there are countless other activities that don’t sabotage weight loss or weight maintenance goals.

I talked to David about building up his “TV Plus” roster – things he could do in the evenings while he watched TV that don’t include eating, to help him keep his snacking at bay. Here is the initial list David came up with:

  1. Play game on my phone
  2. Sticker by number book or adult coloring book
  3. Sudoku or crossword puzzle
  4. Delete photos I don’t need
  5. Scroll through social media

If you have trouble with the urge to snack all evening long, especially if it occurs while you’re watching TV, then it’s important for you, too, to build a list of things you can do besides eating. TV plus eating is very distracting and entertaining, but TV plus knitting, TV plus coloring, TV plus doing a crossword puzzle, TV plus brushing your dog, etc. can provide the same help.

Monday Motivation – August 10, 2020

Monday Motivation: We heard the quote recently, “Mistakes are proof that you are trying,” and we love it so much! Mistakes aren’t an indication that you can’t do it, they’re an indication that you’re not giving up.

I Want More

This week, I had a session with my client Sonia, a 45-year-old mother of four boys. Sonia told me the sabotaging thought that kept popping up over the past week: “I want more.” When she’s eating something that tastes good, she keeps thinking she wants more even when she knows it’s enough. Often, she feels deprived if she doesn’t have more.cinnamon bun on plate

I discussed with Sonia that when she’s eating something – assuming she’s already eaten a reasonable amount – and she chooses to continue, she’ll get more food but feel less in control and make less progress towards her goals. When she stops eating after a reasonable amount, she’s getting less food (not no food!), but she’ll feel more in control, make more progress towards good health, and reinforce healthy habits. In either scenario, she’s getting less of one thing and more of another.

Another way to look at this is that either way she’s going to feel deprived. Either she’s going to feel deprived of some food, some of the time (but not all food all of the time), or she’s going to feel deprived of achieving everything on her Advantages List. For Sonia, and many others, the unfortunate truth is that eating every bite of food she wants, losing weight, and keeping it off are mutually exclusive goals.

Sonia and I discussed that she has a bit of a hair-trigger deprivation meter. Every time she tells herself, “No, you can’t eat that,” she immediately feels very deprived. This is likely because in past weight loss phases, she actually has deprived herself. In the past, she would allow herself no carbs, no sugar, or too few calories each day. We discussed that this time is different. This time, she is eating carbs, she is eating sugar, and she is taking in a reasonable amount of calories each day. Although she’s not necessarily eating as many of these things as she would like each day, she is still eating a reasonable amount.

I told Sonia that we have to work on reprogramming her brain to understand that “No” doesn’t mean “I can’t ever have this food” (as it did in the past). Now, “no” just means, “I’m not having any more right now. But I can still plan to have more another time.”

Recovering from Mistakes

One of the most common diet-sabotaging thoughts is, “I’ve made a mistake. I’ve blown healthy eating for the day so I might as well keep eating and get back on track tomorrow/on Monday/next week/next month/next year.” We work hard with our clients on the ability to catch themselves as they make a mistake and not wait to correct it. We always say that the most successful dieters and maintainers are not those who never make mistakes; on the contrary, they are those who get right back on track after doing so. Learning this skill may be the most significant predictor of long-term success.

My client, Tara, is a classic all-or-nothing thinker. She is someone who, in the past, has lost and gained upwards of 50 pounds multiple times. This is in large part due to her thinking that once she makes a mistake, she’s “blown it.” Sometimes, her eating can snowball for days or weeks at a time.

Tara and I have spent a long time working on the notion that in virtually no other area of life would she ever say to herself, “Since I made a mistake, I might as well keep making mistakes.” The analogy that resonates with her most strongly is, “If I’m walking down a flight of stairs and stumble down a few, I would never say, ‘Well I’ve blown this stairwell’ and throw myself down the rest of the stairs. No! I would get up right from where I fell and walk down the rest.” Every time Tara makes a mistake, we work on reinforcing the notion of picking herself up right at that moment and continuing the day on track.

Tara was finally able to put this into place over the weekend. She and her husband had rented a mountain house for a small vacation from the monotony of quarantine life. Although Tara and I had talked through eating plans for the trip, on Saturday afternoon her husband spontaneously suggested getting takeout from a nearby restaurant. Tara acquiesced and ended up eating something that had far more calories than she had planned for lunch. man cutting food with knife

In the past, there’s no question that Tara would have said something to herself like, “I’m already over for the day. I’m on vacation anyway, so who cares? Just keep eating and worry about getting back on track when you get home.” This time, Tara didn’t do this. Continuing to eat in an off-track way would be throwing herself down more stairs, and she was determined not to do that. She rethought the rest of her day and swapped in a lower-calorie dinner to help offset her unplanned lunch. She read her Response Cards and her Advantages List, went for a hike with her husband that afternoon, and stuck to her new dinner plan.

Tara told me that when she went to bed that night she felt victorious. She proved to herself that she could catch herself in the middle of the day (and in the middle of a vacation!), get right back on track, and end up feeling so great about her day. This is such a great example that even though Tara made a mistake earlier in her day, she was able to catch herself and go to bed feeling proud, not upset and regretful.

Making Your Nighttime Self an Ally to Your Daytime Self

Like many, my client, Jess, has been having a hard time getting to bed at a decent hour. Once her two kids are in bed, she feels like she can finally relax for the first time all day. Even when she knows she needs to get to bed, Jess has been staying up longer because she wants to continue enjoying her “me time.” Unfortunately, staying up too late has been negatively impacting Jess, setting up a downward cycle the next day.

When she gets to bed late, she sleeps later and misses her window for exercise (because at this time of year it quickly gets too hot for her to exercise outside). She also has been finding herself rushing around in the morning trying to get too many things done in a too-short window, which makes her feel harried and out of control. Her eating gets off track because she doesn’t have time to sit down and plan her eating day, which she previously did every morning when she used to go to bed on time. Because she’s staying up so much later, Jess is also finding she’s getting hungry again in the evening and eating more than she used to, which has caused the scale to stop moving down. All in all, getting to bed too late is not working for her!People eating and drinking outside

Jess told me that every morning when she’s in this negative cycle, she says to herself, “I wish I could remember this at night! I wish I could convince my night self that it’s worth getting to bed so that my day self can benefit all day.” I loved this idea – that nighttime Jess needs to be an ally to daytime Jess. Jess and I discussed a major hindrance to nighttime Jess getting to bed on time: her need for me time.

I reminded Jess that me time is not an all-or-nothing thing. It’s not as if she gets every minute she wants to relax and unwind in the evening or she gets no minutes. There’s a lot of middle ground. Even if she would rather have two hours of me time, one hour is certainly a lot better than nothing! And, when she sacrifices some me time in the evening (but not all me time), she’s getting an enormous amount in return. Her following day is better, and she gets to make progress towards her weight loss goals, which are profoundly important to her. Jess agreed that me time is not all-or-nothing and made the following Response Card to read every evening:

Nighttime Jess needs to be an ally to daytime Jess. Daytime Jess knows how important getting to bed on time is, and nighttime Jess needs to respect that. Even though I want more me time in the evening, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. I can still have some me time, and have a great next day, and make progress on my weight loss goals. It’s entirely worth it to get to bed on time!

If you’re struggling to make your nighttime self an ally to your daytime self, consider making a Response Card that addresses this and start reading it every evening!

Food Pushers

A few weeks ago, my client Natalie’s friend, Lara, broke her leg and has been in rehab ever since. Lara is getting out of rehab in a few days, and Natalie is going to stay with her for a week to help her readjust. Over the past few months, Natalie has been doing very well putting her CBT diet skills in place. She has been feeling great about having a sense of control over her eating and seeing the scale go down.

This week, Natalie told me that she was concerned about maintaining healthy habits while at Lara’s house. Lara is a classic food pusher. She’s always urging Natalie to eat things that she is eating, even when she knows Natalie is trying to lose weight. Natalie said to me, “I just need Lara to not offer me food or push me to eat what she’s eating.” I told Natalie that in thinking this way, she was making the classic mistake that many dieters make: she’s putting the burden of change on someone else, not on herself. I said to Natalie, “It’s not Lara’s job to stop pushing food on you. After all, she’s a food pusher, that’s what she does! It is, however, your job to start saying no. The change has to come from you because you can’t control what Lara does or says; you can only control your reaction.”

Whenever people face food pushers, it’s important for them to recognize that it’s their responsibility to be firm and say no, and not wait for the food pusher to magically change and stop pushing food. Natalie said that she understood the concept, but she was still concerned about how Lara will feel if she says no. “If she’s eating pizza and wants me to eat it with her, how will she feel if I say no and have something healthier, instead? That’s going to make her feel bad about eating pizza.” I reminded Natalie and in no situation would she be asking Lara not to eat pizza, she would just tell her she wasn’t going to eat it also. “It’s not your responsibility to make Lara feel good about what she’s eating,” I said to Natalie. “It’s your responsibility to make choices that work for you and support your goals.”

Natalie made the following Response Card to read every day she was at Lara’s house:

It’s not Lara’s job to stop pushing food on me. She’s a food pusher! It’s my job to say NO when she does. And if Lara feels a little bad when I do say no, that’s okay. I’m not telling her not to eat something; I’m making choices that support my weight loss goals, which are incredibly important to me. My highest responsibility is to myself and to my goals, not to make Lara feel better about her own eating.

If you have food pushers in your life, stop waiting for them to stop pushing food! Instead, start saying no the next time you see them! The burden of change is on you, not on them. And remember: the more you say no and show them that you don’t cave to their pushing, the more they’ll learn to eventually stop pushing because they’ll know it’s a fruitless effort. You have control in this situation, so make sure you exercise it!

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.