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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.

When Did Special Treats become the Everyday Norm?

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

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

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

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

Diet Hurdles and Bumps Along the Way

Andrea, a dieter I’m counseling, was so glad I had prepared her well for a more difficult time. At her second session with me, I asked her to write a response card to read every morning, in preparation for the first day that dieting would seem hard. It said:

 “Dieting is supposed to get hard. That’s okay. Just keep practicing your skills and it will get easy again.”

 Andrea sailed along all fall, losing weight steadily and fairly easily, and she was gaining confidence. But two weeks ago, dieting got harder. Holiday stress, too busy a schedule, not enough sleep, less control over her food—all these factors made it difficult for Andrea to stick to her plan. But she did! She said if she hadn’t been reading the card all along, she would have given up.

It’s perfectly normal and natural for a dieter–no matter how motivated or “good” of a dieter she or he is– to encounter a few bumps along the road.

In fact, the whole thrust of the Beck Diet Solution program is to prepare dieters for the difficult times. EVERY dieter encounters hurdles; some within the first few days, some (like Andrea) not for months, but at some point, dieting gets harder for everyone. It’s supposed to. (Maybe you’re more stressed, maybe you’re experiencing some physiological changes, maybe you’re feeling less motivated, etc.)

If dieting seems easy initially, it’s easy to get fooled and think it will always be easy. Hurdles don’t necessarily crop up at the beginning. Dieters are often so motivated when they first initiate a diet that they easily arrange their lives to make time for dieting (shopping, cooking, etc.), tolerate hunger, etc., and they don’t really experience a hurdle until their motivation flags or their life changes in some way or they feel more stressed. For other dieters, hurdles are experienced even on the first day.  They might, for example, have sabotaging thoughts such as, “I don’t have time to get the food I need.” “I can’t disappoint my friend by having just one drink tonight.”  It’s important for ALL dieters to prepare themselves for the hurdles they’ll experience. Creating (reading, and re-reading, daily) cards with their own advantages for losing weight and their responses to sabotaging thoughts is crucial to overcoming hurdles.