In Session with Debbie: No Exceptions

My client, Helen, has been struggling recently. When she came in to see me this week she told me that the previous week hadn’t gone very well and she had a number of off-track days.  She said that she was still making food plans the night before, but was increasingly finding it difficult to stick to it.  Some of the time, she would make substitutions that seemed legitimate (subbing one fruit for another, or one snack for a different one of equal caloric value) and some of the time she just threw out the plan completely.

To help Helen reset and refocus, I suggested that for the next three days, she makes a plan and sticks to it with no exceptions and no substitutions. Because of her struggles, Helen’s sense of discipline and self-efficacy had taken a hit over the past week, and so in order to help her build it back up, it was critical that she prove to herself once again that she can make a plan and follow it 100%. Once Helen is back on track with sticking to her plan, then she can resume being somewhat flexible and making reasonable substitutions.  I reminded Helen that it should only take a couple of days to get her back in the “sticking to my plan” mindset, and she agreed that it would be helpful to do so. Helen and I also discussed the fact that there would probably be some element of relief in knowing she was going to stick to her plan because it means, at least for the next three days, she is relieving herself of the burden of making spontaneous food decisions and therefore alleviating the struggle about whether or not to eat something.

I then asked Helen a very important question: What thoughts might get in the way of you sticking to your plan 100% over the next three days? Helen responded that the one thought she might have would be, “I’m not going to stick to my plan because I don’t feel like eating what’s on it.” To help Helen overcome this thought, she made the following Response Cards to read at least once a day, every day, for the next three days, and more frequently if she was tempted to stray from her plan:

I need to eat in response to my bigger goals (losing weight, being healthier, feeling better about myself, feeling comfortable in my body, etc.), not my smaller goals (eat what I most feel like eating at any given moment).

I’ve planned this food because I like it. Even if I don’t especially feel like eating it, it will still taste good because it’s something I enjoy.

It’s okay if I don’t get to eat exactly what I want at all times. If it’s something I really want, I can plan to have it tomorrow. It will taste good then, too.

Once I start eating, I’ll be caught up in the enjoyment of what I am eating and won’t remember the other thing I felt like eating.

It’s critical for me to prove to myself that I can stick to a plan 100%. Once I do, I can start making substitutions again if I feel like it. This is not forever. It’s only for three days. I can do it!

With these helpful Response Cards, Helen felt confident that she could stick to her plan for the next three days. She reminded herself that she did it before and she can do it again – and when she does, she’ll stop struggling and start feeling great again.

In Session with Debbie: Slowing Down

This week, my client, Theresa told me that she was having trouble controlling portions at dinnertime.  I asked her to describe what specifically was happening in the evening, and she told me that often she would finish her planned meal, feel unsatisfied, and then go back and eat more. I asked Theresa if she was taking the time at dinner to eat slowly and really enjoy every bite that she took, and Theresa answered that she wasn’t. She told me that she often sat down to dinner right when she got home and then proceeded to eat very quickly.

I discussed with Theresa that there is a difference between feeling physically satisfied after eating and feeling psychologically satisfied. Because Theresa was planning a reasonable dinner, she likely felt physically satisfied after eating (once her stomach and brain registered satiety), but because she was eating too quickly and not paying enough attention to her food, what she was really lacking was psychological satisfaction. Because of this, we knew that what Theresa didn’t need was to plan more food; rather, what she did need was to get more enjoyment from the food she was eating.

Mindful Eating

Theresa and I came up with a plan for how she would get more psychological satisfaction from dinner. The first part of the plan involved not sitting down to dinner right away because if she did, it often meant she was still in work mode, and work mode was fast-paced and unrelaxed. Theresa decided that as a rule she would change out of her work clothes and spend at least 10 minutes doing some type of relaxing activity before she would put a single bite of food in her mouth, no matter how hungry she was.  Doing so would allow her to transition from work mode to home mode, which would enable her to enjoy her food more.

The next part of the plan involved Theresa slowing down and really taking the time to enjoy what she was eating so that she could maximize physical and psychological satisfaction.  Theresa decided that, before sitting down to dinner, the first thing she would do is read a Response Card that reminded her of the importance of eating slowly and mindfully.  She also made a commitment to not put a new bite of food on her fork until she swallowed the bite she was eating – which would enable her to pay attention to what she was currently eating as opposed to having her attention be on what she was eating next.  Then we discussed a number of strategies she could try to help her slow down:

  1. She could try eating a few meals with her non-dominant hand, just to help knock her out of her fast-eating habit.
  2. She could eat dinner with chopsticks, which would force her to slow down.
  3. She could take sips of water in between each bite.
  4. She could set a timer to go off every few minutes and each time it went off, she had to take a small break from eating.
  5. She could change something in her eating environment, like get a new plate or a new placemat, or place a vase of flowers on the table. Each time she noticed the change, she would use it as a cue to slow down.
  6. She could pretend she was a food critic and that after the meal she would have to describe, in detail, the taste and texture of what she ate.

With these strategies in place, Theresa felt committed to slowing down and really savoring dinner.

In Session with Debbie: Stress Relief

This week I had a session with my client, Jennifer, with whom I only meet every few months for booster sessions.  When Jennifer came in to see me this week she told me that on the whole things have been going well but she’s been having more trouble controlling her sweets intake in the afternoons. Jennifer, who works from home, is a big baker, and through our work together had gotten to the point where she can make any type of tempting baked good and limit herself to just one per day, because she knows she would thoroughly savor and enjoy one and that eating more would make her feel off track.  Jennifer told me that there had been a few instances in the past few weeks where she baked and ate two or more of what she made – something she hadn’t done at all for months and months.

To figure out why this was happening, Jennifer and I discussed what else was going on in her life and she told me that her work life had gotten much more stressful lately and she and her husband were also contemplating a big move.  I asked Jennifer if she had incorporated stress relievers into her life to help her cope with her increased level of stress. She thought about it and said that no, she hadn’t, in part because she felt guilty about taking time during her day to listen to music or just sit with a mug of hot tea.  At this point I realized that Jennifer was falling 2675532274_09d939aa01_zinto a common Diet Trap – the Lack of Alternatives Trap. She was feeling extra stressed and wasn’t allowing herself any means of calming down except eating and so it was no wonder she was having trouble controlling her afternoon eating.

I gave Jennifer the following analogy: If she had diabetes, would she feel guilty about taking time during the day to check her blood sugar and monitor her insulin? Jennifer answered that no, of course she wouldn’t.  We discussed all the ways in which stress takes a negative toll and I pointed out to her that doing self-care activities to reduce her stress is just another way of taking care of her health – both physical and psychological.  We also discussed the consequences of not allowing herself other means of stress relief, namely that she would keep turning to food and would likely gain weight.

Jennifer and I created a list of things she could do in the afternoons when she felt stressed, along with the reminder that doing any of them would mean taking care of her health, and not something she should feel guilty about.  We also discussed that if she was tempted to take more than one baked good she would identify what was happening and label it: She was feeling stressed and her body was telling her she needed to calm down.  Jennifer would then remind herself that in that moment she wasn’t depriving herself by not having more to eat because what she didn’t need was more food, what she did need was stress relief, and that’s exactly what she would be giving herself.

In Session with Debbie: Being Too Restrictive

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This week, my client, Katie, told me that she was having trouble staying on track during the weekend.  She said that she did really well during the week, but was consistently “losing it” once Friday night hit.  I first asked Katie to describe to me what her weekday eating was like. After hearing what a typical Monday-Friday looks like for her, one thing stood out to me very clearly: Katie was eating almost the exact same thing day in and day out.  6835999820_ab1d0a905a_mI questioned Katie about this and she told me that she had just fallen into the habit of eating the same thing for breakfast each day, lunch each day, and dinner each day because she found meals that were easy, convenient, and filled her up while tasting good.

It was clear to me that Katie was being too restrictive during the week.  Being too restrictive can come in different forms – sometimes dieters are too restrictive from a calorie standpoint and eat too little food. This eventually backfires on them because after a few days of eating too little, they’ll inevitably end up overeating.  Dieters can also be too restrictive in terms of the types of food they let themselves eat. If they try to cut out favorite foods entirely, this eventually backfires because when they inevitably give in and have their favorite foods, they eat way too much of them.  Katie was not being too restrictive during the week in terms of the number of calories she was eating, but she was being too restrictive in terms of the types of food she was eating. While Katie wasn’t limiting her food options because she thought certain foods were bad, per say, but more because she didn’t feel like putting in the effort to think about and make something different, it was still backfiring on her all the same. She ate the same foods during the week and then would use the weekend as her time to finally have variety. And because the weekends were the only time she was having any variety, it was no surprise that she was going overboard and was having trouble staying in control.

To help her combat this, Katie and I decided that having the same thing for breakfast during the week every day was probably okay, but she should have at least two different lunches that she switched off between.  We also agreed that it would be best if she didn’t have the same thing for dinner more than twice in a row and she committed to trying at least one new recipe each week during the week, and not waiting for the weekend. Even if she shopped for and prepped the ingredients on Sunday, she would wait until a weekday to actually make the meal. This way she would have plenty of variety during the week and wouldn’t have to cram in everything she wanted to eat once the weekend hit.

If you’re having trouble staying on track during the weekend, ask yourself: Am I allowing myself enough of my favorite foods during the week?

In Session with Debbie: I Can Recover

This week I had a session with my client, Rob.  Rob used to struggle with the common diet trap of making an eating mistake, using that as an excuse to keep making more mistakes (“I’ve blown it for the day. I might as well just keep eating and get back on track tomorrow.”), and then taking sometimes days or weeks to really get back on track. Because of this, Rob was constantly losing and gaining the same 10 pounds. Whenever he was down in weight, at some point he would inevitably make a mistake, which would then snowball into more mistakes, and he would gain weight back.  Rob and I have worked hard on the skill of recovering right away from a mistake and fighting against the thought that since he made one mistake, he might as well keep making more. Rob has made great progress on this front and now is usually able to recover immediately following a mistake – he never waits anymore until the end of the day, or the end of the next day, or the end of the week.

When Rob came to see me this week, he told me about an experience he had over the weekend of being at a party, being tempted by the variety on the dessert table, and eating more than he had planned.  Although he got right back on track and didn’t continue to overeat (which was really great), it made me realize that Rob has had many such experiences recently.  In fact, when I thought about it, I realized that I could identify at least one time every week when Rob would get off track.  I asked Rob about this, and he acknowledged that it was true – he was having a lot of off-track moments, although the good news was that he never stayed off track.  I had a hypothesis as 2517767106_99ab6434a9_zto why this was happening.  I asked Rob if, whenever he was tempted to go off track, he had a thought along the lines of, “It’s okay to overeat because I’ll just get right back on track.” Rob thought about it and realized that the thought he was having was, “It’s okay [to overeat] because I know I can recover.”

Although it was great that Rob had confidence in his ability to recover, it wasn’t great that he was using this as an excuse to get off track.  Rob and I discussed the “I know I can recover” thought and came up with a number of reasons why it was worth it to him to overcome that thought and not give in.

1. It reinforced his giving-in muscle. Every time Rob was tempted to get off track and gave in, he made it more likely he’d give in the next time, and the time after that. Every time Rob reinforced his giving-in muscle, he made it harder to stay on track the next time.  Even though Rob was able to recover, by exercising his giving-in muscle he was just making it harder on himself to stay on track.

2. It was causing him to take in extra calories. Rob had noticed that in recent weeks his weight loss has slowed considerably, and he realized that all the extra calories he was taking in from his off-track moments was likely a huge contributor of this. Because Rob wanted to go on to lose more weight, he knew it was worth it to try to cut out the off-track moments because they were jeopardizing his weight loss.

3. There were no guarantees that he would be able to recover. Although Rob had gotten so much better about getting right back on track, there was always the possibility that he might not be able to pull himself back and would stay off track. This wasn’t a risk Rob wanted to take.

4. He felt badly about himself when he overate. Rob realized that whenever he got off track, although he recovered right away, he still got down on himself for having overeaten in the first place, and that’s not a pleasant feeling.  Rob didn’t want to have to put up with the negative self-talk that always accompanied him making a dieting mistake.

With all of these reasons in mind, Rob felt much more prepared to deal with and overcome his sabotaging thought that it was okay to get off track because he could recover right away. He was convinced that it wasn’t okay!

Read about this trap and more in our new book, The Diet Trap Solutionavailable for pre-order now.

In Session with Debbie: Dinner Decisions

In session this week, my client, Rachel, told me that over the past few weeks she has been struggling with keeping her eating under control during dinner. Rachel, who doesn’t cook very much, has too often found herself at the end of a long day stopping at a restaurant, buying something fairly unhealthy, and then eating too much of it.

Rachel and I talked about various strategies for helping her stay on track through dinner and I suggested that she could plan in advance what she would have for dinner, and how much she would have. Like most dieters, Rachel historically has had a much easier time staying on track when she has a plan (like, for example, when she goes to a party or out to eat), so I figured that having a plan would help in this situation, too.13400210473_637d10abc8_n Rachel didn’t like this idea. She told me that she never knows in advance what she’s going to want for dinner and therefore didn’t want to decide ahead of time in case it wasn’t what she was “craving” in the moment.

Once I realized that Rachel was waiting until the end of the day to make dinner decisions, I understood why she was having so much trouble. I pointed out to her that she was relying on the most unreliable Rachel to make food decisions. She was relying on end-of-the-day Rachel, who was tired, hungry, and depleted to decide what to have for dinner. We discussed the fact that beginning-of-the-day Rachel was a much better person to make food decisions. She was fresh and well-rested and entirely sure of why it was worth it to her to make healthy decisions. End-of-the-day Rachel was a different story entirely.

Once Rachel was able to view the situation from this angle, she felt more willing to at least try planning dinner in advance. She realized that losing weight was more important to her than making a spontaneous dinner decision. I asked Rachel what sabotaging thoughts she might have that would get in the way of her sticking to her plan, and these are the thoughts and responses that we came up with:
Sabotaging Thought: I don’t want to eat what’s on my plan because it’s not what I’m craving.
Response: That’s okay! I don’t always need to eat exactly what I’m most craving at any given moment. Nothing bad will happen if I can’t have exactly what I want. I can always plan to have it tomorrow. It will taste good then, too.

Sabotaging Thought: It’s okay not to stick to my plan because I’ll just be able to control myself if I get something different.
Response: Consider the evidence. When in the past few weeks have I been able to exert in-the-moment willpower after work? Morning Rachel made a very good dinner decision, and even though after-work Rachel doesn’t feel like sticking to it, I’ll be so glad I did once the night is over.

Sabotaging Thought: I won’t be satisfied if I can’t eat something big and unhealthy.
Response: Actually the opposite is true. When I eat something big and unhealthy, it makes me feel big and unhealthy. When I stay on track, it makes me feel so much better.

 

With the strategy of planning dinner in advance, and armed with Response Cards to help her stick to her plan, Rachel felt much more confident about her ability to stay on track through dinner.

 

photo credit: Waldorf salad via photopin (license)

In Session with Debbie: Off-Track Mentality

This week, I had a session with my client, Jane, who last week returned home from a vacation. Before she left on vacation, Jane was feeling very good about her eating, and while she was on vacation, she felt she did really well (and, in fact, didn’t gain any weight). However, in the six days between her return and our session, Jane hasn’t been feeling on track.  Jane and I discussed what has been going on since she got back, and Jane told me that once she arrived home, lots of things seemed to hit her all at once – she had a big work project to get done, her elderly mother was having problems with her nursing home, and there was a leak in Jane’s bathroom.  Jane said all of these things combined made her feel like she just couldn’t deal with anything else, and that being on track with her eating felt too difficult.

Jane was clearly having many thoughts typical of someone who is off-track, such as, “I can’t do this,” “This is too hard,” and “I can’t handle it.”  I discussed with Jane that these thoughts were not a true reflection of reality; this was her off-track mentality talking.  Even though she was thinking it was too hard, it didn’t mean it actually was too hard. I pointed out to Jane (who is herself a therapist) that this is similar to someone who is experiencing depression. We often say that depression lies. Depression tries to convince someone that she has always been depressed, that she’ll always be depressed, that she’s weak and that she’s not worth anything. But that, too, is not a true reflection of reality. That’s the depression talking.

Jane felt enlivened by the idea that her thinking about not being able to handle her eating was not necessarily accurate and was just her off-track mentality lying to her.  When she was able to take a step back from these thoughts and really evaluate them, Jane, too, was able to see that they weren’t true. She was able to remember other times when her life felt really stressful but she maintained control. She was also able to remember that, when she’s on track, on a day-to-day basis it really doesn’t feel overly hard because she has positive momentum built up.  Jane and I discussed that while it is true that getting back on track can be hard, it’s not true that staying on track is too hard to manage.  By the time she left session, Jane told me that she felt much stronger and willing to do what she needed to do to get back on track. She knew she could do it, and she knew that once she did, it would feel so much easier again.

In Session with Debbie: Kitchen Cleanup

In session this week, my client, Brian, told me he was having trouble getting himself to refrain from eating while he was cleaning the kitchen after dinner.  Brian explained to me that he and his wife split household duties, and while she was in charge of most of the cooking, he was in charge of the kitchen clean up.  Unfortunately, Brian really disliked kitchen cleanup duty, and he used food (eaten standing up) to procrastinate getting started.  Brian realized that he would eat more (also standing up) while he was cleaning as a means to make the task more pleasant.

To help Brian with this, I first asked him, “What goes through your mind when you think about cleaning the kitchen?” Brian told me it was something like, “I hate that I have to do this. This stinks. This is so annoying.”  Upon hearing this, it was no surprise to me that Brian had such trouble getting himself to start cleaning the kitchen; it was clear that he was making it so much harder for himself by telling himself such negative things. I asked Brian if there was a way in which he could reconceptualize kitchen duty and make it more pleasant.  Brian and I talked about this further, and Brian told me that one of his values was being a good family member and taking care of his family.  His wife does many things to take care of the family, and his cleaning the kitchen was one way in which he could do the same. We agreed that instead of viewing kitchen duty as a hated and inconvenient task, he would instead view it as an important way in which he was being a good family member.  Instead of telling himself, “I hate cleaning the kitchen, this stinks,” we decided that Brian would tell himself, “I’m being a good family member by cleaning the kitchen. It’s great that I get to take care of my family in this way.”  Brian made a Response Card with this idea and agreed to read it every night after dinner.

We then discussed what other strategies Brian could put in place to make the cleaning more pleasant.  I asked Brian how long it actually took to clean the kitchen, and Brian guessed it was about 20 minutes. “Although,” he told me, “It would probably be even less if I didn’t waste time eating while I was doing it.”  We agreed that as a first strategy, he would time how long it actually took. Brian guessed it might be only about 10 minutes.  We then decided that he would do something like put on music, or listen to a podcast on his phone, while he was cleaning.  That way, he’d have something interesting to focus on and would be less likely to turn to food to make the task more pleasant.

With these strategies in place – changing his thoughts about cleaning the kitchen and reading a Response Card before he got started, timing how long it takes, and listening to something pleasurable while he cleaned – Brian felt confident that he could get himself through kitchen cleanup without eating.

Holiday Party

Over the weekend I want to a holiday party.  And I got off track.  Yes, even professional diet coaches make mistakes.  The party started at 2:00pm and I ate (a healthy and satisfying) lunch before I left. My plan for the party was: no alcohol (in part because I was driving) and just raw vegetables (which I was pretty sure they would have), and then once I got home, eat a good dinner and have dessert.  The first hour or so of the party went smoothly.  I was able to stick easily to my no alcohol rule and I didn’t even go look at the food.  Then, a while later, I found myself sitting around the food table talking to people.  It seemed like everyone around me was eating from the delicious looking spread.  They did have raw vegetables, and for a while I was able to limit myself to just that by placing the bowl of carrots and cauliflower directly in front of me.

But after a while, my resistance seemed to go down and I started eating the junk food. What were my sabotaging  thoughts?  It wasn’t, “Everyone else is eating it so I can, too,” because I know that my body doesn’t know or care what anybody around me is eating, it only knows what I eat. It wasn’t even, “It’s the holidays and I should be able to indulge,” because I knew that I had many more holiday-related events coming up where I was planning to eat more food than just vegetables.  I think it started with, “Just a little bit is okay,” and as frequently happens, a little bit turned into more, and then even more.  Before I knew it, I found myself taking chip after chip and even eating the candy that I had already decided I would take home and have after dinner.  I was most definitely off track.

And then I remembered a situation one of my dieters was in a few years ago.  She was at a party at a bar and got off track by eating too many of the bar snacks being passed around.  Instead of just thinking, “I’ve blown it for the party, I might as well keep eating and get back on track when I get home/at the end of the day/tomorrow/the day after tomorrow,” she went to the bathroom, read her Advantages List and Response Cards, refocused, and didn’t eat anything else for the rest of the party. I have recounted this story countless times to my clients as a reminder that it’s possible to gain control in the middle of a party and that they never need to wait even one more moment to get back on track.  With that in my mind, I realized that if my client could do it, I could, too.  I made the decision that I would get back on track right that moment, and just like my client, not eat anything else for the rest of the party.  And that’s exactly what I did.

I ended up staying at the party for several more hours and didn’t leave until after 8:00pm.  By the time I left the party, I was hungry again and looking forward to dinner – but I knew I wouldn’t eat it until I got home.  As I was leaving the party, I took a moment to reflect back on my experience and give myself a whole lot of credit.  I acknowledged how great it was that I was able to get back on track and what a triumph it was that I managed, after getting off track, to stop eating completely and actually leave hungry.  What could have turned out to be a bad experience in which I continued to eat off track for the rest of the party (and potentially the rest of the day), and felt really badly about it, turned into a major success. Although I had overeaten earlier in the party, because I recovered and got right back on track, it became an experience I was proud of, not one I regretted.

The moral of the story is that even diet coaches get off track from time to time.  We’re not perfect, no one is perfect.  But a mistake doesn’t have to be a painful thing. In fact, a mistake that you recover from right away can turn out to be something that makes you feel even stronger and more confident, instead of less, because it gives you the opportunity to prove to yourself that you can bounce back right away.  If you get off track during the holiday season, get right back on.  Just like my dieter did at her party, and just like I did at mine, you never need to wait even one more moment to get back on track. And remember – the moment you get back on track is the moment you start feeling good again.

In Session with Debbie: Overeating Dinne

In session this week, my client, Emily, told me that while she has gotten much better at moderating her eating during the day, she is still having trouble sticking to reasonable portions in the evening.  Emily said that after a long day, and knowing she still had housework and papers to grade ahead of her, all she wants to do is relax and eat a lot.  Emily and I discussed what goes through her mind once she eats what she knows is a reasonable amount and is then tempted to go back for more, and Emily identified that it was something along the lines of, “This food tastes really good and I don’t want this period of eating and relaxing to end.”  In discussing this further, Emily realized that part of the reason it was so difficult for her to limit her eating in the evening is because once she’s done dinner, she then tells herself that it’s time to get started on her evening tasks and her time to relax is finished.  Once we figured this out, it was no surprise that it was so hard for Emily to stop eating because ending dinner not only signaled the end of eating but it also signaled the end of her allowing herself to relax.

Because of this, we knew it would be important for Emily to build more relaxation time right after dinner, so that stopping eating wouldn’t feel like such a big shift into the next part of her evening.  Emily decided that she would give herself an additional half an hour or so after dinner to continue relaxing and she would save one of her favorite shows to watch during this time.  In this way, she would have something to look forward to once she finished eating.

Emily also made the following Response Cards to read after dinner to help her stay on track:

I’m done eating but I’m not done relaxing.  I still have time to myself to watch my favorite show before I get started on other things.

If I continued to eat more now, it would be because I wanted to relax more, not because I’m still hungry.  But if I overeat, the only thing it will do is make me feel guilty and mad at myself, which is the opposite of relaxation. 

If you’re tempted to overeat in the evenings, ask yourself: What am I really looking for here? If you’ve eaten enough, it’s not about hunger, it’s about something else. For Emily, it was more relaxation, so we built that into her evening by having her watch a favorite show after dinner.  Once you figure out what it is you’re using food to achieve, look for other, non-food ways to fulfill it.

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