Bookstore shelves and websites have never been so well-stocked with diet plans that make attractive promises and draw us in. It is a trendy topic, known to attract the attention of men and women of all ages, across all cultures and socio-economic groups. When you talk ‘diet’, people seem to listen with their ears and their wallets. People are searching for the holy grail of diets…and there is no shortage.
There is also no shortage of fitness programs and exercise equipment that propose to be the ‘best’ – to assist people in regaining their strength, fitness, and slim figure. Communities have never seen so many fitness facilities that are very user-friendly, many of them conveniently open all day and all night. Membership purchases continue to rise.
There is also no shortage of sound evidence-based medical research that informs, motivates (and pressures) the general population to be at a weight that is conducive to optimal health.
Also readily available are the social and fashion images that provide motivation (and pressure) to ‘look good’ and ‘feel good’.
So, with all of this in place, one wonders why there are more and more adults and children who are now assessed as being not only overweight, but obese….and why there would be an increase in weight-related health issues and diseases within all age groups.
Diets are often blamed for this situation. In spite of its popularity, dieting gets a great deal of ‘bad press’. Diets are maligned and criticized because they don’t work …or they seem to work for a short period of time, and then they ‘don’t work’ any longer. But even if they don’t work, people will still buy another diet book or try another diet plan, thinking that maybe this one will work.
The answer is not in the diets (they work) or in the exercise plans (they work), or the medical advice (it is correct). All of us hold the key to dieting success because it is located in the brain…in our mind. How we think determines how we behave.
Is it possible that ‘Thin’ people think differently? Very few people are ‘naturally’ thin or overweight – there are some individuals who, for some metabolic or physiological reason, are not able to easily gain or lose weight. But for the majority of us, we choose to be thin or fat. And our choices begin in our mind.
So if we could learn to ‘think like a thin person’, would we become a thin person? The skills needed to lose weight and to maintain a healthy body weight are not solely found in following a diet plan, but rather in learning the cognitive and behavioural skills in partnership with a healthy eating and exercise plan.
And this is where Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) provides the missing piece. CBT, as a method of therapy that has been proven to be the therapy of choice for successfully treating mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, is also a powerful component of a successful diet. Not only do dieters need to learn about healthy food choices and the benefits of moving the body more often, they also need to learn the skills involved in changing their behaviour and their thoughts about food, eating, and exercise. This is fundamentally the reason why most diets work for a short time, and then they appear to ‘not work’ any longer. The fault is not with the diet per se – the fault lies with the diet being incomplete. Dieters are trying to change their eating and exercising habits without changing the way they think. Changes will not necessarily be permanent.
Our relationship with food and eating is very intricate and highly personal. Unlike our heart beat and our breathing, eating does not occur automatically – we have control. Just before we put a morsel of unplanned food into our mouths, a thought …or a series of thoughts…go through our mind. Dieters who learn to identify those thoughts are then in a powerful position to correct the thoughts so that real change can occur. Using CBT strategies to confront thinking errors that lead to sabotaging thoughts and actions are at the core of successful weight loss and maintenance. Some examples of thinking errors are:
- I am stressed out so I deserve to eat this (It’ll make me feel better).
- I better eat this because it’s free (I might offend the hostess).
- If no one sees me eat this, it doesn’t count (Eating over the sink doesn’t count either).
- I can’t stand to waste food (so I better eat the kids’ leftovers)
- I ate something I shouldn’t so I might as well blow my diet for the rest of the day (I’ll start again tomorrow, maybe).
- I’m completely on a diet, or completely off a diet (no middle ground).
- Restaurant portions are so large; I just can’t resist (I might as well have dessert, too).
- I really don’t eat that much! (When I eat standing up, it doesn’t count as ‘lunch’)
Thinking errors such as these ultimately sabotage our efforts and we end up over-eating, under-exercising, and ultimately, throwing in the towel on weight control.
CBT strategies assist us in changing the powerful mindset that has taken years to develop. Thoughts can be changed by talking back to them in an assertive and convincing way (as opposed to believing them and giving in). Take a look at this example of a series of thoughts:
“I shouldn’t have eaten that extra piece; now I’ve blown it; I’m so pathetic; I’ll never be able to control myself; I might as well have another piece….and another….”
As a result of this chain of thoughts, this person probably continued eating in an unplanned and somewhat uncontrolled manner. The thinking error in this situation becomes clear when we compare this eating behaviour to driving behavior – imagine if, after mistakenly cruising through a red light, the driver thinks,
“I shouldn’t have done that – I could have been in an accident – I’m so pathetic – I’m not a good driver – I might as well cruise through red lights for the rest of the day…. I’ll start driving better tomorrow.”
If there had been an awareness of the first thought “I shouldn’t have eaten that extra piece”, the subsequent chain of thoughts could have been different:
“I slipped up; Mistakes happen – this isn’t awful – I’m learning how to control myself; this one piece is probably contributing an extra 200 extra calories – not the end of the world. If I continue eating, however, the calorie count will be much higher. It makes more sense to stop now, rather than continue to eat… I need to stop right now and get back on track immediately”
The small subtle mindset shift that is occurring will provide this dieter with an exponential payback in the days and years ahead.
CBT teaches us that the thought comes first …then come the feelings and then the behaviour. If we can change the thought, a change in the feelings and actions will follow. By identifying the sabotaging thoughts and responding to those thoughts in an effective way, we can learn to behave in healthy ways when we are around food.
Typical diets also short-change dieters when it comes to solving everyday problems that surface due to living in a world that is overly-focused on eating and food. There’s no escape…we need to be able to keep our diet healthy in the midst of hectic schedules (no time to shop; no time to cook); stressful lifestyles (eating for comfort); social events always include food (and ‘food pushers’ who we don’t want to offend); beautifully appointed grocery stores (Who can leave with just the items on their list?); and restaurants with multi-paged menus presenting large-portion sizes. A dieter has many challenges with which to contend.
Once again, using CBT strategies, a dieter can develop a plan for each of these situations, resulting in good choices, maintenance of control, and successful outcomes.
For most people, the management of a healthy weight is within their control and is a matter of priority and choice. Diets can be successful; weight can be lost, managed, and maintained.
Just a Thought …. The mind is a powerful place…. let’s use it to have a healthy body.
– by Alexandra Rathgeber
The contents of this article are the property of Willow Grove Counselling, Inc. and further reproduction is given through written permission only. Copyright © 2012