Never Say Never (Or, What NOT to Tell Yourself if You Want to Lose Weight)

I wanted to cry. Jo Ann, a client, had just dropped a bomb on me. It wasn’t that she was ending our counseling sessions (I already knew that) or that she was going Atkins (instead of the high-veggie diet I promote), but that, after six months of phone sessions (about 50 hours all total), countless emails, texts, and daily submissions, she was still telling herself things like, “I can only have two cookies every other week,” or worse, “I will never eat cookies again!”

Where had I gone cookiewrong?

Jo Ann, sadly, was never able to get out from under her reactive mind. She spent way too much time and energy trying to resist cravings and way too little time intentionally working to strengthen her more rational, thoughtful mind. As a result her reactive mind (which rules the four F’s—feeding, fleeing, fighting, and reproduction) won out.

In the wake of a chocolate binge, Jo Ann hadn’t learned to sit down calmly and ask, “What went wrong and what could I do differently in the future to prevent this from recurring?” (This question activates the problem-solving areas of your brain and takes you out of “Oh shit I did it again!”). Instead, she regressed to old thinking habits—for instance, by scrambling for yet another plan to control her compulsive eating when she had already spent six months acquiring a perfectly good set of tools for dealing with it. She’d tell herself, “Ok, I can never have chocolate chip cookies again. It just sets me off on a binge. I must avoid sugar at all costs!” Until a few days later, after the most recent declaration fell through, when she’d switch to, “Ok, I can have two cookies every week. That way I won’t feel deprived, and then I won’t binge.” Problem solved, until . . . .

On the surface, these cognitions appear to be beneficent. After all, they attempt to get the user to avoid or decrease cognitionhigh-sugar, high-fat, junk-food consumption. However, Dear Friends, do either of those statements make you want to stick to your food plan? Try it now, “I’ll never eat [insert your forbidden fruit] again!”

Instead, how about, “Ok, what went wrong? Well, I took the round-about deli-route to the produce section. Ooops. Bad idea. Next time, before entering the grocery store, I’ll remind myself of my goals and intentions—as well as what happened the last time I sallied by the cookie case! And I’ll aim my cart at the produce as soon as I walk in.”

Incidentally, Jo Ann’s post-binge decisions served mainly to give her relief from the frustration of failure but did nothing to decrease the chance of another binge. In other words, after eating off-plan, she found herself very frustrated and agitated—an unpleasant state in which to reside. By deviating from her food plan, her behavior was out of alignment with her value of healthy eating, resulting in cognitive dissonance (the discomfort that occurs when your actions are out of sync with your goals). Making promises (eg., I’ll never eat cookies again.) is a self-imposed comeuppance and helps palliate discomfort in the moment.

The Take-Home
1. After eating off your diet or food plan, ask yourself, “What went wrong and if I had it to do all over again, what would I do differently to make it more likely that I’ll stick to my food plan?”
2. Examine your thoughts closely, especially those related to food and eating. Ask, “Does this thought or thinking pattern make me want to stick to my plan?” If you’re swearing off on food or another, it’s probably gonna keep you stuck.

Y’all, these strategies alone are not enough for most people to make permanent healthful dietary change. But if you combine them with lots of other strategies from this blog, then you’ll have something!

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