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Judith S. Beck, Ph.D. Headshot

Dieting: The Missing Ingredient for Success

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I have spent a great deal of time in the past few years developing a cognitive behavioral program for dieting. It is designed for people who have a very healthy eating plan (which incorporates a sustainable level of calories and their favorite foods daily), access to the food they need, and the opportunity for exercise. Given those three prerequisites, I am convinced that most weight loss programs remain wildly unsuccessful because they don't pay attention to people's thinking.

Almost anyone can make short-term changes in their eating behavior and lose at least a little weight. But unless they make changes in their thinking, they will never be able to sustain their new eating behaviors and they'll gain weight back.

Chronic dieters think differently from people who have never had a weight problem. For example, they can have dozens and dozens of sabotaging thoughts a day, such as:

It's okay to eat [this food I hadn't planned] because I'm upset, I'm happy, I'm tired/I'm celebrating/everyone else is eating it/it's free/no one is watching/I'll make up for it later.

I cheated! Oh, well, I may as well eat whatever I want for the rest of the day and start again tomorrow.

  • Hunger is bad, abnormal, intolerable and it's to be avoided.
  • If I'm upset, I deserve to eat. (Or, the only way I can calm down is through eating.)
  • If I have a craving, there's nothing I can do except give in.
  • I should be able to eat whatever I want, without consequence.
  • I have no self-control. The only way I can lose weight is if I find the perfect diet.
  • A diet is short-term. I'll only have to make changes until I lose the weight I want
.

Until dieters learn to prepare in advance for sabotaging thinking, they won't be successful.

I advise dieters that before they spend time and energy on changing what they eat, they must first master the skill of responding to these kinds of thoughts and master other basic cognitive and behavioral skills. I tell them they're not to blame for having trouble losing weight or for not keeping it off in the past. No one ever taught them how to diet.

If you want to lose weight permanently, you have to learn precisely what to do to:

  • Motivate yourself everyday
  • Get yourself to use good eating and exercise habits (whether you feel like it or not)
  • avoid eating when it's not time to eat (whether you're hungry, craving, upset or just have a desire to eat)
  • Get right back on track when you make a mistake
  • Deal with frustration, disappointment, discouragement and deprivation

I can almost guarantee that you have never learned these and other essential skills. They are not intuitively obvious. But you can learn them.

Just think about it. Would you expect to be able to go out on the tennis court for the first time and play an excellent game of tennis? Of course not. You would know that you'd need to take lessons and you'd need to practice over and over again until your skills became automatic.

It's the same with dieting. You shouldn't expect to just pick up an eating plan and follow it flawlessly, day after day, year after year. If you've dieted a lot in the past, you've probably been fooled. I would venture to bet that dieting was always easy in the beginning. Why? Because you start a diet when you're highly motivated. You didn't know that dieting is supposed to get harder. It gets harder for everyone, within the first two days, two weeks, two months, or two years. That's why you need to be prepared. The whole thrust of the Beck Diet Solution (a book I really wanted to call, "How to Get Yourself to Eat in a Healthy Way for the Rest of Your Life,") is to prepare you for the difficult times, so you'll know exactly what to do.

As you learn basic skills in playing tennis, the game gets easier and easier. You get more and more successful. Occasionally you'll have an off game or a few off games. But if you stick with it, going back to your basic skills, your game will improve and tennis will get easier again. It's the same with dieting.

Forget about looking for the magic bullet. There is no such thing. Learn to diet just as you learned how to play a sport, drive a car, use a computer or play the piano. Take lessons and practice. It's the only way.

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