Q: I do well eating healthy for a while. I cut back on my vices including candy and buttered popcorn. But then over time I notice that these foods sneak back in, especially after I’ve lost a little weight. It is like I feel allowed to eat them again. Next thing you know I’m eating them much more often and in bigger quantities, and I’m no longer losing weight or even gaining some weight back. I feel like I end up rewarding my weight loss by giving myself a treat, and then I end up regaining the weight. This is holding me back from getting closer to my goal weight. How can I break free of this pattern?
A: You are a drifter. You start off on target but then gradually drift away from your target. Here are 9 suggestions for overcoming the drift…
1. Plan Drift Correction. Because we live in the land of food plenty, we really have to guard against overeating. This means paying close attention. When we start a weight loss effort, we pay close attention and are very aware of how much we are eating, but over time our attention starts to wane. If your tendency to drift is something that happens after a certain amount of time on a diet, the question is how much time before you start to drift? Look back at the last couple of times you found yourself adrift. Was it 3 months after starting a diet? 3 weeks? Whatever the timing, you might plan for more structured periods of control at those intervals. For example, every 3 months you might do 2 weeks of daily diet logs to correct any drift. Dietary logs are a great way to tighten up any drift.
2. Identify Drift Triggers. In other cases, the drift isn’t simply a function of time, but rather it is triggered by something, like stress, an event (e.g., vacation), or some other change in routine (e.g., change in job, season, etc). It is very important to identify what triggers your drifts. Once you know the trigger, you can deal with that directly. For example, if you drift during the holidays, you might make a plan for how you will stay healthy during an upcoming holiday so that it doesn’t trip you up. Planning ahead to avoid overdoing it is always better than trying to play catch up after you have already overdone it.
3. Go Easy, Will Ya. Another issue that could cause drifting is being on a very strict diet. Diets that have tight restrictions and leave you often feeling hungry and deprived are going to result in more drifting. Make sure that the diet you have chosen is one that you truly believe can be permanent. If you are doing something very restrictive (eliminating certain foods or food groups entirely), you will find yourself stuck in a pattern of drifting. Loosen up the restrictions and find a diet that you can live with permanently.
4. Put a Price on It. You mentioned drift being associated with certain foods: candy, buttered popcorn. If that is the case, you might need to make some permanent rules about how frequently these foods are allowed and in what portions. I do not believe in forbidden foods, but instead that every food should have a frequency price tag. For example, veggies and fruit can be eaten at high frequency: several times a day. Chinese take-out, on the other hand, is a low frequency food because it is relatively unhealthy (high-fat, sugar, and salt), and perhaps something you do only once every couple of months. Set some specific boundaries around the foods that seem to drift.
5. Are You Up for the Task? If you find yourself at a “stuck” weight, meaning you get stuck at a certain weight but can’t seem to lose any further weight, it may because surpassing that weight is going to require some more intense efforts. Every time you lose a pound, the next pound is a little harder to lose, simply because you are lighter and each lost pound is a higher percentage of your weight. You may find yourself eventually getting to a point where it is more effort than you realize or are willing to make to lose more weight. At that point you may need to ask yourself, are you healthy enough and satisfied enough to remain at this weight or are you willing to put in the extra effort to do more?
6. Keep Your Eye on the Prize. As your attention to what you are eating starts to fade, so does your attention to your purpose. Why do you want to lose weight? Come up with an object, be it a picture, a quote, or some other reminder of why losing weight and getting healthy is important to you. Put this object someplace you can see it all the time. This will help keep you focused on what is really important.
7. Make a Breakthrough. You mentioned that you reward yourself for losing weight by eating more. This is like attempting to reach the top of Mt. Everest and every time you reach one peak, you reward yourself by walking back down to the last peak. You end up just traveling up and down the same road, but never make further progress to the top. What is the amount of weight loss where you begin to kick into “reward” behavior? Write this number down. For example, it might be that every time you reach 200 pounds you begin to backtrack with reward behavior. Write down “200 pounds” and sketch out a plan for how you will surpass 200 pounds so that you are less likely to backtrack when you reach 200. Put this by your scale as a cue to implement the plan when you hit 200 pounds.
8. Congrats! You Have Won… (Not A Cake!). I noticed that you use food as a reward. Even though some foods are a real treat, it is important to break the pattern of using food to reward yourself for good behavior. I wonder if there are non-food rewards that you can strive for when you have lost some weight. You could reward yourself with some new workout clothes, a massage, new music, a trip, whatever you would find enticing.
9. Extreme Popcorn Makeover. Since you love candy and popcorn so much, why not find some healthier versions of these that you can indulge in a little more? For example, Orville Reddenbacher Smart Pop Butter Popcorn is very tasty, and at 100 calories per serving, I say, go nuts! When you feel like sweets, Skinny Cow and Weight Watcher ice cream treats are tasty low calorie substitutions. This might curb your craving for the salty and/or sweet snacks.
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