Judith Beck is known for her work in Cognitive Therapy (also known as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, or CBT), a system of psychotherapy founded in the 1960s by her father, Aaron T. Beck. She is the director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in suburban Philadelphia, and in her new book, The Beck Diet Solution, she applies some of the fundamental principles of CBT to an area that affects so many Americans—weight loss and dieting. Beck spoke with Beliefnet about eating mindfully, feeling entitled to say "no," and how to get through those church potluck suppers without blowing your diet.

What is the crux of your program? How does it work?

It's a six-week program. It's based on the idea that before you eat anything, you always have a thought. The chocolate chip cookies don't magically go into your mouth. You see them and you think, huh, these look good, huh, I'm not supposed to have them, but I can't resist. And you put one in your mouth. So, by learning how to talk to yourself differently, you can then follow a plan and be able then to lose weight and have lifetime skills to keep the weight off.

Have you found that dieters view hunger differently from non-dieters?

If you ask someone who's never struggled with dieting, did you get hungry before dinner last night, invariably, they say yes. And then, if you ask them, so, what did you do? they'll look at you in a very funny way and say, what do you mean? I just waited until dinner. People who have never struggled with dieting aren't afraid of being hungry. They expect to feel hungry. They recognize that it's normal. But, people who struggle with dieting are usually afraid to be hungry. If you ask them that, they'll say, no, I'm not afraid. But, then, if you ask them to do an experiment such as skipping lunch, maybe going for eight hours without eating, they get very nervous because they think that hunger is not natural. They think that they can't tolerate it.

What is the first step in your plan?

I suggest that people don't start dieting until the 15th day. There's so much to learn before you start. The first step is to write down a list of all of the reasons that you want to lose weight. And these may have to do with health. They may have to do with appearance, with self confidence, with the ability just to engage in different activities. Once you start restricting your eating, it's important to pull out this list whenever you're tempted to eat something that you shouldn't. When you are looking at that fudge brownie or that bag of chips, those reasons don't seem so compelling anymore. That's why it's so important to really cement them in your mind for the hard times.

What do you see as the single biggest predictor of diet success? I'll tell you when I know that people are going to be successful. It's when they've had a real mindset shift. They leave a party that had wonderful food, but they've stuck to their plan. And when they leave the party, they say, I'm so glad that I didn't overeat. I'm so glad I stuck to my plan. Instead of feeling deprived, they actually feel good about themselves.

How can a prayer life or a religious or spiritual life figure into weight loss?

I think that a spiritual life is very important. There are people who find it very helpful when they're craving, when they're having a hard time turning their mind away from food, they get great comfort from reading the Bible, for example.

How do you suggest that people handle setbacks or disappointments when this week's weigh-in was an increase on the scale?

One of the things that dieters need to know is that even if they eat exactly the same amount of calories every day and even if they exercise to the same degree every single day, their weight is not going to drop week after week after week. There are some weeks where their weight stays the same or even goes up a little bit. And that's quite normal. It doesn't mean that you've done anything wrong. Also, people can reach a plateau. If they've cut calories and lost about 15 or 20 pounds, they may find that they need to cut calories some more or start exercising more in order to continue to lose weight. I want people to mentally prepare themselves when they get on the scale, and read a card that says something like the following - my weight should be between two pounds more or less than last week when I weighed myself.

How related are stress and weight loss problems?

Well, lots of people eat under stress. And when they're feeling very stressed, they feel entitled to eat: "It's okay for me to treat myself because I have so much stress in my life." But if people want to be able to not only lose weight, but keep it off for their whole lives, they need to learn what to do when they're stressed instead of eating. Sometimes, stress can be avoided by, for example, scheduling yourself in a different way. Many people over-schedule themselves and don't take into consideration that things are always happening around us that's going to rob us of time. It's better for people to actually under-schedule themselves than to over-schedule themselves. I have dieters fill out a priority list. I have them list the various activities they engage in on a daily basis and on a weekly basis, and then, divide those activities into three categories--essential, highly desirable and desirable. If they want to lose weight and keep it off, then they need to schedule their diet and exercise in the "essential" category, which means that there may be some activities in some of the other categories that they're going to have to reduce or delegate or postpone. Doing this usually really helps people reduce their stress.

You talk in the book about how people should feel entitled to say no.

People need to say to themselves, "My goal is to lose weight. It's a very important goal to me. It's something that I want very much. Therefore, I'm going to have to take steps to be able to meet that goal, even if it means disappointing other people."

You can disappoint people in various ways. You can disappoint people because you go exercise and take that time for yourself instead of doing some activity that they would like you to do. You may disappoint people by saying, oh, that cake that you baked looks so wonderful, but I'm afraid it's not on my plan, so I just can't eat it. Dieters have to feel entitled to put themselves first, as long as they're doing it in a nice way, in just a slightly assertive way, in a way that's not mean and malicious.

How does that work within the context of people who are part of a church culture that involves Sunday coffee and pastries after services, lots of potluck dinners, holiday suppers?

I hope that dieters never turn down activities like that. Going to church, being part of your community, celebrating with others are an essential part of life. So, dieters just need to learn how to manage them, but not skip those activities.

They need to plan in advance about what they're going to eat and how much they're going to eat, which does mean being more informed about how many calories there are in certain foods. They may need to eat the same food that's there, but in much smaller quantities than perhaps they would like. Or they may eat just the main course and vegetables and pass up hors devours that might be beforehand, dessert that's afterwards, and the bread that's during the meal.

There may be times, though, that they go to these functions when it's not a meal time and when snacks are served. Well, dieters again need to plan in advance. If they usually have a snack, that's fine. They can go and eat a small quantity of whatever's served. If they don't necessarily eat snacks, if they haven't planned to eat a snack, then they need to go to that activity any way and just drink a low calorie beverage instead of eating.

You talk about being mindful with your eating. What do you mean?

When you're on a diet, you obviously have to restrict the number of calories you have. And it's important to feel satisfied when you eat. Therefore, you have to really notice, you have to be very mindful of what you're putting in your mouth. This means that you shouldn’t ever eat standing up, because when you eat standing up, it's very hard to concentrate on what you're eating. You should sit down all of the time and you should eat very slowly and very mindfully. This does two things. One is, you're going to feel much more emotionally satisfied if you're eating slowly and mindfully than if you're eating quickly. The second thing it does is it gives your brain time to catch up with what's happening in your stomach. It really does take up to 20 minutes for some people to feel satisfied after a meal.

What is a diet coach, and why do you think everyone should have one?

It's very hard for dieters to diet alone. They really need some help and support. A diet coach can be a family member, a friend, a coworker, a neighbor, someone you meet at a commercial weight loss group. A particularly good way for people to find a diet coach might be through their church and through activities they do connected with the church.

What a diet coach does is to be very supportive, to help solve problems around dieting, and also, a diet coach is someone to whom the dieter needs to be accountable. So, the dieter can call the coach once a week at least and report on how much weight they have lost or gained or whether they have stayed the same. Just getting that support, getting praise from a diet coach, having someone help you figure out what do you do if you're traveling, how to help your family accept kind of the new eating regime that you have. An outside person can be very useful that way.

You talk about dieters giving themselves credit. What do you mean?

It's very important for dieters to give themselves credit so that they can see why it is that they're losing weight. They're losing weight not only because they're restricting their eating, but because they're learning the skills of how to talk to themselves, how to eat slowly and mindfully when they're sitting down, that they're losing weight because they're making time to exercise, they're making time to go to the supermarket whenever they need to, they're making time to prepare the meals that they need. This is especially important for those times when the scale doesn't budge. And you need to be able to say to yourself, okay, the scale didn't budge, but I know what to do. I know what to do this coming week so that the scale will probably go down again.

It's very important for dieters to build their sense of confidence that they can do this, even if the scale starts to go up. Even if they make a mistake and they slip off their diet, they'll have the confidence to say, okay, so I made a mistake, big deal. I know what to do right this minute.
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