Mind Over Fatter

By Megan McNamara
You already know the secret to weight loss: Eat fewer calories than you burn and you'll be zipping up those size 4 jeans in no time. So why aren't we all as svelte as Heidi Klum? Because lasting weight loss has little to do with crunching numbers. "In focusing on calories in and calories out, the field of nutrition has ignored the most critical variable: behavioral and cognitive changes," says Stephen Gullo, Ph.D., a weight-loss expert in New York City.

In other words, if you don't want to fall headfirst off the diet wagon the next time Mom rips into your new haircut, you have to retrain your brain. "To deal with unhealthy eating behaviors, we must challenge the thoughts, feelings, and cues that have been built up over a lifetime," says Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., the Jordan Distinguished Professor of Eating Disorders at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Not to get too Freudian, but many doctors and weight-loss experts say that permanently altering your waistline means permanently altering your relationship with food.

That means recognizing and curbing emotional eating, of course—and exploiting your psychological makeup to make healthy eating easier. Behavioral psychologists have found that changing your negative thoughts, one by one, can eventually create a habit of positive thinking. It's the same with eating. And with the tips and exercises here, you won't have to lie on a leather couch to learn how.

Figure out what the heck you're feeling
Do your pants start pinching after a big fight with your boyfriend? It's normal: Women tend to use food for comfort. A University of Minnesota study found that we are almost twice as likely as men to binge when we're depressed, though researchers aren't sure why exactly. What they do know, according to research in the journal Physiology & Behavior, is that what women choose to fill up on is usually loaded with sugar, because eating carb-heavy foods temporarily boosts levels of serotonin—a brain chemical that regulates mood. "There are many ways people respond to difficult emotions," says Kelly D. Brownell, Ph.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "Some people drink, some take drugs, and some eat."

So the next time you feel like mainlining a pint of mint chocolate chip, stop, take a step back, and ask yourself: What's my emotional state right now? And why? For example: "I'm humiliated because my boss embarrassed me during a staff meeting."

Write that down, along with a list of things—unrelated to ice cream—that you can do to make yourself feel better anytime you're angry, sad, or anxious. Maybe you could quietly confront the person who told the whole world that you let one rip during a headstand in yoga class. Other good alternatives: hopping on your bike, going to see the latest Vince Vaughn flick, carving jack-o'-lanterns with the kids. Keep this list with you so you'll have it the next time the lady at the checkout counter asks you when the baby's due.

Spot food frenemies
Experts have found that the same people and situations can trigger emotional eating time and time again. Ann Kearney-Cooke, Ph.D., director of the Cincinnati Psychotherapy Institute and author of Change Your Mind, Change Your Body, suggests asking yourself these four questions: Who are the three people I'm closest to? How do I eat before, after, and while I'm with them? What are my expectations of them? (For example, is my boyfriend there for me when I'm having a crappy day and need someone to talk to? Does he turn off the TV when I want to spend time together without The Simpsons?) Finally, what can I do when these people don't meet my expectations without straying from my weight-loss plan? You may find that you're infuriated when your mom calls you during a busy workday to "chat" or that you always feel guilted into meeting your best friend over margaritas. Once you recognize these things, strategize accordingly: Screen your calls so you can call your mother back when you have a free moment, or ask your friend if you can do a late dinner in lieu of happy hour.

Track your thoughts
Here's a shocker: The way you feel about yourself strongly affects how successful you are at weight loss. "People who are trying to lose weight are often held back by negative core beliefs about themselves, their capabilities, their attractiveness, and their worth as human beings," says Rene D. Zweig, Ph.D., director of the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy's eating disorders and weight management program in New York City.

Challenge these beliefs with an exercise that Dr. Zweig gives her patients—it sounds cheesy, but it works. Write "I am" 20 times along the left side of a sheet of paper, then fill in the blanks. Answers can vary from positive things ("I am good at making people laugh") to negative ones ("I am an unlovable cow"). Take out the list every night and write down something that happened that day that's inconsistent with each negative statement. For example, for "I am a failure at work," write "I met all my deadlines today." Doing this exercise every day for a week will show you that the facts just don't support your beliefs. Continuing to challenge the negative thoughts about yourself with little reality checks will do wonders for your self-esteem (and your waistline).

Keep a food diary
To change your eating habits you have to know what they are. A handful of Junior Mints, the three slices of provolone you ate over the sink—all those calories add up. "At the end of the day, many people have no clue what they ate or why they ate it," says Robert F. Kushner, M.D., medical director of Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Wellness Institute.

Writing down what you eat is one of the most effective ways to control your weight, plain and simple. Record every morsel that passes your lips—from your morning coffee to the free hors d'oeuvre sample you snagged at the supermarket. Write down the time of day you ate it, plus what you were doing before and afterward. The point of all this anal behavior? You'll start noticing patterns that you can easily fix. For example, if you find yourself drawn to the vending machine at 3 p.m. every day, you may realize you just want something to kick you out of your afternoon slump. Go for a short walk instead—it can have the same pick-me-up effect as a Twinkie.

Use your inner eye
"We know from sports psychology that when people visualize themselves changing a behavior, it's more likely to happen," Dr. Kearney-Cooke says. So before heading to your grandma's (where there are enough pastries to feed the Dallas Cowboys), visualize Granny's sweet spread—and her insistence that you dig in. Then prepare yourself to say something like: "They look delicious, Gran, but I'm here to see you." Once you've got your plan down, you'll be better able to survive Thanksgiving dinner or your friend's bridal shower unscathed.

Don't get too hungry
"Recognizing hunger and fullness cues is essential," Dr. Bulik says. If you eat when you're moderately hungry, not ravenous, you'll be less likely to inhale that box of Ding Dongs. To figure out what "moderately hungry" means, give your hunger level a numerical value between 1 (not hungry) and 10 (could eat a dirty sneaker) and eat only when you're between 5 and 7.

To avoid level-10 hunger, eat on schedule. "One of the principal predictors of failure at weight control is skipping meals and not establishing a regular pattern of eating," Dr. Gullo says. The first reason is physiological—the body functions more efficiently if you eat every 3 to 4 hours. The second is psychological—skipping breakfast can lead to thoughts like: "I didn't eat this morning, so I can have this giant piece of cake." Every night, write down in your food journal the times you're going to eat the next day (say, 7 a.m., 10 a.m, 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 7 p.m.). Then stick to that plan like white on rice—over time it will become a habit.

Wait out temptation
Studies show that when it comes to food cravings, the mind is easily distracted. Remember that the next time you think the only thing that will ease your discomfort during an awkward dinner with your husband's family is one of his mom's honey buns. "In the moment, people think their craving will last forever—or at least until they eat the food," Dr. Zweig says. "In reality, 5 minutes is long enough for many people to forget they had the craving in the first place." Set a timer, then pick up that half-knitted scarf, take a bubble bath, or do a Sudoku puzzle.

Oops, You Did It Again
So you went out for dinner with friends and ended up polishing off a fried appetizer, a mammoth entrée, and a vat of tiramisu (along with a couple of cocktails). Don't panic. "Feeling guilty has never burned a single calorie, but learning from your error can save you thousands," Dr. Gullo says. Everybody slips—the key to success is to take it in stride.

To bounce back after a binge, the most important thing to remember is that all the effort you put into eating right before your little lapse was not in vain. "No one ever got heavy from one slipup. It's when you let it become a chain that you get in trouble," Dr. Gullo says. So instead of declaring that you blew your diet and cramming your face full of every high-calorie treat you see until nightfall (since you'll just wait and start fresh tomorrow), begin eating healthfully again with your very next meal—or snack.

And no matter what, don't step on the scale at the end of the day. "Weighing yourself after overindulging isn't healthy or helpful," Dr. Kearney-Cooke says. Depending on your salt intake or where you are in your menstrual cycle, your weight can fluctuate several pounds. Instead of trying to assess the damage every time a stray cookie slips between your lips, pick one day each week for your weigh-ins and stick to it.

You may think it makes perfect sense to cut your calorie intake drastically the day after a binge—but if you do, you're setting yourself up for disaster. "Depriving yourself throughout the day won't help you lose weight, because by 8 or 9 at night you'll be starving," Dr. Kearney-Cooke says. With no fuel in your system, your blood sugar will drop, and you won't be able to make healthy food choices. In fact, "you'll usually end up taking in more calories than if you had just eaten normally," she says. Stop the vicious cycle: Go back to your regular (healthy!) diet or reduce your calories by no more than 100 or 200 a day for a week to make up for overeating.

Same goes for exercise. "For some people, exercising the next day helps them get back on track," Dr. Kearney-Cooke says. For others, it can feel like punishment or lead to an unhealthy view of exercise ("I can eat this brownie if I burn it off immediately"). If you work out on a regular basis, go ahead and hop on the treadmill after a super splurge. But if you're not a regular exerciser, don't use it as a form of penance—you'll only start associating exercise with feelings of failure. And come on! You should be working out regularly anyway—it's good for your body and your mind.

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