My Chocolate Chip Cookie Diet: or, How to Lose Weight Without Deprivationby Monica A. Frank, Ph.D.
The hardest thing about dieting is the deprivation. It feels like we are being punished. No wonder so many people are unsuccessful with dieting if it has such a strong negative reaction. We aren't motivated by negativity except to move away from it. We are motivation to move towards things that feel good. Therefore, the secret to losing weight has to be in making it feel good. "How can I do that?" you ask because you associate the words "diet" and "bad."
I don't have any miracle or new strategies to weight loss. What I am presenting in this article are the old tried and true techniques that have been shown through behavioral research to be effective. However, the title is true. You can lose weight without deprivation if you change some basic ineffective thought processes and behaviors.
First, let me tell you a little of my story. I am a behavioral therapist and I have lost a hundred pounds using the methods that I will describe. And I did it while being able to eat my husband's fabulous chocolate chip cookies (he's the one who labeled this a chocolate chip cookie diet). The principles that I will be describing I am sure you have heard before. Also, what I am presenting isn't the only way to lose weight. In fact, what I am advocating is to take the methods that have been effective for other people and to adapt them to yourself. The more you understand your psychological make-up and how your body responds, then you will be able to be successful in any goals you set for yourself. The following are some ideas and techniques to consider in your plan.
If you have a great deal of weight to lose, it is important to have a discussion with your doctor, and not just for the usual reason of making sure you are healthy enough to manage exercise and weight loss. Your discussion with your doctor is also for the reason of determining whether there are any medical reasons that may have contributed to your weight gain.
For instance, for myself, I already knew that I ate when I was stressed (most of my weight I gained during graduate school). What I didn't understand was why exercise, which is a great stress reliever, was so aversive to me. Then one day, I mentioned to my doctor that I was having breathing problems. I was afraid to say anything previously because I was sure he would say it was just because I was out of shape. Instead, he determined that I had asthma and gave me an inhaler. After my first use of the inhaler, I realized I had probably had asthma for a long time. In fact, I remember having chest pains and trouble breathing when I ran as a child; my mother told me it was growing pains. I now know that I probably had exercise-induced asthma, and naturally, I didn't like exercise because it was painful. Once I was treated for the asthma and was able to breath normally, I was able to start a successful exercise program.
I am not saying that anyone who doesn't like exercise has asthma, but I do believe that the enjoyment of exercise is natural. In fact, research shows that when we exercise endorphins are released that are very pleasurable for us. If you find exercise aversive, it may be a good idea to determine if there is a reason. Other reasons include any illness that leads to fatiguing quickly such as anemia or allergies. Also, talk to your doctor about disorders that may lead to weight gain such as low thyroid disorders.
The advice that no one wants is that weight loss is a long-term project. Everyone wants to lose fifty pounds in the next three months so they look good for some particular event or just because they don't want to be on a diet for longer than three months. This attitude is a guarantee to long-term failure. An individual may lose weight in this manner but is not likely to keep it off because they have not made an important attitude change.
That attitude change involves making a commitment to lifestyle changes instead of making a commitment to weight loss. The more you can learn to act "as if" you were normal weight and healthy, the more successful you will be for the long term. This means determining how physically fit people of normal weight behave and gradually incorporating these behaviors into your lifestyle. For instance, a person of normal weight may have a cookie for a treat, but they don't have a half dozen cookies.
Starting slowly doesn't give the immediate gratification that our society thrives on. With my own situation, it has only been in the last year that people have really noticed my efforts and are complimenting my progress, but my commitment to lifestyle changes began ten years ago. At that time, my husband and I made an agreement to reduce the amount of fat in our meals by not frying foods as frequently. It was a simple step that wasn't very painful because I could still eat fried foods but not as often. Then about eight years ago, I started to exercise regularly. About five years ago, I quit eating fast food (however, I fell off the wagon for a little while). Two years ago, I decided to increase fiber in my diet. These are just a few of the changes I made over the years, but the culmination of these decisions led eventually to my weight loss.
One significant realization for me was that I had gained weight slowly over the years. When I realized that it amounted to about an extra hundred calories a day, I thought I could surely halt the weight gain because eliminating a hundred calories a day couldn't be that difficult. All I had to do was eliminate a little butter on my morning waffles. Once I had achieved stopping the weight gain, weight loss wasn't any more difficult because it meant slight changes in my eating habits. The most difficult change for me was reducing the amount of milk I drink because I always loved a LARGE cold glass of milk with my meals or snacks; again, I just gradually reduced the milk rather than making a radical change that probably would have discouraged me.
The concept of starting slowing is one way of changing perfectionistic attitudes. These attitudes are typically self-defeating. In our society, we are bombarded with demands that we have to be perfect in every way: the perfect career, the perfect parent, the perfect body, etc. However, it is impossible for us to be perfect and if we try to achieve it, we will be guaranteed failure. Therefore, one of the first things you want to do is to identify self-defeating, perfectionist attitudes such as:
"I have to lose 50 pounds in three months."
"I have to exercise an hour a day."
"I can't eat more than my allotted number of calories or fat grams."
"I should look like a supermodel."
"I should be able to leap over tall buildings and be faster than a speeding bullet."
The problem with these attitudes is that they are all unrealistic. The more realistic your goals are, the more likely you are to be successful. For instance, when I first started exercising I was extremely out of shape; if I walked up a flight of stairs I would get out of breath so I tended to avoid stairs if there was an elevator nearby. My first exercise was on a stationary bike and I started with five minutes a day. I never could stick with exercise until I got rid of the attitude, "What's the use in doing anything less than an hour a day?" Instead, I told myself that anything was an improvement and would move me towards my goal of being physically fit.
Speaking of the goal of being physically fit, I found that it was a better attitude to take than focusing on the need to lose so much weight. Generally, I was able to measure my increased fitness weekly by my ability to exercise longer and more intensely. Therefore, I was always achieving small goals.
Making small goals is also an important attitude change. It is harder for us to say "I can't" when the goal is achievable. For instance, many of my clients complain that they don't have the time or energy to start exercising. I ask them, "Do you think you are capable of exercising for five minutes a day?" Invariably, they say "yes" and I tell them to make that their goal. By doing so, they can reward themselves daily for achieving these small goals rather than beating themselves up over failing to achieve a more difficult goal.
Which brings me to the tendency of people with perfectionistic attitudes to focus only on outcome and not on process. They usually will look ahead to how far they have to go rather than back at how far they have come. As a result, they become discouraged, self-critical, and often quit. The more you focus on the process and give yourself reinforcement for each small achievement, the more successful you will be.
Many people don't want to hear that they need to exercise. However, this article is actually more about fitness than weight loss; the weight loss is just a byproduct of taking care of yourself. If you change just one thing in your life that can result in tremendous benefits, is literally the difference between life and death, it is to become more physically active. Exercise has been shown improve the health of your heart and lungs, it increases memory functioning, it improves sleep, it improves ability to manage pain, it increases energy level and reduces fatigue, it has been linked to reducing numerous other illnesses such as breast cancer, and it reduces depression and anxiety.
I found that it was easier to add something into my life rather than taking something away such as depriving myself of food that I enjoyed. So I started with exercise and a commitment to increase my level of fitness. It has been found that making a commitment to exercise is more important than the length of exercise. If you commit to exercising daily if only for five minutes, in the long run you will be successful in making exercise part of your life. Sometimes I would tell myself I didn't feel like exercising but I would still exercise for five minutes because I had made that commitment to myself. Then, on some days I would stop after five minutes and on other days I found the energy to continue longer.
Behavioral research has consistently shown that monitoring our food intake has significant impact on how much we eat. However, the main problem with this approach is that it was so time-consuming. To do it correctly, a person had to write down every morsel of food, check the calorie charts, plan menus, and add up the daily calories. Naturally, anything taking so much effort has a high drop-out rate which certainly decreases its practical effectiveness.
However, now with the advent of computer programs, there are easier ways of doing this. I found a program called Life Form that I used to help me keep track of my food intake and exercise. Initially, I bought it to help me increase fiber and decrease fat in my diet. But as I started using it, I found myself making overall healthier choices and my weight loss began in earnest. What I like about Life Form, in particular, is that it is easy to use (it takes me about 5 minutes a day) and it has graphs. I love graphs because they let me see what I have accomplished. In addition, this program allows you to graph anything you want and a side benefit I had was finding out that my irritability level definitely corresponded to my pre-menstrual days (in fact, I could pinpoint it to a particular day) which allowed my husband and me to take precautions to reduce arguments.
The most important thing I found to make monitoring a success was to make a commitment to it. No matter what, I committed to putting my true food intake and exercise activities into the program. Since I didn't like to see the graph take sudden upturns, this commitment helped to keep me on track.
I never felt particularly deprived because I set reasonable behavior changes. For instance, when I first started reducing calories, I started with a small reduction of 100-200 a day. This was such a small change that I barely noticed it, yet I started to see results. Then, as my body adjusted to the reduction in calories, I reduced may calorie intake another 100-200 calories. I continued to do this until I reached about 1500 calories a day; this occurred over a period of several months.
In addition, I never forced myself to stick exactly to the 1500 calories but tried to average around the 1500 mark. I also let myself eat what I wanted on special occasions. Interestingly enough, I would look forward to a holiday such as Thanksgiving thinking that I would pig out only to find that my stomach would limit how much I could eat and I was satisfied with much less.
Finally, I always tried to save enough calories for a special treat such as a chocolate chip cookie. By doing so, I never felt deprived and was able to stick to this plan for 18 months until I reached my goal.
As I said before, I don't expect that everyone can use this same method successfully. But I encourage you to experiment and to learn what works for you.