Note: we continue the interview with Dr. Judith Beck, author of The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person.
Alvaro Fernandez (AF) had asked Judith Beck (JB), “What are the cognitive and emotional skills and habits that dieters need to train, and where your book helps?” and Dr. Beck had started by listing How to motivate oneself and Plan in advance. The interview cotinues:
JB: Overcome sabotaging thoughts. Dieters have hundreds and hundreds of thoughts that lead them to engage in unhelpful eating behavior. I have dieters read cards that remind them of key points, e.g., that it isn’t worth the few moments of pleasure they’ll get from eating something they hadn’t planned and that they’ll feel badly afterwards; that they can’t eat whatever they want, whenever they want, in whatever quantity they want, and still be thinner; that the scale is not supposed to go down every single day; that they deserve credit for each helpful eating behavior they engage in, to name just a few.
Also, How to Tolerate hunger and craving. Overweight people often confuse the two. You experience hunger when your stomach feels empty. Craving is an urge to eat, usually experienced in the mouth or throat, even if your stomach is full.
AF: When do people experience cravings?
JB: Triggers can be environmental (seeing or smelling food), biological (hormonal changes), social (being with others who are eating), mental (thinking about or imagining tempting food), or emotional (wanting to soothe yourself when you’re upset). The trigger itself is less important than what you do about it. Dieters need to learn exactly what to say to themselves and what to do when they have cravings so they can wait until their next planned meal or snack.
AF: How can people learn that they don’t have to eat in response to hunger or craving?
JB: I ask dieters, once they get medical clearance, to skip lunch one day, not eating between breakfast and dinner. Just doing this exercise once proves to dieters that hunger is never an emergency, that it’s tolerable, that it doesn’t keep getting worse, but instead, comes and goes, and that they don’t need to “fix” their usually mild discomfort by eating. It helps them lose their fear of hunger. They also learn alternative actions to help them change their focus of attention. Feel hungry? Well, try calling a friend, taking a walk, playing a computer game, doing some email, reading a diet book, surfing the net, brushing your teeth, doing a puzzle. My ultimate goal is to train the dieter to resist temptations by firmly saying “No choice,” to themselves, then naturally turning their attention back to what they had been doing or engaging in whatever activity comes next.
AF: You said earlier that some cravings follow an emotional reaction to stressful situations. Can you elaborate on that, and explain how cognitive techniques help?
JB: In the short term, the most effective way is to identify the problem and try to solve it. If there’s nothing you can do at the moment, call a friend, do deep breathing or relaxation exercises, take a walk to clear your mind, or distract yourself in another way. Read a card that reminds you that you’ll certainly not be able to lose weight or keep it off if you constantly turn to food to comfort yourself when you’re upset. People without weight problems generally don’t turn to food when they’re upset. Dieters can learn to do other things, too.
And in the long term, I encourage people to examine and change their underlying beliefs and internal rules. Many people, for example, want to do everything (and expect others to do everything) in a perfect way 100% of the time, and that is simply impossible. This kind of thinking leads to stress.
AF: The title of the book includes a “train your brain” promise. Can you tell us a bit about the growing literature that analyzes the neurobiological impact of cognitive therapy?
JB: Yes, that is a very exciting area. For years, we could only measure the impact of cognitive therapy based on psychological assessments. Today, thanks to fMRI and other neuroimaging techniques, we are starting to understand the impact our actions can have on specific parts of the brain.
AF: Dr. Beck, that is exactly what we find most exciting about this emerging field of neuroplasticity: the awareness that we can improve our lives by refining, “training” our brains, and the growing research behind a number of tools such as cognitive therapy. Thanks a lot for sharing your thoughts with us.
JB: My pleasure.