The Good Life: Health: Think Yourself Thin

A local author says the key to losing weight isn’t what you eat — but how you think. Here, she gives us a sneak preview of her forthcoming book

Anybody who has tried Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers, et al., knows the curse of dieting is watching the scale inch back up when you go off the plan. But local psychologist Judith Beck, director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy in Bala Cynwyd (and the daughter of Aaron Beck, who recently won the prestigious Lasker Award for having created the field of cognitive therapy), knows how to break the gain-loss-gain cycle. “Diets don’t fail,” she insists. “Dieters do — because they don’t have the skills to keep weight off.” Diet skills? That’s a new one. In her new book The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think like a Thin Person (due in April from Oxmoor House), Beck says people who want to lose weight need to learn how to diet the same way they learn to, say, drive a car.

You won’t find a word in her book about what foods to eat or what to avoid, and nary a low-fat, no-carb recipe. She maintains that the secret to lifelong slimness resides in your head, not in what goes in your mouth. Thin people don’t necessarily have super metabolisms; they simply think about food in a different way from the folks who devour the whole bowl of peanuts or can’t resist the cupcakes in the office kitchen. Here are three important skills from her book’s 42-day plan.

Recognize and deal with sabotaging thoughts. These are the voices in your head that say “Go for it” when you need to say “No thanks.” “Dieters are masters at fooling themselves that it’s okay to give in to sabotaging thoughts,” Beck says. We all have these automatic little blips, like: “I shouldn’t really eat this, but I had a tough day.” Or, “This is a celebration, so why not?” The skill is to become aware of undermining thoughts so you can replace them with helpful ones: “I didn’t cheat, I made a mistake.” “It’s okay; I’m human.” “I don’t need to reward myself with food.” “Even if I slip up, it doesn’t mean I have no control. I can do this.” The goal, says Beck, is to strengthen your mental-resistance muscle and weaken your giving-in muscle.

Learn to tolerate craving. Maybe you grew up with your mother badgering you to eat everything on your plate, or you believe that if you don’t eat, you’ll faint. Rubbish! “Hunger is normal,” Beck says emphatically. “It’s not an emergency. Once you learn to tolerate craving and separate it from true hunger, you’ll be free from being a slave to it. You won’t grab whatever is in front of you. You’ll learn to wait until the next meal.”

Plan what you’re going to eat the next day, and follow your plan to the letter. This sounds rigid, but it’s what thin people unconsciously do all the time. You’re building the self-­control to handle the temptation when the hors d’oeuvres are passed or the dessert menu is offered. A food plan provides a framework for eating carefully and thoughtfully — for systemically rejecting a second piece of candy instead of mindlessly reaching for it. “You need to develop the kind of consistent willpower that’s as automatic as brushing your teeth,” Beck explains. “Would you ever say to yourself, ‘I’m too tired tonight. I’ll skip my teeth?’ No. It’s not a choice.”

After more than 20 years as a cognitive therapist whose work has been teaching patients how to alter their thought patterns, Beck swears that thinking differently is the only way to lose weight, keep it off, and never “diet” again.