Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness and nutrition courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Deep inside your freezer lies an old friend: A pint of Rocky Road. If you’re most likely to devour it while watching How To Get Away With Murder, you may be in diet trouble. And if ice cream is your port of call when you’re PMS-ing, you’re in double diet trouble. Why? These are two common behavioral patterns that can derail your fat loss goals, according to a study in the journal Obesity. When researchers studied the behavior of 446,608 healthy weight, overweight and obese adults, they found that the more diet “personalities” people seem to have, the heavier they tend be.
But there’s good news: “You can change behaviors and change patterns, but you need to rehearse it and you need to practice it until it becomes automatic,” says Robert F. Kushner, MD, clinical director of the Northwestern Comprehensive Center on Obesity. Here’s a step-by-step plan to tackle each problematic pattern head on.
Diet Demon: The Constant Gorger
Its Calling Card: You see food; you eat it. You feel like food is always calling your name and you can’t stop yourself.
Slay It: Stop the chaos by making a meal plan. “There’s no structure, there’s no rhythm whatsoever to your diet,” Kushner says. “You need to develop a structure to your meals by planning when and what you’re going to eat.
Preemptive Strike: Eating high-protein snacks throughout your day can help prevent you from walking around always ready to eat more, says Susan B. Roberts, PhD, professor of nutrition and professor of psychiatry at Tufts University, and coauthor of The ‘I’ Diet (Workman Publishing Company, 2010). Her top pick: Half a cup of Greek yogurt with one tablespoon of a high-fiber cereal mixed in.
Make It Stick: Log everything that you eat and when you eat it, either in a notebook or a document on your computer’s desktop. Actually seeing what you’re consuming can help you set goals or rules to follow.
Diet Demon: The Distracted Eater
Its Calling Card: You don’t pay attention when you eat. You can sit down at your desk for lunch, finish it, and not even remember that you ate it.
Slay It: Make eating your number one priority. “Eating is something you do while you’re doing something else: Faxing, talking on the phone, driving, watching TV — it’s always something else,” Kushner says. “It’s hard to choose a healthy diet because it isn’t the primary voluntary focus of what they are doing at this time.” Take 15 minutes and just eat.
Preemptive Strike: Put half the food away in the fridge before starting (and then you’ll have the added bonus of having a free lunch tomorrow). This way if something does take your attention away from eating you won’t eat so much. In addition, opt for high-volume, low-calorie foods, such as vegetables and whole grains, to help regulate the number of calories you eat.
Make It Stick: Ask someone (an assistant, a friend or a family member) to remind you that it’s time to eat and do nothing else, Kushner says.
Diet Demon: The Emotional Eater
Its Calling Card: You eat when you feel anxious, bored, depressed, nervous or stressed.
Slay It: Seek Out Substitutions. “The combination of good recipes and regular meals can basically cure emotional eating,” Roberts says. In her experience, two weeks of planning your meals and finding low-calorie and low-fat options to your comfort foods, such as macaroni and cheese, may help tame emotional eating.
Preemptive Strike: Get rid of temptations. “Start at home by throwing out the food that pushes your buttons,” Roberts says. At work, don’t reserve a drawer for sugary snacks. Pack lunch so you don’t have to give in to temptations. “And don’t walk past the desks with candy, take another route”, she says.
Make It Stick: Don’t eat your trigger foods for four weeks. We’re talking about complete abstinence. This will help reduce and possibly eliminate your cravings, Roberts says. If for some reason you can’t live without the offending food, then you can reintroduce it to your diet, but only as part of meals that have satisfying foods (read: high-fiber, low-calories and fat) – never alone.
Diet Demon: The Hearty Eater
Its Calling Card: You eat like a truck driver — large portions all the time.
Slay it: Eat low-calorie-density foods. Because you’re eating large amounts of food, load up on fiber-rich vegetables, fruits and whole grains. They contain tons of vital nutrients and vitamins for fewer calories.
Preemptive Strike: Stay away from the buffet and restaurants that serve family-style serving sizes. “Don’t present yourself into a situation where it is going to be difficult for you to control your portions,” Kushner says. Do the same with your serving plates at home, instead of using a dinner plate opt for a dessert plate.
Make It Stick: Slow down when you eat. “People who eat large amounts of food are typically fast eaters,” Kushner says. “Put your fork down and don’t preload. Preloading is when you have food in your mouth and your fork has food on it with the next bite ready to go.” This will help you monitor the speed at which you eat and allow you to pay attention to your hunger.
Diet Demon: The Hormone Hoarder
Its Calling Card: Fluctuations in your hormones prior to your menstrual cycle can bring on cravings for sweets or other foods you normally try to avoid.
Slay It: Maintain a clean diet while you PMS. “Eat high-satiety menus and regular meals and snacks. If you stick it out for two weeks and don’t have your fix when you feel like it, then pretty soon the fix stops feeling worth it,” Roberts says.
Preemptive Strike: Sidetrack yourself. “Have a black coffee or gum instead, or take a nap,” Roberts says. “Find some distractions while your brain figures out that you won’t just offer it chocolate chip cookies at any excuse!”
Make It Stick: Before and after you indulge, snap a photo of the food and its container with your cell phone’s camera. How do you feel looking at the after picture? Remember that. Next time you have a craving, pull up the after-indulgence picture. It should conjure up those feelings of remorse and that should squash your urges.
The Ultimate Motivator: You
No matter what diet demons you face, there is one characteristic that studies have found time and time again to be the key to achieving your goals: self-efficacy. “If you can’t practically see yourself accomplishing a goal, it is going to be much harder and more overwhelming for you to try to attempt it,” says Kushner. He suggests that if you say things like: “I don’t know how to read a food label” or “no one in my home eats that way” or “I don’t like those foods,” then your self-efficacy is going to be pretty low. How can you boost it? You want to take that goal and break it down into specific mini-goals with rewards attached to each one. Kushner uses the person who wants to lose 50 pounds as an example: “I let them know that we’re far away from that, but let’s break that down into a smaller goal. Let’s start with the first 10 pounds. So when they lose ten pounds, they develop more self-efficacy. And that can push them to lose another 10 pounds because they got the first 10 pounds accomplished.”