My favorite fat joke is that I'm still trying to lose my pregnancy weight—only my son just turned 35. Needless to say, I'm no stranger to dieting: I've been to South Beach, Scarsdale, and Beverly Hills, with too-many-to-count excursions to Weight Watchers. It's not that these diets don't work—they do. But each time I shed some weight, sooner or later I get blindsided by stress and start to eat wantonly again. Like most chronic dieters, I've felt helpless, out of control, demoralized by my inability to keep weight off. So when an advance copy of Dr. Judith Beck's The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person landed on my doorstep last fall, I took it as a sign. Judy is the psychologist daughter of Aaron Beck, the famed psychiatrist who pioneered cognitive therapy, which helps people overcome self-defeating thoughts and is now a gold standard of treatment for depression, anxiety, and other psychological disorders. I knew about the approach from a friend whose depression was cured by working with Beck père at the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research—now run by Judy—near Philadelphia. If cognitive therapy could change Natalie's life, maybe it could be my ticket out of yo-yo hell. I rang up Judy and arranged to get together.
The day before we met, I boned up on the book. Instead of presenting a specific diet (any reasonable eating plan—I chose Weight Watchers again—will do), Beck guides the reader through a six-week, step-by-step process designed to eliminate every self-sabotaging thought that makes dieters throw up their hands and open their mouths. (Thoughts such as "I can't diet when I'm stressed" or "I know I shouldn't eat this, but it's my birthday/Thanksgiving/Groundhog Day/fill-in-the-blank day" hit me squarely in my size 12 gut.) Along the way, she outlines a comprehensive regimen based on her own experience and 20 years of counseling dieters. Some of the strategies—eat slowly, while seated; give yourself credit for resisting cravings or dropping even half a pound; set realistic weight loss goals—seemed manageable, but others provoked anxiety. Would I really be required to plan every meal in advance? Account for every last morsel to my diet coach—Judy herself!—and allow myself "no choice" about sticking to my plan? Scariest of all was the "hunger experiment," during which I was to go eight hours without eating in order to learn that "hunger is not an emergency." "Moi," I thought, "hypoglycemic moi?" My blood sugar is prone to plummeting, leaving me feeling as if I'm on the brink of starvation at least three times a day! And the kicker: As I read on, I realized that the program isn't just a six-week commitment—it's for life!
"Almost everybody has the idea that once they stop dieting, they'll be able to eat whatever they want, but that is absolutely false," Judy told me when we met over lunch. Slim, energetic, and incredibly empathetic even when making tough-love pronouncements, she was a veteran yo-yo dieter who lost 15 pounds ten years ago and has kept it off ever since. "I had to accept that for the rest of my life, I would have to eat differently from how I used to eat," she said. "When I work with people, I stress this from the first day. It's not a popular message, especially with so many fad diets around, but I don't see any point in losing weight if you're just going to gain it back." What's more, she added, "I've discovered that to some degree almost every thin person restricts what she eats. We all need to learn to do that. When the going gets tough, we have to keep reminding ourselves of the advantages of maintaining a healthy weight."