Woman choosing what to eat
Resist cravings? No problem. Set realistic weight goals? Piece of cake. But what if your diet coach challenged you to go eight hours without eating a single bite? Barbara Graham reports on getting over her deep, dark, self-sabotaging fear of hunger.
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."

In fact, the very first exercise in The Beck Diet Solution asks readers to pinpoint the reasons they want to lose weight. To the predictable examples listed—"I'll look better. I'll be able to wear a smaller size. I'll live longer"—I added, "So I can put on a little black dress." Judy urges dieters to review their reasons at least twice daily. On the flip side, she asks them to unearth the sabotaging thoughts that keep them from dieting success—and then create written response cards that will act as a reality check to each thought. As my coach, she planned to use our lunch to help me handcraft such cards. br>
"What are some of the self-defeating ideas that stop you from losing weight?" she asked me, cutting to the chase as we waited for our grilled salmon.

"Uh," I stammered, "I blame my metabolism. It's really hard for me to lose weight."

"Those are just thoughts," she replied brightly. "We'll find out if they're true. I'm guessing you can lose weight—you just haven't learned the skills to keep it off."

"Maybe, but I don't think I overeat. Basically, I believe I'd have to starve myself in order to be thin," I said, feeling suddenly sheepish. There was something humbling, even humiliating, about voicing the machinations of my weight-obsessed mind out loud.

"You probably do overeat, so we have to figure out how we can get you to eat less and still feel satisfied."

"But mostly I eat only when I'm hungry, which is fairly often, because of my hypoglycemia."

Judy wasn't buying it. "If you're trying to lose weight, you can't go by hunger; you have to go by a plan. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to figure out that I can stand being hungry no matter what," she said, beaming. "Before I was able to keep weight off, I always worried about being hungry."

Maybe I'm dense, but I was having trouble connecting the dots here. Doesn't Judy herself advise dieters to choose an eating plan that works for them—the operative word being eating? "What's so great about going hungry?" I asked.

"Almost every dieter has difficulty distinguishing between true hunger, a desire to eat, and cravings," she explained. "And most people who struggle with weight loss tend to feel hunger pangs intensely and often eat to avoid those feelings. But the point is, hunger comes and goes. Thin people know this and don't worry about being hungry."

"Uh-oh," I thought. "Here it comes."

"Purposely skipping a meal is the only way to prove to yourself that you can withstand hunger," she said, leaning closer. "We have to get you over the fear of being hungry if you want to keep weight off for the rest of your life."

"I'll do anything," I pleaded. "I'll go on Weight Watchers and stick to it. I'll keep a record of every microbite. Just please, not that. I'm sure I'd drop dead."

I could tell that Judy harbored serious doubts about the severity of my hypoglycemia, the existence of which, I was forced to admit, had never been clinically proved. But she graciously turned her attention to writing the response cards—such as "If I want to lose weight, I have to do things I don't want to do"—that were supposed to counter my negative thoughts. My homework was to read the cards before each meal, as well as commit to a food plan every night for the following day, then fax it to her. We agreed to touch base by phone in one week.

When I called at the appointed time, I was feeling proud of myself—"giving myself credit" in Judyspeak. I'd dropped a pound and a half and had been fanatical about staying within the points allotted me by Weight Watchers. But I didn't get the You go, girl reaction I was expecting.

"Eventually, it will be fine to substitute foods as long as they're the same number of points or calories," Judy told me, referring to the fact that I'd eaten broccoli instead of the artichoke I'd committed to in writing. "But for now I'd like you to follow your plan exactly."

I felt deflated. What was the big deal? Wasn't one green vegetable as good as the next?

"You won't have to plan every meal for the rest of your life, but for now I'd like you to master the skill of 'no choice,' so that in the future when you start to slide, you'll know how to get back on track."

"I get it," I said, "but I don't like it."

"I know I'm being a hard-ass," Judy conceded. "But 90 percent of people who lose weight gain it back, which is what happened to you." Then she had me write out a new response card: "Unless I get really good at following my plan, I'll be at risk for regaining the weight I lose. Rigidity is essential right now, but it's only temporary."

Though I felt like a chastened schoolgirl when I hung up the phone, in subsequent weeks something strange occurred: My inner rebel put down her dukes, and I grew to enjoy planning my meals. It made me feel safe and in control—and saved me on my birthday, Thanksgiving, and at several holiday parties. The proof showed up on the scale. By the time I went to see Judy a month after our initial meeting, I had dropped seven pounds.

Judy warmly congratulated me on my progress and my shift in attitude. She even told me I could be more flexible in my eating and stop planning every meal—something I was not yet ready to do. She also issued a sober warning. "It's a fallacy to think you'll continue losing weight at this rate. There'll be weeks when you won't lose anything and other weeks when the scale will go up a pound or two. That's normal. You have to take the long view; otherwise you could become demoralized and abandon your diet the way you did in the past." Then she leaned back in her chair and smiled. "It would be good—in fact it's 100 percent necessary—for you not to be afraid of hunger so you can maintain your weight loss your whole life."

The Dread Hunger Experiment was back on the table. Even though it still terrified me, I buckled and agreed to eat nothing between breakfast and dinner—unless I started shaking uncontrollably, a true symptom of hypoglycemia—the very next day. Judy promised to be available by phone every hour after noon.

For insurance that morning, I ate a super-high-protein breakfast; when I telephoned Judy at 1 P.M., I was able to say I wasn't dead yet. "Still here," I reported at 2. By then I was feeling light-headed and cranky as well as famished, but the feelings were more or less tolerable and I agreed to press on. The real shock came at 3, when not only was I still alive but my hunger had diminished significantly. And at 4, though I was starving again, I was able to distract myself by combing the Internet for cheap flights to visit my baby granddaughter in Paris.

When Judy picked up the phone at 4:15 and heard that the experiment was still in full swing, she was elated. "Now that you've experienced for yourself that hunger comes and goes, you never have to worry about feeling hungry again."

"You mean I can stop? Now? And eat?" I couldn't believe I'd passed the test.

"Absolutely. You've proved yourself."

"Wow," I said, "that's amazing. But if it's all the same to you, I think I'm going to try to hold out until 5." 

Barbara Graham is the author of Women Who Run with the Poodles: Myths and Tips for Honoring Your Mood Swings (Avon).


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