Thinking Thinner

Thinking Thinner Image - Masterfile

Shed pounds by harnessing the untapped power of your own mind

Want to lose weight? Instead of reaching for that candy bar, reach for a new thought. According to Judith S. Beck, Ph.D., director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in suburban Philadelphia and author of The Beck Diet Solution, controlling the way you think is essential for losing weight and keeping it off.

“You need to learn what to say to yourself when you are craving food and eating for emotional reasons,” she says. “You also need to learn how to motivate yourself and respond constructively to self-sabotaging thoughts.” The key, according to Beck, is to use techniques from cognitive therapy.

The premise of cognitive therapy is that the way you think about things influences both how you feel and what you do: Change thoughts, and you can change the associated feelings and actions. Applied to weight loss, the approach helps you identify thoughts that may steer you away from a healthy eating plan. You can reduce your fears of failing, your resentment at having to go on a diet at all, and your impulse to chip away at your nutritional plan one crumb at a time.

Thought Changers

  • Step One On an index card, list the reasons why you want to lose weight. Be specific. Maybe you want to be less self-conscious or healthier—or fit into that little black dress for a party.
  • Step Two Once you write down your reasons, read them every day first thing in the morning and carry the card with you. Glance at it throughout the day to prevent a “slip.” This way, when confronted with that chocolate-chip cookie, you’ll be able to focus on why you want to lose weight.
  • Step Three Put motivating sentences and phrases on index cards: “It’s not okay to eat this. I’m going to be very sorry if I do.” or “Being thinner is SO much more important to me than eating this food.” “These cards help you remember why you want to lose weight and help make that more important than satisfying a craving,” says Beck.


One of the most important things any dieter can do is to identify self-sabotaging thoughts. These can appear in several forms, including that old favorite, self-justification—which leads you to tell yourself, “It’s okay to eat this, because I’m hungry [or tired, or sad, or happy].”

Another form of self-sabotage involves thinking about the “fairness issue,” as when you tell yourself, “It’s not fair that I should have to restrict my eating—other people don’t have to!” Yet another form involves self-discouraging thoughts: “This is too hard,” or “This will never work!”

“You can’t stop self-sabotaging thoughts from coming up,” says Beck. “But when you’re tempted to eat something you hadn’t planned, you have the chance to intervene. You can learn to recognize the underlying thought that is prompting you to eat and then respond constructively to it.” That’s where the index cards come into play, she says: “They help you change your thinking at a crucial moment, so you can make a different decision.”

Self-sabotaging thoughts can also get in the way of exercise—an essential part of any weight-loss plan. When that happens, you may tell yourself, “I’m too busy. I’m too tired. I’ll do it later.” What you have to do in such a case, says Beck, “is say to yourself, ‘I’m going to fit the rest of my life around diet and exercise, instead of vice versa.’ It doesn’t work to take your already busy life and fit diet and exercise around it. You have to make them a priority.” You can work with your diabetes educator, nutritionist or doctor to establish an eating plan that helps keep your glucose in control while promoting weight loss.

Dealing With Cravings

Cravings are insistent, seemingly overwhelming—even obsessive—thoughts that command you to eat. But they will actually pass if you can buy yourself the time to let that happen. The first thing to do is to label the sensation. Say aloud, “This is a craving. It is not a command.”

“Then you can use your index cards to help with this,” says Beck. “Write a list of distractions on index cards, such as writing e-mails, surfing the web, taking a walk, calling a friend, polishing your nails. Refer to them to help you remember to distract yourself. You may have to do up to five activities for the craving to pass, but usually it takes only one or two. And it’s incredibly empowering to discover that you don’t have to give in to cravings. Remember, cravings pass—one hundred percent of the time.”

Not giving in to your craving also strengthens your “resistance muscle.” Most dieters have told themselves, “It doesn’t matter if I have these cookie crumbs.” But it does matter. Says Beck: “It’s not the calories, it’s the habit. Every single time you eat something you hadn’t planned to, you’re strengthening your ‘giving-in muscle’ and it’s more likely that you’ll give in the next time. On the plus side, every time you refrain from eating food you hadn’t planned to, you’re strengthening your ‘resistance muscle’ and it’s more likely you won’t give in the next time.”

The Benefits

Shedding even a few pounds can offer big benefits for overall health. And for those at risk of developing diabetes, the benefits are immediate and significant. Studies have shown that losing even a small percentage of body weight reduces the incidence of diabetes-related complications (such as heart disease, kidney disease and nerve damage) and makes control of glucose levels far, far easier.

Finally, Beck wants you to know that learning to think positive, constructive thoughts provides you with powerful medicine for the whole person. Right away, you will notice how an improved attitude helps you act positively and makes you feel good when you do. That’s a twofer: Taking these positive steps benefits both the body and the spirit.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 23 Aug 2010

Last Modified: 17 Mar 2015