You’ve been here before—you’re working to lose weight with whatever food plan you’ve chosen (for me, it’s a whole-foods diet), and you veer off course and eat something off the plan. Instead of recognizing that one food won’t make or break you, you invent some convoluted narrative in your head that goes something like this:
Wow, I really consumed a lot of calories with that (fill in the blank).
I know I won’t lose a pound today. I’ve totally blown it.
Now, it doesn’t matter what I eat for the rest of the day because I’ll be over my calorie limit.[pause, wait for it… ]
I guess I’ll just eat what I want for the rest of the day and start over tomorrow.
But wait! You haven’t blown it! Rebounding from a dietary slip is something you will have to get used to in order to lose weight (and maintain it). One dietary slip doesn’t make or break you. We know this rationally, but sometimes we believe the lie. All or nothing thinking, those cognitive distortions, can get us into a lot of trouble (and make weight loss miserable). And that can lead to a downward spiral of negative thoughts that is hard to recover from. I have an option. One that’s humane and sane.
Insane in the Membrane. Insane in the Brain.
When it’s written in simple terms like this, I think we can all agree that this thinking is INSANE! Seriously, you are going to throw in the towel because of one off-plan meal (or food)? Your solution to a momentary break in your plan is to chuck the whole thing? This makes no sense, and yet, sadly, I did it for years. Years on top of years!
Have you done this to yourself too? Surely you’re not as insane as me. Plans go awry sometimes; we eat off-plan, but descending into a negative spiral of thoughts down a path of self-critical thinking was a huge problem for me before I lost weight. I still grapple with these negative thoughts from time to time, but maintaining a 60+ pound weight loss has taught me some things.
Before I let you in on what’s worked for me, here’s a fresh example (from last week) of how I’m dealing with off-plan eating while trying to maintain my weight loss. I’m not going to lie. It’s still an issue, but now when the negative thinking starts, I catch myself and work to circumvent it with a new mental narrative.
A Blip in the Radar
It was lunchtime, and I’d planned to go to a local grocery store that prepares fresh sushi. I don’t always plan meals, but I’ve been planning them lately as a way to add variety to my meals (read about my post-pandemic palate revival).
When I got to the store, the sushi guy wasn’t there. No sushi in sight. A wash of anxiety overcame me as I realized that my lunch was about to deviate from the plan. Mind you, I’m in a large grocery store will hundreds of other types of foods, but I’m in the aisle with the coffee/dessert bar and the deli/chips section. Do I walk a bit to get into an aisle with healthier fare? That would be sensible, but NO. Even though I’ve been in this situation before and used strategies that I know will work to find another healthy option, I didn’t do that. I didn’t do those things that day.
I turned around and went to the deli and ordered a sandwich. I simplified the sandwich with minimal toppings to reduce fat, but it wasn’t a whole-food, minimally-processed meal that fell within my food plan.
The sandwich was nothing. A blip in the radar. One meal. It was the negative thinking that I had to turn off in my brain that got me. After losing 60 pounds and keeping it off for three years now, you’d think that I would be able to handle a small change in plans without firing off a rampage of negative thoughts and worry.
A Blip in the Radar Turns Into “Now I’ve Done It“
I knew I would move on to a healthier meal in the future.
I knew I didn’t believe in rigid meal restrictions.
I knew that one off-plan meal wasn’t the end of my healthy habits.
Still, knowing all that, my train of thought went like this:
Oh man, I thought I had today under control, but now I’ve blown it. That sandwich wasn’t on my meal plan, and now I won’t have three healthy meals under my belt for today like I wanted.
I can tell that the carbs in that big roll are going to mess with my energy. That’s why I’ve been eating more whole foods. I know when I eat processed foods, I feel like crap. That crappy feeling is coming…
Should I change my dinner, now that I’ve f**ked things up? Should I modify it and eat a salad?
I know this thinking is garbage. It’s such trash talk, and I’ve moved past it in my rational thinking, but when my emotions kick up and that part of my brain that just reacts (without reason) is in control, this is the thinking I have to recover from.
And I say recover because this type of thinking has had me in its grips for most of my life, and I hate it. So you see, I have some experience with this pattern. In fact, I have decades of experience with this. Unfortunately, I chased perfection for a long time before only recently learning how to live with imperfection. It doesn’t sound glamourous, but it is. It’s totally fabulous to be free (most of the time) from all or nothing, trashy “diet” thinking. And it is at the heart of my self-care habits.
What “Self-Care” Really Looks Like
We use the phrase self-care a lot these days. We want so much to give ourselves the emotional support, love and respect we desire (and deserve). But in our quest for this goal, or that healthy habit, or a more productive week, we can sometimes lose our sense of compassion for ourselves. Our rigid thinking can make us our own worst enemy.
Authentic self-care recognizes that slipping and sliding are par for the course. We realize that our habits, routines and thoughts are complex and everchanging. We can be reactionary and stumble, but we can also regroup and move on. The path I’m on in this moment can change remarkably in the next. Deviation, changing plans and adapting to life’s twists and turns is what living is all about.
For example, think back to a time when you started your day thinking it would go one way and it went entirely differently than you had envisioned. You were worried about this or that, but then BAM, something completely different came out of nowhere to influence your plans. You thought it would be hard to do ____, but it was a breeze. However, dealing with ____ turned out to be a major struggle. We are everchanging, and our decisions can follow our plans, or they can deviate from them. That’s a fact. How we choose to accept this fact is up to us, and our success with weight loss (or changing any health habit) depends on our decision-making after plans go south or veer off course.
A Return to Sanity Begins at Your Next Meal
There are a variety of strategies you can use when dealing with off-plan meals. You may find that you can use these strategies like a prescription—work through each of them when you are faced with a challenge to stay on your food plan. Unfortunately, I don’t always follow my own best advice. You’ll notice that I didn’t do the first two strategies below at the store last week. That’s my imperfection asserting itself.
Luckily, I don’t have to be perfect (and there’s no such thing in life’s journey). I can maintain my weight with a sprinkling of off-plan meals and choices. My view of self-care is about finding a balance between eating healthy, whole foods that promote my health and physical well-being and occasional off-plan foods that may feed my soul or allow me to share a special food experience with someone. I think we can have both, but we must learn how to do it with a balanced approach.
While you work toward finding that balance (along with me), here are my thoughts on how to return to sanity (and your next healthy meal) when you have lost your mind in aisle 8:
- Have a backup plan (and a plan for your backup plan). For example, try to pick out two meals before heading out to the deli, grocery store, restaurant or event. If they don’t have your first choice, you move on to plan B. Having the backup plan front of mind helps when the anxiety of having too many choices starts to overcome you. You have a ready-made decision that you don’t have to put thought into.
- Stop and think for 3 minutes before deciding what to eat. If you don’t have a ready backup plan to move to quickly, then give yourself some time to think. We need to add space between our reactions and our actions. Take a few deep breaths, walk around to defuse the situation if you can. Do anything to give yourself a bit of time to transition from what you thought would happen to new options that you now have to consider.
- Get right back on plan with the next meal, and don’t look back at what you ate. The meal or off-plan food you just ate is gone. It’s left the building. Move on, and don’t let your mind dwell on it. Your focus needs to be on moving forward to the next healthy meal. And no, you are not going to exercise off the calories. That’s a faulty, punishing solution to your perception that this bit of eating is a problem. It’s not a problem that you need to fix. One off-plan meal or food doesn’t need to be “fixed.” Also, using exercise to burn calories robs you of the pleasure of using exercise for positive self-care. Exercise should be an intentional act that promotes your sense of wellness, strength and empowerment.
- Reframe self-care to focus on ways to be loving towards yourself. Journaling and habit tracking can be beneficial here. Months and months of journal entries reflect on all the good decisions I made and let me know that one misstep doesn’t negate that progress. Look back over old journals and reflect on your progress, then move on. Read more about the benefits of journaling for weight loss. If you’re interested in getting started, you can check out my collection of journals and meal planners).
- Remember that your body does amazing things for you every day. You are eating well and exercising to keep your body healthy, but negative self-talk makes that harder to achieve. Even in your imperfect moments, you and your body still do amazing things each day. Your body’s purpose is not to fit into a perfect size 6; its purpose is to keep you living fully in each moment of today. Try to cultivate a sense of gratitude for your amazing body. Again, journaling can be helpful in this self-reflection. Here are some self-care journal prompts to get you started.
Self-care and positive thinking take practice, so be kind to yourself if you stumble along the way. Get comfortable viewing your actions and the weight loss process as imperfect and full of starts and stops. Once you embrace this idea and let yourself off the hook when you eat one off-plan meal or food, it will be easier to rebound from them.
I rebounded quickly from my sandwich meal and the negative thoughts that came on because of my practice using these strategies. This time, it was a blip on the radar. I’ve created important self-care rituals (rational self-talk, journaling and meal planning) to help me keep my game plan in mind when presented with off-plan food options.
The next time you’re in the grocery store and happen to hear “clean up on aisle 8,” you’ll know it’s me cleaning up my thoughts and embracing my imperfection.
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