Clean your thoughts not your plate.

I imagine that many people would have healthier relationships with their bodies and food if the message instilled at the family dinner table wasn’t, “You can leave the table when your plate is clean”.

We are often our own worst enemies when it comes to negative self talk.   Not only do we beat ourselves up mercilessly with thoughts like, “I’m fat, ugly, not smart enough”, we also have automatic thoughts, right below the level of consciousness that sabotage our efforts at weight loss, i.e., “I’m tired, I need some chocolate to make it through the meeting”, or “I don’t care; it won’t matter anyway”.   Some overweight adults still hear mom saying “Good girls clean their plate.”

In my first blog, I mentioned the three questions I encourage my clients to ask themselves repeatedly–what am I thinking, what am I feeling, and what is it I REALLY need right now?   Here’s how we use the tool at the Center for Thoughtful Weight Loss.  Yesterday, a weight loss client came in and said it was her husband’s birthday. I asked how they’ll celebrate, knowing special occasions have meant relapse in the past, not just extra calories for one meal.  “We’ve decided to have a healthy meal at home because it’s the best present we can give each other.  No need for wine or dessert.  It’ll be a simple delicious meal with some presents on the table.”  A big component of her success is planning ahead for situations that derailed her efforts in the past.  She has a two week training coming up out of town this summer for work.  Her plan is to bring an extra suitcase filled with healthy food choices.  She chose a hotel that is $30.00 extra per night, but has a full kitchen and a gym. Her intention is very clear– “Traveling and the stress of a two week business trip will not sabotage me.”.  While away, she’ll continue to talk with her diet buddy for support and problem-solving. She’ll schedule a phone therapy session with me to talk about grief issues that have sabotaged her for years, but only recently have been addressed without using food to numb out.

She brought in a surf board necklace (see last week’s blog about surfer dude) as a reminder to stay present so that she can catch her insidious sabotaging thoughts and correct them with self honoring, helpful thoughts.  In cognitive behavioral therapy we think about helpful vs harmful thoughts, behaviors, and social interactions.  When we identify the sabotaging thoughts or what David Burns (author of the best selling self help book Feeling Good calls cognitive distortions), we have the opportunity to change our thoughts and self talk to accurate, realistic, and helpful thoughts, resulting in choices that
are in our best interests.

Here are some examples of sabotaging thoughts and helpful, accurate responses.  You can see which ones help people remain on plan and which lead to more eating to cover up feelings of sadness, worry, boredom, loneliness, anger, shame, and guilt.

ST  (sabotaging thought): ” It’s okay to have cookies in the cabinet- they’re for treats.”
HR ( helpful response):  “I need to accept that having unhealthy food choices around is testing myself beyond my ability to resist temptation.  It’s a mistreat not a treat the way I eat these cookies.”

ST: ” I don’t have to track all my calories – it’s too time consuming”.
HR:  “Not tracking keeps me from having consistent weight loss – it’s the # 1 tool of successful maintainers.”

ST : ” Things are hard; I deserve  this double cheeseburger.”                           HR :  “Things will  still be hard if I give in to this temptation.  Resisting will build up my confidence-I’ll call my friend, John; he’s a great listener, and I need some support and encouragement tonight.”

Sometimes we have to peel the layers of the onion to get to the thought that leads to the emotion that results in overeating.  Sometimes we need help figuring out what the hot thought is and what we need in that moment.

Next week’s blog will address our feelings and ways to self soothe without food.

Ellen is a psychotherapist in private practice in San Francisco and Redwood City, California. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and incorporates the use of mindfulness into the treatment of depression, anxiety, and emotional overeating. She runs a holistic weight loss program called Center for Thoughtful Weight Loss,

Feel free to email Ellen at  if you’d like help figuring out What’s Eating You.

Check out HealthyWage, the website that pays you to be healthy!

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