Think Thin To Get Thin

At 5 feet 3 and 116 pounds, Judith Beck doesn't look like a threat to anyone. But America's junk-food peddlers should be afraid—very afraid—of this gentle, soft-spoken psychologist. Her new book, "The Beck Diet Solution," could help dieters swear off their Doritos once and for all. That's because it's perhaps the best diet book ever to focus on the psychology of permanent weight loss. In short, it doesn't tell you what foods to eat or avoid. Instead, it tells you how to stick to a healthy eating plan of your own choice—for good—by changing the way you talk to yourself when confronted with temptation, cravings and the inevitable dietary lapses. Beck spoke with NEWSWEEK's Anne Underwood. Excerpts:

UNDERWOOD: How did you develop this plan?
BECK: It's based on cognitive therapy, which my father, Dr. Aaron Beck, developed in the 1960s as a treatment for depression. Since then, CT has also been used for anxiety, substance abuse, insomnia and many other problems. It helps you recognize and change self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. I began using it for weight loss 20 years ago with several psychiatric patients who also wanted to lose weight. Using CT, I've lost 15 pounds myself and kept it off for more than 10 years.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, "I can resist everything except temptation." How do you learn?
On the first day, you write on a card a list of the reasons why you want to lose weight. Note how important each reason is to you. You will read that card twice a day for a very long time to rehearse these ideas. Later, when you're tempted by a chocolate-chip cookie, you can say, "I want that cookie, but I would rather lose weight and be healthier, feel better, wear a size 10"—whatever your reasons are.

You say never to eat standing up. Why not?
Food we eat standing is usually food that we didn't plan to eat. We fill up on snacks at parties, take free samples in the grocery store, nibble as we prepare meals, sneak bits of food from someone else's plate as we clear the dinner dishes. I call it impulse eating. We consume more calories than we realize this way.

How do you keep from feeling deprived?
What works for me personally is to allow myself 150 to 300 calories a day of whatever I want, but I limit it to after dinner. It's easy to say "no" if I know I can have it later. People have so many excuses. They eat because they're happy, they're sad, they're tired, it's a party, everyone else is eating it, it's free, a few bites won't matter. But every time you give in, you make it more likely that you'll give in again in the future. By contrast, every time you resist, you make it more likely that you'll resist in the future. Which habit do you want to strengthen—giving in or resisting?

What if you have a strong craving for a snack?
It's important to distinguish between hunger and craving. Sometimes you just ate a solid dinner, but an hour later you want a snack. That couldn't possibly be hunger. If you distract yourself—say, by calling a friend or going for a walk—the craving will go away. The more often you wait out your cravings, the less intense and less frequent they will become.

You say to eat "mindfully." What does that mean?
Eat slowly and pay attention to what you're eating. When you eat slowly, your brain has more time to register that you're full. Also, when you notice and enjoy every mouthful, you feel more satisfied. As an exercise, try eating several meals without reading, watching TV or using the computer. Once it becomes a habit for you to savor every bite, you can add other activities back in.

How long does it take to change your way of thinking about food?
The book includes 42 tasks and skills—one a day for six weeks. There are also exercises at the end of each chapter to increase your resolve and learn to recognize and deal with sabotaging thoughts. I know a dieter will succeed when she goes from saying "I want that cookie" to saying "I'm so glad I didn't eat it." The good news is, it gets easier over time.