The End of the Yo-Yo

Bala Cynwyd’s Dr. Judith Beck unravels the up-down cycle of dieting.

Dr. Judith Beck of Bala Cynwyd, author of At the start of 2009, Oprah divulged a not-so-shocking mea culpa to her millions of viewers: She’d lost the battle of the bulge. Again.

Since the show’s inception, her ups and downs have been a popular topic—and understandably so. After all, if an on-air billionaire with a fleet of personal trainers, chefs and assistants at her disposal can’t keep the weight off, we shouldn’t feel so bad about our own struggles with the scale, right?

Wrong, says Dr. Judith Beck. The reason dieters—including Oprah—aren’t able to keep off the pounds is because they’ve never acquired the skills necessary for permanent weight loss. This past January—just in time to honor those New Year’s resolutions—the New York Times best-selling author and weight-loss expert released her second diet book, The Complete Beck Diet for Life: The Five-Stage Program for Permanent Weight Loss (Oxmoor House, 288 pages). Beck, a psychologist and the director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in Bala Cynwyd, has devised a plan that institutes signature cognitive therapy tools.

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“Most programs just tell you what to eat and what not to eat, but studies show that this is simply not enough,” says Beck. “The difficult part of a diet is sticking to it.”

Beck is the daughter of Aaron T. Beck, the father of cognitive therapy, which research has found to be remarkably effective in treating depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance abuse and a whole range of psychiatric problems. “The idea behind cognitive therapy is that the way we think about things influences how we feel about things and what we do,” she says.

If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve probably slimmed down and felt great about it. Then, for whatever reason, you slipped back into your old eating patterns, and the pounds returned. As a wise dietician once said, “Don’t say you lost weight, because that implies you’re trying to find it.”

Beck’s five-step program outlines ways to stay motivated, overcome emotional and binge eating, and jump back on the wagon when you’ve fallen off. As she often points out, there’s nothing miraculous about weight loss. Yet people scour diet books and fitness magazines for ways to get thinner without exerting much effort or sacrificing their favorite foods.

“There are no magic diets,” says Beck. “It’s all calories in and calories out. But if you don’t have really healthy calories, your body is going to rebel, and you’re going to gain weight. If you don’t include your favorite foods, psychologically you’re going to rebel and gain weight back, also.”

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The Complete Beck Diet for Life is unique in the way that it teaches dieters to motivate themselves with a healthy daily eating plan geared toward the lifelong goal of permanent weight loss. Giving into sabotaging thoughts is what keeps people from losing weight, says Beck. Such thinking nudges dieters toward food they never planned to eat, with reasoning like, “It’s OK to eat this because I had a bad day at work and I deserve it” or “I’m too stressed-out to diet.”

Beck’s cognitive approach shows readers how to identify and effectively talk back to self-defeating thoughts. A co-worker brings cookies to the office, and you say to yourself, “I want one—everyone else is having one.” You can eat the cookie, or combat the sabotaging thought by saying to yourself, “Yes, the cookies look delicious, but I’d rather stick to my eating plan and be thinner.”

Cognitive therapy “helps people identify their unhealthful thinking and change it so they can behave in a more healthful way,” says Beck.

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Name a diet, and Barbara Nelson has probably tried it. From Weight Watchers to Atkins to cabbage and soup, nothing ever resulted in permanent weight loss. Then she picked up Beck’s 2007 book, The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person, and discovered a component she hadn’t seen emphasized in any other plan: the mind. “I’d never heard of a diet book that focuses on the way you think about eating,” says the 50-something Nelson. “It was like a lightning bolt going off.”

Diet for Life expands on The Beck Diet Solution by providing a food plan with meal suggestions, recipes and a sample strength-training workout. Beck collaborated with a registered dietician to help fine-tune the plan based on the eating choices of her most successful clients.

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Since instituting Beck’s steps into her daily routine a year ago, Nelson has kept off the 75 pounds she lost. “At my heaviest, I was 210 pounds just fitting into a size 18,” she says. “Today, I’m 135 pounds, and I’m in a size 6.”

When she first started the diet, Nelson thought it was going to be too difficult. “After I let go of the resistance to what I perceived to be too much work—like planning out meals in advance—and changed my way of thinking through response cards, it became a part of my daily routine,” she says.

Many blame themselves for diets that haven’t worked in the past. Meanwhile, says Beck, no one ever taught them how to diet the right way. “If you wanted to play a beautiful piece of music, you wouldn’t expect to sit down at the piano and play it perfectly for the first time,” she says. “You know that you’d have to take lessons and practice, and that it would get easier and easier. It’s the same with dieting.”

Most of us can lose some weight by restricting our eating for a time, but almost everyone gains it back. “They don’t know what to do when their lives get busy or stressed, or they don’t feel like doing it anymore,” says Beck. “To be a successful dieter and maintainer, you have to learn to follow a highly nutritious diet, use good eating habits, and refrain from eating food you haven’t planned in advance to eat. To accomplish these three objectives, you have to learn to change your thinking.”

Often, fatal flaws lie in the diets themselves, which are too low in calories. “This is unbelievable deprivation,” she says. “And it doesn’t need to be that way.”

Under Beck’s plan, dieters use a formula to figure out how many calories they should start with—a figure never less than 1,600. “Many diets start at 1,200 calories, and people can follow that for a few days or weeks, or even for a couple years,” says Beck. “Then they always go up to about 1,600 calories minimum. So what’s the sense of ever doing 1,200 calories and depriving yourself that way? It’s so demoralizing.”

Another common drawback of many diets is that they eliminate certain foods. “So, of course, once people go off their diet,” says Beck, “they’re going to go back to their favorites.”

With Beck’s plan, “you get anywhere from 150 to 200 bonus calories a day to spend any way you want,” she says. “It’s not realistic to think that people are going to stay away from their favorite foods for the rest of their lives.”

Crucial to the success of Beck’s Diet for Life is strengthening your resistance muscle. “Every time you eat something you hadn’t planned—even if it’s a few cookie crumbs—you strengthen your giving-in muscle, which makes it more likely that next time you’ll give in,” says Beck. “But every time you resist something you’re not supposed to eat, you’re strengthening your resistance muscle.”

“People get fooled,” adds Beck. “When you start to diet, it seems easy because you’re motivated and you see the scale going down quickly—but you’re losing water weight.”

What dieters don’t realize is that it gets harder for everyone. So it’s important to constantly remind yourself why you want to lose the weight, whether it’s to fit into those size-8 jeans or to get off your blood pressure medication.

“Permanent weight loss is possible,” says Beck. “If you have the skills and you’ve prepared yourself for the hard times, then you know exactly what to do to get through them and maintain your new weight for life. By changing your thinking, you can make permanent changes in your eating, your weight, your self-esteem and your health.”

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Tips and Encouragement from Dr. Judith Beck

• If you compare yourself with non-dieters or non-maintainers, you’ll feel resentful. Measure yourself against successful dieters and maintainers, and you’ll feel better and be more successful.
• It’s a biological impossibility for your weight to go down every day.
• The hungrier you are, the slower you should eat. Eating quickly—which may be your first instinct—will leave you feeling unsatisfied and hungry.
• Set a goal to lose just 5 pounds and then, once you reach that goal, ask if it’s reasonable to lose another 5—and so on.
• Avoid turning a relapse into a catastrophe. Give yourself credit for catching yourself and committing to do everything possible to regain control of your eating.

5 “Think Thin” Stages for Permanent Weight Loss

1. Skills Plan: How to motivate yourself, curb cravings and get back on track immediately when you slip.
2. Initial Eating Plan: With its numerous choices and bonus calories.
3. Plan for Challenging Situations: How to cope with challenging situations like traveling and stress while dieting.
4. Lifetime Eating Plan: How to tailor your diet to fit your needs so you stay on it for life.
5. Motivation-for-Life Plan: The skills required to keep your motivation up and running.

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