Dieting Dilemmas: Dichotomous Thinking
By Melissa Horowitz, PsyD
Why is it that whenever we try to lose weight, we can’t help but think about and crave foods that weight-loss experts discourage us from eating, such as french-fries, ice cream, pizza, and potato chips? The answer is that it’s hard to avoid eating foods that we are accustomed to…and enjoy. Getting derailed from making healthy food choices is easy to blame on lack of physical self-control. But did you know that our thoughts can influence our behaviors? “Just this once and I’ll start my diet tomorrow;” “I can’t control myself around food;” “I’m fat and will always be fat;” “Dieting never works for me” — sound familiar? Cognitive behavior therapists often refer to this type of thinking error among dieters as “dichotomous thinking,” which means a tendency to think in extreme ways, such as viewing issues or ideas as black and white or in all-or-nothing terms.
How do you know if you are a dichotomous thinker when it comes to dieting? Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I set up rigid dieting rules for myself?
- Do I give up on my weight-loss goals altogether after eating non-diet foods?
- Do I label foods as good vs. bad?
- Do I set unrealistic weight-loss goals for myself?
- Do my weight concerns dominate my thinking in ways I or others have identified as being excessive?
If you’ve answered yes to one or more of the above questions, then you may want to consider monitoring your thought patterns regarding food and weight concerns. Look for dichotomous themes in your thinking, and ask yourself how your thoughts affect both your emotional state and your motivation to lose weight. How can you begin to adjust your thinking to align with your desired weight-loss goals? Here are some examples to help you get started:
Dichotomous Thought: “Updating my wardrobe is off limits until I lose weight.”
Emotions: Sad, frustrated, and hopeless
Behavior: Wear “old” clothes that fit poorly and are unflattering
Balanced Response: “It would be nice to lose weight before I buy new clothing; however, I still need to feel good about myself during the weight-loss process. Continuing to buy new articles of clothing as needed is a way of showing that I can continue to live my life fully while aiming to achieve my personal goal.”
Result: Lower pressure to lose weight quickly and greater ability to focus on other aspects of one’s self distinctly separate from weight.
Dichotomous Thought: “If I eat one morsel of a “bad” food such as ice cream on a hot summer day, then I’ll blow my diet!”
Emotion: Anxious and defeated
Behavior: Hypervigilant about eating food in general
Balanced Response: “This is ridiculous. Losing weight doesn’t mean I have to deprive myself of all “bad” foods. If I re-label “bad” to “unhealthy,” then I can begin to practice eating foods that are healthy while still allowing myself to sometimes eat reasonable portions of the “unhealthy” foods that satisfy me.”
Result: Lower anxiety around food and greater willingness to balance nutritionally dense foods with satisfying foods.
Now it’s your turn. Go ahead and give it a try to see if you can convert your dichotomous thoughts into balanced ones as you pursue long-term weight-loss success.