Throughout the Second Nature programme, we discuss a range of distorted thoughts and how these can impact on our relationship with food. You will find a list of these at the end of this article.
Below is an exercise to help you reflect on some of these distortions and encourage you to think about how you can replace them with a more balanced viewpoint.
- Pick one distorted thought from below which resonates with you the most
- Briefly describe the distorted thought in your own words and include an example of how it affects you (e.g. ‘All or nothing’ thinking: eating one slice of cake at a birthday party and just giving up completely for the rest of the day)
- Finally, describe how you have (or how you could) overcome this distorted thought (e.g. after eating the one slice of cake, you think “I enjoyed that slice of cake, but this doesn’t mean that all of my healthy eating habits have been ruined”)
By understanding and recognising these thoughts, you can use this knowledge to improve your decision making around your lifestyle choices, both now and in the future. One of the key points to remember about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and addressing distorted thoughts is that, like any exercise, with practice, you’ll improve.
The 10 distorted thoughts we explored in the programme are listed below:
1. All or nothing
All or nothing thinking is when we see things purely in black or white. These types of thoughts are characterised by terms like ‘every’, ‘always’, or ‘never’. Everything is seen as good or bad, or a success or failure. You might be saying:
✗ I have to lose all of this extra weight, it’s no use just losing some
✗ What’s the use of walking for 10 minutes – I need to get very sweaty for exercise to count
✗ If I eat one ‘bad’ food I might as well go all the way
✗ I can never resist chocolate
✗ I am either ‘good’ or ‘bad’
Not too many things in life are purely black and white. Try thinking in shades of grey, which means thinking somewhere in between:
✓ If I only lose 5% of my current body weight, my risk for lifestyle diseases like type 2 diabetes will greatly decrease
✓ A gym workout would be great, but walking around the block is a good start and always better than nothing. Besides, exercise is really about feeling better and improving both my health and my mood.
✓ I may have eaten too much this morning, but I can still eat a balanced lunch and dinner
2. Emotional reasoning
We often take our feelings to be truths about ourselves and these feelings can hamper our progress:
✗ I feel like a loser… when I go to the gym I can hardly do anything. I am staying home.
✗ I feel like the biggest failure in the world
✗ I feel so stressed – I need to eat
Ask yourself some questions about those feelings and remember: 'Don’t believe everything you feel'
✓ What’s a loser? Couldn’t I exercise somewhere else? How will I feel staying home?
✓ Have I failed at everything? Where have I succeeded?
✓ Why would eating make me feel less stressed? What other things might make me feel better?
3. Random rules
Sometimes our distorted ways of thinking creates some interesting random rules:
✗ Eating standing up doesn’t count
✗ Weight loss has to be fast
✗ Weekends and vacations don’t count
✗ If it’s healthy it will taste bad
Combat this with a more scientific approach:
✓ Research has found that if I eat sitting down I'll eat more slowly, feel full sooner, taste and enjoy my food, feel satisfied more easily and lose weight
✓ Rapid weight loss often leads to rapid weight gain back. Slow and steady will win the weight loss race.
✓ No scientific evidence suggests that the human body metabolises food differently on the weekends or vacations
4. Self-deluded thinking
Self-deluded thinking is believing for a moment what you know not to be true:
✗ I ate too much this morning so I might as well keep going because today is a write-off
✗ Right now I don't care about my health, so I'll eat what I want
Sometimes just identifying the distorted thoughts can help to make changes:
✓ I know that eating a bit too much for breakfast doesn't mean the day is a write-off and I can still make balanced choices if I want
✓ I'm deluding myself if I think I don’t care about my health because I know I do. I want to be healthier, so I'll continue following my lifestyle plan.
We can justify a lot of unhealthy eating:
✗ I can eat this because it was given to me as a present
✗ It's ok to eat this because it was free
✗ I should eat as much as I can at the buffet to get my money's worth
✗ t's been a busy day – it's ok to get a takeaway because I don't have time to cook
Try applying mindfulness to change these 'justifications':
✓ Am I just eating these chocolates because I feel guilty that they were gifted to me? Perhaps instead I could re-gift them to someone else to enjoy.
✓ Will this food taste any better because it was free? Rather than eating this food now, I could buy it another time when I really feel like it, meaning I'll enjoy it more.
✓ How will I feel afterwards if I overeat at the buffet? Instead, I could choose foods I genuinely feel like eating and listen to my fullness cues, even if that means leaving food on my plate.
✓ Will it actually be quicker to order a takeaway? In the time it takes to order the takeaway, wait for the food to cook, get it delivered, and eat the food, I would probably have had time to cook a balanced, last-minute meal instead.
6. The reward fallacy
Do you expect your sacrifice and hard work to be rewarded and feel bitter if you aren't rewarded? Have food rewards been a part of your life for so long it's hard to think of any other kind of reward? You may be saying:
✗ I did so well – today I deserve a treat
✗ I have lost 25 pounds – I deserve something sweet
Surveying what others do to reward themselves may give you some new ideas:
✓ I do deserve a treat, but this doesn’t have to be food-based. My friend treats himself by going to watch his football/rugby team play. I'll go watch my favourite sports team.
✓ Weight loss does deserve credit, but it doesn't have to be sweets. My sister treats herself to bubble baths – I'll try that.
7. Should statements
Should statements are full of pressure and can generate feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, disappointment, and guilt if not followed:
✗ I should be able to manage my food intake
✗ My family should be understanding and should not push food on me
✗ I should go to the gym
Replace the word ‘should’ with a more realistic word:
✓ I will learn to manage my food intake
✓ My family don’t understand and will push food on me until I firmly say no. I can help them understand how to support me.
✓ I don't like to go to the gym. I'll find some type of movement that I do like.
8. Dwelling on the negatives
Just as the name says, this distorted thought is all about negative thinking:
✗ I'm overwhelmed – I give up.
✗ I didn’t lose weight this week – it’s not fair
✗ This is too difficult
✗ My family will just sabotage my efforts
Sometimes the answer to negative thinking is to flip it to a more positive or more realistic statement:
✓ I'm overwhelmed, but I know this is all worth it, so there's no use giving up. With practice I can do this.
✓ I didn’t lose weight this week, but I know I made good choices and can feel proud of myself
✓ This is difficult, but I'm learning and getting better at it over time
✓ I'll ask my family to stop sabotaging my efforts
9. Overly positive fortune telling
Hope of a better future is important to our overall health, but overly positive fortune telling doesn't consider the more likely outcomes. Statements such as the following can get in the way of your good intentions:
✗ It doesn’t matter if I eat this, I’ll make up for it later
✗ I’ll just have one more biscuit and then I’ll stop
✗ I’ve kept this journal for 2 weeks now – I can do without it
A good way to counteract overly positive fortune telling is to conduct a small personal experiment, or recall how things really turned out in the past:
✓ I'll eat this food now and see if I really do make up for it later. If I don’t, I'll learn from this.
✓ How many times have I stopped at one more biscuit? So what makes me think this time is different? Why take the risk?
✓ Every other time I've stopped writing my journal I've gained weight. This time I'll keep going, because it works.
10. Exaggerated thinking
We can certainly make situations seem much worse than they are with exaggerated or catastrophic thinking:
✗ I can’t stand being hungry, I have to eat the first thing I find right now
✗ The only thing that reduces my stress is food – I need to eat chips
Exaggerated thinking can be moderated by the ‘what if’ technique:
✓ What if I don’t eat immediately? What if I waited until got home to have my home-cooked meal?
✓ What if I tried something else to reduce stress? What if I tried a walk just this once to see if it helps?