Over the past few weeks, my dieter, Karen, and I have been working on strategies to help her stay in control when she eats out.  Meeting friends for meals is a large part of Karen’s social life, and she has found that over the years, eating out has been a contributing factor to her steady weight gain.  When Karen first came to see me, she was feeling somewhat hopeless and asked me whether or not she should just stop eating out entirely. I assured Karen that she wouldn’t need to stop eating out as long as she was able to learn and practice skills that would enable her to eat out without losing control. I also assured Karen that I felt confident that she would be able to achieve this goal, as long as she put in the time and effort, and persevered.  After some trial and error and with lots of practice, Karen and I were able to come up with an “Eating Out Protocol” which successfully enabled her to stay in control when she ate out.  Here is some of what it entails:

1. If possible, always look up the restaurant’s menu online before I go and determine ahead of time what I’m going to eat and drink. If I’m going to a friend’s house, call and ask what will be served beforehand, and plan accordingly.

2. Read my Advantages List and Response Cards before I leave the house.

3. At the restaurant, don’t tempt myself by opening the menu.

4. When I’m ordering, make sure to request for the food to be prepared in the way I want it.

5. When I get my food, immediately portion off how much I’m going to eat and either push the rest aside or get it wrapped up.

6. Make an effort to eat slowly and mindfully and really enjoy the experience.

7. If I feel tempted to eat or drink more than I had planned, go to the restroom and read my Response Cards again.

With these strategies, Karen has made great strides in staying in control at restaurants.

At our session earlier this week, Karen explained a new struggle she’s experiencing: While it’s become easier and easier for Karen to remain in control at restaurants, the moment she gets home, she tends to “lose it” and ends up overeating. This, Karen explained, has caused her distress.

I reassured Karen that what she is experiencing is normal and happens to many dieters.  We call it the “Hangover Effect,” which refers to a situation in which dieters are able to stick to their plan well and remain in control when eating out, and then, due to sabotaging thoughts that affect their eating, lose control once they get home. In order to help Karen combat the Hangover Effect, we first examined a specific situation that had occurred in the previous week: Karen had eaten out at a Mexican restaurant with two friends, stayed in control, and then came home and ended up giving in to cravings for ice cream, cereal, and crackers.

I asked Karen if she could identify what sabotaging thoughts she had that night, and Karen responded that the strongest one was, “I was so good at dinner and didn’t have any of the tortilla chips and salsa, and no dessert, so I deserve to eat extra now.”  First, I reminded Karen that her body has no idea what she didn’t eat, it only knows what she did eat.  So even though Karen passed up a lot of food at the restaurant, she still ate a reasonable portion of food. Since Karen’s goal is to lose weight and keep it off, it was then unreasonable for her to eat more, even though it might initially seem otherwise.  Karen and I discussed this idea further and she made the following Response Cards:

It’s so important and so great that I stayed in control at the restaurant, but it’s equally important that I stay in control at home, too.  It’s the only way I’ll reach my goals.

My body doesn’t know or care how much I didn’t eat when I was out, it only knows how much I did eat, so I can’t eat extra now that I’m home.

Karen and I also discussed what might be helpful for her to do and say to herself once she gets home. I asked her if she can think of anything that’s been particularly helpful, and she replied that drinking a cup of hot tea as soon as she gets home has helped her to relax and unwind.  Since having her Eating Out Protocol has been helpful for Karen, we decided to devise a “When I get Home” protocol so that she could continue her success at home.  Here is what Karen’s “When I get Home Protocol” looks like:

1. Before I go out to eat, put a tea bag in a mug and place it on my table, along with my Response Cards.

2. When I get home: Go to the kitchen and read my Response Cards while I make my tea.

3. Take my tea upstairs and don’t go back into the kitchen until morning.

I also reminded Karen that it took time and practice for her to be able to stay in control when she ate out, so it would likely be the same for this problem, too.  Karen told me that, armed with these strategies and with the mindset that she would do her best and keep practicing, she felt much better and more confident in her ability to overcome the Hangover Effect.