Book Review: "The Beck Diet Solution: Train Your Brain to Think Like a Thin Person"

Tuesday, May 8, 2007 - 9:59am

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

Judith Beck has a knack for hitting a person square in the soft underbelly of their soul. When I began reading The Beck Diet Solution, I didn't really think her approach would apply to me. After all, I have been studying and practicing nutrition and fitness for several years; I've maintained a fifty pound weight loss for a decade; and most of the time my diet is more on the spinach than the Snickers bars end of the spectrum. Nevertheless, on the particular spring afternoon I cracked open Dr. Beck's new book, I was enduring a post-chocolate Easter eggs hangover. And on the second page of chapter one, Beck sucker-punched my psyche.

The Common Link

People who struggle with their weight, says Beck, all have one thing in common: They don't know how to think like a thin person - their behavior, mindset, lifestyle, and habits all sabotage their best intentions. For example, she writes, people often have thoughts such as "I know I shouldn't eat this, but I don't care", or "It's okay if I eat [this food] just this one time." Urk! Busted with chocolate egg wrappers and a devil-may-care attitude!

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Something that has long puzzled me, both as a fitness trainer and devotee of the good life, is why people (including myself) sabotage themselves. Why do some people succeed at making permanent life changes while others seem stuck in a rut? What prompts people to alter the course of their lives for good, or to figure out long-term solutions to perplexing problems? One method of enabling change that is both relatively rapid and yet durable, says Beck, is cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

As it turns out, Beck is the daughter of the man who revolutionized mental health care with CBT, Dr. Aaron Beck. Dr. Beck Senior perfected his methods on people suffering from depression; Dr. Beck Junior now turns her attention towards people struggling with healthy eating and weight loss.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Weight Loss

Fundamentally, CBT is about providing people the means, tools, and strategies to identify problems and solve them. For example, says Beck, common challenges for people trying to eat better include lack of time (or the perception of lack of time), bad habits like noshing in front of the television, using food for comfort and stress relief, and not wanting to offend hosts at parties or servers in restaurants when they offer tempting treats. Beck also points out that many people are trapped in a vicious cycle: They are triggered to eat poorly, they do so, they feel badly, their hope for success is dampened, they begin to lose faith in their ability to manage their weight, and they are eventually triggered to eat again, thus confirming their own negative self-assessment.

Thus, says Beck, good intentions and willpower will only take a dieter so far. After the enthusiasm of the first few days, people need knowhow, preparation, and pragmatism, as well as the ability to confront and work through the inevitable difficulties that ensue. A very helpful concept that appears throughout the book is the idea of two metaphoric "muscles": A "resistance muscle" that helps people stay in control and make good choices; and a "giving-in muscle" that enables people to do and eat things that they shouldn't. (Honest, it wasn't me that was responsible for those Easter eggs - it was my Chuck-Norris-esque giving-in muscle!) Think about which muscle you want to strengthen, says Beck: Each time you use one or the other, it gets stronger.

The Lean Person's Thoughts on Eating

The book opens with an explanation of how people who maintain a healthy weight think. Dispelling the myth that leaner people are some genetically gifted or morally virtuous subset of humanity, Beck points out that most folks who maintain a normal weight despite the pressures and temptations of a 21st century lifestyle simply think a little differently. For instance, people who stay lean are able to correctly judge how hungry they are and eat enough to be satisfied but not enough to be stuffed; they don't regard being a bit hungry as an emergency requiring immediate attention; and they have realistic ideas about how much they do and should eat. Most importantly, perhaps, they don't feel a sense of entitlement about food - they don't feel as though they are owed the right to eat with abandon and without consequences.

The Beck Diet Solution Tools

Most of the book consists of a multi-week, day-by-day plan for breaking out of a self-sabotaging mindset. There are little goals, checklists, to-do tasks, and explanations of why these strategies work.

One of the handiest ideas is using reminder cards. We've all been in situations where we needed to be reminded of promises we made to ourselves. The luckier or cleverer ones among us instructed friends to talk us down whenever we got ideas such as investing in pyramid schemes, buying a mustard taffeta ballerina gown, dating men with no fixed address, or playing drinking games. The same concept applies here: Beck has her clients write down little notes to themselves, both to articulate the reasons they want to achieve their weight loss goals, and for mental reinforcement when clients are tempted to barge face-first into a plate of cheese puffs. Then they keep the notes handy for reminding themselves, confronting temptation, and staying on track.

A feature of the book that I particularly enjoyed was observing Beck's techniques "in action". Beck includes some transcripts of therapy sessions with clients, to show how clients were able to work through their negative self-talk and end up with a different view of things. My favourite among these is Beck's role playing with a client named Maggie who is afraid of going to the beach because she feels she is too fat. After Beck pretends to be another heavy bystander on the beach and has Maggie observe her, Maggie realizes that in fact, nobody is really paying attention and that she can hit the beach and enjoy herself. (I may steal this tip for my clients who are afraid of going to the gym as beginners.)

Thinking That Goes Beyond Weight

This book is a valuable text not just as a handy guide to accomplishing weight loss goals (which it succeeds at admirably, I think) but also as a point of entry into the larger approach of CBT. After reading this book, I found ways that CBT-style problem solving could be useful in other areas of life. I wrote myself reminders about not working too much, and I started spotting and confronting my own self-sabotaging habits and thoughts. Thus far, I'm happy to report, I haven't had another chocolate egg tummyache!