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Counting More Than Calories: Factoring in Months and Years

Those who understand "change is a process" do best avoiding the "holiday seven"

As we near our most weight-challenging season, I think about those who manage to navigate without gaining a “holiday seven”…..especially, those who now move through the feasts and parties and candies and dips without regaining. There’s useful advice to be found in the media, on planning ahead, lightening traditional foods, taming stress. A factor often neglected in weight discussions, though, is time. Those who make lasting habit changes usually have come to appreciate the role of time. And this sticks with them throughout even the challenging periods.

In contrast to lose-it-quick dieters, people who grasp the time factor might note something like, “It’s taken me 27 years to put the pounds on…..I guess it might take two to get if off.” Whether they know it or not, they’re confirming the idea that “change is a process.” And that time-limited dieting will never lead to the kind of day-in, day-out, year-in, year-out, habits and attitudes that maintain thinner physiques.

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The “change as a process” idea first emerged in the 1980s, when Drs. James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente described a model of how we change major habits—such as quitting smoking or eating differently. They outlined a “stages of change” model on how change happens and “sticks.” The process begin with precontemplation, when we’re not even concerned about changing. It moves to contemplation, when we start to think about how we want or should change. Next, preparation starts: when we gather information, consciously or unconsciously ponder the change, practice in our minds what we might do and how we might feel. Then we enter action, actually doing some things differently. When we’ve acted differently (not smoking, cutting out junk food, etc.) often enough—and how long varies a great deal—we enter a maintenance phase, where we continue what we’ve been doing so that it eventually keeps happening with less effort. At last we’ve established an enduring new habit.

As any overeater knows, this process can indeed take time. What feels like “action”—for example, repeated stabs at dieting—can even prove after all to be part of a long “preparation”. During these efforts, again consciously or not, we’re learning what works, what doesn’t and what really needs to be given up for a lasting adjustment. What this model tells us, in the end, is that we need to keep trying even if efforts at first don’t succeed. For as we struggle, something helpful may still be happening that sets the stage for the ultimate change. In the years since this model first came to us, the science of habit change has repeatedly confirmed its usefulness.

The holiday temptations and triggers become more manageable once the idea of change fits into this bigger picture. Susan Avery, writing in More magazine says “What I realized is that I had changed what was in my head,” on learning to live as a thin person. That means saying “no thanks” more often. It means cutting back once you realize a pound or two’s crept back. It means, in short, thinking of yourself as a person who manages weight always, over all seasons, over years, including inevitable harder times.

“Change is a process”, “It’ll take the time it takes”, “I’m in this for the long run”—these are all mantras to add to the holiday eating survival guide.

Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, eating disorder specialist and diet coach. Her website offers tools for lifelong freedom from weight issues.

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