In dieting, setbacks are part of the process

Published Feb. 24, 2012

'How do I deal with setbacks?"

That's the question that a wise patient recently posed. She was in the early stages of therapy, working on the psychological barriers keeping her from losing weight and keeping it off. After years of unsuccessful rigid dieting, she was fed up with the physical and emotional roller coaster of weight loss and regain.

My patient was smart enough to realize that although she was doing well, at some point she would face a stumbling block. Fear rose in her at the thought of how she usually responded to setbacks. Her typical pattern was to panic and ultimately give up.

"I've gotten off track and now I've failed. What's the use?" she would say to herself after feeling she had ruined her perfect diet plan. Her therapy with me was her last resort, she thought. If she couldn't handle the next setback, it would be a truly dismal failure on her part and the end of all her hope. Understandably, the thought terrified her.

The typical dieter thinks of setbacks as times when they stray from a diet plan they believe should be followed perfectly. For example, a dieter following a low carbohydrate diet may believe he should never eat carbs. Then, if he goes to a gathering and ends up eating a burger with the bun and chips, he thinks he's done something terribly wrong. This thinking is usually followed by a series of self-defeating decisions that lead him to give up entirely on his plan. He thinks, "What's the use? I've failed and the whole thing is ruined!"

Most dieters believe that the only way to handle setbacks is to avoid them entirely, almost as if they are huge, powerful monsters over which the dieter has no power.

In reality, setbacks are just life taking its course. No one can have everything in life happen exactly as they wish, all the time. This is especially true when it comes to trying to control what, when and how we eat, and how swiftly we lose weight. The best we can do is to expect that, once in a while, something will not go according to plan. Some days will be tougher than others and the unexpected will happen.

It's not a setback if we view it simply as a part of life to be handled in the most positive way possible. The setback isn't eating too much at a party. The setback is deciding that eating too much that one time was so terrible, you're going to give up entirely on your healthy diet.

It's important to let go of all-or-nothing, perfectionist thinking and judgment. This kind of approach will only stymie creativity the next time you run into a snag. It's creative problem-solving that makes us better at dealing with snags in the future.

Encountering snags makes you more skilled at handling them. Rather than viewing challenges as setbacks, see them as opportunities to deal with life more effectively.

Lavinia Rodriguez, Ph.D., is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Barriers to Weight Management." She can be reached through her website: