Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Are You a Weight Management “Dry Drunk”?

You may be sabotaging your weight management efforts through negative thoughts, emotions, and behavior.

Soda Fountain Dieter by Stevan Dohanos. ©SEPS

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We are pleased to bring you this regular column by Dr. David Creel, a licensed psychologist, certified clinical exercise physiologist and registered dietitian. He is also credentialed as a certified diabetes educator and the author of A Size That Fits: Lose Weight and Keep it off, One Thought at a Time (NorLightsPress, 2017).

Do you have a weight loss question for Dr. Creel? Email him at [email protected]. He may answer your question in a future column.

Have you ever tried to fake having a good time? Even if it’s only for a few hours while shopping for window coverings with your wife or walking through an antique car show with your husband, it’s hard to pretend you’re having fun when you’re thinking about a dozen other things you’d rather be doing. Now think about something more long-term, like a job or marriage. If your head isn’t into your work or a relationship, you can’t pretend things are wonderful day after day. Your behavior will eventually reveal your discontent.

Weight management is the same. If your thoughts, emotions, and behavior are not in sync you won’t be able to fake your way through it by using willpower or ignoring your true feelings year after year — that just won’t work. How long will you be able to eat healthy if your thoughts are “this diet is for the birds, I wish I could eat real food” or “I just want to eat the way everybody else eats?” Alcohol treatment circles like Alcoholics Anonymous have a name for this type of disconnect between thoughts and behaviors: a dry drunk. It goes something like this:

For many years Pete couldn’t control his drinking. He drank almost every day, much to his wife’s chagrin. Occasionally he white knuckled it for a day or two and didn’t drink, mainly to show his wife he had no problem and could stop anytime he wanted. He sometimes missed work due to hangovers and oversleeping. Recently things escalated as his boss wrote him up for skipping work, and two days later he received his third DWI and went to jail. This time, the judge revoked his driver’s license. Needless to say, Pete’s wife was not happy, knowing she’d be responsible for driving him to and from work and he wouldn’t be able to help take the kids to events. She let him sit in jail for two nights before bailing him out and then gave Pete an ultimatum — quit drinking or the marriage is over.

Not only was Pete getting tough love from his wife, the judge ordered him to alcohol treatment. Getting his license back was possible only if he completed treatment and had clean random urine screens for a prolonged period of time.

How did Pete react to these humiliating events? He got angry. First of all, the cop had no right to pull him over; he was driving fine and just had a broken tail light. From his perspective, no one was in danger. His wife was overreacting as usual — even her own mom agreed she could be too emotional. The judge, well, he was ridiculous. Pete, in his mind, was not like all of the other losers who appeared in court.

Besides the anger, Pete was jealous of his buddies who could seemingly drink without being harassed by a badgering wife, an uptight boss, and overzealous cops looking for a reason to lock people up. But he felt backed into a corner with no other option but to stop drinking so, reluctantly, he did. At the court-mandated AA meeting he sat with arms folded in the back of the room, feeling sorry for himself.

Pete was what we call a dry drunk. Dry in the respect that he wasn’t drinking, a drunk because he still had the thinking patterns of an alcoholic in the throes of denial: a toxic combination of blaming others and rationalization.

What happens with dry drunks? Usually they begin drinking again because their thinking patterns and attitudes have not changed. At some point, a person with Pete’s frame of mind glorifies the freedom to drink while ignoring the potential consequences. He takes the first sip and then finishes the drink. Since he’s already blown it, he has another. Not only has he already screwed up, but the effects of the alcohol are setting in and that feels good, so he keeps drinking, not for one night, but tomorrow, too. This lapse leads to a complete relapse into old patterns of behavior, all but destroying his confidence to give recovery another attempt.

But there is another possibility. In some cases, a dry drunk will change his thinking patterns and remain sober. Possibly, Pete will begin to notice his mind is clearer, he has more energy, and is getting along with his wife better now that he’s sober. He starts to remember why they got together in the first place. He is “present” with his kids and sees what he’s been missing all these years. His 9-year-old daughter is so smart and seems to enjoy having grown-up conversations with him. Shooting baskets with his 11-year-old son is much more rewarding than sitting on the couch drinking and watching TV. He hears the news about a drunk driver killing an entire family in an accident and starts to accept that his behavior could have led to the same terrible result. His buddies’ lives aren’t as great as they once seemed; their marriages and relationships with their kids leave much to be desired. If his positive thoughts about sobriety translate into changed behavior, it’s feasible, even likely, that Pete will stay sober.

People cannot easily overcome alcoholism, and Pete’s scenario shows that staying sober only happens when we align our thinking with our behavior. Changing both thoughts and behavior takes a lot of courage and hard work.

The same goes for managing weight. Over the years, I’ve encountered many weight management dry drunks. These folks follow a diet for a while, but what they really want is to eat whatever they want, whenever they want. Following a diet is akin to serving a prison sentence, and they feel they’re “doing time” for a crime they didn’t commit. They tell themselves, or other people tell them, they must follow a certain eating and exercise regimen. Certain foods are off limits and their choices are non-negotiable.

This constant oversight by the food police, whether themselves or others, can lead to sadness, anger, and jealousy. These feelings are often directed at friends or family members who don’t have to struggle with weight, despite their poor diets and little exercise. Typical thoughts include:

“I don’t know how she stays so thin eating like that—it isn’t fair!”

“I can’t have any pie because this miserable diet doesn’t allow it.”

“I have to get on that boring treadmill to burn more


“What’s the point in going out to dinner if I can’t eat food I like?”

Some of these weight management dry drunks are distressed and saddened by the notion that they can only lose weight by giving up something they love so much — delicious food. Along with these thoughts comes the reality of what will happen if they don’t lose weight:

“My doctor said I can’t have knee surgery until I lose 50 pounds, and I can’t stand this pain.”

“I avoid any building that requires walking up stairs and I’m afraid if I fell I couldn’t get up—so I have to lose weight.”

“I have no choice because I can’t bear the thought of someone having to care for me when I get older. It would take two or three people just to lift me.”

Like Pete, these people feel backed into corners. They don’t really want to change their behavior and often think about the misery associated with dieting, exercise, and paying attention to their weight. They just want to live a “normal” life, but the threat of bad things to come will keep them on track for a while. Yet their heads are not in the game. They are reluctantly meandering away from bad things instead of running toward something they truly desire. Like a child who behaves only to avoid punishment, they are primed to rebel. They secretly look for a way to cheat the system or deceive those who are seemingly in charge.

After losing 20 pounds, Debbie hit a weight plateau. In fact, her weight was starting to creep back up ever so slightly. As we talked about this, she told me she was starting to “rebel.”

“That’s an interesting way to put it,” I said. “Tell me what you mean.”

“Well, I know I have to follow this diet, and knowing I have to makes me want to do just the opposite,” she said.

“Who said you had to follow the diet?”

“Well I guess no one actually said that.” She broke eye contact and looked down at the table.

“Do you feel like our team is pressuring you?”

She leaned forward, placed her elbow on the table, and rested her head in her hand. “No, it’s not you guys,” she said as she ran her fingers side to side above her eyebrow.

“Debbie, you can do whatever you want. You’re free to get up right now, head to Burger King, and order everything on the menu.”

She giggled and then sighed. “I guess you’re right, but it doesn’t feel that way. I tell myself I have to do this. The more I tell myself I have to follow a diet and exercise, the less I want to do it. I start to rebel against my own thoughts. Am I crazy?”

Debbie was not crazy, but she was right about feeling rebellious because of her own thoughts. She made demands on herself that caused her to feel as if she didn’t have a choice. Her compliant self was wagging a finger at her alter ego and saying, “You must eat this and you can’t eat that.” In response, the part of her that didn’t like being told what to do was feeling the urge to flip her the bird, take her I’ll-show-you attitude to a convenience store, and buy a candy bar and a regular, not diet, soda.

This back-and-forth type of thinking is not only exhausting, but can have a powerful effect on attitude — and our attitudes obviously impact our long-term behavior. The only way someone loses weight is to change behavior. We cannot educate our way to a healthier body, think our way to success, or pay our way to weight loss. In the end, it boils down to behavior: The types and amounts of food we eat and the physical activity we perform.

But focusing only on behavior is short-sighted when it comes to long-term weight management. Since most dieters already know about the behavior needed to lose weight, it makes sense to explore how our thoughts and feelings are connected to those behaviors. The following illustration shows that our thoughts, feelings, and behavior are connected, each influencing the other. The arrows between the three concepts are bi-directional which means that:

  • Thinking can impact our behavior, and
  • behavior can change our thinking.
  • Thoughts can change our feelings, and
  • our feelings impact our thoughts.
  • Our feelings can affect behavior, similar to how
  • behavior impacts our feelings.

While working to become a better weight manager, you’ll find it important to identify which of these connections most often gets in your way. Do you need a more structured behavior plan to improve your confidence? Or perhaps your plan is fine, but emotions derail your progress. Perhaps your thinking is the problem — how you interpret life situations leads to stress eating and abandoning your exercise routine. Pete and Debbie showed us how thoughts, feelings, and behavior interact to shape our attitudes                  .


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