Healthy Weight, Healthy Mind: Disputing Your Dysfunctional Beliefs

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.

I hope you agree that it’s a good idea to change thoughts and beliefs that stand between us and weight management. But how can we do it?

The first thing to remember is that thinking is automated. If we do nothing, we continue to think and behave the same way. Changing our thoughts requires practice and persistence. Earlier you read about the ABCs — activating events that lead to beliefs, followed by a consequence, such as an emotion.

One way to practice changing thoughts is to add a D to our ABCs. The D stands for dispute. What are we disputing? We are disputing beliefs that lead to undesirable reactions to situations. Here’s an example:

Activating Event:

Joanie vowed to begin eating better but a co-worker brought her wonderful lemon bars to work on Friday. Joanie ate four of them.


I totally blew it today — I have absolutely no self-control! Since today was a disaster, it doesn’t really matter what we eat for dinner. We might as well order a pizza with extra cheese tonight — and go ahead and add those dessert bread stick thingies too. I can always get back on track at the beginning of next week.

Consequence: Frustrated with herself for not handling the lemon bar situation well, Joanie feels hopeless about managing day-to-day food choices. She loses focus on her goals and overeats for the rest of the weekend.


Let’s look at Joanie’s dysfunctional beliefs and how we can dispute them. Thinking she’d already blown it for the day and had absolutely no self-control are perfect examples of all-or-nothing thoughts that have a tone of failure and hopelessness. The idea that she should go ahead and eat more because she ate too much earlier is emotional reasoning. After having her wallet stolen, would Joanie withdraw money from the bank and set the money on fire? If she accidentally dropped a glass and it broke on her kitchen floor would she break more dishes, because ten broken glasses are the same as one? When a patient describes it-doesn’t-matter feelings, I’m often reminded of the lyrics from my favorite Kenny Wayne Shepherd song. It’s like:

…blue on black, tears on a river, push on a shove, it don’t mean much… whisper on a scream — doesn’t change a thing.

That’s how we feel when emotions run high. But feelings are not reality. The extra calories we eat after a snacking mishap aren’t the same as a whisper on a scream. They matter. More importantly, these beliefs interfere with your ability to handle slips. Thinking this way ultimately continues the diet-relapse cycle. Just as setting money on fire after getting your wallet stolen is illogical, so is continuing to make poor food choices just because you made one poor choice.

The belief I can always get back on track at the beginning of next week is a classic procrastination strategy that gives Joanie permission to think and act irrationally because she’ll start fresh at some time in the future. The procrastination thought helps her feel a little better because she has an obscure plan to get back on track. Procrastinating gives Joanie a little psychological space to forget about messing up earlier, so she can eat the pizza and dessert breadsticks without overwhelming guilt. But if Joanie took time to think rationally about her situation, she’d realize that going off the rails for the entire weekend leads to feelings of regret. So how could Joanie think about the lemon bar incident? Consider these ideas:

Disputing “I’ve already blown it for the today.”

Although I’m not happy about eating the lemon bars, I haven’t ruined my day. That extra 600 calories is a minor contributor to my weight, especially if I eat reasonably the rest of the evening.

Disputing “I have absolutely no self-control.”

That’s not true. I have a lot of self-control in many areas of my life. I often refuse buying things to stay within our budget. I don’t tell people off every time I have a negative thought about them, and when it comes to food, I’ve been making good choices more than not-so-good ones for weeks.

Disputing “It doesn’t matter what I eat for dinner, we might as well order a pizza.”

In actuality what I eat the rest of the evening does matt it only feels like it doesn’t. Making better choices the rest of the day will help me recover from slips more easily in the future. Possibly, Joanie really wants the pizza and dessert breadsticks for dinner. If that is the case, fine, but let that decision arise from rational thoughts that allow her to fully consider the pros and cons. The pizza meal should be her conscious choice, not an emotional reaction.

Disputing “I can always get back on track at the beginning of next week.”

Hold on, that isn’t a recovery plan — it’s a sneaky way of giving myself permission to stay on a path I’ll regret later. What can I do right now to get back on track? I’ll take a five-minute walk and think about the best way to handle food choices for the rest of the day.

The last part of the ABCs (and now D), is to add E. E reminds us to evaluate. At this stage, we examine how facing dysfunctional beliefs about weight management will change our emotions, and then alter our behavior in a positive way.

Did thinking different about a situation help calm your feelings?

Did you behave in a different way, with less drama and a better outcome?

If you’ve already begun reacting to situations in a more sensible, thoughtful way, then the thought changing exercises are working. If not, don’t feel discouraged. Take time to examine which thoughts are still holding you back. Remember that emotions are not a switch we turn on and off. Even if we begin thinking differently, our emotions can linger awhile. Just because you recognize something isn’t true doesn’t mean you immediately stop reacting emotionally to the initial thought. Combining the thought restructuring exercises above with deep breathing or moderate exercise may help settle your emotions.