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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Visualize to avoid overeating

By Charles Stuart Platkin

Despite our best intentions, when it comes to weight loss and healthful habits, we all have our weak moments — those times we always slip up, no matter how determined we are. Yours might be eating at restaurants, snacking at work or overeating when under stress. How can you combat these "uncomfortable" eating situations?

Well, the Olympics got me thinking that we can learn a lot from how elite athletes overcome adversity.

Almost all world-class athletes practice mental rehearsal. Ever hear the expression "practice makes perfect?"

The concept is to rehearse an upcoming event — in your mind. "You're basically using imagery to trick your brain into having an experience you didn't actually have," says Shane Murphy, a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University and former sports psychologist to the U.S. Olympic team.

Skiers imagine each run down the slope, perfectly executing every turn in order to "train" their bodies to do the same when they compete. "For an athlete it's like having an instant 'preplay' — seeing the event and practicing (including fixing mistakes), all before it happens — to avoid making the big mistakes on the field," says Jim Afremow, a sports physiologist at the Athletes' Performance Center in Tempe, Ariz.

So why not use those same techniques to show yourself what it will feel like to be free of a particular overeating shackle?


You don't have to physically practice standing in the buffet line at your best friend's wedding to learn how to turn down fattening food. Instead, rehearse the scenario in your mind so, rather than eating the triple-layer chocolate supreme cake with ice cream, you can revise the ending.

"We train athletes to anticipate their reaction to negative situations, so they are able to create a positive outcome. For instance, a skater falling in mid-session, a soccer player playing in inclement weather or a sprinter competing against a world record holder — the athlete needs to know how he is going to respond in advance. The same applies to avoiding potential diet disasters," Murphy says.

Increase confidence

"Athletes (and nonathletes) are faced with uncomfortable issues, and in order to break away from the anticipated fear or anxiety of an event, you need to build confidence," says Kay Porter, a sports psychologist in Eugene, Ore., and author of "The Mental Athlete" (Human Kinetics, 2003).

And what builds that confidence? The experience of doing it right. Mental rehearsal helps athletes overcome performance anxiety. For example, say the holidays make you anxious. You already know what to expect next Thanksgiving, so you can mentally rehearse saying no to the stuffing, gravy and candied sweet potatoes. See your plate filled with plain turkey and other, less fattening, "trimmings." As Louis Pasteur said: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

Rehearsal plan

1. Identify the occasion: Choose a situation you find difficult, whether it's unconscious eating, traveling, special occasions, dining out or a snack attack. Decide how you'd like to change your behavior — include thoughts, emotions and actions you want in your "ideal" version.

2. Brainstorm: Murphy recommends brainstorming all the negative events that could occur within that situation. If you have difficulty sticking to your diet when you're going out to dinner, come up with all the possible complications you may encounter: the great bread, the blue cheese dressing, the cr?me br?l?e or even those pressuring comments from "food pushers." And don't forget to think about the positive outcomes, Murphy says.

3. Add detail: Be specific. Don't spare a thought, no matter how insignificant.

4. Create the script: Come up with a step-by-step description of exactly what your ideal experience would be. Make sure to include how you would react to all the possible scenarios, creating positive outcomes for each.

5. Give it life: Once you have the general script down, go back to make the experience really come alive. "See, feel, hear and smell it. Make it as lifelike as possible — imagine it in 3D," Murphy says.

6. Make it automatic: Afremow recommends you rehearse your imagery often, including the night before the situation or event and even just before it begins, to keep it fresh. If you've always ordered dessert at a restaurant, you do it unconsciously, because it's a habit. But if you rehearse a different outcome — for instance, ordering fruit, coffee or no dessert — you will create a new "automatic" response to the dessert menu.

7. Make improvements: After the event, no matter what the outcome, revise your imagery and try to repair any mistakes or setbacks.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, nutrition and fitness columnist. Write to info@thedietdetective.com.