Train your brain to stick to ANY diet! New book from leading psychology professor aims to help slimmers stay on track

  • Dr Judith Beck is a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania
  • She has teamed up with her diet programme co-ordinator daughter
  • The duo have devised a psychology-based strategy to dodge diet traps
  • This is detailed in their new book, The Diet Trap Solution: Train Your Brain To Lose Weight And Keep It Off For Good

Many of us set out on a diet with the best intentions in the world, only to give up a few days later.

What woman hasn’t abandoned a low-carb plan at the sight of a Jaffa cake or tumbled headlong from the 5:2 when someone protests that they made chocolate cake ‘just for you’?

Whatever slimming plan you choose, achieving your goal will hang on your ability to identify and avoid these ‘diet traps’. 

Helping hand: Dr Judith S. Beck, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has teamed up with her daughter  to devise a psychology-based strategy to dodge these diet traps

Helping hand: Dr Judith S. Beck, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, has teamed up with her daughter to devise a psychology-based strategy to dodge these diet traps

It might be that chilled glass of wine at the end of a frantic day, the office feeder leaving biscuits on your desk or the voice in your head telling you that ice cream really can cheer you up.

Until you steel yourself to evade diet traps, no healthy eating plan is safe. In fact, there’s no point in going on a diet at all.

As professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, I am a specialist in cognitive behavioural therapy, which helps you manage your problems by changing the ways you think and behave.

I’ve teamed up with my daughter Deborah, a diet programme co-ordinator, to devise a psychology-based strategy to dodge these diet traps.

This works with any diet, from Weight Watchers to the 5:2 to simple healthy eating plans. I’ll show you how to identify your own diet traps, devise personal escape routes and train your brain to help you lose weight and keep it off for ever.


Diet traps fall into different categories, so use this quiz to identify yours. Give yourself one point if you answer ‘sometimes’ and two points if you answer ‘often’ to the questions below. Scoring three or more in any category indicates it’s an issue - see below for the ways to avoid your traps.

Stress traps

  • Do you ever use food to relax after a stressful day?
  • Do you turn to junk or unhealthy food when stressed?
  • Do you ever think you’re too busy to diet?

Emotional eating traps

  • Do you turn to food when you’re upset?
  • Do you eat more than you should when you’re tired or bored?
  • Do you feel you deserve to eat if you’re upset? Does eating help you feel better about yourself?

Food-pusher traps

  • Do you ever eat something unhealthy or fattening because saying ‘No’ would appear rude?
  • Are you likely to cave in to peer pressure when people urge you to drink or eat more than you think you should?
  • Do you tend to eat without restraint at social gatherings?

Family traps

  • Do you over-eat if your family upsets you?
  • Do you eat unhealthily during family meals or gatherings? And eat according to other people’s schedules?
  • Do you feel obliged to stock crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks in the house for others?

Eating out traps

  • Do you arrive at a restaurant without a plan for what you’re going to eat?
  • Are ‘all diets off’ on holiday?
  • Are you likely to over-indulge when out socially?

Mood traps

  • Are you discouraged or burdened by dieting?
  • Do you ever feel a sense of unfairness and deprivation when you see what other people are eating?
  • Do you berate yourself for lack of motivation or having a weak will?

Off-track traps

  • Do you beat yourself up mentally or skip meals after you’ve over-eaten?
  • Do you ever say: ‘I’ve blown it now, I might as well pig out and start the diet again tomorrow?’
  • Do you find it hard to get back on track once you’ve broken your diet?


  • If you go off track, don’t stay off track - in no other area of your life would you think it made sense to compound one mistake with another.
  • Write down comparable ‘mistake analogies’ to put your blip in perspective: if you missed an exit on the motorway, you wouldn’t say: ‘Well, that’s the trip ruined, I’ll drive for the rest of the day in the wrong direction.’
  • Every unnecessary bite means extra calories and weight gain. So have a quick read-through of your motivational notes and before you do anything else.
  • Learn from your mistake. Ask why it happened, what sabotaging thoughts you had and what you could do differently next time.
  • Make a list of reminder cards in case the situation arises again.
  • Stop labelling foods ‘bad’ or ‘banned’, but rename a few ‘favourites’ and plan to have a small portion of one or some of them every day throughout the next week. Then enjoy them without guilt.
  • Don’t over-compensate with starvation. Just eat a little less for the rest of the day instead and congratulate yourself for getting back on track.
  • If you find yourself really struggling with your diet, stop and count up how many hours in your day you found difficult, then compare this total with the number of hours that were easy. It’s worth it.


Whatever your diet traps, you can reduce their impact and boost the chance of any diet working if you take a bit of time before you start dieting to get in the right frame of mind. 

Success is on the cards

Whether you want to be able to zip up size 12 jeans, look great in a bikini or reduce your risk of diabetes, write down all the reasons you want to be slimmer.

Jot them down in your phone or on a series of prompt cards. Now write down as many advantages of being slimmer as you can think of that apply to you (such as I’ll feel so proud of myself, I’ll look great, I’ll be able to run).

Tuck the cards in your pocket or handbag and read through them every morning, visualising yourself achieving your goals as you do so, focusing on how good you’ll feel.

This is classic brain training - the positive reinforcement every time you read through your lists will be strengthening neural pathways and helping to rewire your brain’s automatic thinking, steeling your determination. 

Learn to enjoy food

Even before you change any of your eating habits, you need to learn to get the maximum enjoyment out of food.

Train yourself to focus fully by eating a few meals completely alone, without distractions (no TV, radio, phone or family). Eat very slowly, chewing thoroughly and pay attention to every bite.

Use a visual cue (such as a different plate) or auditory cue (a timed ping on your phone) to remind yourself to ask: ‘Have I been paying attention to my food for the past few bites?’

Fully experiencing the flavours and textures of food like this gives your brain a chance to register fullness, so you naturally eat less.

Tempting treat? Dr Judith S. Beck says it's important to identify 'diet traps '

Tempting treat? Dr Judith S. Beck says it's important to identify 'diet traps '

Identify diet traps 

Each morning, take a moment to think about possible diet traps that you might encounter during the day. Are you likely to be hungry mid-morning? Will there be tempting muffins at the coffee shop? Is it someone’s birthday?

Now note down a few hints and tips that might help you avert dieting disaster (take an apple in your handbag, skip the coffee shop).

Jot down any sabotaging thoughts you might encounter (‘But it’s free’, ‘No one is watching’) and compose compelling responses that apply just to you (‘I’m trying to lose weight,’ or ‘I can face this pressure and put up a fight’). 

Weigh yourself everyday

Many experts say that there’s no point stepping on the bathroom scales more than once a week, but we find a daily check allows you to keep track of the weighing scale’s normal fluctuations.

It keeps you mentally on track, reminding you of what you are trying to achieve, and there’s much less chance of your weight creeping upwards (it’s amazing how many people avoid the scales when they suspect their diet isn’t working).

Pat yourself on the back

Congratulate yourself every time you make a positive step towards healthy eating. Stop for a second and think ‘That’s good! I deserve credit for that’ every time you make a point of eating slowly or read through your motivational list.

Giving yourself credit as often as possible makes it more likely that you’ll stay on track.


Successful dieters know hunger and cravings peak throughout the day, but they subside — they don’t escalate intolerably.

Understanding this is your key to resisting unhealthy foods when you’re hungry or experiencing desperate cravings.

It’s useful to know the difference between real hunger (stomach growling) and imagined hunger (feeling a bit peckish), and to reap the health benefits of fasting occasionally by giving your body short periods without having to deal with food.

Try this exercise. Create a personal ‘discomfort scale’ by writing down one familiar experience for each of the following:

  • Severe physical discomfort (eg, after surgery).
  • Moderate physical discomfort (eg, a headache).
  • Mild physical discomfort (eg, too-tight shoes).

Now pick a day when you’re not too busy, eat a good breakfast but don’t eat again until dinner.

Set a timer to beep every hour and, when it does, record the level of discomfort you feel.

Most people find, to their surprise, that hunger and cravings are never more than mildly uncomfortable, and then disappear.

Don’t succumb to a chip 

Practise being ‘good’. Every time you stand up to temptation you give your ‘resistance muscle’ a workout, but you’ll be strengthening your ‘giving in’ muscle every time that you succumb. So picking up a chip from someone else’s plate is not just about the calories, it’s weakening your long-term resolve.

Pre-build your defences by jotting down a list of activities to distract you if a craving strikes. Try a walk, a cup of tea, brushing your teeth, chewing gum or filing your nails.

Make a food timetable 

Work out an eating schedule that suits you, with sensible two-hour time windows for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.

Now start eating according to that schedule - regardless of what you eat. If you are tempted by food outside your allocated times, it’s then easier to say: ‘No, this is not according to my eating schedule.’

Just keep going

Unsuccessful dieters all too often give up when things get tough and the self-sabotaging thoughts start muttering: ‘Is it really worth all this effort?’ So plan to build a store of positive memories - the times when you felt really happy that you’d stayed in control.

Reading through these memories will create a warm feeling of accomplishment that will give you renewed energy to keep going.

Just say 'no': Dr Beck says it's important to maintains willpower when offered another slice of cake

Just say 'no': Dr Beck says it's important to maintains willpower when offered another slice of cake


Your best defence against your own diet traps is a series of personalised escape plans containing the solutions you can call upon when temptation strikes.

Each might include details of exactly what you need to say to yourself and what strategies you can try when a trap threatens to throw you off course.

Diet trap: ‘I work with the office feeder.’

How to escape it 

When facing someone who says ‘Go on, have another slice of cake - I made it specially for you’, try:

  • The broken record - just repeat ‘No thank you’ over and over again until they run out of responses. You wouldn’t eat meat if you were vegetarian or nuts if you had an allergy, so stick to your guns.
  • Do a quick cost analysis - their fleeting frustration is nothing compared with the long-term costs to you if you buckle.

Diet trap: ‘But it’s a special occasion.’

How to escape it 

  • Write a list of all the event’s non-food enjoyable positives (not having to cook, people-watching, no washing up).
  • Check the menu online before you go, then order swiftly on arrival so you’re not swayed by others. 
  • Make reminder cards for any thoughts that might sabotage you. If you’re tempted by the bread or an unplanned dessert, excuse yourself from the table and find a place to read through them again.

Diet trap: ‘But I’m far too busy.’

How to escape it 

Think of the plane oxygen mask rule: fix yours first before helping others. If you want to lose weight, you need to make healthy eating your priority. Write that on a card and read it every morning and throughout the day.

Diet trap: ‘But food is how I unwind.’

how to escape it

Think of ways to de-stress before meals. Brainstorm de-stressing techniques that offer that sense of self-nurturing you once found in food (spend five minutes in the car listening to music, have a cup of tea, take a shower, bath the children, read through your motivational prompt cards).

Diet trap: ‘But eating makes me feel better.’

How to escape it

Write a note saying: ‘If I eat when I’m feeling low I may feel momentary comfort, but I’ll have three problems - the original problem; feeling bad and out of control; plus the extra weight I’ll have gained.’ Make a list of non-food fun activities and check which might need preparation (buy a puzzle book, pump up your bike tyres) you are ready when you get the urge to eat.

Extracted by Louise Atkinson from The Diet Trap Solution: Train Your Brain To Lose Weight And Keep It Off For Good, by Dr Judith S. Beck and Deborah Beck Busis (Hay House, £12.99). © 2015 Judith S. Beck and Deborah Beck Busis. To buy a copy for just £10.39, visit or call 0808 272 0808. Offer until July 20, P&P free on orders over £12.

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