How to keep negative thoughts from sabotaging your diet or your life

Forces determined to undermine your efforts at controlling your diet surround you: tempting ads for snack foods that beam at you from the TV, the lure of fast food emporia that beckon from just about every corner…

But there’s a plan you can use to evade this self-control sabotage.

Focus your thoughts on the positive ways you have controlled your appetite and dieting behavior in the past. Forget about your failures.

A study at the Carroll School of Management at Boston College shows that although many dieters think they can learn how to eat better by dwelling on their past mistakes and using them as motivation to avoid binge-eating in the future, that strategy backfires. It’s more advantageous to merely relegate thoughts about undesirable behavior to the mind’s trash bucket and resurrect memories of successful efforts.

“Despite the common belief that remembering our mistakes will help us make better decisions in the present,” says researcher Hristina Nikolova, “we actually find that thinking about our failures at self-control leads us to repeat them and indulge in the present, so it’s not helpful at all.”

Nikolova’s study shows that people who are more liable to focus on their failures at self-control — whether it’s dieting, trying to quit smoking or curbing spending — are more likely to repeat those same failures than people who keep their positive accomplishments at the front of their minds.

“For example, people often think that remembering the last time when they didn’t hesitate to enjoy eating the delicious, 2,000 calorie chocolate cake will help them resist the delicious dessert menu and go for some fruits instead,” says Nikolova. “However, our findings reveal that remembering such self-control failures would lead people to indulge again in the present.”

My own efforts at dieting have been more successful when I focus on the positive results that come from eating nutritious food and refusing to obsess over the tasty food I may be foregoing. And I’ve noticed what many other people have pointed out – the more you avoid processed food that is devoid of nutrients, the less you miss it. And the better you feel about your health and your diet, the easier it is to stay on the nutritious side of the food street.

As Nikolova explains: “When we have to think about our failures – that puts us in a negative mood and research has shown that when people are in a negative mood state, they tend to indulge to make themselves feel better.

Mindful meditation is great tool to help you learn to focus on the positive instead of the negative as it relates to any challenge in your life. Often when I go to bed at night, before I drift off the sleep, I’ll think of something that made me feel good or positive about myself during the day or week. I’ll relive the feeling in my mind and even repeat a phrase over and over a few times that relates to the event. I find I wake up in a better mood and feel ready to face my challenge with renewed strength.

Dr. Mark Wiley, an expert in Traditional Chinese Medicine, often writes about the transformative power of meditation, and provides great instruction on how to get started. After practicing a few times and harnessing your powers of concentration, you learn to transition your focus from breathing to positive thoughts. And hopefully the next time you are tempted to break your diet, or any challenge for that matter, the temptation will seem much less appealing than the positive emotions you experience from sticking to your goals.

Carl Lowe

By Carl Lowe

has written about health, fitness and nutrition for a wide range of publications including Prevention Magazine, Self Magazine and Time-Life Books. The author of more than a dozen books, he has been gluten-free since 2007.