Lapse and relapse prevention cheat sheet: all dieters slip up

      You've been so "good" on your diet: You lost weight, exercised every day for months - it's all going so well. Then it happens. You're completely stressed out; you just had an argument with your 14-year-old daughter; your boss is breathing down your neck about that report that's late; your phone's been ringing off the hook -- you're the end of your rope. Then, to top it all off, your co-worker is having a birthday celebration with the works, including lasagna, cake and ice cream. You have it all, and you don't just stop there you continue this slide, and you relapse. The reality is that weight loss and maintenance have lots of ups and downs, and plenty of curveballs. And a key component of any program is to prepare for lapses and relapses.

      A lapse is when you come close to moving away from losing and/or maintaining your target weight, and it typically involves a weakening of your coping skills. According to research appearing in Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy a relapse is defined as a "setback that occurs during the behavior change process, such that progress toward the initiation or maintenance of a behavior change goal (e.g., abstinence from drug use) is interrupted by a reversion to the target behavior." A relapse is defined as a reverting back to the target behavior.

      The authors also believe that relapse is not a final result but a fork in the road to changing behavior. A slip doesn't have to become a fall, and a lapse doesn't have to become a relapse.

      Here are a few key situations and strategies for preventing a lapse from becoming a relapse.

      Failure, Guilt and Shame and the All-or-Nothing Attitude

      Problem: People who attribute the lapse to their own personal failure are likely to experience guilt and negative emotions that can, in turn, lead to a complete relapse.

      The Fix: There is nothing shameful about trying, failing, experimenting and trying again. In fact, you can learn from every situation you encounter along the dieting, healthy-eating highway. Think about what may have gone wrong. Did you let yourself get too hungry? Were you eating to fill an emotional need? Was the food sitting right in front of you, tempting you even though you weren't hungry? The more you learn about your behaviors and WHY you slip up, the better you can prevent them. Don't be ashamed or feel guilty about having a lapse or even a relapse. And certainly don't use it as an opportunity to "go crazy" and eat everything unhealthy you see. It's just a momentary lapse of reason.

      Abstinence Violation Effect

      Problem: You believe that if you have a setback you're finished, you've failed. You said that June 1 was your day to start dieting, and you ate healthy for three weeks. Then at lunch you ate a piece of cheesecake. Have you failed? Do you have to start all over again? That's the typical thinking.

      The Fix: Changing behavior is a process it's ongoing a flow. There is no real official start date or finish date for a diet. Make sure to account for slip-ups and not see them as disastrous moments. Come up with a specific plan if you overeat perhaps it's exercising more the next two days or eating healthier and avoiding dessert. Something that will make you feel as if you're compensating for the slip-up. While this is not necessary, sometimes it can help, as long as the "fix" doesn't start to become a problem that is, something you view as punishing yourself for the behavior. That's never good, and if that's the way you're thinking, you should most certainly seek professional assistance with the process.

      It's Fate

      Problem: You have no power to control your behavior it's fate. You've tried, tried before, and failed.

      The Fix: Build confidence. Feeling confident that you can change a behavior is one of the single biggest predictors of the ability to change. It's called "self-efficacy" the belief in your ability to "organize and execute" whatever behavior you would like to modify. It's the confidence that you can attain what you want and it's especially important if you want to control your weight. The reality is that any behavior change is hard and thinking you can't do it even before you start makes it that much harder. So, avoid thoughts like "I can't lose weight it's in my genes," "I'll never be able to exercise three times a week," "I can't eat at a restaurant without pigging out on the bread basket." To build confidence you need to use affirmations. Telling yourself that you can do something is half the battle. Try to build confidence by educating yourself. For instance, if you want to start eating healthy at home, try taking a few healthy cooking classes. You can even rent or buy healthy cooking DVDs. Another way to build confidence is to examine other instances when you have been successful at overcoming adversity.

      It's Not My Fault

      Problem: You blame everyone and every situation for where you are and why you've strayed from your path.

      The Fix: Recognize that you are the only one who can make something happen in your life. People love to blame. We blame situations, circumstances, events and even ourselves for where we are in our lives. Blame allows us to avoid taking a necessary action. It excuses us from acting responsibly. In terms of diet, it allows us to avoid focusing on controlling our weight because there's nothing we can do about it. Keep in mind, however, that one of the key characteristics of all successful weight-losers is their ability to avoid blaming and accept responsibility for whatever failures or setbacks trip them up along the road. Keep this concept close to you when you attempt your next weight-loss campaign: We may not be fully responsible for every event in our lives; accidents do happen, both lucky and unlucky ones. However, we are solely responsible for how we respond to those events and how we allow them to shape us. Many of our own patterns, which we do control, bring us opportunity, success and failure.

      I Have No Willpower

      Problem: You believe that you don't have the willpower or energy to change your behavior.

      The Fix: Willpower is not really the issue. What you need to do is develop effective coping strategies. Accept responsibility for your situation and realize that you can control the outcome. Again, this is not a willpower game it's more about developing techniques than it is about telling yourself you are strong and will not eat unhealthy foods.

      Weight loss or control is not as simple as willing yourself NOT to eat that cookie. It's about preparation, personal diet detective work, and being realistic and honest with yourself about your behaviors. Think in advance about uncomfortable eating situations and create a plan for how you're going to overcome them. Figure out what you will eat instead of that high-calorie cookie (For Calorie Bargains, see for ideas). Make sure the types of food you want to avoid are not even in your sight. These are just a couple of the techniques that will help you to create power and give you the ability to practice so-called "self-control."


      CHARLES PLATKIN, Ph.D., M.P.H., is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of Copyright 2012 by Charles Stuart Platkin. All rights reserved. Sign up for the free Diet Detective newsletter at