4 tips on how to prevent dietary lapses

Dietary lapses happen. Whether you are recovering from an eating disorder or trying to adhere to a healthier way of eating in order to lose weight, you will have probably noticed this by now.

What is a dietary lapse? A lapse is a just a bit of a slip-up. A divergence from the guidelines to which we were hoping to adhere. On its own, it will often do little harm. Without the correct skills and mindset however, a lapse can spiral into relapse (a string or collective succession of dietary/behavioural slip ups), or even total collapse. A collapse is fairly self-explanatory, and would represent an individual reverting entirely back to the way things used to be.

The mechanics of a dietary lapse

The key to dealing with dietary lapses, is understanding their mechanics. On any journey where an individual is looking to achieve sustainable behavioural change, we have a few key ingredients:

First, the individual’s motivation. Their commitment to the goal, and mixed up with that, their self-efficacy and belief that they are capable of achieving their goals. Can they follow the plan they have set out?

Next up are the ‘rules’. These are the processes by which the individual wants to adhere to achieve their goal. Along with these rules however is the dynamic they bring with them. These are the 'inner-rebel' and the sublet feelings of claustrophobia imposed upon us by removal of our autonomy. I’ve talked about the inner-rebel before, which in some individuals can even extend to unconscious setting up of risky situations (as far as your goals are concerned) that might be completely secret to their conscious self. If you’ve ever wondered how you keep ending up in certain situations and not behaving in the way you want, but can’t put your finger on what has happened or why, then this secretive self-sabotage might be happening with you!

When you combine these rules with an individual’s motivation and challenge them in a trigger situation (which could be emotional, physical, or social) a sense of conflict is created. The individual will either reduce the conflict by deploying problem solving skills to negotiate the issue, or reduce the conflict through denial and submission to the challenge.

dietary lapse
Understanding the mechanics of dietary lapses is crucial in negotiating them

If for example you were on an unrealistic diet plan where you were looking to avoid all carbs and sugar, and found yourself in a bakery without having planned your food for the day, just after a great workout session, this might be a trigger situation. You might either decide to order just a bottle of water and leave (a contingency plan you had created), or cave and buy yourself two…no, three of those delicious looking pastel de nata! If you followed the first option, you’ve helped yourself move towards your goal, great, lapse averted! If you followed the second option however, some arousal would be created by the digression (those cups of custardy delight tasted SO GOOD!) but it will also create dissonance. You can’t be the best low-carb clean-eater in town AND eat pastries. What would your paleo buddies think?!

picture of a pastel de nata
You can either chose to negotiate, or submit to trigger situations

Even after this lapse, how the individual responds to the cognitive dissonance is another opportunity to manage the lapse. All is not lost. If they are able to attribute it to an outside influence, (my boiler broke at home and I didn’t have time to plan my food this week, I was starving and stressed and I needed to eat something, it might as well have been something I enjoyed, I’ll remember that going to the bakery after the gym with no food and no plan might not be that helpful for me) then little damage is likely to have been done. If the individual blames themselves, and internalises and catasrophises the event (I’ve blown my diet, I’m a failure, I’ll never lose that weight now) then their self-efficacy will be dented, and by the time the next challenging trigger situation comes around, they will have less self-confidence to manage the scenario! Remember, with individuals with low self-esteem the negative self-evaluation and extreme thinking is completely normal, and expected.

So now I know what a dietary lapses are, what can I do about it?

There are 3 main strategies to help manage dietary lapses that can be deployed before, during or after the event has occurred.

  1. Prevention - we can work to prevent them from happening entirely
  2. During - we can learn to respond differently in situ to the event
  3. Recovery - we can learn to cope and deal with the dietary lapses more effectively The old adage 'prevention is better than cure’ certainly holds true here.

While the way we respond and evaluate dietary lapses is certainly important, to stop this post running away with itself, let’s focus on how we can better prevent dietary lapses in the first place. There are a range of strategies you can deploy here but some of the most effective long term methods will be:

Learn to relax your rules….

Dieters will have lots of rules. Things they shouldn’t or mustn’t do. This is not helpful. The more rules the more opportunity to break them. Relax or change your rules. ‘No food is off limits’ is a great principle to start to apply here. If its not ‘banned’ then it can’t create additional stress from eating it! This leaves time and resources to work on more important decisions.


Even I can feel myself rolling my eyes when I tell people to ‘plan' ahead. But you can’t underestimate how effective this can be. Strategy beats willpower especially when you are tired! Recording a food diary and understanding your own trigger situations will help you notice your behaviour chains, both helpful and unhelpful. Which ones can you strengthen, which ones do you want to break?

Recognise (and avoid) ‘set-ups'

Use a diary and a reflective process to understand and honestly appraise what are risky situations for you. Would you recommend a recovering alcoholic spends his/her evenings at a pub? Unlikely. It doesn’t mean you can never engage in these higher risk scenarios again, but perhaps it is better to do so when you have developed more robust skills to manage them. These can be really subtle situations, for example do you upset yourself when going clothes shopping and make poor decisions thereafter? Do find yourself purchasing foods at service stations by going into the kiosk when you could pay at the pump? Before you have planned and practiced strategies and contingencies to handle these environments, don’t make things harder than they need to be.

Be realistic

Perhaps most importantly, cravings and dietary lapses happen. They actually NEED to happen for you to learn new skills. Viewing dietary lapses as a necessary part of the process of improving your relationship with food is essential in remaining motivated. Each and every event, desirable or not, is an opportunity to learn and improve. No one gets everything right first time, and there is a reason that tales of the most successful people in all walks of life are underscored by repeated ‘failure’. In another blog I’ll write about how one can better manage lapse situations in situ and ‘recover’ from them more effectively. In the mean time, please do try and implement some of the above hints and tips. If you’ve found this article useful, please do share it with others who you feel might benefit. Any questions or feedback, please do not hesitate to contact me on twitter (@acbcoaching) or by email (andy@acbcoacing.com).