Updated December 01, 2011
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I've been struggling a bit recently with old, not-so-great eating habits. I've made a few halfhearted attempts to stem the tide, but it wasn't until last week, when I found my favorite jeans a little hard to button, that I realized I'd gotten pretty far off track. So I turned to a simple mantra for help: It’s not an option.

I repeat it every time a plate of brownies shows up in the break room, my husband bakes gingerbread cookies and leaves them on the counter, or I'm simply contemplating a second helping of tortellini.

I actually got it from Lisa Delaney, author of the funny, insightful book Secrets of a Former Fat Girl (and former executive editor at Health magazine). She came up with the phrase in a desperate moment, trying to stop her formerly out-of-shape self from quitting yet another workout. "Those four little words ended the internal argument right there," she writes. Bam. Done.

It’s not an option.

The finality of this particular mantra is what makes it so effective for me. It simply slams the door on the possibility of doing something I don't need to do—this is the way it is, no arguing. It's oddly freeing, too, because as soon as I say it, my inner waffling comes to a halt and I no longer have the stressful "should I or shouldn't I?" debate running nonstop through my brain.


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Susan Albers, PsyD, psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food and But I Deserve this Chocolate! is a big fan of mantras, and uses them frequently with her clients. "Saying a mantra is like building a new highway in your mind," she says. "Eventually you stop using the old road and start using the new highway all the time." In other words, you become who and what you hope to be.

To find your own mantra, think about what you really want to accomplish, and then frame it positively—and simply. "The best mantra is the one that speaks to you and moves you emotionally," Albers says. "It captures your feelings in a few words." One really effective mantra she teaches: Progress, not perfection. If you goof, no worries, just keep trying. There's a lot to be said for that philosophy.

Albers even uses one herself: Be here. "Too often, when we eat, our minds get stuck in the past, ruminating about what we think we should not have eaten and feeling guilty," she says. "Or our minds are in the future, wondering what life will be like when we do shed a few pounds. If we focus our minds on being truly present in this moment, we can choose wisely what to eat and not eat."

I did an informal poll of some friends (and friends of friends), and a surprising number of them have mantras they use to either help them eat healthier or stick with their workout routines. A sampling:

Meg B.: It isn’t worth the calories.

Lisa B.: I'll just do this workout tonight. It doesn't mean I have to do one every day.

Mara H.: Do not go without breakfast. Ever.

Sarah R.: Today will be a better day than it was supposed to be if I just run for a half-hour.

Brenda R.: Eyes on the prize.

Courtney R.: You'll never regret a workout completed—only a workout missed.

Jennifer B.: Don’t let what you want at this moment get in the way of what you want the most.

Zoe R. (my 5-year-old): But I want it!

OK, maybe disregard that last one. I'll stick with: It’s not an option—it's working like a charm. If only it did the same for my 5-year-old.