Lapse vs. Relapse: What’s the Difference?

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Written by: Dr. Kim Feinstein, Clinical Psychologist & Behavioral Weight Loss Specialist

What is a Lapse? 

lapse is when you eat off of your meal plan; however, you still manage to regain control over what you are doing.  A lapse is also referred to as a “slip.”


You arrive at work and someone brought in a box of doughnuts. You quickly eat one and then think, “I blew it.” Then, you say to yourself, “Since I already ate a doughnut, I might as well eat McDonalds for lunch.” However, when it is time for lunch you decide to eat the food you brought with you and you get right back on track. This is a lapse. It is important to know that a lapse will not cause you to gain back the weight you have lost. A lapse left unchecked, however, can grow into a relapse.

What is a Relapse?

A Relapse, on the other hand, is a process of gradual decline in function, which precedes or leads to the recurrence of your previous unhealthy, eating behaviors and related symptoms. No matter how hard you try, you are unable control your behavior. Eventually, you give up and stop trying.


One afternoon, you go to the bakery and buy a cake to share with your coworkers. You end up eating the whole cake in the car while driving to work. After finishing the cake you are angry with yourself and frustrated with your attempts to stop bingeing. You think, “Despite trying so hard these past few weeks, I am not able to stop bingeing, the treatment didn’t work, and what is the use?” “I will never be able to stop bingeing!” Over the next few weeks you binge eat often and end up with the same pattern of unhealthy behavior(s) as when you first began your diet. You have lost your motivation, your mood is low, you feel defeated, and you are out of control.

6 Step Plan for how to keep a lapse from becoming a relapse:

Step 1: Recognize that almost all people attempting to lose weight experience one. Lapses can and will be useful learning experiences. (See step 3)

Step 2: Resist the tendency to think negative thoughts and beat yourself up with harsh punishing words. You are not a failure if you experience a lapse; in fact, it’s normal!

Step 3: Use this opportunity to learn from the lapse.

· Was it a special occasion? Holiday? Celebration?
· Did you eat because of social pressure?
· Were you tired? Stressed? Angry?
· Craving comfort food?
· On vacation?

Review the situation and think about it neutrally. Then, plan a strategy for dealing more effectively with similar situations in the future.

Step 4: Regain control of your eating at the very next opportunity. Do not tell yourself, “Well, I blew it for the day,” and wait until the next day to get back on track. Getting back on track without delay is important in preventing lapses from becoming relapses.

Step 5: Talk to someone supportive or a trained weight loss specialist to discuss your new skills and strategies for handling lapses.

Step 6: Most importantly, remember you are making life-long changes. Weight loss is a journey with lots of decisions and choices every day that add up over time. Focus on all the positive changes you have made and realize that you can get back on track at any time. The decision is yours!


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