How to Resist Temptation and Increase Your Power Over Food


I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few months thinking about the concept of temptation as it applies to food, and this post is an attempt to organize some of my thinking.

And since this post is a bit on the long side, I’ll start with the conclusion: We already have far more power over food than we think.

Yes, I know: some foods are irresistibly tempting (Doritos and dark chocolate are my twin demons for example). Moreover, it’s obvious from just a cursory view of Western society that many of us have great difficulty restraining ourselves from eating far in excess of our needs.

But this doesn’t mean we are hopeless victims of our temptations. On the contrary, the exact opposite is true. Food temptation is resistible–in some cases laughably easy to resist. And in today’s post, I’m going to show you how the basic process of food temptation is nothing more than an easily breakable chain of events.

I’ll begin my excursion into understanding temptation by taking a quick sidetrip to consider smoking, arguably the most tempting of all habits.

Here’s a fascinating quote from the exceptional book The End of Overeating, in which author David Kessler describes smoking in a way that gives us excellent insights into the psychological aspects of temptation:

By itself nicotine is only moderately reinforcing, but that begins to change with the building of layer upon layer of sensory stimulation: The sight of the packaging, the crinkling sound of the wrapper, the tactile sensation as you light a cigarette and hold it between your fingers, and the sensory characteristics of the first puff all bolster the reinforcement. Factor in the times of day and the location where you often smoke, and smoking becomes conditioned behavior.

Okay. Does all this talk about layers of stimulation, conditioned behavior and habit sound familiar at all?

It should. Because this is exactly what happens when we’re tempted with food.

Your Favorite Pizza Is Just Like Smoking
Imagine your favorite pizza from your favorite pizza joint. There’s that delicious smell that hits you when you walk in the door–it fills you with anticipation. There’s the visual appeal of a well-made pizza–your favorite toppings, the bubbling cheese, the crispy crust. There’s the familiar tactile sensation of picking up a delicious piece of pizza in your hands. And most importantly, there’s the complex and intense sensory experience of eating the pizza–the salty-sweet flavors, the various textures, even the masochistic pleasure of searing the roof of your mouth with sauce and cheese. All of these things combine to make pizza an utterly irresistible food.

When you compare Kessler’s description of smoking to my description of eating a pizza, the details may differ, but the complex interaction of stimulus, anticipation, habit and conditioning is utterly identical.

It’s Harder to Tempt You Than You Think
“Wait,” you say, “I thought you said I was going to have more power over food! Now you’re telling me that pizza is as tempting as smoking? How can I have any power over food with all these stimuli and other factors collectively ganging up on me?”

Here’s the encouraging part–and it’s the crux of my entire argument: These temptation factors do not gang up on us. Rather, they must combine. One factor–heck, even a few factors of temptation–isn’t enough to tempt us.

Instead, several factors have to be in place: The food has to be extremely palatable. We have to be both habit-based and entirely mindless in our eating. We have to eat quickly and pay little to no attention to the food as we are chewing and swallowing it. The setting and environment have to be just right to encourage overeating. We have to be oblivious to the many tricks our mind plays on us–or that we can play on our minds–to mismeasure our appetites and the amount of food we’ve eaten. Even our mood and psychological state have to be just right–we need to be in a negative or mind-identified mental state.

Break Just One Link in the Chain
Do you see where I’m going with this? There’s an entire chain of events and a complex set of conditions and habits that all must be in place to cause you to engage in unhealthy eating behavior.

We’ve now arrived at the most important truth in this post: if you can take just one (just one!) of the habits, stimuli or elements of behavior conditioning that we talked about above, and replace it with a more mindful and healthy habit, you will break the stimulus/response chain that leads to overeating.

Here are some ideas to get you started: Select mental images that help you become a mindful eater–like imagining yourself looking like Mr. Creosote or imagining yourself stumbling into a walk-in angioplasty clinic. Build the habit of chewing more slowly. Drink water between bites, or select any one of a long list of healthy habits and techniques from my post on how to avoid mindless eating. Start every meal off with a large serving of raw vegetables. Remove offending foods from your home so they aren’t around to tempt you in the first place. (If you have more ideas to share that you’ve used successfully, please share them in the comments.)

The point is for you to set your conditions and choose your habits. Choose your conditions–don’t allow yourself to be conditioned. Select healthy habits of your choosing, rather than habits that are mindless, unconscious or blindly reactive to your surroundings.

If it requires an entire chain of factors to cause us to be tempted by food, it therefore follows that it only takes one habit change–one new learned behavior–to break that chain and make yourself powerful in the presence of food.

Think: what single change in your habits or circumstances could you make in your life? Make it! You’ll surprise yourself with the results.

The edifice of temptation is far less sturdy than you’d think. And you are far more powerful than you think.

*Originally published by Casual Kitchen.

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Elizabeth Snouffer
12 years ago

I like this and it can work for some – but gratification is a large part of eating and while imagining oneself walking into angioplasty surgery before eating a slice of a oozy cheese pizza is clever – it doesn’t factor in the almighty and hopeless denial factor. (or the “I want it!” factor)  Moderation seems to me a more positive approach whether that is modifying the actual food itself (a thin crust pizza with low fat cheese and veggies) or modifying the amount (can I be satisfied with one slice rather than two? probably).  Abstaining analytically from a favorite… Read more »

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