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.

A note to readers: I've spoken before about the exceptional book The End of Overeating by David Kessler. Once again, let me take this opportunity to recommend it to readers. Finally, note that Casual Kitchen receives a small affiliate payment whenever any reader decides to purchase books or other merchandise from using links from this site. There's no extra cost to you, and yet you play a big part in supporting my efforts here at Casual Kitchen. Thanks as always for reading!

Related Posts:
Mindful Chewing: How To Cut Your Calorie Intake in Half--Without Feeling Hungry
Food Hacks: How to Use the "Satiety Factor" of Foods to Your Advantage
My Seven-Day Raw Foods Trial
The Priming Reflex: How to Control Your Appetite (And Turn Your Back on a Million Years of Evolution)

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Liz T. said...

I've found that keeping a stash of really good bittersweet chocolate (a baggie of small shards purchased in the bulk food aisle of the fancy-pants grocery for less than $7/lb) in my desk at work is enough to keep me from going out and buying who-knows-what when the urge to snack hits. If I know I can have an ounce or so of that at around 2pm, I'm good. It has saved me from all sorts of really bad choices.

But it's got to be the really good stuff, so strong that you just can't eat a lot of it at one sitting. I like Callebaut bittersweet.

ConsciouslyFrugal said...

Dude, I love this. And I'm totally buying the book (through your site, natch!). I am a serious overeater, but ignored it because, as a fat woman, I just lumped the whole "overeating" chatter into the usual bigoted b.s. Yanno, being fat is so awful, unhealthy, no one will ever love you blah blah blah LIE LIE LIE. Le sigh!

But then one day, after stuffing myself to the point of pain, I realized, um...hey, bigots or not, this isn't good for you. You're actually *in pain* right now and have no real memory of eating. Le nuts!

I never really thought of it in terms of layers. I realize the lack o' mindfulness, but not the layering aspect. Also, I've realized that my "full" is most people's "OMG I am so stuffed." Being more mindful is helping me to realize differing levels of satiety.

And finally, this helps as well--stopping and asking, "Are you hungry?" 'Cuz often, I overeat out of stress or boredom, not hunger.

Anonymous said...

Of course, I just bought a different book I saw linked, "Mindless Eating." Ah well, I'm sure they're both good!

Joanne said...

I love this post! Temptation is one of the things that I struggle with all the time, especially since I love to bake.

Thankfully though the food that tempt me most are things I don't typically bake with. Pita chips. Dried fruit (pineapple. With sugar. All over it.) Chocolate covered espresso beans. Mass amounts of cheese.

I've learned to just not keep them around. If I don't ahve them in the house, I can't be tempted.

NY Wolve said...

I have struggled with weight issues for years. I have gained and lost a lot of weight. Through discussions like this one, I have learned to me more cognizant and to focus my eating on my goals: to satiate my appetite.

I liked Kessler's book, and recommend Pollan's book Food Rules.

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

Funny, I always thought smoking was a disgusting and repulsive habit and was never tempted by it, but reading that whole description of the smoking experience made me want a cigarette! :-D

I know I eat too fast and that's one thing that keeps me from losing weight. I tend to shovel food down. I'm trying to be more conscious of it. I was able to make a habit of exercising regularly, I should be able to make a habit of eating more mindfully.

Daniel said...

Some great additional ideas for managing your eating habits! I think an enormous part of it is just being a bit more mindful: knowing your habits and tendencies and not letting them cause you to act unthinkingly.

Keep the ideas coming!


Laura said...

In my attempts to reform my eating habits, I've shot myself in the foot more than a few times by trying to deny myself foods I love. Whatever I say I'm not going to eat becomes an obsession, and if [when] I do ever give in, I wallow in guilt. This time around, I'm allowing myself to occasionally eat foods I love and whenever possible, I try to find a version that is still enjoyable (flavor, mouthfeel, etc.) but has fewer calories, more veg/fruit/whole grains, less fat. I don't feel deprived, and I'm feeling much more power over food while still enjoying the social side of eating.

P.S. I've been implementing your tips and others, and I've lost 20 pounds since the holidays. Just in case you were wondering if all this blogging is worth it. It is! Thank you!

Daniel said...

Laura, thank you for the feedback! That is exactly why I blog. I'm overjoyed to hear about your success!


SimpleTruth said...

something I have really found to help is drinking a glass of water (or OJ when I'm sick) before I eat anything! It really helps get rid of the first impulse to stuff my face by keeping my stomach busy for a few minutes while I start eating slowly :) by the time my body is done processing water, there is some food in there and my body is happy to process my food nice and slowly! Also, every once in a while I notice my body getting too used to fats, sugars, and salts, so I go vegan for a week, basically to clear out all the toxins in my body and get it back in good health! I could never do it permanently (I like steak too much), but it really keeps me mindful on the in-between weeks too