How to Resist Irresistible Food

Raise your hand if you've ever uttered these phrases:

1) I'm only going to eat a couple of bites.
2) I've been good all day, so I'll indulge myself just this once.
3) I deserve a treat every once in a while--I'm going to help myself.

Anyone who's familiar with the terms rationalization and justification knows that our so-called "higher brains" can be exceptionally good at making excuses and explaining away our behavior--especially when we're around tempting food.

Usually, the higher brain does its job of thinking ahead and planning quite well. But sometimes it falls down on the job. Badly.

For example, when your lower brain sees a delicious plate of chocolate chip cookies (and feels an understandable impulse to dig in), your higher brain often conspires with your lower brain, using one of those three statements above to justify unwanted eating behavior. Before we know it, we're doing our best imitation of the cookie monster.

Presto: we just did something we don't really want to do--without even thinking about it. And yet we think we thought about it. And as any second year Psych major can tell us, since we think we thought about it, our higher brain quickly engages in after-the-fact activity that helps excuse or even covers up our eating behavior. There are a number of studies that show, convincingly, that people dramatically underestimate the volume of foods they've recently consumed, and in some cases people don't remember at all what they've eaten.

In short, when we're in the presence of hyperpalatable food, our higher brains can be as useless as our lower brains.

So how do we stop our brains from rationalizing and justifying, and instead teach our brains to deter us from tempting, hyperpalatable foods?

It starts with re-framing how we think about hyperpalatable foods in the first place.

First of all, don't blame yourself for being tempted by tempting food. It's natural, and it happens to all beings at every level of brain complexity. And let's face it, if humans weren't tempted to eat in the presence of palatable food we'd have never made it to the present era.

However, remember that humans have a capability that animals don't have. We can think in the abstract about what will happen in the future if we take an action now. Most importantly, we have the ability to notice, observe and reroute our autonomic impulses.

Let me borrow a quote from David Kessler, from his book The End of Overeating, as he explains how he retrained himself to think about large portions:

For me, it was about altering my perceptions of large portions. Once, I thought a big plate of food was what I wanted and needed to feel better. Now I see that plate for what it is--layers of fat on fat on sugar on fat that will never provide lasting satisfaction and only keep me coming back for more. With that critical perceptual shift, large portions look very different to me [emphasis mine].
We aren't going to be able to change the fact that our lower brains will experience temptation in the presence of hyperpalatable food. But our higher brains don't have to automatically follow along. Instead, we can use the higher brain to subvert the stimulus/response reaction of our lower brains. How? By engaging our higher order brain functions to notice, and disrupt those patterns.

Try this the next time you are in the presence of tempting food: Openly notice and acknowledge that you are experiencing feelings of hunger and temptation. But then, use your higher brain to map out a future that contains an honest assessment of the ramifications of acting rashly based on that hunger.

In our chocolate chip cookies example, we can imagine the butter or margarine in those cookies clogging up our arteries. A mental picture that I use involves me imagining myself eating tempting food, but then staggering into a walk-in angioplasty clinic afterward (yep, I'm completely serious, and this mental image works wonders for me). Another idea: notice and acknowledge your feelings of hunger, but then envision yourself in future years weighing an extra ten, twenty or fifty pounds.

Don't try to alter your initial temptation impulse--there's simply too many millions of years of evolution behind that impulse to resist it. Instead, alter the higher brain's reaction to that impulse. Before you know it, you'll build a habit of consistently rejecting the unhealthy foods around you.

Readers, what successful techniques have you used to help you resist hyperpalatable food? Share them below!

Related Posts:
Ten Strategies to Stop Mindless Eating
15 Creative Tips to Avoid Holiday Overeating
Review: The End of Overeating by David Kessler
Applying the 80/20 Rule to Diet, Food and Cooking
Eat Right to See Right: Foods for Better Eye Health

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Emmy said...

Oh, when you brought this topic to the table, I immediately thought of my friend Lynn. We used to live very close to each other, we went to Weight Watchers together, and we dined out quite often together. We'd order that hot fudge sundae, eat two bites each, then douse it with salt and pepper. We did it so often that now I have to only imagine us doing it to get the impulse to shut off. :)

Oh, and I LOVE your blog!

The Diva on a Diet said...

What a timely article, Dan! Given the last month or so of lower brain eating ... I'm ready to exercise my higher brain once again. I've never actually gone as far as picturing something such as you've described with the hospital ... but maybe I should. I'm going to give it a try and report back.

At times, I've used the distraction method ... getting involved with something else to take my mind off the irresistible stuff. It usually works.

Happy New Year!

edj3 said...

I use the packaged portion to help with the one food I am unable to resist. I love Combos, specifically the cheddar/pretzel flavor. And if I buy a big bag, I'll eat them. So if I want a treat, I get the small bag--it's still not healthy but it's a lot less damaging than the big bag.

Joanne said...

OOOHHH great post, especially now that the holiday season is over and the "diet" season has begun. I have found it super hard to resist "bad" food lately and have overindulged a LOT. Now I'm trying to get back into my healthy ways.

My method lately has been to stop myself before eating something I know I don't really need and asking myself why I want it. Then, I think of the repercussions of having it (guilt, clogged arteries, my jeans not fitting). Usually that inspires me enough to put down the cookie. Usually.

Daniel said...

These are all excellent ideas, thanks for the insights.

Emily, the salt and pepper dousing idea is brilliant. Love it.

Diva, distraction tactics work well for a lot of people, but I'll confess they don't work for me. I usually get distracted from the distraction and end up returning to the food.

Kx3, another good idea. You get the satisfaction of "finishing" a bag that way. Even if the cost per unit is higher for the smaller sized bag, the health benefits are worth it.

Joanne, thanks for the feedback! Mindfully asking yourself "why?" is an excellent way to engage the higher brain in before-the-fact decision-making. That's a heck of a lot healthier than unconsciously using your higher brain for after-the-fact rationalizations.

What other ideas and techniques have readers found successful?


Marcia said...

Really, the best way that I get back on the wagon after the holidays is to not have crap in the house.

I rarely eat out of the house (I carry my lunch to work). So once the holiday cookies/candies are gone, I don't buy new ones. That's going to go for the wine too. I need a little detox.

At other people's houses, when my jeans are getting tight, I am really good at saying "no". Most of my friends are pretty skinny. Even though I'm also fit, I'm not thin, and I just can't eat that stuff like they can.

Gigi Centaro said...

Mindless Eating and The End of Overeating are two extrordinary books. I lost 25 pounds last year just by eating from a smaller plate at home and by eating half of what I was served in restaurants.

Sarah Walker said...

Love your blog! Coming out of lurkdom to post for the first time:
There are a lot of strategies that help me, but not having things around is a huge part of it for me. Also, exercising helps keep me busy, happy and not craving junk. Smaller plates and bowls equal better portion sizes and satisfaction too. Finally, when I feel my sugar cravings out of control, I make myself a nice green smoothie. I know, sounds crazy, but it really helps me and tastes a heck of a lot better than you would believe. I think the fiber combined with the concentrated nutrients in the greens(usually kale) helps satiate my body's cravings.

Daniel said...

Marcia: could not agree more--in fact one of the very first habits I try to teach people is never to keep a stash of tempting food that you don't want to eat in the house. The fact that you have to drive to the store to get a junk food fix is often a completely sufficient disincentive.

Gigi, thanks for your thoughts. Many readers laugh out loud at the "small plate" trick, but it actually works. Why question it?

Sarah, I really like your idea about green smoothies. Nothing at all wrong with curing your cravings with food that's satisfying--yet not hyperpalatable. Thanks for sharing.


susan fine said...

what do you think about having one cookie? or one little treat of whatever it is? is it possible to manage that? and to satisfy the desire for something sweet or fatty? i have this idea in my mind now that if i'm going to have something i think of as a "treat," then it has to be homemade with high quality ingredients. i also do such things as use whole wheat pastry flour and cut down the sugar called for in recipes. what do you think of this? or is it all forbidden and just a recipe for future clogged arteries... sigh.

Daniel said...

Susan, thanks for the comment. I think there's nothing wrong with one cookie. In fact, one cookie can be optimal if you eat it truly mindfully--and don't keep going.

For me the issue is knowing exactly what's in the sweets or treats you're eating, and letting that knowledge keep you from overeating them.

Everything is best in moderation--including moderation itself.