Food And Self Control- Dealing With Cravings 8

Dealing with food cravings

Food And Self Control- How Do You Stop Cravings?

How do you control yourself around food? For the most of us, the hardest part of losing weight and keeping it isn’t the pain and rigors of exercise- it’s hands down the willpower required to stay on your diet at all times, especially after losing weight. Firstly it is important to note that weight loss does bring about a series of neuroendocrine and physical level that promote weight regain after a certain amount of weight is lost and it is important to keep in mind that the mechanisms of weight regain after weight loss are formidable and set in motion a chain of events that affect appetite to the point where you feel like high fat, high carbohydrate and high sugar foods are irresistible.[1,2,3] The first step is to not blame yourself as feeling guilty will only make you more likely to eat more junk foods. See my article here on How Feeling Guilty About Cheating On Your Diet Hurts More Than It Helps. The second step is to assess your food intake, are you eating enough during the day and succumbing to your body’s need for enough calories to operate effectively later on at night? Skipping breakfast can be a major cause in stimulating near insatiable cravings later on in the day [4, 5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12] as is having prolonged periods between meals. Skipping meals can actually be just as bad as eating junk food as it often dooms you to very hard to deal with cravings that will make you eat the wrong foods at some point. It’s a lot of factors, and a lot to be going up against, but even in the face of these challenges, there are indeed steps that you can take in the moment to deal with cravings. Research has given us some fascinating and useful insights into questions regarding food and self -control and the answers leave us with hope for everyone in terms of being able to master their eating habits. In 1965 a landmark reach project called the “Marshmallow Experiment” was carried out at Stanford University by Professor Walter Mischel with 653 preschool children. It was called the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’.  The goals of the testing were to explore how and why some children were able to delay gratification while others simply succumb to temptation. By using preschoolers, they were able to assess innate ability rather than skills learned through life experience and it revealed some very useful tools for all of us regarding dealing with cravings.

The Marshmallow Experiment: What Research Can Teach Us About Self Control 

In the 1960’s 63 school children were tested in what is now called ‘The Marsh mellow Experiment’- a social study that provides fascinating insight into how we can control ourselves around food.

The tests were extremely simple, but perhaps torture for the preschoolers involved. Each child sat in a game room and was asked to pick a treat from a tray of marshmallows, cookies or pretzel sticks. Researchers then gave each child the option that they could have one treat now, which was placed directly in front of them at the table, or if they were willing to wait for a few minutes they could have two treats when the researcher returned.  If the child rang a bell left on the table, the researcher would run back into the room and the child could eat one treat, but would not get the second treat. You can imagine the dilemma those poor kids endured! A dilemma not too different from what many of us experience today as adults when we are faced with the choice of instant gratification from eating junk foods now, or holding out for a future reward of a better body and better health.

Self Control Is Important In All Aspects Of Our Lives

self control can be learned

The most important point of Dr. Mischel’s experiments is that self control can be leaned by anyone.

What happened next in the experiment was as you may expect. The kids all wanted the second treat and struggled to be patient and not ring the bell immediately. Some kids ate the treat as soon as the researcher left the room and others ate the treat immediately without even bothering to ring the bell! On average most of the kids struggled for about three minutes before succumbing to temptation. What was fascinating, however, was the 30% of preschoolers who were able to successfully delay their urges until the researcher came back into the room fifteen minutes later, a veritable eternity by preschooler standards! [10,11]


Professor Mischel tracked the kids into adulthood and he found that those who were on the lower scale of being able to delay their gratification as kids were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI), and more inclined to have behavioral and substance abuse issues as adults.[12] The kids who were able to hold out for the full fifteen minutes, tended to do better academically and socially. What is heartening however is that of all the data extrapolated from the marshmallow experiment, the most intriguing finding came from the group of kids who failed the marshmallow test early on- but went on to become adults with high degrees of self-control.[12] This a finding that reinforces that what we term ‘willpower’ is really a matter of learning how to control our thought processes. A skill that can be learned with practice and experience. Professor Mischel found that the kids who were able to wait for the full fifteen minutes all used certain coping mechanisms to hold out- skills that anyone today can use to us stay on track in the face of temptation.[12]

Dealing With Food Cravings With A Technique Called Metacognition

how to stop food cravings- distract yourself

The key to dealing with food cravings is to distract yourself before it’s too late!

In the Marshmallow Experiment, the kids who were able to hold out the longest distracted themselves by covering their eyes, singing songs or playing games. Basically, anything to remove the focus from what is called the ‘hot stimulus’. For those of in a similar fix, confronted with foods we want to avoid and the sense of temptation creeping up, the key is not to think about it.

You should not even let yourself think about avoiding it as the more you think about the food and how good or bad it is, the more likely you are to eat it.

Instead, the idea is to not think about something else. Sing, go for a walk if you can to remove yourself but if you can’t, then sign or distract yourself in some form or fashion. Whatever you do, don’t go look at television as it is filled with cues to eat!


Dealing With Food Cravings- My Donut Story

donuts create food cravings

For a while I had some serious food craving issues with donuts, which I overcame using metacognition.

I too have had to struggle with food cravings. Especially earlier on in my career as I was not born with the skills I have today to control my diet. Metacognition is a method I have had to employ on many occasions. I struggled several years ago with absolutely unbearable cravings for donuts when my body fat dipped into the low single digits for contests and photoshoots. Not a light craving, mind you, but a very serious one. One day after winning a show I stopped by Dunkin Donuts and got myself a dozen donuts, glazed were my favorites back then. I promptly proceeded to my office several blocks away where I ate all twelve and immediately marched out to get another dozen! I ate that dozen and went out one last time, eating 36 donuts in the space of a half hour!

It didn’t stop there.  As time when on I would find myself suddenly struck with an almost insatiable urge for those sugar coated monsters. I would leave the house at odd hours in search of my fix, pure seek and destroy missions for glazed donuts until one day about a month into this insanity, I realized that I had a problem and that it had to be addressed. I understood fully that is was a biological response to my caloric restriction and falling body fat levels as these cravings only kicked in after I had lost a significant amount of weight and would make it nigh impossible to keep the weight off.

food and self control- how do you control yourself around food you want to eat

The skill for resisting foods you shouldn’t eat is called meta-cognition and it works for everyone!

However, armed with my understanding of what was happening, I tried and tried until I got some semblance of control over the cravings. When I had one of my overwhelming donut desires, instead of focusing on not eating them I would distract myself by thinking about something else. I found that reading didn’t help me at all and that I got the most relief doing things like calculating the fuel required for aircraft flights or how many calories I had for the day without using a calculator. Anything cerebral tends to work and while it was not easy at first, over time the cravings did subside and I haven’t had a donut in over fifteen years, nor do I see myself eating one again in this lifetime! This strategy didn’t only work with donuts- but for just about any food high in fat or sugar that beckoned. The more I practiced distracting myself, the better I became at it, until I got to where I am today. A point where eating as I should is second nature.


Dealing With Food Cravings- Metacognition At Work

Try these techniques and see what works best for you when faced with food cravings:

Sing to yourself.

Count backwards from 100 or do some form of calculation that takes your mind away from the food.

Block your eyes for a short while if you can’t leave the space where the food is located.

Go for a walk if you can.


Visualize yourself somewhere pleasant doing what you like to do.

Do some light exercises or stretches.

These are just some suggestions, and you will have to work to see what works for you, but what matters most is that when you employ metacognition that you keep on doing it. Even if it fails as it works only if you work it!

I see a number of so called fitness experts bragging about their control over what and how they eat and it’s truly sad to see as they tend to set themselves apart from the rest of the population with their degree of control. Many of them use drugs to get into the shape they get into and the ones who don’t are usually the product of good habits, not some inherent willpower. These good habits make up the foundation of being able to hold on to any weight loss success long term and this is something that anyone can learn over time. It just takes an investment of time to figure out what works best to distract you and then you keep doing it until you get to a point where you no longer need to do much to overcome the innate desire to eat what you shouldn’t.

dealing with food cravings through metacognition

Dealing With Food Cravings- A Three Step Approach

Step 1. Don’t Blame Yourself- it won’t make the cravings go away and will only make you feel worse and set you up for failure in the future. 

Step 2. Make sure you are not skipping breakfast or any other meal that is causing you to have cravings and that you are getting the nutrition you need.

Step 3. Distract yourself using metacognition and practice using these techniques as they work better over time. 

Step 4. If you fall, just get right back up and try to do better next time- but no judgement. 


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