Food And Self Control- How Do You Stop Cravings?
For the majority of us, the hardest part of losing weight and keeping it off comes not from the rigors of exercise but from the willpower required to control your eating habits. The most common statement that I have heard over and over over the past 20 years is that when it comes to certain foods all lot of people feel that they can’t control themselves! The very thought of having to deny yourself your favorite junk foods sends most of us into paroxysms. So much so that most of us tend to resign ourselves to the idea that we do not have the willpower to eat consistently well. This opens up some interesting questions about human nature. Are some people naturally endowed with an innate ability to control their eating habits? Is it something ingrained that helps people maintain a healthier lifestyle? If so, does that mean that if you aren’t one of those iron willed people that easily walk past the-not-so-great-foods at the buffet table without stopping that you are doomed to an eternity of trying hard to stay on your diet but always failing? Research has given us some fascinating and useful insights into these questions and the answers leave us with hope for everyone being able to master their eating habits.
What Research Can Tell Us About Self Control
In 1965 a landmark 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 some children are 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. The idea was to explore from as an objective standpoint as possible the natural inclinations of the children in the study. 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 easily picture the dilemma those poor kids endured all those years ago. 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 abstaining for a future reward of a better body and better health. 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. Some ate the treat immediately without even bothering to ring the bell! On average most struggled for about three minutes before succumbing to temptation. What was fascinating, however, were the 30% of preschoolers who were able to successfully delay their urges until the researcher came back into the room fifteen minutes later- an veritable eternity by preschooler standards!
Self Control Can Be Learned
Professor Mischel continued to track 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), more inclined to have substance abuse issues and behavioral problems as adults. Not surprisingly, the kids able to hold out for the full fifteen minutes, tended to do better academically and socially. Proof that some of us do seem to possess genetically predetermined abilities that help delay gratification and determine our success at many tasks as adults. In terms of weight loss, it would seem that some of us are naturally able to resist the temptation of eating foods that taste great but are bad for us. Nevertheless, it is heartening to know that these skills can be learned, and that someone who naturally has a hard time delaying gratification can use simple tricks to improve their self control.
Of all the data extrapolated from the marshmallow experiment, the most intriguing comes from the discovery of the group of kids who failed the marshmallow test early on- but went on to become adults with high degrees of self control. This group reinforces that what we term ‘willpower’ is really a matter of learning how to control our thought processes. A skill that we can learn over time with experience. Professor Mischel found that the kids who were able to wait for the full fifteen minutes used certain coping mechanisms to hold out- skills that anyone today can use to us stay on track in the face of temptation.
The Golden Rule For Stopping Cravings & Increasing Your Self Control- Distract Yourself!
The kids that 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 us placed in a similar situation where we are confronted by foods we want to avoid, the key is not to think about it. You should not even let yourself think about avoiding it. 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 it in the first place. It is a method that I understand well. I struggled several years ago with cravings for donuts- not a light craving, mind you, but a serious one, especially after bodybuilding contests. 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- 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. The next time I had one of my overwhelming donut desires, instead of focusing on not eating them I would distract myself by thinking about something else or occupying myself with some form of activity. It was not easy at first but over time the cravings did subside and I haven’t had a donut in over ten years, nor do I ever see myself eating one again in this lifetime! This strategy didn’t only work for me with donuts- but for pizza, bread, pastries and just about every food that I loved growing up, but knew wasn’t good for me. The more I distracted myself the better I got at it, until I got to where I am today, where eating well is pretty much second nature. Many look at my achievements in terms of dietary adherence and believe I was somehow gifted with a steel will that enables me to eat the way I do- and that is not exactly true. Like everyone else I struggled to eat better, but I used some very useful tools to get me through the hard parts. This skill is called metacognition- and is the most powerful tool in your arsenal of being able to resist the foods that you should not eat- but it is a skill like any other that only gets better with practice.
Professor Mischel found that by teaching children a series of mental tricks such as pretending that the treat in front of them was only a picture in their imagination, the kids that could hardly wait for 30 seconds were able to wait for the full 15 minutes. As adults we can use similar processes to create delay strategies but keep in mind that they will work best when we have practiced them to the point where it becomes second nature. What is great is that by learning how to increase our self control by understanding how our minds work, we are not only able to resist temptations like cake and ice cream, but we are also able to improve our concentration on numerous tasks in life that will ultimately lead to our success.
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Kevin Richardson is one of the most sought after and respected personal trainers in NYC and the creator of Naturally Intense High Intensity Training 10 Minute Workouts. You an download a copy of his free weight loss ebook here.