“Don’t eat that chocolate cake. Don’t eat that chocolate cake.” I chanted to myself desperately while I sat on the floor each night with my back against the wall staring at the fridge that held the very thing I was trying to stop myself from eating.
But no matter how hard I tried, it always ended the same. Me eating the chocolate cake… and feeling like a complete failure… yet again.
I felt totally out of control.
How is it possible that the one thing that I was trying sooooo hard to not do was the one thing that I couldn’t resist?
The attraction of the forbidden fruit
Almost every get-healthy or fat-loss diet I’ve researched revolves around a single thing: a list of food you can and can’t eat. Sometimes it’s entire food groups that you can’t eat like fat or carbs. Other times its specific food like bananas or egg yolks. But the thing that most people don’t realise is that the very list itself may be the thing that guarantees you’ll fail.
Don’t think of a white bear
A quick thought experiment. Look at your watch and for the next 15 seconds, try not to think of a white bear. Go on, I’ll wait….
Fail miserably? So did everyone else, I guarantee it (1).
It’s a paradoxical psychological quirk, but research shows us this: whatever we tell ourselves is forbidden, whether it is an immoral thought or a ‘bad’ food, we end up thinking about more, craving more intensely and quite often indulging in more than we would have if we hadn’t made the thought or behaviour outlawed in the first place (2, 3). This phenomenon is called “Thought Suppression Rebound”, and it’s not something you want to ignore.
The thing is, our mind is a powerful thing and likes to make sure that we are keeping in line with our intentions. So if we’ve decided not to think about that bowl of candy on your colleges desk, your mind will constantly have to ask itself “have I been thinking about the candy or not?” and bam… you’ve just doubled your thoughts about what you don’t want to think about (4).
How stop your food cravings- 1 quick trick
Well first let me start by clarifying what not to do. I had a serious chocolate cake addiction when I was in my late teens but of course I didn’t kick my addiction all those years ago by totally giving in and allowing myself to eat as much as I wanted.
What I did instead was accept that I had a craving, and then shift focus. I stopped pumping all my energy on concentrating on what I didn’t want to eat. I stopped trying to distract myself from every thought I had about chocolate cake, after all, that would only make the whole obsession stronger. Then, I started focusing on what I did want.
My new focus became this: drink 2.5 litres of pure water (which was more than 3 times what I was drinking at the time), and eat at least 3 pieces of fresh fruit, and 3 fresh vegetables each and every day (I was going from almost zero!).
Soon enough, without intending it or even realising it, I found that I wasn’t having to fight with myself every night and I was spending a whole lot less time staring at that evil chocolate cake containing fridge! Sure, I still ate chocolate cake every now and then, but it was no longer this all-consuming obsession that I couldn’t overcome. And opening the space for a positive rather than negative internal dialogue was a big relief in itself.
Although this was just a small step in the right direction, eating 60% less chocolate cake and saving myself from all the stress and pressure was certainly an improvement I was happy with at the time.
2 birds with the one stone
So that was my original goal, and while it worked, I now know of an even more powerful strategy; something we might call a “sneaky substitution”. What you do is take some whole food that’s totally nutrient packed and delicious and eat this at a time when you’d usually consume something not so good for you that you’d like to eat / drink less of.
Here are a few examples:
- Old forbidden food rule: don’t eat crisps after sandwich at lunch
- New sneaky substitution: eat a crunchy apple after lunch with a few almonds (if you want something salty, try roasting whole raw almonds for around 10 minutes in the oven and then splash over some tamari soy sauce while they’re still hot. They’re great for packed lunches too.)
- Old forbidden food rule: don’t drink so much coffee
- New sneaky substitution: drink 2 cups of green tea and 2 cups of other non-caffeinated herbal tea each day
Get the idea? I’ll say it again just in case you haven’t quite got it:
Stop setting all those crazy rules about what you can’t eat, and start focusing instead on what you want to eat. Or… Stop cutting the bad things out, and start adding the good stuff in.
So here’s your challenge for this week:
- Look at all the food / drink you’re trying to NOT eat. Are there specific days or times in a day when you usually eat them?
- Now pick a delicious nutrient dense whole-food that you know that will make you feel awesome to act as your sneaky substitution
- Plan ahead and prepare the sneaky substitution (and I can’t stress how essential this part is if you want this method to work!)
- Share the love by sharing this post on your facebook page, or spread the message by tweeting: “To stop food cravings: stop cutting the bad things out, and start adding the good stuff in. @feedyourmachine”
1) Wegner, D.M. White bears and other unwanted thoughts. New York: Viking/Penguin. 1989.
2) Erskine JA, Georgiou GJ. Effects of thought suppression on eating behaviour in restrained and non-restrained eaters. Appetite. 2010 Jun;54(3):499-503.
3) Coelho JS, Polivy J, Herman CP. Selective carbohydrate or protein restriction: effects on subsequent food intake and cravings. Appetite. 2006 Nov;47(3):352-60.
4) Wegner DM. Ironic processes of mental control. Psychol Rev. 1994 Jan;101(1):34-52.