Chocolate chip cookies. Mmmmm. Just saying the words makes me want to have one. And don’t put one in front of me because I'll certainly give in. It makes me ask, "Why can't I resist food temptations?"
Resisting food temptations is hard, and we can find all kinds of excuses to go ahead and eat what we know we shouldn’t. The truth is we’re at the mercy of how nature built us, and that’s for an environment we don’t live in anymore.
Even if you're eating a plant-based diet, you can be sidetracked. While you want to eat well and stay on track, there are many choices, distractions, temptations, and conflicting views that can potentially throw you into a tizzy.
It starts to feel like you’re playing a defensive game – avoid this, watch out for that. And, unfortunately, it can lead to frustration, false starts, and down-right giving up.
However, if you know WHY getting sidetracked is so easy, you’re more likely to shore up your defenses until they become habits.
Your basic nature won’t go away, but let’s look at what that is and how to make your health top-notch by eating a plant-based diet AND staying on track instead of falling to the mercy of your genes.
5 Reasons why resisting food temptations is hard (and what to do about it)
1. The Habit Loop
Your brain is programmed to make things easier for you. By cementing actions that you do regularly, you don’t have to think each time you jump in the car for a drive or take to the tennis court.
That’s a good thing because it would take more effort and energy. Nature wants to conserve. When first learning something new, you have to think more, and it’s the same with all actions you take. Once it’s cemented, it’s called the habit loop.
Triggers prompt us to fall into the habit loop, and we're easily triggered into a negative habit loop by seeing food, not just any food. Food that we've tasted and enjoyed. It creates a feedback loop so that the next time you see that food, you can’t stop thinking about it; the craving can be relentless! You know that feeling.
For example, my husband used to eat potato chips with a banana. He still is triggered to want chips when he eats a banana and vis versa.
It's a fascinating topic and one you should look into. Discover more about triggers in this article, “6 Tips for Dealing with Food Triggers.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to food (and many other habits, I might add), once a habit loop is set, it becomes oh-so-hard to break.
What to do about it:
In his book, “The Power of Habits,” Charles Duhigg says that it’s very difficult to break the habit cycle of a trigger, a routine, and a reward. But, you can interrupt it with a reward that’s better for you.
Make a list of the triggers that steer you from a healthy, plant-based diet. Then next to it, write down something healthier that you can substitute. Is it fast food? Find a healthy fast food substitute, like the salad bar or a vegan burger joint, and make a beeline there instead.
Is it cheese that you use to eat in the afternoon? Make an oil-free hummus dip and veggies instead. Chocolate? Throw cacao nibs into a smoothie. Start finding recipe replacements like these Chickpea Chocolate Chip cookies.
Read “The Power of Habits” to get a better understanding of habits, and download this printable Habit Minder to get a grip on how your habits are steering you off course.
DOWNLOAD this printable "Habit Minder” sheet to fill in the bad habits you’d like to change and what new habits you’ll replace them with.
2. You were the refrigerator
Again, trying to conserve, nature built into us some survival insurance by driving us to put on weight when we had a chance. That's because, in the past, there weren’t any grocery stores. Finding food was hard. There were famines and long periods between plentiful food, so those that could pack on some pounds were set when the famine hit, and they survived.
We’re the descendants of people whose genes made them good at surviving. There was no fridge, no ice. You were the refrigerator. See yummy food, and eat as much as you can. Our genes make us do it. They also make us lay around to conserve energy.
On top of that, we only have so much willpower, and once that’s gone, we’re more likely to give in.
What to do about it:
There’s not much you can do to change our genetics and how nature built us to survive. But you can make sure your fridge and pantry are filled with foods for making good-for-you meals and snacks. Make sure you have plenty on hand. Baked corn tortilla chips for something crunchy, banana ice cream for something sweet.
If you’re susceptible to eating off-plan then make sure you have a meal at least every 5 hours before your blood sugar is depleted.
And DO NOT shop when you are hungry. That’s a sure way to blow it!
3. Food is everywhere:
Grocery stores, fast food, the corner gas station, the office, or holiday party. Food is everywhere. At least in Western countries, we have way more available to us than we’ll ever need. It’s a blessing and a curse.
With SO many choices and such a variety, from cereals to soups to pre-made dinners, we can get overwhelmed. It becomes mentally draining and our brains tell us we want to try it all.
Not only that but more choice makes us less happy. And when we make a choice, we feel we may have made the wrong one. Read more about choice and brain drain in this fascinating NY Times article, “The Paradox of Choice.”
What to do about it:
Avoid seeing, driving by, or thinking about your food triggers. Again, don’t shop when you’re hungry, and BE PREPARED. Buy a cute little cooler to bring your own lunch and snacks to the office or keep in the car for when the urge hits. Plan meals ahead. Have a full pantry.
4. Seeking Behavior: Dopamine
All animals do it, and it’s meant to encourage us to find food and survive. We’re alive, we need sustenance, and we crave food! Food means life. Wow, that’s a strong motivator. No wonder you’re having a hard time resisting these foods! It’s the reason we like to shop, even when we don’t really need anything.
The hormone dopamine is triggered, which keeps you seeking until that urge is satisfied.
What to do about it:
Be aware of what’s going on… be mindful. Tell yourself how bad something is for you, that it’s toxic. Remember that neurons fire together, wire together, and become stronger. But also those that don’t eventually go away.
The brain wants to clip out those neurons to make way for others, so the less you think about something you crave, the better. Start strengthening those pathways of healthy, nutritious food. You can do this by visualizing your tasty alternatives.
5. You are your friends!
We are social creatures, and you may not realize it, but we try to be like each other. Just look at a group of girls and what they’re wearing. They’ll all have the same short skirt or platform shoes and even wear their hair the same. Or, a motorcycle gang, the same leather jacket, headband, motorcycle, and sunglasses.
It helps us identify with the tribe. So, when your friends are eating one way, you probably are, too, and if they're on the chunky side, so are you. We just feel more comfortable that way. And, when we’re different, we feel less comfortable. Of course, this is not so for some people, but it is for the majority.
What to do about it:
The fact that you KNOW why this is happening is a great first step. It should make you more conscious about taking that extra helping. You could also let your friends in on the notion and see if they’d be interested in making a change as a group.
Come up with a challenge to lose x-number of pounds in 60 days. Be a leader in your group. Be OK that you’re different than your friends. Now that you know, choose to be different. You’ll feel better, look better and be your own person, one who is eating for health!
It all starts with consciousness about the foods you’re trying to resist. You have to know what the enemy is. If you’re happy being 50 lbs overweight, then that’s fine, but if you want to lose weight or eat better foods, arm yourself with these tools to successfully win the war on bad food choices and habits that may control you.
Chances are that you’ll start to notice when you’re subconsciously triggered to want forbidden food or a new meal at your favorite restaurant. And, with that split-second of consciousness, you may be able to stop yourself.
I have good days and bad days when it comes to by-passing temptations, but I can honestly say that I can pass by the cheese section, look straight ahead and think about what other whole foods I can purchase (that are on my grocery list, from my meal plan, BTW.)
General tips to help you overcome evolutionary drivers and gain new habits:
Meal plan, meal plan, meal plan! I can’t say it enough. If you haven’t yet, read this article, “Plant-Based Meal Planning Mistakes, and How to Avoid them,” which also included a download of 8 plant-based meal planning mistakes. Also, download this handy food diary / planner.
Use the Goldilocks rule:
Don’t make a new habit so hard that you won’t do it or too easy. Instead, find one that's just enough of a challenge that you feel empowered to act.
Measure your progress:
It’s motivating to see where you’ve been and how it’s going. Download this weight tracker.
Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
Change your mindset from a fixed to a growth mindset, and remember that human beings are constantly growing and changing. If you work hard, you can make it happen vs. “I can’t change; I’m just this way.”
Take Tiny Steps
Start small and add on: tiny steps are the way to make changing habits work. If you feel overwhelmed with where you’re going, remember that each journey starts with a single step. What next simple step can you take toward that new habit?