Home All Two Quick Ways to Gain Control over Your Food Urges

Two Quick Ways to Gain Control over Your Food Urges

written by Marie-Josée Shaar 24 April 2010

Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.

540 words.  Reading time: less than 90 seconds.

Temptation is fun - giving in is even bettter?

Temptation is fun – giving in is even bettter?

Do you feel powerless when it comes to implementing healthier food habits? A lot of people spend energy trying to resist the appeal of their favorite treats, only to find themselves depleted, defeated, and chewing away on the forbidden temptations before the day is done. After the temporary satisfaction has vanished, they feel guilty and resolve once again that this was their last lapse… until the next one.

If your relationship with food looks something like this example, my article will give you empowerment.

You see, people who want to improve their eating habits tend to focus on their weaknesses. They keep repeating to themselves “I know I shouldn’t have X (make it your preferred guilt-inducing food: chocolate, chips, fries, bacon), but it would taste soooo goood! And I work so hard. I need and deserve a treat.” And so the cycle of fleeting pleasure, remorse, and short-lived determination repeats itself.

Try New Strategies

Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is to keep repeating the same behaviors over and over while expecting different outcomes. So if obsessing over your food habits has led you to no avail in the past, don’t expect it to be a fruitful endeavor moving forward.

Us positive psychology aficionados already know that focusing on weaknesses only goes so far. That’s why my health promotion model suggests the exact opposite. Rather than count on your already over-solicited mental energy and your soon-exhausted self-regulation, why not try another strategy? Here are my two favorites:

  1. Physical activity: Rather than give in to that brownie, put on your sneakers and go for a walk. Angela Duckworth’s research shows that people who can best resist temptations are those who divert their attention. Brain scans also show that when a tempting stimulus is not available, our brain activity related to it diminishes considerably, hence making it easier to resist (Kessler, 2009). Out of sight, out of mind? Equally important, according to change expert James Prochaska, a lot of our dysfunctional behaviors are expressions of physical urges. Learning to shift these urges from need for comfort food to cues for exercise is a winning strategy. According to him, “There is no more beneficial substitute for problem behaviors than exercise.” Certainly worth a shot!
  2. Emotional response: Learn to look at that slice of pizza differently. Rather than see the comforting flavors, envision its sodium content creating micro-lesions in your arterial walls. Then picture its cholesterol coming in to fill in these micro-lesions, and leaving fatty deposits behind. Take 30 seconds to feel the rising blood pressure that will ensue, and that sweaty and out-of-breath feeling that you might experience just trying to walk up a flight of stairs over a lifetime of such not-so-commendable habits. Yuck! Change your emotional response to the foods that are hard-to-resist for you and their appeal will diminish considerably.

Save Your Mental Energy

Next time you want to avoid a certain food, preserve your mental energy for what really deserves it. By going for a walk or changing your emotional response to the foods you want to rid your life of, you will free yourself from the temptation painlessly. You will also preserve your self-regulatory power for other demands that are sure to come your way during the day!


Baumeister, R. F., Gailliot, M., DeWall, C. N., & Oaten, M. (2006). Self-regulation and personality: How interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. Journal of personality, 74(6), 1773-1801.

Duckworth, A. (2007). Lecture for the Masters of Applied Positive Psychology students, University of Pennsylvania.

Kessler, D. (2009). The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C. & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: HarperCollins.

Roizen, M. F. & Oz, M. C. (2005). YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Updated and Expanded Edition: An Insider’s Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger. New York: HarperCollins.

Somer, E. (1999). Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well and Feeling Your Best, Second Edition, Second Edition. New York: Holt Paperbacks

Image credits
Temptation courtesy of powerbooktrance;
Pizza courtesy of Theodore Scott.

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Senia 25 April 2010 - 1:06 am


I love all the research on physical activity that you cite. You actually mean that you would recommend to go on an impromptu walk in the middle of the day when you have a food urge that you don’t want to give in to?

Would that make a person feel guilty for time being away from working? Like going on a 20-minute walk? Is there a way that you would recommend to go on that walk mid-day and to not feel guilty about doing so?

Thank much!

Doug 25 April 2010 - 9:50 am

Marie-Jo – Thanks for your thoughtful article. I exercise regularly but also fall into the trap of telling myself that I “deserve” a cookie, for instance, before I go to bed. Unfortunately, that one cookie turns into a dozen, very easily. When I look back on when I have been successful implementing a healthy regimen, it is when I also implement strategy #2: view the ‘bad’ food as negatively affecting my health. Thanks for bringing this back to my attention!

CA Howell 25 April 2010 - 10:26 am

I buy vegetables. I do not want to peel, chop, etc. They rot in my frig. Then I feel guilty about wasting money. Got a solution?

Michelle 25 April 2010 - 1:30 pm

I like the visualization exercise (fatty/sugary food doing damage to artery walls and brain tissue).

When I was a child I used to hear, “clean your plate, don’t you know there are starving children in the world?” That is true, we forget so easily that over 70% of the people in the world don’t have food in the refrigerator

To put a positive spin on my mom’s well intentioned comment and keeping those hungry children in mind, my “visualization” that helps is this: when I have one of those moments, I try to remember to I offer that “food” up to God for someone, somewhere on the planet that really needs it.

A walk does help to encourage the “sacrifice” though!

Sherri Fisher 25 April 2010 - 4:11 pm

To CA Howell–
1) Yuan Ling Lu, R.D., suggests to avoid having the veggies and fruit going bad, chop as soon as you get home from the store and when you are NOT hungry, and put into reusable containers. When you are peckish, they will be ready to go. If you wait till you are hungry to prepare them, it is too late. Put some into zip-top bags for an on-the-go snack.
2) Don’t buy cookies and other things you want to avoid eating. If they are present, you will choose them at least some of the time.
3) Do not reward with junk food. Reward with something else that makes you feel stronger and full, like veggie juice (even low-sodium V-8 will do this).
4) Be proud of yourself! You are not a junk food chump!!

🙂 Sherri, PPND author

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 26 April 2010 - 8:01 am

Love the conversation that started!

Senia – here’s a question in response to yours: why should we feel guilty to take a break mid-day in the first place? Our bodies were made to move and movement is the best way to release stress, it helps produce feel-good do-good neurotransmitters and it facilitates attention and learning once we get back at work. On the other hand, lack of movement is associated with weight gain, lower back pain, more frequent injuries, self-esteem loss, increased stress – all kinds of things making us less productive. In addition, no matter how hard we want to believe we can be 100% productive 12 hours a day, we are not. Our machinery is not made for that type of work schedule (our computer, yes. our brain and bodies, no!). As you know, my previous articles provide lots and lots of references on this, so I suspect that you are asking the question for someone else. Here are my final thoughts: it’s time corporate cultures start to welcome and encourage mid-day moving breaks. And BTW, if 20 minutes is guilt-inducing, 10 minutes can be enough. Bring a colleague and discuss loosely a project at the same time so you can hold a walk and talk meeting rather than a real break to ease into it if you have to. How does that sound?

Let me know!
Very best, MarieJ

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 26 April 2010 - 8:02 am

Doug – thanks for your comment! Glad my suggestion works for you. Here’s an additional thought you might like: if you feel deserving after a good workout, why not change it from “my taste buds deserve a treat” to “my body deserves good nutrition to recover from that effort”? See if that works for you!
Only the best,

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 26 April 2010 - 8:13 am

Dear CA,

Let me ask you this: do you drink coffee or tea? How much preparation time does it take? Is that significantly longer than peeling a carrot? Many use the “no time” excuse to justify to themselves why they won’t prepare the veggies, yet they have all the time in the world to get the coffee maker going, and add the cream and sugar.

If that’s your case, then maybe it just means that the veggies aren’t that appealing/important for you. Assuming this is true, I would try the reverse of strategy 2 above: see if you can increase the emotional significance good nutrition plays in your life to get the ball rolling. We are the first society in history to be overfed but under-nourished, want to be part of that very unsexy stat? Veggies are the #1 most important thing to properly feed your brain and body. Eating them not only gives you good nutrition, but it keeps your hormones and neurotransmitters in balance. It can contribute to a higher your self-esteem (as Sherri said, you are no junk-food chump), prevent serious illnesses, etc, etc etc. Use whatever arguments work for you, but see if you can increase their appeal such that the prep time becomes insignificant.

And of course, Sherri made another good recommendation. So you now have 2 strategies to play with – try them out and let me know how it works!

Good luck!


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com