What is your all time favorite food? Basically, if you could just carry a huge sack full of something around forever, and eat it, without any negative effects, and without having people judge you for reaching into a sack full of fried chicken legs that you happen to be carrying carry around on your back, what you would eat? Now, imagine being alone in a room with that food, and knowing that there are negative consequences, but you really, really, really want it. Well, certain "Fitspirational" quotes on instagram would lead you to believe that not giving into the food is as easy as just, exercising your saying no muscle. Or whatever. However, I completely disagree. If following a diet and exercise plan were so simple, then there wouldn't be a need for personal trainers, nutritionists, coaches, or even "Fitspo" quotes. If staying motivated and on track was as easy as shaking your head no when you are at a birthday party and someone offers you Salted Carmel Pumpkin Spice Chai Latte Double Chocolate Chip Cake, then everyone would be their goal size and shape, and pumpkin farmers would be shit out of luck.
There is an adorable, but completely monumental study in psychology, known as “The Marshmallow Study.” At the time, this pioneer study most likely didn't look like much, but has since become one of the most commonly replicated studies for psych 101 students. Beyond the psychology world, it’s not that well known. So if you haven’t heard of it, pull up a seat; in short, back in the 1960’s Walter Mischel, a psychologist and personality researcher ran a study in which he told children, you can have 1 marshmallow as soon as you want it, just ring this bell, or you can have 2 if you can wait for me to get back. Then, he left the child in the room with the marshmallow, and watched the child. Four year old children could wait up to 15 minutes before giving in and eating the marshmallow, and, school age children could hold out for so long, Walter actually felt bad for them and brought them the second marshmallow. There was a difference of course between those children who ate the marshmallow, and those who did not, and it wasn't childhood onset diabetes. Mischel followed these children into adulthood and found that the children able to not eat the marshmallow exhibited a different skill set later in life than those who did.
It turns out, that the children who didn't eat the marshmallow used tricks to help them withstand the desire of just grabbing that treat. Some children imagined the marshmallow as a cloud, or some imagined the marshmallow as a picture in a frame. By making the treat an abstract item, the children were able to stop themselves and delay gratification. It probably means they also didn't punch kids for stealing their crayons. It turns out these children also engaged their prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain where we plan complex behavior, and also where the decision making process begins. In conjunction with other parts of our brain, like the ones that form our reward system, which includes the prefrontal cortex, a lot goes on when we are trying to make a decision.
Picture yourself out with some friends, talking, having a good time, when the most gorgeous person you've ever laid eyes on walks in. Like for real; you hear angles singing, you have a flash of what your children will look like, and you're already upset that you'll have to cry at their death bed, I mean you're clearly so healthy that unfortunately you will outlive this fine specimen. Your friends are next to you, egging you on, "Bro, just go say hi, get their number, come on man." But you're in a deep panic. It's not so easy as just exercising your grow some balls muscle is it? What goes through your head? Think about this and this may help you develop an approach towards those tricky foods you want to say no to, or eat in moderation but just can't.
Usually, you'll go to similar situations in the past. The last 5 times you asked someone out, you were rejected. So now you think if I ask I'll be rejected. But what were you doing that got you rejected? Did you go over and make a lewd comment, to mask the fact that you were anxious, and then you helped this person make your decision for you? In a similar way, think about the times you wanted a treat but it wasn't in your plan, or you only wanted a serving size and ended up eating 4 boxes. Be honest with yourself here. It most likely isn't that you suck. If you sucked, you wouldn't be taking steps to make yourself better. Most likely, it's that, like the children who ate the marshmallow, knowing that if they waited a little longer they could have two, your brain is working a little differently.
Some successful daters may imagine that they are going to talk to an old friend, even if deep down they want to run screaming from the bar, they mentally put themselves at ease and lower their anxiety before making a fool of themselves. Some of us are not abstract thinkers. So when it comes to food, it may be helpful if we could eat boiled chicken and imagine it is pizza, or stare at a marshmallow and think of it as a cloud, but if that's not possible, there are other tricks. One thing we can do is control our planning. I always recommend that you prepare yourself as best as you can for situations where you know there are going to be treats, so make sure you eat before hand, and have some healthy snacks with you. That way, if you have a cookie, you can still reach into your bag and eat some carrots or grapes. Sometimes, like the guy who approached a girl with no plan and ends up complimenting her boobs, if we approach a highly tempting situation with no plan, we are setting ourselves up to fail. Bringing your own treats can get tricky, I always have clients who are worried that people will judge them for eating almonds at a party. I have to remind them that their goals are important to them, and most of the time, a lot of these clients also feel judged when they eat unhealthy snacks in front of others, so you really have to make the choice to put your lifestyle choices ahead of others opinions.
Next we can work on our automatic responses as a way to challenge our existing reward system. In the dating world, a typical reward system may look like this. Pretty girl + Me = YAY! You want to go up to the attractive person, because they make you feel like you could go on to do great things together forever...or at least for that night. Have you ever had a friend tell you something like, "Well maybe that's not such a good idea, I'm pretty sure I see him out all of the time, and he leaves with a different girl every night." You have your immediate reward system saying "You + Me = YAY" but now you have a rational piece of information added to the mix. Potential Gonorrhea. You can take a step back and rework the equation, you + me + everyone with 2 legs in a 20 mile radius= no.
Clearly, in addition to this blog I should also be a dating guru, but let me bring that back to food. In challenging our automatic reward responses, another good skill you can work on is stepping away, and "playing the tape." Really evaluate the whole situation. To do this, walk away from the food and use an "If, Then, Because," statement. Say, "IF I eat the cake THEN I might not meet my goal this week BECAUSE I already had pizza at this party and that was the food off my plan I allowed myself for the day." Using an If, Then, Because, statement helps you frame a decision in a rational way that your mind may not be wired to use. Your brain maybe hanging out going "CAKE, CAKE, CAKE, CAKE, CAKE, CAKEEEEE, it's sooo gooooood! IF you eat the the cake THEN you'll be happy, BECAUSE ITS CAKE!!!!!" So stepping away removes you from the immediate reward and helps you make the decision that is best for your goals, even if it may not be the decision you are hard wired to make.
So, as always, I say have some of the cake, but use some of these skills to help yourself continuously make the choices you want to make. Sticking to a diet is not as easy as just wanting to do it. You can read all the inspirational quotes in the world, and have a team of high paid professionals helping you, but it isn't until you learn to modify your behaviors and approach to food, especially those that you want to eat in moderation or not at all, that you can start making the changes that will last a life time. Just like in dating, if you want the persons number, you probably shouldn't grab their ass. Instead you should approach them with confidence and self control. When you approach food with confidence and self control, you will better be able to use your past experiences to plan for success, and better be able to resist and control temptations. While I am not a dating expert, feel free to let me know if you used my tips to score a date; please don't tell me if you ignored my warnings and got an STD.
If you want to watch something painfully adorable and relatable:
The Marshmallow Test: http://youtu.be/QX_oy9614HQ