Think About Something Else

Today was a potluck at work, and I had to coach myself through the experience to avoid the (delicious) poison in the corporate overlords’ kitchen. It seems like a good time to share some of the tricks I use to ensure that I don’t overeat good-for-me foods and that I don’t give in to foods I know will taste good but a) won’t make me any healthier and b) won’t help me reach my goals.

I should mention that my first line of defense is to just not have any delicious poison in the house. My refrigerator and cabinets contain only Whole30-compliant ingredients. That means if I go absolutely bat-shit crazy and eat my way through the kitchen like a locust, it will merely be an overeating situation, rather than a poisoning.


Challenge #1.

The situation:
I’m tempted. There’s a bowl of Halloween candy on the receptionist’s desk. Homemade cupcakes (with sprinkles!) in the break room. The ubiquitous basket of tortilla chips and salsa at just about every restaurant in Austin.

The reaction:
I try to be present, take a deep breath, and think about what I really want.

Right now, what I really want is two-fold: (1) to live and work in Prague and (2) to see what happens to my body on the right dose of Synthroid, clean food, and solid workouts. Indulging in a few moments of pleasure for my tastebuds doesn’t get me any closer to either of those goals. And it actually moves me further away from #2.

A treat often seems like a good idea. I’m in Emotional State A (e.g., wanting to live in Prague or feeling anxious about a deadline), and I want to feel different. I want to change that emotional state. So I look for distraction or comfort or pleasure in various forms (in this case: cupcakes with sprinkles!). But the truth is, while the cupcake might provide a few moments of pleasure and distraction, it won’t change Emotional State A – and mindlessly gobbling a cupcake could potentially move me into a worse emotional state. (Note that this is radically different than a conscious decision to indulge in something awesome.)

So I try to be present, take a deep breath, and think about what I really want.

This is not easy.

I left the potluck early because the sugary treats that surrounded me were making my skin crawl. I had already eaten homemade chili and a few olives and green pepper strips – and I tried a few of the salads that were part of the buffet. I was not hungry, but the treats in my sight line were making me crave.

Faced with a craving? Be present, take a deep breath and think about what you really want. Will the treat change your emotional state? Will it move you closer to what you really want? If the answer is yes, eat with gusto. If the answer is no, remove yourself from proximity to the temptation and/or think about something else.

Which brings me to…

Challenge #2.

The situation:
I’m not hungry, but I want to eat.

The reaction:
This one comes up a lot, mostly because I like food. The solution to this is both simple and difficult: I think about something else.

Our dearly departed cat Sesame was a willful beast, and she often did things I didn’t want her to do: drinking out of the kitchen faucet, dipping her paws in my water glass, knocking the remote control off the nightstand. And at those times, I would glare at her and say, “Think about something else!”

I realized at some point that those words could be pretty useful for me, too.

When the urge to graze when I’m not hungry sneaks up on me, I think about or do something else. Make a cup of caffeine-free tea. Pick up my book and read a few pages. Send a text message to someone. Read (or re-read) a blog post that inspires or informs. Do burpees or pushups or stretch. Brush my teeth. Anything that stops the thought pattern and provides a distraction.

Again, this requires being present. But if I can do it, I can usually ride out the urge to eat when I’m not hungry.

Challenge #3.

The situation:
It’s time for a snack, and what I want is a big handful of nuts, but the healthier, better choice is vegetables, protein, and fat in a form other than nuts (because nuts are a good source of fat but coconut oil and olive oil and olives and avocado are better for my goals.)

The reaction:
This is a total gimme that allows me to feel virtuous without having to deny myself too much: I give myself a few nuts as a “treat.”

First, I eat a balanced, clean snack: some high-quality Italian sausage, a cucumber, 1/2 a green pepper, and a small handful of olives… and then, as a “treat,” I grab a few almonds – maybe 3 or 4 – and savor them. I make sure each one takes at least two bites to eat, and I concentrate on the flavor.

This is way, WAY different than mindlessly snarfing a handful of almonds (or a big spoonful of Sunbutter), and it accommodates my desire for the taste of almonds. Also important to note: I do this once a day, at regularly-scheduled snack time. If I did it every time I wanted almonds, I would eat an entire pound of almonds, 3-4 at a time. For real.

Challenge #4.

The situation:
I’ve eaten a delicious, balanced, totally paleo, totally satisfying meal – but I want to eat more. I’m no longer hungry, I just. want. more.

The reaction:
This one comes up a lot, too. I can still pack away food like a lumberjack, and as crass as it sounds, I love big piles of food. I la-la-love sitting down in front of a plate that’s piled high! But you know what? It is possible to get fat eating clean food, too. (I know! Right?! Seems like a total rip off!) Therefore, while I’m eating clean, I’m also trying to eat the right volume of food for my stature (which I will refer to as ‘petite’ even though it’s more like ‘short and squat.’).

So what do I do when I just want to eat more of a good thing? I think about something else… and I wait 20 minutes.

If, at the end of 20 minutes, I’m truly hungry, then I grant myself permission to eat a little more protein and veggies. The total number of times I’ve taken advantage of this permission? Zero.

After a balanced, clean meal, I’m not hungry. The desire for more because it tastes good and true hunger are entirely different beasts. If I’m present, and I wait, and I’m honest with myself, there’s no reason to eat more.

This is often a sobering moment. Sad, even. But there’s always another opportunity to eat approximately three hours in the future. (Hooray!)

What do you do when you’re struggling to fight temptation?


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  • Lydia says:

    Distraction, distraction, distraction! The best thing for me is find something that occupies my hands and my brain. I sew, work on a costume, pull out an art project, etc. Reading or watching a movie just makes things worse.

    I have yet to find a good distraction technique for use at the office.

  • Trixie says:

    WOW, awesome most! I can tell so much detail went into this, what a useful tool. I can relate with much of what you said. Unlike my husband who sometimes forgets to eat (can't imagine ever being that way)I think about my next meal quite often. I've found it helpful to really think about what treat it is I really want. Maybe I'll move a bit more that day to somehow work it in. Eating clean has really helped though with sugar cravings though.

  • Dan says:

    I'll be honest – I almost never beat my cravings. I find that I can delay them by distracting myself, but I can't count how many times I've ripped through a whole bag of nuts at the end of a day (that's something like 2000+ calories, on top of whatever else I ate that day). I'm getting better at not buying the poisonous/problematic foods in the first place, but I still find myself wistfully gazing at my empty cupboards, longing for pretzels, chips, cookies – anything, really.

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Dan! I've definitely looked into my cabinets in hopes that somehow something forbidding but yummy would appear there. The battle continues…

  • darc says:

    This is officially my favorite post. I have just emailed it to myself in order to have it readily available when needed. Reading this will be my distraction.

    BTW, I too have stood in front of (or found myself digging around in) my cabinets looking for something other than good food. Once I found an old can of peaches…hey, they were in "light" syrup!

  • darc says:

    This is officially my favorite post. I have just emailed it to myself in order to have it readily available when needed. Reading this will be my distraction.

    BTW, I too have stood in front of (or found myself digging around in) my cabinets looking for something other than good food. Once I found an old can of peaches…hey, they were in "light" syrup!

  • Melissa 'Melicious' Joulwan says:

    Hey, Darc! I'm glad you like it. Hope it helps when chocolate/something salty starts whispering your name. LOVE the story about the peaches!

  • Skippy says:

    Hi Mel, I just discovered your blog less then 2 months ago – and I love it!! This post hit the perfect spot today – after being exposed to anther b-day celebration at the office with 3 kinds of cake and ice cream for all… It was hard to only look, but this time my will won. Reading your posts often helps! Thank you.

    By the way do you still want to live in Prague? Let me know.

  • Kelly says:

    I heart this! This so struck me especially Challenge 4. I like to eat the “pile” – I make giant salads on purpose so I have a giant pile. But then it carries over to just a normal salmon/sweet potato and roasted veggies kind of meal…and spirals. Happy to hear someone else put it into words!