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29 September 2020

Cravings and self-control: How to deal with a world full of temptation


In many ways, perception is reality.  Today I will explore that topic by looking at how you perceive the outcome of imposing self-control (or discipline, as some might say) regarding the temptations of junk food.  For the sake of this article we will be considering that the food is tempting, but on a deeper level,…

In many ways, perception is reality. 

Today I will explore that topic by looking at how you perceive the outcome of imposing self-control (or discipline, as some might say) regarding the temptations of junk food. 

For the sake of this article we will be considering that the food is tempting, but on a deeper level, is something that you really don’t want to eat.

We’ve all been there, right?

You could justsay no to that surface desire for food, but that would only add to the internal tally of felt-restriction. Let’s call it the deprivation tally. The deprivation tally quietly adds up all the times you’ve denied yourself, just waiting for that moment of weakness when it can ease some of the felt restriction. 

Unfortunately, that’s no way to build that mental muscle of self-control, because in reality, you didn’t control jack. You did the equivalent of running away. Developing self-control is not just a matter of will, as most believe, it requires dedicated training. 

With that said, instead of shooting down temptation with a flat out no (when really you still kinda want that cake), you could use a basic mental template that uses rationality and mindfulness to bring out that deeper desire to do right by yourself; only changing your perception of what “right by yourself” is. With enough mental-training, it won’t feel like a loss to resist temptation, but a gain.

Before we get to my proposed mental template for self-control, it has to be said that self-control should not be the first line of defence against bad behaviours and habits. If you rewind the clock on any behaviour, there’s always a cue in your environment that acts as a trigger for that behaviour. This is why, for anyone implementing behaviour change techniques, re-jigging the environment to eliminate cues is most important. 

As a coach, one thing that has dawned on me, though, is that people are very reluctant to change their environment — while others are somewhat environmentally pinned down. I’ll get into this in a bit more detail soon, but first, I want to briefly run through where environment and self-control best fit into the structure of any habit. It’ll help make more sense of what I’m getting at.

Fig 1. The habit loop – adopted from Atomic habits by James Clear (1)

#1 Cue

Any behaviour or habit starts out with a cue. 

A cue can be time, location, a function of our biological body clock, or something in your physical or social environment. I won’t get into the many ways in which these cues can affect behaviours — that’s an article for another day — all you need to know is that these cues trigger cravings and without that cue, a craving would not follow (in the specific contexts I am referring to). 

You see that donut in your physical environment, that’s a cue for you to decide whether or not to go for it. And you do make that decision whether consciously or subconsciously. If no donut existed, you wouldn’t have even (realistically) considered eating one. 

Or, say you’re out eating with a friend and they have a big meal; appetisers, drinks, the works. That’s a social cue that would make you more prone to eating beyond what you would have eaten alone, or with a less ravenous friend. You just got hacked by a social norm. 

Alternatively, consider that you’ve returned to a location where you’ve smoked before, even though you quit smoking months ago. All of sudden: “Why do I suddenly feel like smoking?”

Hopefully you get the picture. 

Cues prompt certain behaviours and responses from us; they are integral to all habits. No matter what addiction you think of, you can’t be addicted if that thing doesn’t exist.

#2 Craving 

This is that internal feeling of want or need that links a cue to a response. 

Nothing would occur if you were apathetic towards that donut sitting on the counter, whereas if you were emotionally rundown and/or slightly hungry, it’s appeal may grow. Possibly enough to respond. 

The presence of a cue as well as a craving is what causes us to act. Either of these alone, however, would be insufficient to motivate the behaviour.

#3 Response 

Your response to a craving is the action stage of a habit. This is you eating that donut, doing the dishes, brushing your teeth or any other number of things.

#4 Reward

Lastly there’s the satisfaction you get from a habit; the reward. 

This reward can be instant, often representing a poor behaviour or habit, or it can be delayed which tends to represent good habits. Eat an unplanned donut and you’ll feel great for 2 minutes and lousy about that decision for the rest of the day. 

Go for a run and you’ll be struggling throughout, pull up a little sore afterwards but gain greater fitness in the future. (If you’re smart about it, you’ll reward yourself immediately for good habits in a way that isn’t counterproductive to your goals. This is because what is rewarded is repeated.)

With reward, the anticipation of a reward or sheer repeated exposure, comes increased learning and memory capabilities. Think of this from an evolutionary perspective, you found food that is vital for survival, so it’s best to remember exactly how and where you found this food. This is also why anticipation often feels better than the outcome.

(Hint: That’s why you’ve got to learn to enjoy the ride and not forgo happiness until a goal is met or the destination is reached.)

There you have it, a crash course in behaviour and habit formation. 

Self-Control Tools

Self-control most directly fits into how you respond to a craving. 

When you see people around you who have high amounts of self-control, it’s most likely that they simply spend most of their time in an environment where they don’t have to spend it. Someone who is fit and healthy probably has fit and healthy friends — and that means less Tim-Tams in the cupboard! 

Now, back to my earlier point: Not everyone can or is willing to change their environment.

You can’t really ditch your friends or those you live with. And as much as you should try to get them on board with your goals, it’s more likely that unless they to decide to change themselves for the better, they probably won’t be too keen. 

In fact — and I’m really not trying to start arguments at home — they’ll probably even try to undermine your goals in some way so that they don’t have to change. (Tell me I’m wrong.)

With that in mind, there’s the fact that even the best of us — meaning those who have friends and environments that are calorie/health friendly — are still straight up bombarded with junk food cues through Tv and billboard advertisements, the choice architecture of grocery shops, and how McDonalds always seems to appear on the fastest route home from work. Funny that! 

Inevitably, unless you want to live in a Himalayan cave, meditating constantly, you’re going to have to practice self-control. May as well practice in in the right way then. 

By the right way, I mean in a way that doesn’t feel like you’ve lost out (rigid restraint). This method allows you to restrain, without doing significant amounts of damage to the subconscious deprivation tally. 

This method begins with first recognising a craving exists. As I said earlier, rationality and mindfulness are the tools to combating cravings effectively. 

Mindfulness implies that your aware of what you’re feeling (and where) as well as thinking without a sense of judgement. The opposite would be to be lost in thought, unaware of how and where the craving has come to be and letting those two things define and control your entire subjective experience. 

Rationality is your ability to think through something critically and logically. The opposite would be to be swayed by internal biases (like that of instant gratification). 

So while these sound very admirable, it’s not as simple as switching these on two metacognitive tools to disable cravings — that’s just like saying you need to will yourself to do something. What you need is a structure for implementation. 

To make it easy to remember, I’ve given you an action plan in the form of an acronym: STOP

        Step back

        Take a breath


        Problem solve

S is for Step back. 

This is a (figurative) signal to step back and pause for a moment once a craving arises. 

Paradoxically, this requires that you have the ability to Observe (#3) what you’re feeling, for what it is: a craving. It’s a paradox that I’ve struggled to work around with some clients who say, “I just do it”, describing going from a craving to half emptying a packet of biscuits as a passive experience. 

If you can only recognise a craving retrospectively, which is to say that the “damage” has already been done, then that’s an issue that requires cues (or lack thereof) guarding your kitchen or shopping list. Thankfully, this isn’t most people. So, step one is to step back once a craving arises so that you can move along to step two.

T is for Take a breath

Why breathe? Because it’s hard to make a rational decision in a flustered state (or more precisely: It’s easierto make an ir-rational decision in a flustered state). 

From personal experience and discussions with clients, it has become apparent to me that people tend to fill their cravings with poor eating choices when they’re stressed. But not only that, they feel worse about the decisions afterwards when eating in a stressed state. 

Compare the feelings of guilt after having made a poor rushed choice after work for dinner versus having the same type of meal in a relaxed manner with friends for family. 

Obvious social conformity factors would be involved (she did it, so I can rationalise my own bad choices now) but you get the gist, when you’re chill, you see things as less back and white, and everything is perceived differently — typically; better. 

Now, you don’t need to sit down, cross your legs and ommm your stress away. All you need to do is a subtle version of box breathing until you’re feel like you’ve slowed the world down a little. Breathe slowly through the nose, into the stomach and breathe even more slowing back out. Simples! You even can do it without anyone else knowing you’re getting your Zen on. Sometimes all it takes is three deep breathes.

O is for Observe

What you’re actually feeling? You’re aware of a craving, but what does this craving reallyentail? 

Is it genuine hunger? Are you thirsty? Are you bored? Are you stressed? Are you stressed, emotional AND bored? Or maybe you’re stressed, emotional, bored AND genuinely hungry?

The list could go on, but you get the picture.

The key is to find out where this is coming from. Is it the stomach? Is your whole body shaking from hypoglycaemia or are you simply telling yourself the story of how you’re hungry, when really you just need to change of pace from whatever you are doing? In other words, is the void physiological or psychological?

Being observant towards these factors is huge. 

P is for Problem solve

This is where we more clearly switch from mindfulness to rationality (though mindfulness tends to be rational, so it isn’t entirely clear-cut). 

To problem solve in an effective manner, we need to ask ourselves a series of probing questions that piggyback off what we subjectively observed — only this time we want to make it more objective. 

Because your questions will be tailored to your environmental situation and based off what you observed they’ll be unique, but I’m going to list some potential questions as a guide to show you the correct style of questioning:

Is this a need or a want?

What do I want? What do I need?

Out of ten, how hungry am I? 

How long will this hunger realistically last?

If you’ve figured out that it’s psychological: How else can I fill this time? Could I go for a walk? Journal? Read? Talk to a friend? 

Alternatively: Am I both hungry and thirsty, or just thirsty? When the last time I drank water?In either instance, probably starting with a big glass of water is a good bet.

Why am I getting this craving? Would I get this craving without being in the presence of a treat?

Am I craving something sweet or savoury? Would a piece of fruit or a sugar-free soda or cordial cover that craving? Would rice cakes or a hand full of nuts cover savoury?

Is this craving because I shifted the times that I normally eat? Did I not eat enough in my last week? How can I manage this better in the future?

At some point, it’s always good to ask yourself: What are my goal and is the easy option in line with them?

Is this surface desire really worth slightly pegging back my deeper desire of being fit and healthy? 

And very importantly: Have I had a treat lately? Is this the right time to enjoy it?

That last point is crucial. STOP is not a tool to never allow yourself anything that even remotely goes against your long-term goals. Really, you want to/should find a way to work in some of the stuff you like while maintaining the ability to progress.

The answers to some of these questions obviously require that you have somenutritional knowledge. And good news: If you’re reading this, you probably have some!

However, if you’re unsure, once you’ve finished this article maybe scroll down the blog page until you find an article that covers nutritional fundamentals!

After you’ve answered these questions you can then make the best choice given your current situation. 

When using this myself, I’ve found on occasion that water can help because I’ve drank stuff all that day. Sometimes it means that I have to nip down to the shops for a better and specific option, or go for a walk instead. Alternatively, sometimes I have to simply wait it out because I’m going to eat a meal soon enough…

This approach can makes things easier, but not easy!

Other times I can recognise that I had a rough sleep the night before — shifting my body clocks and thus hunger and satiety signals — and that this craving is a normal consequence. On some days I just crave something sweet and typically a piece of fruit will suffice (which is often what I’d go to the shops for). Other times I eat something discretionary because it was easy to fit into my day. 

What I don’t do is flat out deny myself or say, “Stuff it, I’ll just eat it!” 

I think it out and chose the appropriate behaviour that fits the craving. It’s often not food. You might be surpised!

The STOP procedure can be used at home (for those of you who are environmentally pinned down), when food shopping, at work functions and family events. But it can also be used for so much more… STOP doesn’t just apply to food choices.

Finally, whilst it’s gradually becoming more against the grain to preach self-control, and to instead focus on minimising cues that lead to bad habits, I think it’s neglectful to throw out self-control all together. Importantly, it’s the nature of the self-control used that determines whether an internal debt gets registered. If you’ve actually solved the problem, instead of just running away, what debt is there to pay? 

Additionally, as we’ve discussed, it’s not like unwanted cues are invisible to all. In those times, you’ll want a re-framing technique that avoids the dangers of black and white thinking.

Something that brings your deeper cravings for health to the forefront. 

The working of this mental-muscle may even potentiate environmental change in the long-run, as temptations at home or work become truly obsolete. Or the people around you see that you’re serious, reaping the rewards self-control done right, and want to join in!

When craving hits, remember to just STOP it.

*My aim was to keep this short, to the point and unburdened by not delving into the science of behaviour change or felt restriction. However, I can appreciate that there are some claims in here that you might find odd. I’d be happy to answer to these claims and supply references if you’d like to learn more, just email me at james.a@jpshealthandfitness.com.au. I just ask that you be specific with what you’re asking.  Thank you.

1.         Clear J. Atomic habits: An easy & proven way to build good habits & break bad ones: Penguin; 2018.

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