Don't Think About a Doughnut - Cues, Cravings and Why We Can't Say No

Quick - don't think about a doughnut. Don't think about the sweet smell, soft texture, and sugary taste.


Just. Don't. Do. It.


Any luck?


That's what I thought. Once we experience a "cue" it's hard to ignore. And food or eating can have some of the most powerful cues we experience daily.


Some of the cues are obvious, like driving by a doughnut shop on your way to work. Others are not so obvious. Sometimes we see or hear a cue without recognizing it at all. In that case, we start craving a doughnut without knowing why.


And beyond the distinction between obvious and subtle food cues, the anticipation of a cue can have the same impact as the cue itself. For example, you can start to think about being offered bread before a meal at a restaurant and it can make your desire even stronger - even before you enter the restaurant.


Our anticipation spikes our interest in the food, and then the battle begins. During this battle we think, yes I will have one piece of bread followed by no, I have to say no to the bread because it's not part of my diet plan. And then again, well maybe I'll have half of a piece of bread. And so on ....


Does this back and forth narrative sound familiar?


Many of us have these conversations related to food situations. And unfortunately, sometimes the only way to find reprieve from the struggle is to give in. And then we are rewarded with a delicious bite of bread.


But .... each time we reach for the bread we are reinforcing the process of giving in to the anticipation and cue. The next time we face the same bread battle, we are less likely to win.


Let me be clear - there is nothing inherently wrong with bread. But this food battle situation needed an example and I chose bread. The important piece to learn is that the back and forth caused by a food cue is most often relieved when we give in to the cue.


There are a number of ways to reduce cues and cravings, but "just saying no" doesn't always work. In fact, it rarely works.


Instead, you can use an implementation intention before you encounter a cue. For example,


When I walk past the doughnut store, I will take 3 deep breaths and hum my favorite song until the store is out of sight.


Now you have a plan to deal with a cue you expect to interact with during the day.


What about cravings?


The same model will work - When I have a craving for something sweet, I will take one piece of dark chocolate from the top shelf and enjoy it.


A big part of handling cues and cravings is to adjust your own environment to make those cues less frequent. If you can set up your home and workplace to minimize tempting cues - do it!


Remember that not being able to say no to a cue or craving does not mean you are hopeless or that you will never reach your weight loss goals or health goals - it just means that you're a human being with a human brain.


But the next time you find yourself unable to resist a smell, taste, or texture of a food, acknowledge why that might be and whether you can change the behavior pattern the next time around.


Want more help with strategies to resist temptation and stay on track? Subscribe to the blog for weekly insights to healthy eating, fitness, and healthy behavior change.


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