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Resist Temptation

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Let’s establish context first. Temptations are abundantly and conveniently located throughout our environment. Whether it’s that expensive designer scarf that you want so badly but know it’s beyond your budget, eavesdropping on a conversation between an arguing couple at the table next to yours, or a piece of double fudge chocolate cake — the temptations are endless.

The good news is that we are successful more times than not at resisting the urges to indulge in these forbidden callings. So why do we lose on occasion and give in to temptation? What happens late at night when you can’t stop yourself from downing a handful of chocolate chip cookies or plucking off the lid to that pint of butter pecan ice cream? It’s about the mind losing its competitive edge.

One way of thinking about temptation is as a fierce conflict, one that you can win if you focus mentally and train properly. When it comes to resisting temptation, your mind is locked in an epic battle with your anticipated sense of physical satisfaction. Your body knows that buying that scarf, eavesdropping on the juicy details of that argument, or biting into that double fudge cake will produce a physical response of pleasure. Your challenge is to convince yourself that the brief reward you get from the indulgence will be less pleasurable than the reward you get from abstaining. In other words, you have to train your mind, strengthen it, and prepare it to recognize and seek the more enduring pleasure — a pleasure that does not provide immediate gratification but can be extremely satisfying over the long term.

Before we begin to train your brain, you must first be convinced that you can resist all those temptations lurking in vending machines, bakeries, and fast-food restaurants. If you believe that it’s possible to develop the mental willpower to succeed, then this increases your chances dramatically. Any doubt or skepticism will only reduce your chances of ultimate success. Keep telling yourself that your mind is strong enough to keep your body under control. The discipline you learn and exhibit in this phase of your program can prove useful not only in your weight-loss efforts but on the larger stage of life.

Train Your Brain

Understanding The Physical

Why do we eat foods even when we know they will keep us from losing weight? Getting to that answer means understanding pleasure and the body’s physical response to it. Scientists have believed for years that the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical found in the brain, is the brain’s “pleasure chemical,” sending signals between brain cells in a way to reward a person for a particular activity.

The precise details of this pleasure loop haven’t been completely determined, but enough of it has been clarified to give us an idea of why the body commits us to actions that are against what we know makes sense for that body.

The neurons—nerve cells in the brain—that produce dopamine seem to activate just before the pleasurable activity is engaged. The timing of what comes first is still being worked out, but one leading theory is that our brain releases a certain amount of dopamine in anticipation of how pleasurable we expect the activity is going to be. The dopamine then becomes a motivator as it increases our energy and drive to participate in the pleasurable activity. The more pleasurable the activity, the higher the dopamine levels, the more vigorously we pursue and engage in the activity. If you don’t find the activity as pleasurable as you expected, your dopamine levels decrease and you lose interest.

The brain’s dopamine reward system can be extremely strong depending on the degree of pleasure one achieves. For example, take warm apple pie and vanilla ice cream. For many people, eating this dessert produces such a level of pleasure and satisfaction that they find it almost impossible to pass up the opportunity to order it when seeing it on a restaurant menu or being served to another diner. The dopamine response to the thought, sight, smell, and taste of the apple pie is overpowering, and despite great efforts to avoid the sugary dessert, they simply can’t help themselves.


We’ve all had a craving—a strong desire to eat or drink something, so strong we can’t get the thought of it out of our minds. Most people think of cravings as intense urges that gnaw at the body and mind until the desired item is consumed.

But scientists aren’t so sure where cravings come from or why they exist. One long-held belief is that when we are calorie starved or deficient of certain nutrients, we crave what we’re missing, whether it’s carbohydrates, fat, or protein. The craving serves as the body’s alarm clock to let it know that the level of that particular type of fuel is getting dangerously low and it’s time to do something about it — eat.

Another popular theory is that when we eat the right combination of fat and carbohydrates that have pleasurable tastes and textures, our body builds up a memory of satisfaction and seeks to repeat it in the future. In essence, the body craves those foods that make it feel good. Some leading nutritionists have even drawn the conclusion that cravings are connected to hormones. That theory says that as we age we become less hormonal and the frequency of our cravings diminishes drastically.

80-20 Rule

No one is perfect, and no one is going to follow any particular diet program perfectly. In fact, it’s advantageous at times to indulge in some of the “fun” foods that your program might consider off limits. Some diets go too far in eliminating too many foods. If something is completely prohibited, it’s too easy to focus on it. One of the dangers this imposes is that you become obsessed with those “off-limit” foods, which increases the temptation and pressure to eat them. It’s fine to have a “cheat” every once in a while; in fact, some programs even call for a cheat day. The truth of the matter is that eating an extra cookie or scoop of ice cream occasionally is not going to sabotage your program. That’s why I believe in the 80–20 rule. If 80 percent of what you eat is healthy and on the program and the remaining 20 percent is off the program, you will still be successful at losing weight.

The reason many programs don’t want to allow for cheating, however, is that most people don’t know when to stop. One cheat can lead to a bigger cheat that leads to an even bigger cheat, and then you’re off the program. You have to be the judge of your discipline level. If you’re someone who gets a taste of chocolate or french fries and can’t stop yourself from eating the entire package or serving, then this method is not for you. You’d be better off following the program as closely as possible with a goal of staying away from those temptations that tend to lead you to overeat.

Identify Your Triggers

Most of the tempting foods you crave tend to be “forbidden” on a weight-loss program. High-calorie items such as french fries, sugar-frosted pastries, and chocolate can invade your thoughts and suddenly appear to overpower your physical ability to ignore the craving.

To get a better grasp of how to deal with your temptations or cravings, it’s important to identify what triggers you to indulge. The simple exercise that follows will give you a clearer understanding of which environmental/emotional/physical stimuli have you reaching for forbidden foods. See the sample chart on the facing page. List your cravings/temptations in the column on the left-hand side of a piece of paper and then list the stimulus that drives you to eat each item in the column on the right side of the paper.

Identifying your triggers is an important first step; now it’s time to do something about them. Take each temptation and try to find an alternate way to deal with the emotion that leads to your indulgence. For example, if you tend to reach for ice cream after you’ve had an argument or when you’re upset, then it’s time to figure out other ways to channel your anger. Exercise is not only a great way to blow off some steam, but you can expend your nervous energy in a way that will help you lose weight. Taking a 15-minute walk outside and enjoying nature is another way to settle down and slow your racing heartbeat. There are numerous other physical and mental activities — from deep yoga-style breathing to walking the dog — that can come to soothe you much more than a forbidden food fest ever could.

Chocolate Nervous/anxious
Buttered Popcorn Watching TV
Ice Cream Arguments/anger
Cookies After work hunger
French fries In the car driving home
Pizza Too tired to cook
Donuts/Pastries In a rush and hungry
Cherry licorice Boredom
Creamy Pasta Stress
Soda When I need energy


Sometimes visual instead of emotional triggers can be the problem. Someone once told me how she craved french fries. She simply couldn’t stop herself from eating them regardless of how often she told herself the fries were ruining her weight-loss efforts. I asked her a few questions and discovered that she only got the cravings driving home from work. The route she drove took her down a street that had both Burger King and McDonald’s within a couple of hundred yards of each other. Some days she could make it past McDonald’s, only to turn into the Burger King lot a couple of minutes later. Other days she couldn’t get past McDonald’s.

The fix for this was easy: Don’t drive past the restaurants. By adjusting her route so that she got off the expressway one exit early and drove a different set of streets to get home, she added only five minutes to her drive but eliminated her usual trigger, making it to her house without the craving for fries. If your cravings are attached to visual stimuli, figure out a way to avoid seeing that stimulus. It’s always a great strategy to replace unhealthy routines with healthy ones.


The key to overcoming temptation is to strengthen your mind so that triggers no longer overpower your resistance. One method I’ve found helpful is to teach your mind how to visualize the consequence of your action. Let’s say you’re craving a bowl of creamy fettuccine Alfredo. Satisfying that craving could be as simple as picking up the phone and ordering delivery from your favorite restaurant. Within the hour you could be happily finishing off the bowl of tasty pasta. Then what? You’ve satisfied the craving, but now you’ve dumped almost 900 whopping calories into your body. Visualize the consequences.

You’d have to run almost 7 miles, ride a stationary bicycle for two hours, or hit a punching bag for two hours to burn off the equivalent of what you just consumed in one bowl of pasta. Imagine all the fat inside that creamy sauce pouring into your arteries, narrowing the opening through which your blood is trying to flow. The more of that creamy sauce you eat, the narrower the opening becomes and the greater the chance of your suffering a heart attack or stroke. Imagine yourself in a dressing room barely squeezing into a pair of pants and not being able to button them because all that creamy pasta is building up a fortress of fat around your midsection.

Is the temporary satisfaction you got from eating that pasta worth the consequences?

This is the type of pro-con question you must always ask yourself when faced with temptation. You should also consider the context. The pasta gratification may be immediate and thrilling, but it is short term and will quickly fade. The long-term gratification of not eating the pasta and sticking to your plan of losing weight can be a more satisfying thrill, especially when you move closer to your goal, start wearing clothes that you haven’t been able to fit into in years, or your doctor takes you off medications for your high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol. Each situation should lead you to a quick cost-benefit analysis, and if you do the correct calculations, you’ll find that the long-term cost of indulging in your craving far outweighs the short-term benefit.


If it’s not there, you can’t eat it. This seems like a simple strategy that shouldn’t need repeating, but it’s one that too many people don’t use. Why stock your cabinets and freezers with foods that you know you’re either not supposed to eat or you’re supposed to consume in small amounts? You are tempting yourself unnecessarily and creating a conflict between your mind and your body.

Controlling your food environment is a smart way to avoid making yourself vulnerable to temptation. Your home environment isn’t the only thing you’d be smart to regulate. The workplace can be an equally dangerous place.

Don’t keep jars of candy and finger foods stocked in or on your desk. Vending machines are another “hot” area to be avoided at all cost. Avoid the cafeteria or the hallway where these “temptation depots” are ominously lurking, waiting to draw you into their sugartopia.

Don’t forget about all those office parties and social events that will be full of tasty but fattening food. You will undoubtedly be offered limitless alcohol, but don’t be fooled. Alcohol is nothing more than liquid calories. Many mistakenly believe that because alcohol is liquid it’s not as bad as eating a cheeseburger and fries. A calorie is a calorie. Whether it’s from liquid alcohol or fried foods, the calorie will still add pounds on the scale and cholesterol in your arteries.


Temptations won’t suddenly disappear from your environment. Since temptation is a permanent part of the world we live in, it’s best to create a plan to deal with it. This plan must be portable, easily accessible, and simple enough to be activated at a moment’s notice. My high school basketball coach would call it the lesson of the five P’s: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.If you prepare for the possibility of temptation, then you’ll perform well when it’s time to resist whatever is trying to reel you in. Forming a plan is as easy as adding more information to your trigger chart. Pull out the chart and make a third column that lists a response you can choose instead of giving in to the tempting food. Your modified chart might look something like this:

Copy your chart on an index card and keep it with you at all times. When you have new ideas for ways to distract yourself from temptation, add them to the chart. Make several copies and keep them strategically placed so that whether you’re at home, work, or running errands, you can quickly reach a copy and activate your plan.

Chocolate Nervous/anxious Call your support and discuss
Buttered Popcorn Watching TV Snack on raw, crunchy veggies
Ice Cream Arguments/anger Exercise; write in your journal
Cookies After work hunger Grab a 100-calorie snack pack
French fries In the car driving home Change your driving route
Pizza Too tired to cook Order in, rotate delivery menus
Donuts/Pastries In a rush and hungry Keep fresh fruit around
Cherry licorice Boredom Get active; pursue a hobby
Creamy Pasta Stress Listen to relaxing music
Soda When I need energy Try unsweetened, caffeinated tea



There is enough convincing evidence that avoiding cravings might only make the cravings stronger and more frequent. In fact, some nutritional psychologists urge their patients to listen to their cravings and respond accordingly by eating a small amount of what they crave. Moderation is, of course, the part that can be tricky. Many people who get a taste of that tempting food can’t stop themselves from overeating. But there are a couple of ways that you can help satisfy your taste for something sweet or chocolaty and not overdo it on the calories.

Portion out your cheats in advance (or have someone else do it for you if handling the indulgent food is too tempting for you at this point). To avoid eating too much, divide any food into smaller allotments. For example, let’s say you have a craving for Oreo cookie ice cream. When you purchase the ice cream, don’t store it in your freezer in the original packaging. Instead, purchase smaller disposable containers. Gladware and other brands make some great disposable snack-size bowls with lids. Take the pint or quart of ice cream and divide it into small one-scoop portions and store them in the individual containers. Stack the one-scoop containers in the freezer. Now when you have an urge, you can go ahead and have the ice cream, but allow yourself only one container at a time, which means one scoop. Whether it’s putting chips into a smaller Ziploc bag or slicing up that candy bar and refrigerating it in sections, you can plan ahead to satisfy those cravings without overindulging.

From The 4 Day Diet by Ian K. Smith, M.D. Copyright © 2009 by Ian K. Smith, M.D.. Reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press.

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About The Author


NY Times best-selling author, his latest: Fast Burn (St. Martin’s Press, 2021) Author of 16 other health-related books and three novels New anchor host of TV’s The Doctors Created two national health initiatives, The 50 Million Pound Challenge and The Makeover Mile Served two terms on President Obama’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition Graduate: Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine Avid fitness enthusiast and sportsman Medical contributor to The Rachael Ray Show Podcast host of Conversations with Dr. Ian Smith Married to Triste, two children