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DAY 10: Why avoiding food triggers works better than trying to resist them


Why avoiding food triggers works better than trying to ‘resist them

Obsessive thinking leads to the “Screw it! I’m just gonna have it!” response that is so damaging. We think that if we just give in and have it we’ll get relief from the obsessive thinking, and we do … briefly. But it comes back with a vengeance, and the cycle continues.

                                                            – Marilyn McKenna


Translation: Once we’re hooked, being around chocolate chip cookies – all the while trying to resist them – makes us bonkers and only eating them makes the pressure go away.

But it the addiction is tamed only briefly.

It comes back, and it comes back just as hard – if not harder – the next go-round.

What I’ve come to realize is: it’s actually easier to avoid chocolate chip cookies altogether.

(And realize, chocolate chip cookies are just shorthand here for every tantalizing food that tempts us.)

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in some other part of my house, knowing that there’s something yummy in my pantry, and heard it calling to me from another room.

Trying to ignore it doesn’t work. It’s always there, in the back of my mind: “I’m here! I’m delicious! Come eat me!” it’s saying.

Just the knowledge that it’s there and that I must therefore resist it increases my anxiety.

I’m forced to expend mental energy arguing with myself: “Will I have it or will I resist? Maybe I could just have a little …” I begin to negotiate.

It’s amazing the degree to which our decisions are impacted by trying to reduce uncertainty and unease. We don’t like indecision and discomfort! Think about it: when you’re trying to resist chocolate chip cookies but they’re sitting right in front of you and you’re conflicted about whether or not you’re going to give in, that’s a major stressor. It takes all your mental energy as your debate back and forth the merits of giving in “just this once” vs. abstaining. It’s exhausting! Whether you give in or not, you’ve just spent a tremendous amount of energy playing out each scenario in your head.

But there’s a better – and much less exhausting – way to approach a food trigger.

From his book The End of Overeating, Dr. David A. Kessler gives 7 steps to reduce the power of a food trigger:

  1. Figure out what leads to overeating. Does walking past Cinnabon send you over the edge, like it does me? Choose a different route through the mall. Going out for happy hour with friends hijack your best intentions? Abstain for a period of time until your resolve is stronger, or enlist the help of a trusted friend who’s with you to help you choose better. The idea is, take the time to figure out exactly which situations lead to your overindulging. Write them down if there are too many to remember. You’re raising awareness of how and where those food cues enter your world.
  2. Refuse everything you can’t control. This is tough, but now’s not the time to attempt moderation. At this stage of the game it’s best to cut out all foods that you can’t control. And don’t torment yourself by attempting to go to those restaurants or social situations you identified in the step one. If you do so you’re tempting fate, and even if you don’t give in to it, abstaining in the face of overwhelming temptation is emotionally exhausting. Spare yourself all that angst and – for now anyway – refuse everything you can’t control.
  3. Have an alternate plan. Here’s where that alternate route through the mall (avoiding that über delicious Cinnabon smell) comes in to play. You won’t eat it if you have a plan to avoid it.
  4. Limit your exposure. I have a friend who tells me he literally limits how long he stays at social gatherings where he knows he’ll be tempted. “I can hold out about 90 minutes,” he told me. And research bears this out; the longer our brain is excited by a cue, the harder it becomes to resist it.
  5. Remember the stakes.
    In the face of what Dr. Kessler calls a “hot cue” (a tantalizing food plopped right in front of you), it can be extremely difficult to remember the negative consequences of giving in to temptation. Chocolate cake seems like a really good idea before you eat it, considerably less so after. Think through this familiar pattern of behavior all the way from the first bite to the moment you realize you’ve overindulged again. It felt pretty awful when you did it before. It’s gonna feel exactly the same this time.
  6. Direct your attention elsewhere.
    Obsessive thinking about that “hot cue” hijacks all our attention. I was recently at a dinner where I wasn’t even paying attention to the person sitting next to me, who was trying to engage me in conversation, because I’d seen that we were having lasagna for dinner. Holy cow, I couldn’t think about anything else because all my attention was focused on getting that food. Having a simple but reassuring mantra at the ready (“slow down” or “you’re alright”) can help redirect your thoughts and bring perspective to the situation.
  7. Learn active resistance.
    Once you become aware of all the forces at work trying to separate you from your good health – the processed food industry, big chain restaurants, advertising that wraps unhealthy food in a “you deserve to be indulged” veil – you may find yourself angry at them. I sure as hell am. I find myself yelling at the TV and bashing my head against the wall (just figuratively, of course) because I want so very much for their manipulative marketing to be exposed for what it really is. But maybe in this case a little bit of anger is not such a bad thing. If enough of us make a stink about all of their nonsense food and marketing, they’ll be forced to deal with us.


I’m not gonna lie; this is hard. There are times when I simply must remove myself from a situation because if I linger for one more moment, I will cave. All the mindfulness and self-awareness in the world doesn’t always make it easy to cope with this stuff. But I’ve learned that the discomfort passes (glacially slowly sometimes, but it does pass) and I move on.

More tomorrow. Until then, stay strong.


“Once cues have conditioned your behavior, you’ll typically experience tension when you’re around them and only eating brings relief. And so whenever possible, you want to avoid being cued in the first place.”

                                                           – David A. Kessler, MD, The End of Overeating, page 219


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