Ever had a night like this? You swing by the store for a gallon of milk. As you wait in the checkout line, a bag of chips catches your eye. You know those chips aren't good for you, but you buy them anyway and scarf them in the car. By the time you pull into your driveway, regret is kicking in.
This isn't just a case of weak willpower, says former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler. The real problem is that certain commercially made foods -- the ones with tons of added sugar, salt, and fat -- are so tasty and so stimulating that they actually overwhelm the brain's circuitry. When we eat them, the brain cranks out dopamine, a neurochemical associated with a reward that drives us to eat that food again...and again...and again. Eventually, just looking at the food can trigger a dopamine release. "We get stuck in a cycle," Dr. Kessler says. "We're constantly chasing that satisfaction." These steps can help you break free.
Temptation can strike suddenly -- like when you walk through a food court and catch a whiff of freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Perhaps you try to reason with yourself by thinking, I shouldn't eat that or That food is bad for me. You'll have far more success if you go a step further and visualize a better outcome, says Dr. Kessler. Try, I have a healthy lunch waiting for me back home, and cinnamon rolls aren't in my plan.
Resisting the call of the fast-food drive-through might seem futile in the moment, but consider this: Studies show that addictive cravings tend to fizzle as soon as the object in question becomes unattainable. In other words, drive a few miles past the burger joint, and you'll likely discover that you didn't really need those extra-large cheese fries after all.
When you're being lured by a super-stimulating food, the brain's reward center is keyed into one thing and one thing only: the immediate sensory pleasure of eating that food. Gain control by extending your thoughts to the consequences. For example, Nachos might taste great now, but tomorrow I'll feel awful about myself, or Ice cream sundaes always give me indigestion. Explains Dr. Kessler, "This undercuts the reward value of the food."