I recently came across some new and interesting research which shows that avoiding temptation works better than relying on willpower alone when faced with temptation. (You can read the original article here: Restricting Temptations: Neural Mechanisms of Precommitment.)
But how does this apply to our eating habits? This particular study didn't examine food temptations, so can we expect the same results?
The idea of avoiding tempting foods altogether in order to eat less of them seems rather obvious but does it work well for everyone? I think the answer is more complicated answer than it might seem and will depend on how you avoid temptations.
Let's imagine that the food temptations we are talking about are foods rich in calories, sugar and fat. If these foods aren't readily available in the house or the office and we must trek to the store to buy them, clearly we will eat less of them since the temptation is absent. But let's take that thought one step further; suppose we buy these tempting foods in smaller quantities instead of larger ones, then it will be easier to resist temptations since we won't have any leftovers.
However, if we never allow ourselves a fun food (at least) once in a while, then this plan may backfire. If these tempting foods are banned completely from our lives for any reason (to be super healthy, to lose weight or to get "back on track") this can actually lead to increased temptation -- even when none of these foods are in sight. It's the trap of wanting what you can't have! This concept drives most people crazy and increases their cravings for foods which they consider to be off limits.
The idea of eating only very healthy foods is quite popular right now. But is it normal never to eat a food rich in fat or sugar or calories? Of course not! Outright banning of certain foods often leads to a pattern of under-eating, feeling deprived then overeating (and possibly even binge eating).
The particular study in question looked at what happens when people commit to a bigger reward if they resist smaller temptations. This reminds me of what so many people call a "cheat day." Eating only really healthy foods for most days of the week then allowing themselves to cheat (I prefer the word treat) for one day or meal.
But the popularity of this concept does not make it a healthy way of thinking. Allowing yourself a treat a few times a week and planning ahead is a great idea, and this study suggests it will help you resist the urge to cave to smaller, less rewarding temptations. However, under eating all week long just to give yourself permission to eat "bad" foods is a very slippery slope. It is hard to eat these so called bad foods in normal portions once you are done dieting. You have trained your body to eat as much as you can on the odd occasion you allow yourself the food. Even just calling it a cheat or a bad food pushes people to eat it in large quantities.
For people who find they just have no willpower and feel they cave in to all cravings, this study suggests they plan out how they will enjoy bigger temptations ahead of time. I like this strategy because it forces you to plan out your week to see what special event is happening (ex. 5 to 7 at work, birthday party, BBQ) in order to enjoy and fit the "fun" foods (higher calorie temptations mentioned earlier) into your plan. It also helps us remember that including fun foods on a regular basis is a healthy, normal part of life.