Do y’all remember the olden days of mail order? Millennials won’t, but gen-xers and baby boomers will recall filling out (by hand!) the quaint little order form pulled from the periodical of the day, laboriously penning a check (that’s a handwritten financial tool, for you techies), and adorning the envelop with a spit-attached 13¢ stamp. Then you’d wait (“4-6 weeks for delivery”) for that coveted pleather Fonzie jacket! Well, the other afternoon I ordered a classical guitar book from an online retailer. With hardly more than a swipe of a finger, I was Pumping Nylon less than 24 hours later. Welcome to the era of instant gratification.
Having your desires fulfilled in the wink of an eye is good fun and all, but when it comes to food, a little restraint might be in order -- that is, if your goal is health and longevity. However, we inhabit a world in which virtually every gustatory wish can be granted almost immediately—for better and worse. So when craving donuts right now meets the potential for weight loss sometime in the future, I’m putting my money on the Krispy Kreme.
But what if this chocolate glazed attack could be used as a willpower workout instead of being seen as a failure or an uncontrollable urge? What if you could eat your cake donut AND move forward on your path to health too?
Well, all these are possible if you learn the immensely useful skill of delayed gratification. There are many ways to employ this strategy, but this is my favorite: I can have [food that’s not on my food plan] after my next healthy meal. Yes, it’s that simple, and it is amazingly powerful. Here’s how it might look in practice:
My client Teresa was out mall shopping recently when she began feeling hungry. It had been a long day of decision making (which saps willpower), and she suddenly espied the fresh-baked pretzels whose aroma had surreptitiously enticed her to the food court in the first place. “I’m hungry. I want that!” first came to mind. Luckily, we had just been discussing the delayed gratification technique a few days prior, so Teresa was ready. “I can buy that and take it home to enjoy after the all-vegetable lasagna I made last night.” And she did.
Mind you, many people would balk. “Why not eat it right then if she was gonna eat it anyway?” Well, for one thing, waiting and not giving into urges immediately builds self-control, which is a good virtue to have if you want to be a healthy eater in a bad food climate. But also, as you use this skill and gain self-discipline, your food choices will began to change. For instance, after a few months of practicing delayed gratification with food, here’s how the pretzel scenario might end: “Yes, I could take it home, but I’ll probably be over it by then, so nevermind.”
This strategy also teaches you that cravings pass—no matter how badly you want something in the moment, that desire will fizzle out, and probably pretty quickly.
Another client, Joan, had a love affair with the waxy, chocolate-coated Milky Way bar. Her old M.O. was to “try” not to get one during her weekly shopping expeditions, but she would inevitably concede at the last minute in the check-out line and scarf it down while pulling out of the parking lot. Then she began applying the delayed gratification strategy, and, after a few months of regular use, she found herself yet again with Milky Way in hand. But her new healthy habit compelled her to stow it away in the trunk of her car, to be enjoyed after her lunch salad. Well, lunch came and went, and she thought to herself, “I could have my Milky Way now, but you know, I don’t really need it any more. I should throw it away so I’m not tempted later.” And she did.
Now you try
Don’t set yourself up for failure by swearing off certain foods. Instead, when a strong urge for unhealthy food arises, practice the very useful skill of delayed gratification. Over time, you’ll gain more self-control over food, and making healthful food choices will become much easier.