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We all have foods that seem to take over our brains—Radioactive Foods. These foods seem to have great power over us and in a willpower battle, they will always win. We need to handle these foods with care and have some kind of containment system for them. We don't want to get in a will power fight with the sub-conscious assistant part of our brain over these foods—because we’re probably going to lose.
There are six containment strategies to control these radioactive foods--
Make it Less Visible (put in an out of the way cabinet)
Get it Out of the Kitchen (put it in a different room)
Make it Inaccessible (put some obstacles in the way)
Get Permission (Have someone else hide it and you need to ask them for it)
Make a Special Trip (If you want this food, you need to go to the store just for this item)
Nuclear Option--Don't Buy it Ever (You've chosen not to deal with this food again.)
These strategies are found on a continuum. Try one. If it doesn't work, then try a stricter option.
Use the Try This Tip Today (SCROLL DOWN) to stop your willpower battles with your radioactive foods or download the Radioactive Food Containment Worksheet to implement your own strategies.
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Ice Cream on the Brain
When my husband was in the military 12 years ago, I was asked to help start a weight-loss group. This group had a personal trainer (which I wasn't at the time), myself as the nutritionist, and a nurse practitioner as health coach. (Kind of funny that I'm all three of those now.)
The weight-loss group met three times a week to work out together with the personal trainer. While they were walking, I was usually on a 5 mile run. We’d all wave to each other as I ran by.
The group met with me once a week to talk about nutrition and weight loss issues. The group was wildly successful—people lost weight and had a great time.
After six months, my husband was leaving the military, and I had to say goodbye. We had a party (with all healthy food of course), and my friends gave me an adorable t-shirt to say thanks for my weight loss help.
I wasn’t surprised to see myself running on the t-shirt, but I felt embarrassed about that "thought bubble" of me thinking about ice cream. I love ice cream, and although I didn’t realize it, I talked about ice cream all the time. Ice cream is a food that I have a hard time controlling. Whenever I needed to use an example in my weight-loss class, I always picked ice cream.
I didn't know that I talked about it a lot, but my class sure did. Yep, I was a runner who had ice cream on the brain.
Since that time, I've realized that I’m not the only one with ice cream on the brain. In fact, most people have at least a couple of foods that seem to take over their brains. I named these foods —Radioactive Foods. These foods seem to have great power over us, and in a willpower battle, they will always win. I started calling these foods Radioactive Foods, because we need to handle these foods with care and have some kind of containment system for them.
All of us seem to have one or more radioactive foods. My radioactive nemesis is ice cream. My husband’s radioactive food is homemade chocolate chip cookies. My very thin father, who is a paragon of self-control when it comes to food and sweets, will eat himself sick whenever there is a pan of Chili Rellenos (Mexican dish of eggs, chilis, and cheese) around.
As a child, I found this very amusing. My dad could say no to sweets all day long, but when it came Chili Rellenos he was powerless. He had a love/hate relationship with them. When they were around, they took over his brain and would not let go.
Dopamine and Cravings
In the last blog post article about food cravings, I talked about how yummy foods can trigger the release of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter of craving. It gets us to want more and more of something—something that your brain determines as being important to survival.
Nefarious people in our society have learned to purify and concentrate things to make dopamine release so strong that it seems to hijack our brains and not let go. Because I concentrate on weight loss, I'm talking about food. But dopamine is what's at play when you think of the craving and addiction involved in gambling, pornography, or drugs.
Our brains crave calories to ensure our survival. Our brains also release dopamine in response to food that's high in fat, sugar, salt, proteins, or glutamates (think of the meaty or umami taste of parmesan cheese). When your brain gets a little sprinkle of dopamine, the sub-conscious assistant part of our brain says, “Hey, that was amazing. That food is important for our survival. Let’s eat that again.”
Now the problem with the dopamine system, is that it's the craving system, not the reward system. The actual food is not rewarding. It’s like the song, “Can’t get No Satisfaction. And I try, and I try, and I try…” You're never, ever satisfied. In fact, you want more and more of that food.
For each of us there are certain foods that cause such a strong release of dopamine that we seem to be powerless against them. These are the foods that call to us from the pantry or the refrigerator (or in my case the freezer), “Eat me!”, even if we just had a serving an hour before.
Mastery of Radioactive Foods is Important
Most of us have just a handful of habits that if we could master, we'd loss our extra weight. These radioactive foods are important because they may be contributing several hundred calories to our waistlines each week. Controlling these foods might mean weight management success for us. Also, these foods may make you feel powerless against them—like a kid caught with her hand in the cookie jar. You want to feel like a competent adult and gain control over these foods (instead of the other way around).
Accessibility of your radioactive food matters. My radioactive food, ice cream is very easy to come by. Just walk by the freezer section of any supermarket and there it is. You can even get it at gas stations. My husband’s radioactive food, homemade chocolate chip cookies, are not as easily accessible. I might make them for him once every few months. My dad would only have Chili Rellenos once every other year for his birthday.
If you have a radioactive food that you only come by every few years, I wouldn't spend a lot of time or energy figuring out your containment systems.
Learn the Radioactive Foods for your Whole Family
As a woman, you will want to be aware of which foods your kids and your husband finds radioactive. By understanding this, you can help develop containment systems for the whole family. If you aren’t sure which foods they find radioactive, think about which foods seem to disappear without you knowing. In my house it seems to be potato chips, chocolate chips, ice cream (surprise, surprise) and cereal.
STOP THE WILLPOWER BATTLES WITH SUPER TEMPTING FOODS
To control radioactive foods, I use what I call the radioactive containment system. With real radioactive materials, the materials are put into a lead box to protect the people around them from radiation.
With radioactive foods, we want a containment system to protect ourselves. We want to put those radioactive foods in a “lead box” to protect us from their devastating dopamine power.
Radioactive Food Containment System
Bright Line Rules
Start the radioactive food containment system by first making a “bright line rule” about how often you want to have the food available in your home. My bright line rule for potato chips is that they are available only on special occasions like picnics or holidays. My bright line rule for ice cream availability is that I buy ice cream only for parties or once in a while on “Dessert Day.”
Because I like to make banana or pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, I usually keep chocolate chips on hand. Thus, I need to make sure that my chocolate chip containment system is very good. Another radioactive food that I usually have on hand is cereal. I use cereal as an emergency breakfast, so my cereal containment system has to be excellent as well.
Radioactive Food Containment Continuum
There are many different strategies that you can use as a containment system. They're on a continuum—going from less strict to more strict.
You can try any strategy on the continuum, treat it as an experiment, and see if it works for you. If it doesn’t, then be a scientist, and try a more restrictive containment strategy until you find the one that works.
Steps of the Containment Continuum
1. Make it Less Visible
The containment continuum starts with putting the radioactive food in the back of an out-of-the-way cupboard or covering it in aluminum foil and sticking it in the back of the freezer. Remember that to eat a food, you need to have a reminder to eat it. Hiding a food is usually enough to keep your sub-conscious Assistant from being cued to crave the ice cream. Each strategy on the continuum will make the radioactive food more inconvenient and less accessible.
So let’s say you have an open bag of chocolate chips, you’ve put it into your highest cabinet as the first strategy in the continuum. But you find yourself standing on a chair taking handful after handful of chips (purely hypothetical of course;-). Don’t get mad at your lack of willpower, be a scientist, and employ the next containment method on the continuum.
2. Get it out of the Kitchen
I have two freezers in my garage— one is part of a refrigerator/ freezer combo. I could put the chocolate chips in that freezer. Or I could hide it in a cabinet in another room. Anything to get it out of the kitchen.
3. Make it Inaccessible
But the stand-alone freezer is even further along continuum. It makes food more inaccessible. It has a lock on the door. The freezer door doesn’t seem to shut super tightly, so we also have a 50 pound dumbbell in front of the door.
So what if I want to have a handful of chips now? First of all, I would have to have some kind of reminder to want them in the first place. Then, I have to put my shoes on cause the garage floor is dirty. Then, I’d need to turn on the garage light. Then, I'd get the freezer key. I need to unlock the door which sticks a bit. Then I'd have to move the 50 pound weight out from in front of the door. Open the ziplock bag with the chips. Take a handful. Close up the ziplock bag, close the door, lock the freezer door, put the weight back in front of the door, hang up the key, turn off the light, go back in the kitchen, take my shoes off, and then let the chips warm up. I hate frozen chocolate chips.
4. Get Permission
Chocolate chips are definitely not worth all that work for me. But what if they were? What if I was still in the garage grabbing handfuls of chips? I'd move further down the Containment Continuum. I'd ask my husband to hide the freezer key or the chips, so I'd have to ask him if I wanted some (like he has to ask me for cookies).
5. Make a Special Trip
If you want to bake with chocolate chips, you could move along the continuum to making a special trip to buy them at the moment you need them. You may also want to buy a single size serving to keep from having leftovers around. This is super inconvenient and since your Assistant is lazy, you would definitely eat less chocolate chips.
6. Nuclear Option--Don't Buy It Ever
Of course there's what I call the "Nuclear Option"—just don’t buy chocolate chips ever. You could stop baking with them. No more chocolate chips.
A lot of my clients suggest never buying the food again as their first choice for a containment system. I discourage this because you may still want ice cream or cookies on special occasions. Try another option first. I typically don’t have ice cream in my freezer, but after a birthday party, I don’t want to be at ice cream’s mercy. I use my containment strategy of taking the ice cream out to the freezer in my garage.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind is Usually Enough
Usually, putting foods somewhere that I can't see them, is enough of a containment strategy for me. But if it’s not, there are several more strategies I can try.
My Family's Radioactive Foods Containment System
What do I do to help myself, my husband, and my children control our nemesis foods?
For my husband, I only make cookies once every two or three months. Once they are cool, I put them in a ziplock bag and hide them in rotating locations. My husband has to ask me if he wants one. This curbs his consumption, but sometimes I have to put my foot down, “No, you can’t have a cookie before dinner. You’ll have to wait for dessert.”
I buy potato chips very infrequently. When I do, I don't let my kids know we have them. Then, I hide them at the back of a high cabinet.
Cereal is an issue for my youngest daughter. I "contain" cereal by buying two very plain varieties. I only offer it a couple of times a week for breakfast. When I do, I fill my daughter’s bowl, and then put the box immediately back in the child-locked cabinet. I make lots of other appealing breakfasts, so cereal is not the only option.
I hide chocolate chips and ice cream (when it’s on hand) in the locked garage freezer.
So those are my family’s radioactive food containment methods.
Children are Worse at Willpower
If you think you aren’t great at willpower, well, children are even worse. Don’t leave yourself or your children at the mercy of limited willpower and surges of dopamine. Realize that your radioactive foods are probably going to win in a willpower battle. Reduce your exposure to these foods by decreasing the availability of these foods, and then choosing one of the methods of the radioactive containment system. If at first you don’t succeed, then just move on down the continuum. You've finally got this!
Want Even More Ideas?
Download the Radioactive Food Containment Worksheet
Are you ready to make some containment methods for your own family? Download the Radioactive Food Containment Worksheet to develop your own family strategy.
Download the worksheet and then head over to the Real Healthy Habits Facebook page for more ideas and support.
Until next time,
I'm a dietitian, personal trainer, and health coach who started asking all the tough health and weight loss questions-- like how do we get more willpower, why can’t we stay motivated, and why is getting healthy and losing weight so tough?
I discovered that the answer to all these questions is simply--Your Brain.
I help you stop the health and weight loss struggles by understanding your brain and then working with it—instead of against it. Then, I teach you how to put your personalized healthy habits on autopilot for results that last.
I believe that you deserve the health and energy to live your best life.