Forbidding foods may cause us to obsess about them, and what to do about it

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I came across this story today in the Daily Mail, concerning what can happen when we deny ourselves something. Apparently, according to this research, resisting something we desire can make us think about it more. Interestingly, if the same thing is denied to people more generally, it tends not to have this effect [1]. So, someone who is perhaps trying not to drink alcohol may find themselves thinking about alcohol more than is healthy. However, if that person were to live in a country in which alcohol was prohibited, then not drinking alcohol might present less of a challenge.

One might argue then that forbidding certain foods or drinks in the name of healthy eating may encourage a somewhat unhealthy relationship with food. I think I’ve seen a few examples of this in my time, and it’s one reason why I generally give the advice that ‘it’s what we eat most of the time, not some of it, that’s most important’. So, even if someone were eating a decent ‘primal’ diet based on natural unprocessed foods, I’m generally relaxed about the occasional consumption of bread, pasta or pizza, for instance (assuming someone does not have a contraindication such as coeliac disease).

However, I also know that the ideal is really for people to get a to a place where they are ambivalent about whether they have a food or not. Because if someone is not fussed about whether they eat something, and has not particular drive to eat it either, then actually there’s no need to even think about forbidding the food – it’s largely a non-event.

One thing that tends to work well here is to avoid getting very hungry, because when we do, there’s often a tendency to crave or desire foods such as cake, biscuits/cookies, and doughnuts. Should we get such a craving, we are usually going to have to exert some considerable willpower to resist it. And willpower has been shown to be a bit like a muscle: once exercised, it is weaker for some time later. So, repeatedly using willpower to resist a food will usually make resisting it harder and harder over time.

Research has found that if individuals are given a sugary drink between two tests of self-control, they do better on the second one [2]. The same effect does not occur if the drink is artificially sweetened, suggesting that somehow sugar feeds the willpower ‘muscle’ and strengthens the resolve. Eating a diet that helps stabilise blood sugar levels regularly enough to keep hunger and low blood sugar at bay can, I think, go a long way to essentially putting a stop to cravings for sugary and none-too-healthy foods. It also likely strengthens the resolve.

But what is also interesting, I think, is that the very act of exerting willpower tends to cause blood sugar levels to drop [3]. So, a spot of hunger and low blood sugar may trigger the need for willpower and sap it at the same time. No wonder so many of us can find it almost impossible to resist sweet foodstuffs from time to time.

Again, the key to making life a lot easier is not really wanting the food in the first place, and blood sugar stability is critical here. But it can often help to supplement with key nutrients. Two supplements I use quite a lot in practice are:

1. L-glutamine. A pinch of the amino acid L-glutamine power allowed to dissolve under the tongue can, I find, reduce an intense craving for something sweet within a few minutes.

2. L-tryptophan. This amino acid is a precursor of the brain chemical serotonin, low levels of which can provoke cravings for sweet foods and perhaps other carbohydrates. Serotonin levels naturally fall during the day, which means some individuals find their problem time is in the evening here. 500-1,500 mg taken on an empty stomach in the mid-afternoon and early evening will often really help to reduce an unhealthy drive for carbohydrate.


1. Truong G, et al. An unforgettable apple: Memory and attention for forbidden objects. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2013 May 24. [Epub ahead of print]

2. Gailliot MT, et al. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007;92(2):325-36

3. Gailliot MT, et al. The physiology of willpower: linking blood glucose to self-control. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2007;11(4):303-27

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