One Simple Trick to Building Diet Discipline and Changing Your Life

One Simple Trick to Building Diet Discipline and Changing Your Life
A super easy exercise to give you the strength to "say no" to your cravings.

There’s an old adage when it comes to grocery shopping and dieting: If you don’t want to eat it, don’t buy it. It’s a simple way of restricting what you eat, but there’s a big problem with it. Just like spraying Febreeze in the kitchen instead of taking out the trash, this method of diet restriction is only masking the problem. You’re achieving an end result without actually altering the behavior that is the root of the problem. It won’t take long before that end result is unsustainable.

The actual problem with almost any negative behavior in our lives is our uncanny ability to trick ourselves when our attempts to restrict that behavior fly in the face of our in-the-moment desires. It’s easy to not eat junk food you didn’t buy because if you don’t have it, you can’t eat it. But what happens when in the course of your life you ARE presented with the opportunity to splurge on junk food?

All of a sudden your cravings have the salesman skills of Zig Ziglar and you convince yourself that it’s ok:

“Oh, I’m out with friends so it’s alright. The giant side of french fries comes with the meal so I can eat them.”

“I’m having a long day so it’s ok to have a 1,000 calorie coffee drink to just get me through it.”

“I’m tired from a long week and don’t feel like cooking, I’ll just order a pizza, which is fine because I haven’t had any since last week.”

So what happens when you’re presented with the easily attainable junk food? You eat it. Because you haven’t developed any discipline that gives you the strength to say no to the salesman.

You’ve decided that you want to “eat healthier” or “eat McDonalds less” or “stop drinking so much soda” but the problem is those are not goals. And people who are not ready to fully make a commitment to the change love to make blurry goals like these because these are the easiest to defeat when they decide they don’t want to listen to them.

If you’re trying to drink soda less, how do you know if you’re on track when you start craving one? A real goal is hard, specific and non-negotiable. There is no wiggle room in your moments of craving, it either is or it isn’t. “I will only drink soda 3 times per week.” That is a goal. And the reason people who don’t really want to make progress are scared of that is because once you’ve had your 3, there is no room for one more. There’s no sales trick to make it ok. When the opportunity to order that 4th soda comes, you either have the strength to say no or you don’t.

If you’re unhappy with your diet you have to learn to recondition yourself. You have to train yourself that just because you SEE something you’d like to eat, doesn’t mean you HAVE to eat it.

How do you do this?

Discipline is a muscle; you can’t just expect to be able to stick with a restrictive goal because you’ve set your mind to it. Our raptor brains are programmed to say yes to cravings, no matter what our more logical thoughts try to say.

You would never think you could run 10 miles if you’ve never run a mile, and you can’t expect to be able to say no to a constant barrage of junk food opportunities in your life if you haven’t first trained yourself to be able to say no once.

To do this, you intentionally buy your favorite craving food with the goal of never opening it. You learn to constantly see this irresistible treat and develop a voice in your head that can say no to it.

For me that’s Mega Stuf Oreos. There’s nothing like a fresh Oreo, and just like the examples above, I would trick myself into thinking that if I bought a package I would eat them at a reasonable, drawn out pace. But what actually happens when you buy a package of Oreos? You open it to eat one and end up eating 4. And by the end of the week you’ve eaten an entire pack of Oreos by yourself. That’s 2,000 calories in JUST Oreos.

The Cookies You'll Never Eat

Figure out what craving challenges you the most. If it’s Coke, buy just one can. If it’s ice cream, pick up a carton. The goal here is simple: If you open the packaging, you’ve failed. This takes the wishy-washiness out of diet restriction. Every time you’re touring your kitchen for something to satisfy your craving there is only one decision to make: Am I strong enough to say no or will I fail the exercise by opening the package?

The incredible thing is how exponential this is. It only took me about a week and a half of learning to say no to the Oreos before an inspiring thing happened. I now found I had the strength to start saying no to other junk food in my daily life. Just because I’m hungry and pass a McDonalds doesn’t mean I HAVE to go through the drive-thru. Just because I always order soda with dinner, doesn’t mean I can’t order unsweetened iced tea or water. Just as you begin raising the weight on bench press as you get stronger, my personal discipline to say no to cravings started getting stronger.

And perhaps the craziest thing of all: I got so good at saying no, the salesman in my mind started working for his competitor. Instead of hearing a voice explaining why it’s ok to splurge, a new voice emerged, one reminding me how easy it is to say no, and how excited I feel when I can give a craving the finger. One of encouragement saying, “It’s ok if you eat this, but what if you didn’t?”

So my challenge to you is this: Are you ready to commit to learning to say no? Are you ready to lose weight and eat healthier? Are you ready to become emotionally stronger than you’ve ever been? If yes, go out and buy your junk food and learn that you have the power to change your life. Here’s to a new you, and a lot of unopened Oreo packages.

Andrew is the founder and editor of Primer. He's a graduate of American University and currently lives in Los Angeles. Read more about Primer on our About page. On Instagram: @andrewsnavely and @primermagazine.

  • Pingback: One Simple Trick to Building Diet Discipline and Changing Your Life | Broadway Rental Equipment Company()

  • pyrokeet

    That sounds really hard, I’d be awful at that. Maybe I should try it. At the moment I can get away with just not buying things, that’s so easy. But when I have kids and we have some treats lying around for them, I’d going to be in big trouble!

    • Andrew


      Having kids or other people in your home definitely would make this more challenging, but it can still be done.

  • René Roth

    “You see, officer, THIS is why I’m carrying half a pound of coke under my back seat!”

    • Andrew

      Ha! Just pull up the article on your phone, it’ll all be gravy.

      “Oh, you read Primer too! Move along, sir!” 😉

  • Justin Chaloupka

    There’s actually two points to be made here from the statement “Willpower is a muscle”.

    1) To make it stronger, it must be exercised.

    2) If you work it too hard or too often, it will fail.

    To address the first point, follow this article. Find small things in your life that you can, and should, say “No” to. The best targets for these are the minor creature comforts. Say no to taking the elevator. Say no to the up-sale at a restaurant. Say no to the impulse buy in the check-out line.

    For the second point, it’s all about creating good habits. The more routine something becomes, the easier it is to do and the less willpower it requires to do it. Making new habits is about repetition and not trying to make overwhelming changes all at once. Just like before, pick something small — like going to bed and waking up 10 minutes earlier than usual. Commit to doing it for a month, or 60 day, or 90 days.

    If you can use these two techniques in conjunction, you’ll have a dynamite 1-2 knockout for any change you want to make in your life! Don’t just say no to a vice — replace it with a better habit.

    • Andrew

      Great points Justin, I completely agree!

  • Dylan

    This is really great, Andrew. I hope there’s more like this coming.

  • Stephen C. Berry

    Reminds me of the old Pringles slogan: “Once you pop, you can’t stop!” Actually, it’s a shame how this preys on the junk food addicts.

  • Jeremy

    “One Simple Trick” isn’t so simple.

    • Andrew

      It may be challenging, but it is very simple.

  • revolvist

    great. now i want mega stuf oreos.

  • Kyle

    Andrew, do you have a post on Primer talking about your specific diet?

  • MasculineStyle

    Glad you turned this into a post. After our discussion about it over the weekend, I’ve found myself saying, “What if I didn’t?” quite a bit.

    • Cladwell

      Oh yeahhhh.

  • Keith Dodge

    You can send me the Oreos you don’t eat… JK, but seriously, good idea.

  • Butch_Zee

    Unfortunately (or fortunately?) my brain is immuned to this trick.

  • Rob Dc

    As someone who works on a cardiac floor, the consequences of poor eating habits combined sedentary lifestyle are obvious.

    Those with a positive attitude and proper preparation fare much better post-open heart than those who say “I can’t”. Dieting is no different.

    Yes, you can

  • Federico

    When you’re feeling like eating something, ask yourself if you want an apple. If the answer is no, then you’re just bored, not hungry!

  • Michael Howles

    This is actually how I quit smoking. Tough as hell for the first month, but learning to say “no” helps out in many parts of life.

  • Cladwell

    There’s a quote I love, “Discipline without desire is drudgery.” Would love to hear your thoughts on how to keep desire in front of you to help maintain the goals. ie. It’s painful to say no now, but the consequence is a greater benefit.

  • dialogueanalog

    i started intermittent fasting and it is working a treat. it also makes me not eat junk food because otherwise the fasting was a waste.

    but you are right that discipline is hard when it comes to food and the first three days are hard.

    i dont eat for about 18 hours, sleep included, and eat properly for the 6 hours i can. just drink plenty of water.