Well, okay, if we’re talking about actual marshmallows, this might not be true for someone looking to lose weight. But the point I was making was less about marshmallows and more about having the self-control to delay gratification and ultimately receive a larger reward for doing so. And, when it comes to weight loss, having that self-control is key.
In my opinion, if you are a trainer that peddles easy, quick-fixes you are actually harming your client’s future! (to see another example of how ineffective quick-fix solutions truly are take a look at the banking crisis…but that’s another story)
Delaying gratification requires discipline, persistence and strong will. These are virtues that we should be developing in our clients to increase their chances of success. As a trainer you should always be looking to develop your helping skills through training and practice.
For many of our clients their world is like being in one big experiment where in which they are constantly tempted by instant food rewards:
- On TV.
- In magazines.
- In the supermarket.
- Even at the Olympics!
As we saw in the great series “the men who made us fat” which aired recently on BBC2, the food industry has become quite skilled at knowing what triggers our reward pathways and what will ‘tempt’ us.
How do we as trainers attempt to help delay responses and fight the machine?
1. Help clients change their environment by keeping tempting food out of sight
Our clients are more likely to delay gratification, even if they have a craving, if the treats are out of sight. In one study, Mischel and Ebbesen (1970) had some kids wait for the preferred reward (two marshmallows) with the marshmallows in full view, while other kids waited with the treats out of sight. With the marshmallows out of sight the children were able to wait 11 minutes before eating them, compared to just ONE minute with the marshmallows in full view!
So make sure your clients get rid of any temptations in their homes. Sure, if they really want to binge they will but they will at least have some time to think about it first!
2. Help clients ‘reframe’ their thoughts about food
In another study, Mischel and Baker (1975) showed that simply telling children to mentally reframe their thoughts about the reward (i.e. the marshmallows) had significant effects on their ability to show self-control and delay gratification. In this study, some children were told to think of how ‘yummy and chewy’ the marshmallows were, while others were told to think of the marshmallows as ‘puffy clouds’. The children who were asked to refocus their thoughts about the rewards in emotionally ‘cool’ or neutral terms (i.e. ‘puffy clouds’) were able to increase their waiting time to 13.1 minutes – almost three times the amount of time that children who were asked to think about the marshmallows in emotionally ‘hot’ terms (i.e. ‘yummy and chewy’) waited, which was only 5.6 minutes!
So again, another way to help clients increase their self-control around food is to try to work with them on their thoughts about foods, especially those foods that they experience strong cravings for…For example, try to get a client who craves chocolate to replace thoughts of how good the chocolate will taste if they eat it with thoughts about the chocolate that aren’t related to the enjoyable sensation of eating (e.g. ‘the chocolate wrapper is shiny’); or even encourage a client to think about the food in a way that would make them not want to eat it (e.g. imagine eating a chocolate bar that’s full of hair! Yuk!).
(I do something similar to this myself when I work with my clients on reducing their food cravings – I call the mental exercise “the craving crusher” and I might devote an entire article to that particular technique one day in the future.)
In conclusion, we as trainers need to step up our game and provide our clients with the appropriate physical and mental strategies to maximize their ability to self-regulate and control their own behaviour. The strategies outlined above can help to delay gratification by altering our client’s environment and changing the mental representation of the reward associated with food, and, in doing so, can vastly increase their chances of achieving long-lasting successful results!
Mischel, W., & Ebbensen, E. B. (1970). Attention in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 16, 329-337.
Mischel, W., Ebbesen, E. E. & Zeiss, A.R. (1972). “Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification.”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21 (2): 204–218.
Mischel, W., & Baker, N. (1975). Cognitive appraisals and transformations in delay behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 254–261.