If you’re one of the more than 100 million Americans living with high blood pressure, diabetes or prediabetes, every meal can feel like a minefield, packed with social pressure, stress, and seemingly endless temptation.

It’s easy to feel outmatched, give in to unhealthy impulses and then vow to get back on track…eventually. But high blood pressure and diabetes never take a day off, and even a few unmanaged weeks can have a serious impact on your health.

Luckily, though, with a little planning, some tweaks to your mindset and just a bit more mindfulness, you can make it through these challenges unscathed.

See related: How, when and how often to weigh yourself

Pay attention

If you’ve been living with diabetes or hypertension for a few years, you already know what you’re supposed to do to keep your blood sugar or blood pressure in check. You’ve read the pamphlets, filled the prescriptions, and sat through the lectures from doctors and family.

So why is it still so tough to stay on track with your eating?

Blame your slip-ups on a combination of habit and convenience. You’re probably used to eating certain foods at certain times without giving it much thought, and being stuck at home during a pandemic no doubt makes it even easier to fall into such patterns.

But, luckily, with a little planning and mindfulness, you can interrupt old patterns, and, over time, change them.

That’s the gist of Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book on habit formation, The Power of Habit, which illustrates just how much of our behavior is unconscious, driven largely by routine. Sugar lovers will relate to the book’s appendix, in which Duhigg details his efforts to break his waist-expanding habit of heading to the cafeteria every afternoon to eat a cookie.

By paying closer attention to his surroundings and behavior, Duhigg learned it wasn’t hunger, low energy, or even a raging sweet tooth that fueled his cookie habit. Instead, it was simply his need for a temporary distraction from work. The cookie was just a distraction in a convenient and familiar form. Of course, the fact that it was tasty certainly didn’t hurt.

Likewise, if you pay closer attention to your own eating habits, you’ll probably find that many of your food choices aren’t really choices at all.

So stop and ask yourself: Am I really craving that second slice of cake, or do I just want to stay at the table and socialize? Am I actually enjoying the chips I’m munching as I watch a movie, or is putting them in my mouth just part of my movie-watching routine?

Your answers might surprise you.

By being more mindful and reflective, you can interrupt semi-automatic behaviors and make smarter choices — and by doing so, you’ll not only feel better physically, you’ll also feel better about yourself.

Plan ahead

Along with this new mindfulness, one of the best ways to stop yourself from falling into unhealthy eating habits is to think ahead with an eating “game plan”. By anticipating food temptations and having healthy alternatives on hand, you’ll be prepared to make the choice you know you should, in the moment.

Check out a list of low-GI snacks or foods for people with high blood pressure and you’re sure to find at least a few that are both satiating and delicious. Pick 3 or 4 of your favorites and add them to your shopping list.

For example, consider these options:

  • Instead of aimlessly grazing when you’re a bit hungry, boil a batch of eggs (protein will help fill you up)
  • Instead of making a carb-heavy sandwich, wrap leftover turkey breast around some veggies (or flip it around and wrap the turkey in lettuce with a bit of mustard)  
  • Instead of chips, try dipping carrots, celery, and bell peppers in hummus or guacamole
  • Instead of candy and chocolate, try fruits like cherries, berries, pears, and apples for a bit of sweetness; you can also mix these with Greek yogurt or add a light spread of natural nut butter for healthy filling fats

No effort is wasted here, and any progress is a step in the right direction. You may slip up from time to time, but as Duhigg writes:

“Sometimes change takes a long time. Sometimes it requires repeated experiments and failures. But once you understand how a habit operates…you gain power over it.”

What better time to start than now?

…and plan to fail

Being mindful and planning ahead is a great strategy for managing food temptation. But if you’re too extreme in your expectations, you could be setting yourself up disappointment.

Vowing that you’ll never have another piece of chocolate is not only unrealistic, it’s counterproductive. With so much temptation around, it’s almost inevitable that you’ll slip up, and when you do, you may end up blaming yourself, feeling defeated, and then giving up completely.

We don’t want that to happen. That’s why it’s important to plan for your eating “failures” and adjust the rest of your diet accordingly.
Instead of completely swearing off a family member’s signature pie, for example, it might be better for you to accept that, yes, you will have a piece — but maybe only one — and that because of that, it’s best if you skip the rolls at dinner.

Look ahead and try to anticipate what sorts of temptations might pop up. And when they come:

  • Pick out one or two favorites each day and only compromise on those items (I’ll have 2 pancakes at breakfast, one small serving of mac and cheese at dinner, and that’s it!)
  • Pick your indulgences according to a (frugal) indulgence “budget” and adjust accordingly (I really want toast, so I’ll have that instead of the cake I was planning to have later)
  • Pick a specific occasion or day for your indulgence, look forward to it, and enjoy it guilt-free (I’ll have the fried fish on Saturday and stick to my eating plan until then)
  • Pick just one indulgence from the table (I can have some stuffing or some potatoes, but not both!)

This way of thinking allows you to be strategic with your food choices and to feel satisfied in knowing you stuck to your plan, which will encourage you to stay on track overall. You’ll succeed, even when you “fail”.

Ask yourself: Can it wait?

Planning is all well and good, but some things are impossible to predict. Temptation often comes unexpectedly, catching us off guard.

When we give in to these sudden temptations, we get a burst of satisfaction, but this is almost always quickly followed by feelings of emptiness, self-annoyance, and regret. “Why did I eat that?” we ask ourselves. “Was it even worth it?”

Instead of falling into this pattern, take a hard look at the temptation in front of you and ask yourself: Can it wait?

This is the main question at the core of Michael Alvear’s book Eat it Later: Mastering Self-Control Over Food. In this slim volume, Alvear discusses the value of delayed gratification in creating healthier eating habits. He suggests that if you take some time to think through your cravings and the options set before you, you may find it’s worth waiting just a bit longer to indulge.

You don’t deny yourself anything, you just give yourself some extra time to think through your choices (Pause-Ask-Decide). It’s a question, then, of “postponement versus deprivation”.

A big part of this is what he calls “bargaining for higher quality crap”. You don’t reject your indulgence completely, but instead to “save” a slot for it in your diet until you can enjoy a better version of it.

As Alvear puts it: “Don’t deny yourself foods you crave; postpone eating them until you can find a higher quality version of them”.

Who knows? Maybe with a little more time to think (and some healthy snacks or a glass of water), the craving will vanish on its own.
When faced with a food temptation, stop and ask yourself:

  • Is this really the treat I want, or is it just the one in front of me right now? (Those chips look tasty, but I’d rather have the Chex Mix someone’s planning to make later in the week)
  • Is this my favorite version of this treat, or just the one in front of me right now? (I love homemade chocolate chip cookies, but these are processed store brand cookies — do I really want them?)
  • Is this something I need to eat right now, or will I be more satisfied if I wait for the better version? (Usually it’s the latter!)

These questions are especially helpful in curbing grazing at night, when our willpower is exhausted. Stop, ask, and decide. Try telling yourself you’ll wait until the morning to indulge. Tell yourself that if the craving is still strong when you wake up, you’ll go for it with no strings attached.

Come morning, you’ll likely find that the craving has disappeared. You’ll be proud of yourself for resisting the temptation and you’ll be armed with a fresh reserve of willpower to help you stick to your healthy habits.

Waleed Mohsen

Author Waleed Mohsen

Waleed Mohsen is the co-founder and CEO of mynurse.ai. He has been named a UCSF Rosenman Innovator and has over 10 years of experience working with leaders of hospitals and medical institutions in his business development roles at Siemens and Cisco.

More posts by Waleed Mohsen