Whole30, keto, Meatless Monday — but have you heard of the Urge Jar Challenge?

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Photo credit: Scoobers/ Chainarong Prasertthai/Getty Images

People often ask why I love podcasts so much, and my answer is always the same: Free education. Any chance I get, whether I am stuck in Los Angeles traffic or walking my dogs, I am tuned into a podcast. I discovered the Urge Jar Challenge in a podcast titled “Life Coach School.” This podcast makes the strong argument that dieting isn’t simply about willpower. It’s how we manage our primal urges.

Intriguing in its Freudian approach, I committed myself to the challenge that founder Brooke Castillo of “Life Coach School” shared with her listeners. And spoiler, I did lose weight — 10 pounds to be exact. But the best result wasn’t my physical one. It was the transformation I noticed in my mental health. Interested yet?

So, what is the Urge Jar challenge?

The Urge Jar Challenge hacks into our decision-making process and changes how we react to an urge. It all started back in the caveman days when our primal brain called all the shots. Choices were made based on survival and instant gratification. As quickly as we could hunt and gather food, we ate it. Our other primary needs were staying safe, keeping warm, finding shelter, hiding out and running from threatening situations. Quick reaction, reward and pleasure were all we knew.

While we no longer live in that type of environment, our decision-making skills haven’t changed too much. In fact, despite our evolution, we still make about 90 percent of decisions from our primal brain. Ever reached for a cookie just because it was there? Did you need it to survive? Probably not. But you were seeking instant gratification.

The prefrontal cortex — the most powerful and evolved part of the brain — plans ahead, makes adult decisions and regulates emotions. It delays gratification. The Urge Jar Challenge is all about learning how to voluntarily exercise your prefrontal cortex more.

What will you learn by taking the Urge Jar Challenge?

Despite years of good habits and nutritional education, I, too, succumb to emotional eating. This challenge uncovered patterns that surprised me. When my mood was cheerful, I craved sweets like cake and sugary cereal. I fueled my happiness with food from happy times: celebrating with cake and munching Frosty Flakes while watching cartoons.

MORE: A deeper look at the ‘sober curious’ movement

During stressful times, I craved salty, crunchy food like popcorn. Research shows that crunching food with our teeth is a way to vent emotion and dilute aggression. Mastication is looked upon as an effective stress-coping mechanism. My millions-of-years-old reptile brain was more in control of my food choices than I was. Was I really hungry or just emotionally hungry?

The six steps in the challenge helped me find the answer.

How to take the Urge Jar Challenge

You actually need a couple things to complete the challenge. Don’t skip any items. They all serve an important purpose. To take the Urge Jar Challenge, you need:

● A clear glass jar
● At least 100 beads (color unimportant)
● A weight scale
● A method of keeping notes (I used my iPhone Notes app, but feel free to use a paper journal, if that’s your thing)

Step 1

Write exactly what you will eat tomorrow. Do so 24 hours before. Planning will override your primal brain. There are no restrictions, except it is recommended that you limit salty and sugary processed foods. The primal brain loves the quick reward of salt, fat and sugar. These three create false hunger signals and extra urges. Choose what is best for you.

Step 2

Eat exactly what you’ve planned. Focus on execution. If you’re eating at a restaurant the next day, research the menu and decide 24 hours ahead of time what you will order. When you get to the restaurant, eat exactly as planned. The consistency of this action will get you into the habit of ignoring your primal brain. If you chose a chicken salad, don’t substitute it for shrimp and broccoli. Yes, it’s still a protein/veggie combo, and I applaud you for that, but it’s not following what you decided on the day before. You want consistency and to build a relationship of trust with yourself.

Step 3

Anytime you have an urge to eat something you haven’t planned, allow the urge to be there. Give it 10 minutes and take deep breaths. You’ll be compelled to “take one little bite.” Let whatever feelings you have flow through you. When you ignore an urge, there is no reward, only deprivation. Acknowledge an urge, and it passes.

Step 4

Place a bead in the jar after every urge. Although completion of a craving doesn’t involve eating, the reward comes from putting the urge in the jar. As you stick with the process, your jar fills up. This gives the primal brain enough visual satisfaction to skip overeating, so keep your jar in view. If you give into the urge, skip the bead deposit for that urge. You do not have to start the challenge from the beginning; continue on and be more mindful next time. When you’re away from home, carry some beads with you. Upon returning, add to the jar accordingly.

Step 5

Track your weight every morning. Note what you ate and what urges occurred. If weight loss is your goal and in a couple weeks you haven’t lost any pounds, adjust your food choices until you see your weight decreasing. Food evaluation from the journal will prove helpful. There is no external diet (keto, Atkins, etc.) dictating what to eat, so this is about you assessing and customizing what works best for you. But keep in mind that this challenge isn’t just about weight loss; it’s about mindful eating, learning your own eating habits and taking control back so you feel as good as you should.

Step 6

Once you get to 100 beads — i.e. 100 urges in the jar — evaluate again. Did you reach your goal? Repeat the Urge Jar Challenge every 100 beads for as long as you want or until you feel you reached your goals.

One last note about the Urge Jar Challenge

The creator of the Urge Jar Challenge, Brooke Castillo, recommends that you “go into this challenge loving your body. If you approach with self-love instead of self-hatred, you’re more likely to succeed. With self-love you won’t feel food-obsessed, and [you’ll] be more like a mindful Jedi master.”

MORE: How to create a gratitude practice

Thanks to this challenge, I fulfilled a contract with myself. Now, I am more aware of my emotions, can channel them away from food and make my next decisions accordingly. On fad diets, I didn’t feel empowered. When the diet ended, I felt relieved from tormenting myself. In the Urge Jar Challenge, the experience bred self-mastery, and that’s the healthiest thing I could have acquired.

Want to take the challenge with a group and a coach cheering you on? Join my Urge Jar Challenge from September 15 to October 27 for free.

Looking for a healthier take on your favorite munchies while you test the Urge Jar Challenge? Try our healthier Twinkie recipe.