Eat Something To Build Your Willpower

One of the most helpful insights I gained from my last big episode of weight loss, about 6 or 7 years ago, was that willpower should be like a spare tire for your car. In an emergency, you can drive on it, but don’t keep using it once the emergency has passed, because it isn’t built for endurance.

I’m very focused on willpower, since I know it will be key in maintaining my weight loss for the long haul.

This New York Times article about new year’s resolutions adds to my understanding, and now, I hope, yours. The takeaways for me were two big points: the science behind willpower, and the benefit of removing temptation from your environment.

The article references a study about willpower that showed:

… the people with the best self-control, paradoxically, are the ones who use their willpower less often. Instead of fending off one urge after another, these people set up their lives to minimize temptations. They play offense, not defense, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises, conserve their energy and outsource as much self-control as they can.

These strategies are particularly important if you’re trying to lose weight, which is the most typical New Year’s resolution as well as the most difficult. The more you starve your body, the less glucose there will be in your bloodstream, and that means less willpower. Because of this vicious cycle, even people with great self-control in the rest of their lives can have a terrible time remaining slim.

Wait. Willpower is powered by glucose? That was a revelation to me. I knew that resisting temptation time and again could wear you out, but I had never explicitly seen the connection made to my body’s physiology.

Now, the article doesn’t say this quite as directly as I’ve said it in my title, but doesn’t it make sense that if willpower wears down because of lower blood glucose, and dieting depletes glucose stores, that you can get a short-term boost for your willpower by replenishing those stores?

I’m not advocating downing a bag of M&Ms after every workout at the gym. Eventually, everything we eat becomes glucose (I think – most of it does, anyway), so you don’t have to eat it as sugar to let it become sugar.

On the advice of my nutritionist, as I started ramping up the intensity of my exercise, I also added a small snack right at the end of my workout. Generally, just a piece of cheese  and sometimes three or five walnuts, about 75 to maybe 100 calories.

(That’s an amount of food, by the way, which I never would have considered an adequate snack before this year. I would have considered a snack a whole bag of popcorn, or a plate of nachos and a margarita.)

That little snack at the end of exercising makes a huge difference in how I eat for the rest of the day. It keeps me from being alarmingly hungry at dinner, and it also helps me resist the post-exercise rationalization that I’ve just worked out really hard, so I “deserve” to eat something, even when I rationally know that the something being considered will, in three or four seconds, destroy the positive value of the prior hour’s exercise.

The Times article relates a story about how one man, determined to lose weight, structured his life to minimize temptation and reinforce good choices. The author concedes that while it makes an interesting anecdote, it may not be particularly useful in a practical way for the rest of us, as it involves a (presumably billionaire) hedge fund manager who employed strategies like setting up a home gym in the suite at his hotel in Vegas while hiring essentially a live-in trainer and chef to ensure that he ate healthy food and worked out daily for four months.

Still, you can apply some of what he’s done to your own life, even if you aren’t enjoying the salary of the average hedge fund manager that makes outsourcing some of the work possible.

Here are some examples from my own life and from other people’s blogs who are writing about successful loss and maintenance:

  • Make exercise a non-negotiable part of your day.
  • Physically move temptation out of your regular sight line at home. If you can’t get it out of the house, at least put it behind a cabinet door in an opaque container.
  • Manipulate your office environment. Close the break room door so you can’t see the food, or walk to another floor to use the bathroom and avoid the candy dish on someone’s desk.
  • Resist food porn. My mom is after me to download an app called Food Gawker. I’m not even sure it is helpful for me to look at photos of healthy food too often, and I’m sorry for those cake porn pictures a few weeks ago.
  • Adopt healthy-living restaurant feng shui. Change seats at the restaurant so you can’t see the dessert case, and build a fort with drinking glasses, condiment bottles, candles, and table tents so you can’t see the chips and salsa. (Or just send them back, but your dining companions may want them.)
  • Eat small, healthy snacks before entering a tempting environment, then drink water the whole time you are there.

We all know those these tips, and certainly I’ve blogged about them before, but repeating them reinforces the likelihood of making them habitual.

The Times article also advocates calling in reinforcements, support from your social circle often aided by technology. Put it out there on Facebook that you want to run a 5K, and it is harder to quit halfway to your goal.

To all of us who blog, this is not surprising. The author focuses not just on peer support, but on carrot/stick incentive programs, something I’ve not yet done in any formal way other than promising to buy myself certain pairs of shoes when I hit certain goals.

The article reviews StickK, in which you set a goal, define the stakes (an email to your entire address book or actual money, perhaps), name a referee who rules on your progress, and the ability to add friends to provide support.

When I get to maintenance, I may give StickK a try. I won’t have the positive reinforcement of continuing to lose weight, and I know just how easy it is to let it creep back on.

Well, I guess this post was just a really long-winded way of saying go read the New York Times article. Hope you’re all having a great weekend!

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11 Responses to Eat Something To Build Your Willpower

  1. Interesting and quite a shift from what I usually hear: that willpower is like a muscle that you build over time.

  2. Definately going to try the walnut/cheese thing after a workout to …as you say avoid snacking on something larger and undoing the good work

    • Andie says:

      I like it because a cheese stick & some walnuts can sit in my locker & still be good an hour later. I’m sure fruit would work, too. My nutritionist would say pair that fruit with protein, like cheese or almond butter or something.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Great post! I really enjoyed reading it!

    Another easy snack option that Dr. Oz recommended on his show is a small 100 calorie bag, or a handful, of natural plain almonds. They hold up better than other nuts and they are a good snack, because they are full of healthy fats, so they can tide you over, especially if you drink some water with them. I frequently use this trick and it helps me avoid having to rely only on willpower. 🙂

  4. nikkianne says:

    Making exercise a non-negotiable part of your day is key. In the past, I always started out with exercise and basically acted like my day could not start until I’m gone for a walk or run. I need to get back into that!

    • Andie says:

      I hear you. I used to be a morning exerciser, and it does set you up for a rather successful day. We can’t seem to wake up early any more – even the dogs prefer sleeping in!

  5. Pingback: Around the Web – Jan 13 « 52 Weeks, 52 Pounds

  6. shortshoestring says:

    I try to eliminate decisions – especially at the end of the day. I work with food, so the challenge is even harder. But not having to decide over and over NOT to have something that’s in my cupboard, or easily available at work, makes life and will-power far less complicated! Thanks for good information!

    • Andie says:

      You are so right – having the things on hand to make easy decisions about good food instead of the food that triggers less-than-good decisions becomes critical once you’ve hit day’s end.

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