Health

You've Got More Willpower Than You Think

6 ways to conserve and better utilize your inner strength

Keeping dietary temptations in check can feel like a constant battle. Even if you have the willpower to say no most of the time, there are still moments when your resolve fails you.

What if you could give your willpower a boost? According to a new book, you can. “Feed your body glucose and you can fuel your willpower,” says Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., author with John Tierney of "Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength."

But wait — glucose is a simple sugar. Isn’t that off-limits when counting calories? Yes, but glucose deprivation may explain why people often fail at low-calorie diets. Your body may need nutrients that can actually help you lose weight. Starve yourself and you’ll have low glucose. So, your body will seek it by triggering cravings and a heightened appetite for feel-good foods like donuts and chocolate cake. These same triggers can lead to overeating, or even binging.

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The goal then is to find that proper balance, says psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann, PhD of University of Chicago, who specializes in food psychology. There are plenty of healthy, simple-sugar foods, like fruit and vegetables (apples, grapes, tomatoes, and onions), dairy products and even grains, like bread and rice. Grains contain both starch and fiber, and digestion breaks them down into glucose.

But feeding your willpower alone cannot deliver you from all temptations. You also must manage your exposure to conserve your willpower for when you really need it.

A recent Hofmann-led study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology followed people’s reactions to temptations throughout the day. The results showed that those with the most self-control were those who — somewhat ironically — used their willpower less often. Instead of fending off one temptation after another, they set up their lives to minimize temptations. In other words, they played offense instead of defense, to greater success.

Here are some ways to conserve, and better utilize, your willpower.

1) Weigh-in before breakfast. A 2007 study found that people who weighed themselves daily had greater dietary restraint and fewer binge episodes than those who weighed only once a week. Lead researcher Rena Wing, PhD of Brown University, says that consistent self-weighing helps catch any weight gains before they escalate and make behavior changes to prevent any additional pounds.

2) The grab-and-go lunch. When faced with fast-food lunches, learn to overestimate calories — a tactic called counteractive construal. Embracing an exaggerated view of calories can help you better resist temptations. “It is not about lying to yourself, but that you actually believe it,” says University of Texas researcher Ying Zhang, PhD. Overestimating can help establish a mental link between “fat food” and “fat body” that can give you a psychological edge.

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3) The office snack bowl. Almost every office has one. Your best weapon? A change of scene. Take a 5-15 minute stroll around the building when snacking urges strike. In similar situations, test subjects who walked ate 50 percent less than a control group, according to a 2012 study in the journal entitled Appetite. Sounds simple, but how to get yourself moving? Keep a reminder in your line of sight, such as a picture of runner next to your computer or your gym bag by your desk.

4) Time for happy hour. Try to practice “postponement” when faced with a jumbo nacho plate or 2-for-1 beer pitchers. In the heat of the moment tell yourself, “I can have some later.” This serves as a cooling-off period and makes tempting treats seem less desirable and easier to forgo. In her 2012 study, Nicole Mead, PhD of Catolica-Lisbon School of Business and Economics, found that subjects who postponed eating an unhealthy snack ate less than those that who tried to restrain from eating altogether. Practice the if-then rule: “IF I am faced with a tempting treat, THEN I will just postpone eating it.” Begin small. Pick one or two foods or drinks that test your resolve the most and postpone those. Add more over time.

5) Dinner after the gym. After your Crossfit class, do you feel like downing an entire pizza? Scientists call this post-workout binge “compensation” — a psychological reward for a job well done. (FYI: the greater the workout intensity, the greater the need for compensation.) Instead of fighting this exercise-related hunger pang, use your willpower to fuel up beforehand. A 2009 study from San Diego State found that men who ate two hours before exercise showed increased concentrations of the appetite suppression hormone ghrelin.

6) The late-night snack. At the end of the day, fatigue can push you toward indulgence. In fact, night owls consume an average of 248 more calories a day (most after 8 p.m.) than those who go to bed earlier, according to a 2011 study in the journal entitled Obesity. So lower your temptation for high-calorie, late-night binges by stocking your fridge with healthy snacks like yogurt and fruit. This way, if you do snack, it won’t negate your day’s achievements.