Have you ever wondered why you can’t seem to stick to healthy eating despite having the motivation and knowledge? You may have read countless nutrition articles, stocked your fridge with fresh fruits and vegetables and follow every food blog under the sun. Yet, for some reason, you can’t quite align your actions with your diet goals. Why is this and what can we do about it? This article explores the impact that willpower has on our ability to overcome temptation and outlines three simple, yet effective strategies we can use to increase our willpower.
What is willpower and what causes it to fail?
Willpower is the ability to delay gratification by exerting control over our behaviour. Anyone who has tried to stick to a diet will be familiar with the feeling of trying to control that impulse to eat unhealthy foods, despite really, really wanting to. Walter Mischel, an American psychologist, developed a popular theory termed the “Hot-and-cool” system to explain why willpower fails. Mischel describes the cool system as the rational, decisive and goal oriented part of us. For example, an individual who has a long term goal of losing weight utilises the “cool” system every time they desire junk food, but consciously turn it down. In comparison, the “hot” system refers to our emotional and impulsive side. For instance, that same individual whose goal is to lose weight would use the “hot” system when spontaneously acting upon their impulse to eat junk food. According to Mischel, Willpower fails whenever the “hot” system overrides the “cool” system. There are a multitude of factors which may weaken willpower. These include stress, fatigue, alcohol, habit, genetics, motivation and the time between the action and its associated reward or punishment.
Thus, if you want to successfully stick to your diet goals, it is important to acknowledge that like the muscles within your body, if overworked, willpower can become fatigued. This is why it is vital to manipulate your environment in a way that promotes healthy eating behaviours. This can be achieved by determining when your willpower is at its weakest and ensuring that you aren’t surrounded by temptation at that time. For example, if you find that your willpower is weakest after a long day at work, you can curb late night snacking by ensuring that you clear your kitchen of unhealthy, processed foods, instead replacing them with readily made, healthy alternatives.
However, we can’t always control our environment to prevent us from steering off track. What do we do in times when our co-worker has bought in baked goods, or when we are headed to the cinema? Here are three effective strategies that can be used to strengthen your willpower and help you eat healthy, in any scenario.
1) Have the mindset that every bite matters
Every time you give in to eating food that is detrimental to your health goals, you strengthen your body’s ‘giving in muscle’. Strengthening this behaviour will increase the likelihood that you will give in over and over again. In contrast, by resisting tempting food, you will slowly build your ‘resistance muscle’. As this behaviour gets stronger, you will find it increasingly easier to resist tempting food. That being said, it is important to treat yourself every so often, as this prevents us from giving up on our healthy eating intentions all together.
2) Create a system whereby the rewards of sticking to your goals and the consequences of giving into temptation are immediate
When we are confronted with tempting food, we perceive both the rewarding taste and the consequences of avoiding the food to be immediate. In contrast, we perceive the long term reward of good health and long term punishment of ill health to be in the distant future. This phenomenon makes it difficult for us to stick to healthy eating. There are two effective strategies which can be used to overcome this. Firstly, you could make your long term goal visible to yourself every day, such as by sticking the rewards of good health and consequences of poor health up in your kitchen. Additionally, you could create a point system whereby you accumulate points towards something you truly desire each time you stick to your goals. Such points could be taken away whenever you steer off track. These two strategies help to make the long term rewards and consequences immediate.
3) Have a strong why
Another important factor for strengthening your willpower is to ensure that you have a strong drive to achieve your goal. Reminding yourself every day about the meaning and value of your goal will make it easier for you to choose healthy foods. Research has shown that willpower is more easily depleted in those who feel obligated to exert self-control (such as to please others) than those who’s self-control comes from their own intrinsic goals and motivation.
Alana Willis is passionate about all things health and nutrition. You can usually find her at the beach, with a smoothie in one hand and a good book in the other, soaking up that great Aussie sun. She is currently completing the Bachelor of Science and Master of Nutrition and Dietetics at the University of Sydney and foresees herself one day running her own dietetics practice. With a major in psychology, Alana is fascinated by the relationship between food and our mental state, and how our psychology can be used to implement healthy eating behaviours.
Alana’s keen interest in health and nutrition is reflected by her writing. With her scientific background, Alana critically analyses everything she hears and reads, ensuring that her writing is current and evidence based. You can see more of her writing featured in the Dietitian Connection Newsletter and the Feel Great Challenge founded by biggest loser host, Hayley Lewis.