Did your last attempt at weight loss fail? Was it because you lacked willpower? Willpower is defined as the control of one’s impulses and actions and allows you to have self-control to avoid short-term temptations in order to meet long term goals. In other words, willpower helps you decide between what you really want and what you know you ought to do.
Turns out, willpower is among the weakest of our mental forces and burns out quickly. When confronted with a tempting treat or the smell of a warm cookie, too often our wills are not strong enough to resist. This is especially true near the end of the day, when we are already mentally tired, hungry and depleted. Willpower thrives on glucose. The irony is that to lose weight we need to eat less; to eat less we need willpower; to get willpower we need glucose or food to give us the mental energy to resist temptations. Repeatedly failing to stick to your diet is discouraging and may cause you to give up completely, blaming lack of willpower.
Next time, instead of just relying on your willpower to beat temptations, give these suggestions a try.
• Work on one goal at a time. If you need to lose weight, quit smoking, start exercising and lower your cholesterol, it can be too overwhelming to try to do it all at once. Pick the one behavior that is most important and most difficult for you to change and start there. After that change becomes the new normal, add another goal to work on. Make changes during periods of calm. Starting a new diet while under stress will likely not be successful.
•Set clear and specific goals. “I want to lose weight” is too vague and doesn’t give you the motivation you need to actually lose the weight. Set a specific, realistic goal, such as losing 5 pounds in a month, or fitting into a favorite outfit again by a certain date. Write your goals down and put them somewhere you will see daily to help motivate you.
•Find a routine or schedule that works for you. It can take weeks of repeated behavior to develop a new habit. Set a schedule that is realistic for exercise and actually put it on your calendar. Plan your meals in advance, so you don’t have to think about what to eat when you are hungry. Consider eating the same foods several meals a week to eliminate decisions. Decrease the effort it takes to initiate positive behavior and increase the effort it takes initiate undesired behaviors. For example, move your treadmill from the basement to the TV room. This puts the treadmill right where you can see it and eliminates any effort or excuses to go to the basement to exercise, making it easier for exercise to become a habit.
Page 2 of 2 - •Have a contingency plan. Too many decisions can quickly deplete your willpower. If you are going to eat out, know in advance what you can order and not blow your diet. Have some healthy snacks handy so you aren’t tempted to eat whatever you can find when you are “starving.” Have a ready response when someone tries to tempt you with goodies.
•Be self aware. Keep a detailed food log so you can identify what you are eating too much of and when you tend to eat it. Weigh yourself and keep a record. You can’t make changes if you aren’t aware of what needs to be changed.
•Limit your choices. Remove as many temptations as possible. Don’t keep tempting high-calorie foods in the house. Don’t shop when hungry. If you find yourself stopping for food on your way home from work every night, consider taking a different route home. If you are tempted by the vending machine you walk by every day, avoid going that way. Out of sight, out of mind.
•Be accountable. Let your friends and family provide support in meeting your goals. Find an online support group of people with similar goals. Just telling someone else that you are trying to lose weight can motivate you to do so.
•Find a distraction. Find something pleasurable to do instead of eating when cravings hit. Maybe read a good book, go for a walk, listen to music or call a friend. Work on something mentally challenging, like a math or word puzzle. Instead of thinking about how good something would taste, think about how good it will feel to be healthy and slimmer. Delay gratification by waiting to eat the food you are craving. Instead of totally eliminating what you crave, try allowing yourself a cheat day once per week.
Anita Marlay, R.D., L.D., is a dietitian in the cardiac rehab department at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Mo.