By Julie Cox
Making the right food choices can make a difference in everything from weight control to heart disease—and experts say doing it often comes down to one thing: willpower. So it’s good to have willpower, but it’s not like you can flip a switch and have more when you need it. In fact, some surprising physiological and psychological factors cause willpower to rise and fall. Remember these unexpected willpower boosters and reducers the next time you’re faced with a healthy-eating challenge.
Willpower decreases when you get fewer than seven hours of sleep.
Not only does a lack of rest make you grouchy, but it also causes the hormones that regulate your appetite to go all over the place. When you’re tired, your body’s levels of ghrelin (a hunger-stimulating hormone) and leptin (a metabolism-regulating hormone) can become off-balance. That increases your appetite, causing you to eat more and crave greasy and sugary foods. So get a full night’s worth of shut-eye to avoid overeating and choosing unhealthy nibbles the next day. A perfect example is that we tend to be hungry at night; this really is our bodies telling us that we are tired, not hungry, so be mindful of this next time and take yourself to bed.
Willpower increases when you feel good about yourself.
Surprisingly willpower is at its strongest when you’re already feeling good about your body image and health; that’s because willpower uses so much of our emotional resources. And there aren’t enough left when we’re feeling stressed, angry or sad.
Willpower decreases when you’re premenstrual or ovulating.
Our estrogen levels surge just after ovulating and before we get our periods, causing our bodies to release stress hormones like cortisol. This triggers a fight-or-flight response—our bodies think harm is coming our way, so they tap our fat stores for a quick burst of energy. This makes us crave carbs and fats, the ideal fuel for a fight-or-flight situation. Toss in the bad moods that come with PMS, and willpower can bottom out completely because we may think that eating will make us feel better. What to do? Question whether you’re really hungry before you grab that chocolate bar. Be accountable and honest with yourself.
Willpower increases when you eat something good for you.
It’s easier for your body to break down foods that are rich in natural vitamins, fibre and protein than those that aren’t so nutritious. And the less work your body has to do, the more energy you have—which makes you less likely to indulge in treats that weigh you down. On the flip side,choosing foods high in fat, sugar, simple carbohydrates and salt only make you crave more of that unhealthy stuff. It’s harder to have willpower when you’re eating foods that tell your brain that they’re making you feel good. You can become ‘addicted’ to the positive feelings you get from eating those foods.” Stick to healthy eats and you’ll crave junk less often.
Willpower decreases when you’re taking care of your kids.
When you’re racing from one child-related activity to another, your focus is on one thing: your kids. And who has time to think about themselves, let alone eat well, when you’re a busy parent? It could be much easier to make the most convenient choice for a meal versus the healthiest one. Caring for children might leave you feeling burnt out, exhausted or stressed—maybe even all three—which creates the perfect situation to say sayonara to willpower.
Willpower increases when you’re busy, but not stressed.
Sometimes we snack when we’re bored at home or the office. Keeping your day filled with tasks to tick off your to-do list—interspersed with enjoyable activities, like meeting a friend for a walk—will keep you focused on things other than food—and help you stay strong against mindless snacking.
Willpower decreases when you’re super-stressed.
When you’re under pressure, working on a huge project for your job or dealing with a family member’s illness, your body releases hormones to help you handle it. The downside? Those hormones may trigger cravings for high-carb foods—your body’s way of trying to increase your energy levels while you’re stressed. But stress actually weakens your willpower in another way.
Willpower decreases as you keep saying “no.”
Every time you turn down a doughnut or piece of chocolate throughout the day, your willpower to resist the next offer lowers. Willpower is strongest in the morning. We all head off to work feeling confident about eating right but, as the day wears on, it becomes easy to justify temptation. By knock off time, we’re ready to reward ourselves with saying yes to, say, a big scoop of ice cream. Willpower is like a muscle; when it’s overworked, it weakens.
Willpower increases when you’re not too strict.
Having a bite of cake or sip of a shake proves to yourself that you can enjoy a reasonable portion without bingeing. That self-trust entitles you to more treats every once in a while. If you never, ever indulge, though, you’re denying yourself happiness. Our bodies are natural pleasure-seekers. If we keep denying pleasure, our bodies will scream for it. So constantly saying “no” increases the chances that you’ll pig out.
Willpower decreases when your spouse tempts you.
When your husband frequently picks up pizza on the way home and takes you to restaurants and places with limited healthy food options, your willpower may spin out of control. Being with others who give in to temptation makes it easier to do the same. Even if they’re not trying to sabotage your eating-well efforts, bringing high-fat, high calorie foods into your home can weaken your willpower. Instead of giving in, encourage your spouse or to purchase treats that they like but you don’t.
Julie is mum to a sassy two and a half-year-old girl who keeps her moving. Her passion for mums/women’s fitness has catapulted a career in a range of fields from exercise to eating healthy, supplements, and serving up great lunchbox treats.
You can find more about Julie at www.facebook.com/MumsInMotion