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“Ohhhh, that Häagen-Dazs is calling my name.” And so the late-night tug of war begins. Try to sleep, or pad on over to the freezer?
Of course, this ends badly with pangs of guilt as you dispose of the empty container and slink off to bed. Why is it that sometimes you can’t hold back when cravings hit?
Not long ago, researchers thought they had the answer — willpower, they surmised, wasn’t all in the mind but was dependent on one’s glucose levels. “The dominant theory about willpower is that it’s easily depleted and depends on a consistent supply of glucose from the outside,” said Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford, in a news release from the university.
The “cure,” then, for quelling cravings was ingesting fast-acting carbohydrates, which would help keep your body’s energy stores full and your willpower strong. For those who struggled with self-control, this was at least a confirmation that our weakened resolve wasn’t completely mental but also physiological.
That theory held sway for years — until Dweck and colleagues renewed the debate.
In a 2013 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they reneged that initial idea, stating that a sugar boost alone can’t act to restore willpower, but instead a simple change in mindset could make all the difference.
In the study, the researchers swayed participants to either believe that their willpower was limited and required an intervention (such as a sugary snack) or that it was abundant and capable of being generated from within.
According to Dweck, participants who believed they needed a snack intervention were constantly on alert, thinking about whether they were hungry or tired or both. The participants were hypersensitive, and at the fist sign of discomfort, they believed they needed sustenance. However, when the subjects believed that willpower could be regenerated with ease, they stopped looking for such physical cues and — surprise — they had no problem powering through without a glucose boost.
Mind and Matter
The belief that you’re mentally strong coupled with a solid, high-energy diet is the ideal path to an iron will. And, much like a muscle, exercising your willpower regularly will make it stronger. Practice these four strategies to improve your own willpower and you’ll be able to resist the call of the Krispy Kremes time and again.
1. Focus on one thing at a time.
Fighting cravings for carbs, chocolate and Frappuccinos all at once? You may be spreading your willpower too thin. Tackle them separately — say, one vice a week — to help stagger the brunt of each.
2. Practice Self-control in other areas of your life.
Try sitting up straight or using your nondominant hand to hone your willpower muscles, recommends Nathan DeWall, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky. This can help you say no when that fabulous office birthday cake makes it way around to your cube.
3. Eat up.
The connection between low glucose and reduced willpower is a real thing. “The brain relies on glucose for energy, and self-control is among the most calorically expensive mental processes,” DeWall says. If you’re on a diet (especially a low-carb diet) and find yourself struggling, have a healthy snack that includes a fast-acting carb to rebuild your glucose stores.
4. Repeat yourself.
“The best method [of improving self-control] is to make things as automatic as possible,” DeWall suggests. If you said no to the birthday cake once this week, say no again next week. Eventually, you won’t even think about that cake — unless it’s your own birthday, in which case, enjoy!