We all know it can be really hard to stick to a diet or exercise routine, right? Sometimes it seems like we just don’t have the willpower to achieve our health or fitness goals. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Experts tell us there are actual action steps that can help improve willpower, especially when it comes to the foods that tempt us.
To better understand the connection between stronger willpower and healthy eating, it’s important to understand exactly what willpower is all about. Once you know this connection, you can better strengthen your willpower muscle, which will help you achieve your healthy eating goals much more easily.
What is Willpower?
Willpower is defined as “energetic determination” or “the ability to control your own thoughts and behavior”. Although it’s often linked with dieting, willpower is essentially required to complete just about any task you begin. Whether it’s a daily workout, a difficult project at work, or even just a long list of errands, it takes willpower to complete it successfully and on time.
The amount of willpower a person has is connected to the part of the brain known as the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The activity of this brain region shows an ability to sustain attention regardless of external sensory distractions. This part of your brain is found near your temple and is like a fuel tank of determination for decision-making. The bigger the decision is that you have to make, the more energy is used from this bank.
Therefore, the more decisions you have to focus on and the more you try to accomplish in one day, the greater the risk of feeling burned out. It is when you hit this stage that you may run out of willpower fuel. You may start to find yourself more easily distracted and more likely to make unhealthy decisions. So let’s look at how this is related to healthy eating.
Willpower and Healthy Eating
It is no surprise that factors like psychological and emotional well-being prove to be vital to long-term weight management success. The brain has a lot more to do with healthy eating than you may realize. Research shows that a perceived lack of willpower is a primary reason some people choose unhealthy foods. This doesn’t mean that you're weak, it just means that various factors have depleted your willpower fuel tank. The good news is that according to psychology experts, this perceived lack of willpower can be overcome.
The reason many people burn out is because they try to take on too much, too fast, so reducing your list of tasks for each day is a great place to start. Trying to fit in a morning workout, breakfast, drop loved ones off to school or work, work a full shift, come home, cook dinner, then do dishes and laundry may sound like a normal day to you. However, if you’re trying to include healthy eating in this routine, your willpower stores may run dry before the day is through. This leads to “sabotage”.
You may feel sabotaged by others when you’re trying to eat healthy. It seems like everyone wants to offer you candy and cookies when you’re dieting! However, it’s possible to sabotage yourself as well. Self-sabotage can occur, for example, when you make excuses for straying off your healthy course. For example, you may have “just one” piece of cake at the office party because you’ve had a hard day. Then the cake leads to a dinner out at a fast food restaurant because you’re too tired to cook. In turn, this could lead to being too tired to pack a healthy lunch for the next day, which could lead to buying take out instead.
According to experts, self-sabotage can also occur for many more subtle reasons like low self-worth, fear of failure, or fear of trying something new. If you are feeling “energetic determination” then these negative feelings may not creep in so easily. Therefore, to fight off sabotage, it is vital to boost your willpower. A stronger will can help you reach your goals without giving up.
What You Can Do to Boost Willpower
Try these 7 proven methods to help you replenish your willpower fuel tank, which will help you power through your healthy eating goals.
- Minimize your life: If you make your everyday decisions more complicated, you burn off valuable willpower. Therefore, to save your willpower for important goals like healthy eating, simplify your life in every way you can. One way is to minimize and simplify your wardrobe. Pick a small group of staple pieces, so you don’t have to spend so much time deciding what to wear. In a similar way, base your healthy eating regimen around a small group of meal and snack ideas that you can rotate each week. This not only makes grocery shopping less overwhelming, but also meal planning, tracking, and preparation. Less choices for meals will reduce the number of decisions you have to make when it comes to meal time, and save your brain power for fighting off temptation.
Focus on one goal at a time: Instead of trying to lose weight, start a fitness program, and quit smoking or drinking all at the same time, start with one goal to take on first. Experts say that focusing on one goal at a time will allow you to devote more energy to achieving that goal, giving you a better chance of succeeding. Then, that success will free up willpower for the next goal.
- Track your eating: You’ve probably heard this one before, but you may be underestimating how helpful it is. Tracking your behavior forces you to put more care and thought into it, and can help you stay in the moment, so you can focus on the goal at hand. By looking at what you’re doing each step of the way towards your goal, you can stop sabotage in its tracks.
- Train your brain: Since your brain is the control center for willpower, training the brain is vital to its growth. You can train your brain through activities like scheduling your day, and setting up reminders, which can help you learn to build habits and boost willpower.
- Live in the present moment: Like tracking, other activities that help you stay in the present moment will prevent distractions that could sap your willpower. One example of this is meditation, which has been found to help improve self-control. Meditation may sound mystical, but it’s just the practice of taking a little time with minimal distractions to think deeply, breathe, and focus your mind. Also, mindfulness training, which is a form of meditation, has been shown to help with the self-regulation of attention. Willpower involves self-regulation and meditation can help boost willpower. In fact, research shows that meditation training helped increase attention, lower stress, and improve the mood of a group of young adults. Also, by improving mood, meditation can prevent feelings like hunger, anger, loneliness, and/or tiredness, (also known as HALT), which can literally halt willpower by promoting a vulnerable state for self-regulation.
- Sleep enough each night: The National Sleep Foundation recommends at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night for most adults. Without enough sleep, you could become vulnerable to distractions, which could weaken your willpower. If you have trouble sleeping, you should visit your healthcare provider to see if there may be a medical cause for it, such as sleep apnea.
Bottom Line to Better Willpower
There are many ways to boost your willpower. We've talked about a few of them, but keep in mind that not all of them may work for everyone. Even after working to boost willpower, you may still experience slip-ups in your healthy eating. Don’t let a few slip-ups stop you from accomplishing your overall healthy eating goals and strengthening your willpower muscle. Forgive yourself, rest your brain each night with some quality shut-eye, and keep working each day to create new healthy habits. Over time your willpower will grow stronger and help you make your healthy eating goals a reality.