“Prone to Wander, Oh I Feel it,
Prone to Eat the Sugar I love!”
I’m not sure the hymn writer intended their song to be used to illustrate the temptations of sugar, but I had to give it a try. It may not be right, but it feels right.
We are constantly seduced by sugar. It’s everywhere and in everything. It’s delicious! And if we are ever going to cut back or completely avoid it, we are going to need lots of willpower!
Willpower, also referred to as self-control or strength, plays a big role in our health, fitness, work, and in our relationships. The problem is, we only succeed half the time when we try use willpower to overcome temptations. This is due, I believe, to our lack of understanding of willpower.
I want to share some current research about willpower. Hopefully, it will help you in your quest to eat and live well.
These are two important sources that help:
“Understanding the Mysteries of Human Behavior: Why is Self-Control so Hard?” a series of lectures by Dr. Mark Leary, from Duke University
“Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” By Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.
Here is what I gleaned from them:
- Willpower (or Ego Strength) is more effective when you are able to avoid being exposed to the things that tempt you. If you want to avoid added sugar, avoid going to a candy shop. Simple enough. Out of sight, out of mind.
- Try to set more immediate and concrete goals vs. distant and abstract goals. You are more likely to keep goals that focus on losing 8 lbs. in one month than a goal to “get healthy or lose weight.
- Work on one goal at a time. “Studies have shown,” explains Leary, “that when people must control their behavior on one task, their ability to control themselves on a second task is weakened.”
- There seems to be a reservoir of ego strength, so be careful to not expend it by stress and multi-tasking. Ego strength decreases as the day continues especially after a day of self-control for many hours. “People were using up all their willpower on the job,” writes Baumeister and Tierney. They explain that it’s the same supply of willpower to deal with frustrating traffic, tempting food, annoying colleagues, demanding bosses, and pouting children.
- It’s possible to “store up” self-control strength to be used for later tasks, such as engaging with family and children after work. This can be done by decreasing the level of self-control intensity that you use during the day. It may mean taking breaks and recharging throughout the day. “Possibly by relaxing before Lent,” write Baumeister and Tierney, “people store up the willpower necessary to sustain themselves through weeks of self-denial.”
- I believe the self-control reservoir is similar to a gas tank. Work at keeping it at ¾ of a tank to ensure that you don’t experience lapses of willpower. I always remind parents about self-care to keep their gas tanks full. Relax and de-stress throughout the day.
- Blood glucose levels affect willpower. Researchers have discovered that low blood glucose equals low willpower. The pattern showed up time and again as they tested more people in many situations. Sugar plays a role in our resisting sugar!!!
All roads lead back to sugar!
I want to make it clear; the researchers are not recommending that you have a flask of sugar water in your car or desk to use throughout the day. Sugar makes it worse!!! They are recommending that you eat a diet that helps you maintain a stable blood glucose level throughout the day.
The High Willpower Diet and Lifestyle
- Eat for the slow burn. The body converts just about all sorts of food into glucose, but at different rates. Foods that are converted quickly are said to have a high glycemic index.
To maintain steady self-control, you’re better off eating foods with a low glycemic index: most vegetables, nuts (like peanuts and cashews), many raw fruits (like apples, blueberries, and pears), cheese, fish, meat, olive oil, and other “good” fats. (These low-glycemic foods may also help keep you slim.)
- When you’re sick, save your glucose for your immune system.
If you’re too glucose-deprived (because of the demands put on your immune system) to do something as simple as driving a car, how much use are you going to be in the office (assuming you make it there safely)?
- When you’re tired, sleep.
Not getting enough sleep has assorted bad effects on your mind and body. Hidden among these is the weakening of self-control and related processes like decision making.
Whatever you call it (ego strength, willpower, self-control strength), we need “it” to live healthy and successful lives.
Improving your willpower will enhance every aspect of your life, but especially in overcoming the temptation of sugar.
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