Eating healthfully right after the holidays is relatively easy: in all likelihood, you’ve feasted on as much eggnog, christmas cookies, and latkes as you can, and your body is craving healthy, whole, clean foods. It’s maintaining your healthy resolutions a few weeks later that poses the most difficulty: in fact, according to John Tierney, co-author of “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” one third of Americans will have already broken their resolutions by the end of January.
The reason? As humans, we run out of willpower, which is an exhaustible resource, just like physical energy. Willpower is like a muscle: use it enough, and you’ll exhaust it. Studies have confirmed that we have a limited supply of willpower, and when it’s used up, it’s very difficult to exert self-control. According to the lead author, William Hedgecock, Ph.D., of one study, “if you exert a significant amount of self control at one time, you’ll have a hard time exerting it later.” So if you’re able to resist a plate of high-calorie appetizers on New Year’s Eve, you’ll be far less likely to resist the all-you-can-eat champagne brunch the next day. Roy F. Baumeister, a social psychologist at Florida State University, calls this state “ego depletion.” And in an ironic twist for dieters, our willpower reserves are actually fueled by glucose — found in tempting cookies, cakes, and pasta.
Baumeister believes that the smartest way to follow through with your New Year’s resolution — and to deal with the limited supply of self-control that you have — is to anticipate those limits. In his study, published by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, participants’ reactions to temptations were tracked throughout the day. Researchers noted that those who are able to resist temptations the most were those who planned ahead of time to avoid those temptations in the first place. By avoiding situations in which they would have to exert great amounts of self-control — like the bakery section that always has tasty samples — they reserved their willpower for tempting situations they had not been anticipating.
To put this knowledge to good use, identify the situations in your life that make it difficult to stick to your healthy eating habits. If you can’t resist your bagel-and-cream cheese breakfast every morning from the shop around the corner, reroute your walk to work. Or if cocktails are your weakness, skip happy hour; catch up with friends over tea or on a hike. Likewise, plan for occasional splurges: if you plan on having a slice of cake at a wedding, you’re not using up any willpower. But if you tell yourself “No dessert!” every time you go out to a restaurant and then give in once the dessert tray comes around, you’re simply exhausting your self-control again and again.
There’s other ways you can build up willpower, too. Just like other muscles, you can strengthen it. These tips will help you bulk up your willpower:
1. Eat balanced meals and snacks containing fiber, protein, and healthy fats. These help maintain steady blood sugar levels, which keeps glucose flowing to your brain at a steady pace. According to the American Psychological Association, “brain cells working hard to maintain self-control consume glucose faster than can be replenished.” Feeding your body with nutritious food at regular intervals has benefits beyond self-control, though: it’ll keep you from bingeing on fatty foods, desserts and drinks later on in the evening at holiday parties or happy hour.
2. Pick the right motivation: if your motivation for eating healthier is intrinsic — say, eating healthfully because it makes you feel good — as opposed to extrinsic (eating healthfully so you can fit into your skinny jeans), you’ll have more success, says a study from the University of Albany. Similarly, if your goals are more long-term than short-term, you’re likely to keep your resolution. In a study from Columbia University, participants were better able to resist tempting foods when they thought about their long-term health goals, rather than the instant gratification of tasty foods.
3. Make a fist: a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that participants who clenched their muscles were better able to exert self-control when faced with tempting foods. So next time you find yourself in a tempting situation — walking down the candy aisle, for example — clench your fists to resist falling for your favorite unhealthy foods.
4. Ignore this article! A 2010 study from Stanford University found that those who believed their willpower was exhaustible were most likely to have their willpower depleted. But those who believed that willpower was in unlimited supply were better able to exert self-control.