In 2011, 27 percent of ‘Stress in America’ survey respondents reported that lack of willpower was the most significant barrier to change.
Are you one of the 27% who feel you can’t change in ways you want to? Do you feel you lack willpower?
Roy F Baumeister, a research psychologist, wrote the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.
The book came about as a result of studies that showed the two qualities related to success in your life (however you define success) are:
Since scientists weren’t sure how to improve intelligence, they set about learning how to improve self-control – or in other words, having willpower.
Why is Willpower So Elusive?
Mainstream psychology didn’t believe willpower existed…If you think about it, willpower is often thought of as this elusive thing that only the lucky few have. We hear it a lot when it comes to diet or any healthy habit we’d like to create. How many times have you heard someone say, “I wish I could stick to it, but I have no willpower.”?
So these scientists wanted to give everyone a way to be more successful in their lives. The book, Willpower, was written to explore how to do this.
From the times of Darwin, willpower was thought to be critical and how it was described is a way to control our thoughts. By the twentieth century, mainstream psychology didn’t believe willpower existed.
At the same time, the new age spirituality or metaphysical world saw the popularity of Louise L. Hay’s book, You Can Heal Your Life, which was all about positive affirmations. Her message: if you can change your thoughts, you can change your life. Fast forward to today and You Can Heal Your Life has sold more than 53 MILLION books worldwide. Clearly, there is a large following of people who believe that our thoughts determine our success.
The Surprising Key to Better Willpower
Back to the scientists and willpower, here’s the interesting part….When researchers looked into the mechanism of willpower, the found that, ‘lo and behold, it’s connected to your blood sugar (yes, go ahead and play that drumroll in your mind)!
And what controls blood sugar? At the very simplest and most basic level, it’s the food you eat. While there are more complicated things involved, like the health of your gut (which determines whether you actually absorb that food), let’s start with the most basic concept.
The quality of food you eat — and whether you eat when your body is hungry or ignore those hunger pangs — makes a big difference in whether you have strong blood sugar or not.
If you are eating processed foods (think anything in a bag, box, can or fast food restaurant), they are often full of low quality starches and refined sugar in one or more of its many forms (sucrose, malitol, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, etc.). These foods take your body and mind on a roller coaster ride that often includes highs and lows of mood and energy.
If you are dieting or ignoring your body’s call for hunger, you are putting your body and your brain into blood sugar emergency, which has a direct impact on your willpower, your ability to make decisions and at the most basic level, your ability to “control your thoughts.” But let’s not look at it as controlling your thoughts. Siimply put, you have less ability to choose your thoughts.
“Willpower, like a muscle, becomes fatigued from overuse but can also be strengthened over the long term…”
How to Build Your Willpower “Muscle”
If you are working on thinking more positively or you want to change a habit or if you want to make progress on an important goal, you have now stacked the deck against all of your best intentions.
So how do you get more willpower? How do you stick to the goals, lifestyle habits and positive thoughts you want to cultivate?
Start first with looking at your diet, then see how that affects your thoughts!
Here are Some Simple Tips
- Go in baby steps, maybe add more whole foods to your diet. Find some easy, healthy and tasty recipes – my goal is to give you lots of options on this site! Choose one new thing at a time and above all, don’t stress about it, just take small steps as you are ready.
- Find easy, delicious whole foods and recipes that you LOVE. Have a favorite fruit or vegetable? Stock your refrigerator with them for the week so you can grab and go when hunger strikes.
- Plan ahead – look at recipes you’d like to make and build a shopping list for your next trip to the grocery store. Consider making several foods ahead of time and freezing them for the coming week(s). If you freeze things in single or family-sized servings, you can thaw only what you need for the coming meal. Wash and chop fruit and vegetables ahead so you can grab them and go. Make lunches the night before and pack them up in their bag so you can grab it in the morning before work.
- Take healthy snacks with you – for work, for days you are away from home. Remember when you got really hungry (or your spouse or kids got hungry)? If you have to search for food before you can eat, your brain and body go into blood sugar emergency. No wonder everyone gets grumpy! Have healthy snacks on hand whenever you’re away from home. A bag of almonds, some berries, some nut butter, healthy snacks that you’ve made ahead, chopped carrots and celery, sliced avocado…whatever you love to eat and that satisfies your body. Check out my recipes section for healthy snacks that are good on the go!
- Spend time in the produce aisle – Health food stores are packed with great, organic produce. Try one new vegetable that appeals to you and learn how to prepare it. You may discover a new favorite food!
- Listen to your body – eat when you are hungry. If you want something sweet, choose a healthy sweet option, don’t deny yourself! If you want something savory, choose a savory whole food. I will be writing more about how to listen to your body when it comes to hunger and blood sugar drops, especially for when the signals aren’t so obvious as hunger!
You Deserve to Feel Good
Your body has everything you need to be successful and to have willpower! We just haven’t been taught as a society about the important link our bodies play in this complex human process. At the heart of it, though, is the simple tenant that you deserve to feel good.
You deserve to love your food…You deserve to treat your body with love by feeding it healthy, whole foods when it’s hungry. You deserve to LOVE your food and have it delight your tastebuds and your spirit. It’s taken me years to discover that when I invest the time in my body to nourish it and make it feel its best, my mind, my health and my life gets better. And it took a few more years to realize the importance of delicious food, not just healthy cardboard-bland foods.
Finally, I guess our new age spiritual teachers were right when they said that the ability to change our lives is already inside of us. Now, even scientists are saying that willpower is not some force from the outside that you either have or do not have. It’s encoded in your body and you just need to love and nourish your body to allow willpower to flourish.
Now That’s a Good Reason
to Nourish Yourself with Healthy Foods!
(1) What You Need to Know About Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control. American Psychological Association. http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower.aspx
(2) Baumeister, R., & Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. New York: Penguin Press.
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