It’s time for a confession.
Some days I wake up and a green smoothie is the absolute last thing I’m in the mood for.
Shut. The. Front. Door.
Yes, there are days when I would much rather start my day with a giant Brugger’s breakfast bagel sandwich. Other times, ordering a crispy, cheesy thin-crust pizza from the brick-oven pizza place that is literally right down the street, sounds so much more tempting than cooking dinner from scratch. And some nights, all I can think about is a double triple serving of my favorite gelato. Cravings happen, even to kale lovin’, smoothie chuggin’, chia seed enthusiasts like me.
Now, do I give in to these temptations? Sometimes…but usually not.
Let me say, emphatically, that I do not have superhuman willpower. In fact, I have very little willpower, evidenced by my many failed attempts to start a regular exercise habit.
The truth is, willpower is rarely helpful when it comes to eating healthy. It’s nice to think we can call on self control as needed and it will respond by magically making that candy bar less tempting, but that’s just not how it works. Think of willpower like a muscle. If you overwork it, it gets fatigued. Willpower fatigue is more likely to occur if you’re stressed, hungry, or haven’t slept well. When you feel well rested and energized, you’ll probably be able to walk straight through the candy aisle without stopping. But if you’re exhausted and frazzled from a long day a work with nothing in your belly, the siren call of that Baby Ruth is going to be more than your willpower can handle.
The process of decision making, especially when it comes to food, is complex. So luckily, there are other tricks you can use when your willpower needs a boost.
1. VISUALIZE YOUR GOALS
Maybe you’re telling yourself if you eat that candy bar, you won’t fit into your skinny jeans. Maybe you know the candy bar has 30 grams of sugar and almost 300 calories. Unfortunately, that knowledge doesn’t make it look any less delicious. Instead, visualize something even more appealing than the candy bar – your goals. It could be an image of yourself epitomizing confidence and self love. Or you could imagine yourself, fit and energetic, keeping up with your grandchildren while playing outside. Personally, I find images of the hubs and I taking active trips around the world helps me refocus on the importance of our lifestyle. For me, hiking the Inca Trail at 60 is much more tempting than any sugary treat.
2. DON’T FORGET THE SHORT TERM
Unfortunately, most people tend to be pretty shortsighted with their decision making. Most people don’t think of the long term consequences of what foods go into their body. Truthfully, you could eat a supersize order of fries and it probably won’t mean much for your long term health. But how are you going to feel for the rest of the day? Are you going to have the energy to be productive at work? How is your stomach going to feel later on?
3. DON’T LET PERFECT BE THE ENEMY OF GOOD
So you don’t want a green smoothie for breakfast. Does that mean you should get a bacon, egg and cheese biscuit with a mocha frappe instead? So many people struggle with an all-or-nothing approach to nutrition. If they don’t eat “perfectly,” then they tell themselves “forget it!” and eat the absolute least healthy thing they can think of. So, you don’t have the willpower to make a green smoothie, but could you do scrambled eggs, cheese and whole grain toast? What about a frozen breakfast burrito? There are plenty of semi-healthy options that are much better than a fast food smorgasbord.
4. FIGURE OUT THE REAL ISSUE
Usually, there’s something other than a lack of self control triggering your food craving. Maybe your blood sugar is low after skipping a snack? Are you stressed? Tired? Whatever it is, ask yourself if eating the food will fix the real problem. Probably not. That bowl of ice cream might temporarily raise your blood sugar, but in a few hours, when it crashes again, you’ll be right back in the same boat. Sure, that bag of chips is a good distraction from your stress, but what will you do after you’ve polished it off? You’ll feel stressed, and guilty!
A warning – you might try all these tricks and still end up eating the Baby Ruth. As humans, we are fallible. The important thing is that you forgive yourself rather than concluding you are an out of control, eating machine. I often teach my clients is to treat slip-ups as a learning opportunity. Once you’ve figured out what triggered the slip, you can plan a better strategy for the next time. Because if there’s one thing we know, when it comes to the flawed method of willpower, there will be a next time.