Thursday, January 5, 2012

Self Control: A Limited Resource

Donating blood yesterday, going to bed late last night, a light breakfast, light lunch, and coming home lightheaded tonight: this is how I account for thinking that a dinner I knew added up to a lot of carbs (46) was a good idea. My resistance was lowered and not replenished. At least I didn't go far over my  daily 50-carb limit, and the meal was real food full of nutrients. But I know that big meals make me feel like a slug.

There's been research over the past few years about willpower being limited. Some clinical studies have looked at glucose's relationship to willpower, others have looked at performance on sequential tasks. Sandra Aamodt and Sam Wang write,

In one pioneering study, some people were asked to eat radishes while others received freshly baked chocolate chip cookies before trying to solve an impossible puzzle. The radish-eaters abandoned the puzzle in eight minutes on average, working less than half as long as people who got cookies or those who were excused from eating radishes. Similarly, people who were asked to circle every “e” on a page of text then showed less persistence in watching a video of an unchanging table and wall.
Other activities that deplete willpower include resisting food or drink, suppressing emotional responses, restraining aggressive or sexual impulses, taking exams and trying to impress someone. Task persistence is also reduced when people are stressed or tired from exertion or lack of sleep.(1)
Add hunger to the "tired from exertion" part, and it's no wonder eating less and exercising more doesn't work for weight loss. (Even if you keep at it, it doesn't work: see this.(2)) Before you rationalize eating cookies, keep in mind that your body only needs a teaspoon of blood glucose, and that it can make it out of protein. Eat some nuts or a low-carb brownie instead.

Limited self-control is a good reason to not allow yourself to get too hungry. Intermittent fasting may be all the rage--well and good if it works for you--but Dr. Atkins told his readers and patients to eat even if they just thought they were hungry(3) and for bingers to binge on protein(4), The New Atkins for a New You permits snacks(5), and Dr. John Briffa recommends having a snack of nuts or seeds if you're hungry between meals.(6) These doctors recommend quelling your hunger now so you don't go on a bender later.

This is why it's good to keep your home free of any food you shouldn't have. Sooner or later, we all get stressed out or run down--but if bad food isn't there, you can't eat it. Likewise, you need plenty of good foods on hand so you don't end up ordering Chinese (it's notorious for jacking up blood sugar too high).

There's a saying that good luck is often with the man who doesn't include it in his plans. The same thing is true for willpower.

Edited to add: It's the next morning, and I'm down a pound since yesterday. As I mentioned, I didn't go far over my 50g of carb per day limit. I just ate a really big meal, which makes me feel lousy.

  1. "Tighten your Belt, Strengthen your Mind" by Sanda Aamodt and Sam Wang, April 2, 2008.
  2. "Weight Gain Caused by Undereating" by Lori Miller,, January 30, 2011.
  3. Dr. Atkins' Diet Revolution by Dr. Robert Atkins, 1972, p. 32.
  4. Ibid, p. 266.
  5. The New Atkins for a New You by Eric  C. Westman, Stephen D. Phinney, Dr. Jeff S. Volek, 2010, pp. 67 and 101.
  6. "How Often Should we Eat?" by Dr. John Briffa,, November 2, 2011.

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