Willpower: What's Sugar Got to Do With It?

by August McLaughlin

Temptation is everywhere. It starts with your alarm clock -- that dreaded blare begging you to hit the snooze button yet again. It joins you at the cafe, where the sight of chocolate-dipped pastries reduces your vigor for the veggie omelet you’d planned on eating. Then at work, it strikes again when an online sale or Twitter feed lures you from a pressing, although monotonous, computer task.

Many people believe that whether or not you give into temptation boils down to one thing: willpower.

Renowned social psychologist Roy Baumeister has spent more than a decade researching issues related to self-control. Some of his most recent findings, featured in his book “Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength,” demonstrate a strong link between willpower, self-control and glucose, or sugar -- your body's and brain's main dietary fuel source.

You have only one supply of willpower. You use it for a remarkable variety of things: restraining your appetites, making decisions, exerting initiative, performing well in work and school, being good to your loved ones, managing your money, and on and on. The most successful people allocate this judiciously.

Roy Baumeister, social psychologist

Sugar and Your Brain

"Willpower is a traditional folk term based on the idea that a person uses some energy to resolve inner conflicts and do the right thing,” noted Baumeister. “Self-control is how you change your responses, and willpower is an essential ingredient of that process.”

Although your brain doesn't stop working when your glucose supply runs low, it stops doing particular things and starts doing others. Willpower and self-control are factors that tend to suffer. This is one reason that skipping meals or following a restrictive diet can leave you hungrier than usual and less enthused about your goals, exercise or other tasks. Meanwhile, your desire for sweets increases.

In a study, a group of hungry college students entered Baumeister’s laboratory to find the air saturated with the aroma fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies and a table topped with the cookies, chocolates and radishes. The students were either limited to radishes only or allowed all three foods. Baumeister and his colleagues observed the students through a hidden window, as the radish-only eaters exhibited significant signs of temptation.

Next, the students were given geometric puzzles to solve. The puzzles were unsolvable. Baumeister wasn't investigating the students' cleverness, but their perseverance. Students who ate cookies and chocolates worked on the puzzles for about 20 minutes without giving up. The radish-only eaters, although they’d successfully resisted the temptation to munch on sweets, surrendered after eight minutes -- a significant difference by research standards.

These findings make sense, according to Baumeister, because the fastest-acting suppliers of glucose are simple sugars, like sweets. With more glucose available to your brain, which requires twice as much energy as the rest of your body’s cells, self-control comes easier.

Does this mean you should eat more chocolate for boosted willpower and self-control? No. Although sweets can provide a useful, temporary rush of energy and focus in some cases, a healthier option is a balanced diet, based on nutrient-rich foods and treats in moderation. Such a diet supports blood sugar balance as well, which is associated with sustained energy levels, appetite control and mental capabilities.

All of this considered, is a lack of glucose somewhat to blame for the lofty failure rate of most diets and New Year's weight-loss resolutions? Quite possibly.

In addition to eating enough -- not starving your body of glucose -- setting realistic goals is crucial when it comes to meeting your weight and wellness goals. “Most people set unrealistic goals,” Baumeister explained. “Willpower is limited, and so squandering it in the pursuit of unrealistic goals will detract from a person’s ability to achieve other things.”

Of course, dietary factors are only one way your body relies on willpower.

“You have only one supply of willpower,” noted Baumeister. “You use it for a remarkable variety of things: restraining your appetites, making decisions, exerting initiative, performing well in work and school, being good to your loved ones, managing your money, and on and on. The most successful people allocate this judiciously.”

Willing to Eat Right

If you feel challenged in the willpower department, as many people do, you can take numerous steps to improve your eating habits, thereby enhancing your overall health.

"I believe that willpower is more important than genetics or access to food for most, because if the will is there, the individual is more likely to find a way to adopt healthier eating habits," said Jaime Schehr, a registered dietitian and naturopathic doctor. "This may be more important for some than others. For example, a person with a history of an inability to commit to dietary modifications, the willpower and/or perception of the diet makes an enormous difference versus someone who does not have a close relationship with food and struggles less to make healthy changes."

Rather than diet, Schehr recommends aiming for lifestyle changes that you can adhere to for the long term. Such a diet typically includes some amount of sweets. "If done correctly, people should be able to enjoy their favorite foods in moderation and still focus the majority of their intakes on what is healthy for them," she added.

However, willpower can dip and people can fall off track. Dining at all-you-can-eat buffets, having oversized bags of snack foods in the house, and eating food straight from packages or in front of the TV can make it difficult to stick to an overall healthy eating pattern. When you have easy access to low-nutrient foods, it’s a potential setup for failure. Once you do fall away from a healthy dietary lifestyle, stepping back toward it immediately can help prevent poor habits from becoming routine.

To increase your odds of wellness success, Schehr suggests stocking up on vegetables, which are fiber-rich and calorie-poor, and consuming more fruit. Fiber is satiating, so particularly fiber-rich foods like beans, lentils, broccoli, raspberries and artichokes guard against excessive food cravings. Because sugary items cause your glucose levels to rise higher than fiber-rich foods, cutting back on sweets and eating more fiber may also prevent willpower decline associated with low glucose levels.

For overall health, the USDA suggests limiting foods high in solid fats and added sugars to no more than 5 to 15 percent of your total daily diet. On average, Americans exceed this by about 180 percent.

Schehr notes that the more often you eat nutritious, low-sugar foods, the more likely you'll start to desire them. In other words, healthy eating may not require as much willpower. Instead, focus on adopting a healthy-food state of mind and healthy eating habits. Rather than fixating on restriction, consider what you can eat freely, what benefits particular foods provide, and what you can do to add flavor and enjoyment to healthy meals.

Another Perspective

Six Steps Toward Weight-Loss Success

  1. Sleep enough. Adults commonly lack sleep, according to Baumeister. By resting, you lower your body's need for glucose and enhance its ability to properly utilize glucose. Although sleep needs vary from person to person, do your best to sleep when you're tired and stick to a positive sleep routine.

  2. Steer clear of quick-fix diets, which lend themselves to reduced motivation and little, if any, success. Go on a diet once or twice, and your body may cooperate, says Baumeister. Over time, however, it fights back, increasing your risk for gaining more weight than you carried initially.

  3. Seek support. If you struggle with low self-control, Schehr suggests finding a "sponsor" -- a friend or family member who will encourage you throughout your efforts to make positive changes.

  4. Plan ahead. "When you are feeling your strongest," said Schehr, "prepare healthy foods for the week that can be reheated."

  5. Do not equate being overweight with not having willpower. Oprah Winfrey is a prime example of how a person with ample willpower and self-control can still struggle with weight, says Baumeister. It's easy to fall prey to the lure of quick-fix diets; however, slow and steady breeds success.

  6. Focus on the present. "Disregulated eaters often don't believe they can achieve any success related to eating or weight because so many diets have failed them or because they focus on weight rather than health and fitness, says Koenig. “I prefer helping clients problem solve around food, exercise and self-care on a daily basis rather than focus on goals." If you relate to this, focusing on ways to eat well at your next meal and taking better care of yourself today may be more effective than thinking in terms of long-term fitness or weight-related goals.

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About the Author

August McLaughlin is a certified nutritionist and health writer with more than nine years of professional experience. Her work has been featured in various magazines such as "Healthy Aging," "CitySmart," "IAmThatGirl" and "ULM." She holds specializations in eating disorders, healthy weight management and sports nutrition. She is currently completing her second cookbook and Weight Limit—a series of body image/nutrition-related PSAs.