Food choices are often made mindlessly, making self-control quite difficult. Under low self-control, it is really hard to reject unhealthy food products. The strength model of self-control sees self-control is a limited resource. This is the idea is that self-control or willpower draws upon a limited pool of mental resources that can be used up. When the energy for mental activity is low, self-control is typically impaired.
One study showed that people who initially resisted the temptation of chocolate were subsequently less able to after completing a difficult puzzle task. So when you’re busy concentrating on a cryptic crossword clue, your ability to avoid eating all the foods disappears. This is why it might be really hard to resist food when we’re drunk or distracted. I definitely find I munch loads when I’m on the phone – maybe because my cognitive resources are taken up by the conversation, so my self-control ability plummets.
Understanding this self-control depletion has really important implications for healthy eating. Chronic dieters are in a constant state of resisting cravings and limiting food intake. This causes the self-control resource to deplete rapidly, making self-regulatory abilities harder. Dieters and non-dieters were compared on their ability to resist ice cream after a cognitive task. When cognitive resources were taken up by the task, the dieters were unable to resist the ice cream while the dieters were. It seems that the act of dieting expends the resource of self-control.
So instead of using up energy to try and limit food intake, it makes much more sense to allow ourselves to have small amount of the foods we crave. This is why people tend to re-gain weight after dieting, as the resource becomes so depleted that they can non longer practice the same self-control abilities they used too.
It has also been argued that self-control resembles a muscle; when the muscle is untrained it is more readily fatigued and weaker. This basically means that the more practice we have a exercising control, the better we get. That’s why the first few weeks of a new healthy eating regime always feels the hardest – our self control muscles start off weak so find it difficult to resist all the things we used to allow ourselves.
As eating patterns begin to change, the muscle will strengthen and self-control will get better. However, as soon as you restrict too much, the resource will deplete and will will inevitable end up ruining all the hard work you’d put in. The answer is to let yourself eat (in moderation) what you want. If you are a complete nutella addict, there is no point giving it up what you because it’ll take up too much of your self-control resource. Going through life avoiding all the things your love is not fun for anyone, and eventually makes you resent the diet. Instead, reduce portion size but still allow yourself to have a little bit each day. A good healthy lifestyle recognises that you can’t possibly resist delicious foods all the time. Indulge once in a while and your self-control will benefit in the long run.
Fig, butternut squash and goats cheese winter salad:
1 butternut squash
2 handfuls of salad/spinach leaves
1 handful of walnut pieces
slices/chunks goats cheese
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon mustard
salt and pepper
1. Chop butternut squash into rectangle pieces, toss in oil and roast for 25-30 mins at 180 until soft
2. Chop figs into wedges and roast with butternut squash in oven for last 5mins to warm and soften
3. Mix balsamic vinegar, olive oil, honey, mustard, salt and pepper for dressing
4. Add butternut squash and figs to salad leaves and top with slices of goats cheese and walnuts
5. Add dressing, toss and serve immediately