Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Temptations and the unreliability of willpower

Recent research has found that avoiding temptation works better than relying only on willpower when faced with temptation. (You can see the original article here: Restricting Temptations: Neural Mechanisms of Precommitment)

The idea of avoiding "tempting" foods in order to eat less of them seems rather obvious. However, does it work well for everyone? This particular study didn't look at food temptations, so can we expect the same results? I think this is a more complicated answer than initially thought and it will depend on how you avoid temptations.

Let's imagine that the food temptations we are talking about are foods rich in calories, sugar or fat. If there are none of these foods lying around the house or the office and we have to trek to the store to buy them, then it is obvious that we will eat less of them since the temptation is not close by. If we take that thought one step further and say that if we buy these tempting foods in small quantities instead of larger ones, then it will be easier to resist temptations since we won't have any leftovers.
BUT, if we never allow ourselves fun food (at least) once in awhile, then this plan may backfire. If these tempting foods are banned completely from our lives for any reason (to be uber healthy, to lose weight, to get "back on track", etc) we will end up wanting them more- even when none of these foods are in sight. It's the concept of "we want what we can't have". This concept drives most people crazy and increases their cravings for these "banned" food.

The idea of eating only very "healthy" foods is quite popular right now. But is it "normal" to never eat a food rich in fat or sugar or calories? NO. This slippery slope of thinking often leads to a pattern of under eating, feeling deprived then overeating (and possibly even binge eating).

This particular study looked at what happens when people commit to a bigger reward if they resist smaller temptations. This reminds me of what so many people call a "cheat day". Eating only really healthy foods for most days of the week then allowing themselves to "cheat" (I prefer the word treat) for one day or a meal. The popularity of this concept does not make it a healthy way of thinking. Allowing yourself a treat a few times a week and planning ahead is a great idea, and this study suggests it will help you resist the urge to cave to smaller, less rewarding temptations.

HOWEVER, under eating all week long just to give yourself permission to eat "bad" foods is a slippery slope. It is hard to eat these so called "bad" foods in normal portions once you are done denying yourself. You train your body to eat as much as you can on the odd occasion you allow yourself the food. Calling it a cheat or a bad food actually pushes people to eat it in large quantities.


For people who find they "just have no willpower" and feel they cave to all cravings, this study suggests you plan out how you will enjoy more important (or bigger) temptations ahead of time. This kills two birds with one stone- it forces you to plan out your week to see what special event is happening (ex. 5 a 7 at work, birthday party or BBQ) in order to enjoy and fit the "fun" foods (higher calorie temptations we mentioned earlier) into your plan as well as understand that including them on a regular basis is a healthy, normal part of life.
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