“I had two slices of pizza, three glasses of wine…and dessert 😳” a client messaged me the other day. She was upset. She felt like she’d failed. “That’s ok!” I wrote back. “That’ll happen. Making progress isn’t about sticking to a ‘perfect plan,’ It’s important to recognize the situation - were you stressed, what did you do/eat before going out, what went well and what can we do differently next time - and then look ahead. Be kind to yourself 💚”
So many women I talk to strive for 100% compliance. To achieve their health goals, they think they can’t have X [insert anything from hummus, bread, nuts to fries, donuts and pasta] because X is unhealthy.
A core part of my nutrition philosophy is grounded in maintaining moderation; anything - and everything - can fit into your ‘plan.’ The more we actively resist something we enjoy, the more we may end up overindulging in it.
According to the American Psychological Association, our willpower, or the ability to delay gratification and exert self control, may depend on what ‘depleting events’ we’ve recently encountered. If you’ve ever been in a hostile conversation with a colleague or resisted a freshly baked brownie offered by a friend, you’ve experienced a ‘depleting event.’ Another explanation for a dip in willpower? We’re literally depleted; our bodies, and brains, are primarily fueled by glucose. If we haven’t eaten in a while, we may be low on energy-boosting glucose and thus willpower.
One of my favorite things to do each week is get a vegan chocolate peanut butter and granola donut from West Town Bakery. My husband and I’ll take our dog, Dexter, on Sunday mornings and enjoy one donut each with a cup of coffee. While the donut is delicious, I enjoy the whole experience and it’s something to look forward to each weekend. Although having a donut everyday isn’t something I’d recommend as a dietitian, enjoying one (or two!) each week is 100% a-ok. Building it into a weekly plan helps me avoid feeling deprived and my willpower to say “thanks, but no thanks” to other treats is boosted.
So when it comes to our favorite foods, what can we do to strengthen willpower?
If you know you’re going to be in a stress-inducing situation, such as a work happy hour or birthday party, plan ahead. Check out the menu, find an item you’d like to have and then enjoy. Be intentional; give yourself permission to eat what you want - within moderation - and then truly savor the whole experience. Since that food or beverage is no longer “off-limits,” you may see that mindfully indulging may lead to reduced feelings of stress. This, in turn, may lead to less overindulgence (aka mindless eating).
Quick tip: Be the first one to order a drink or appetizer; this may help set the “health tone” of the table and prevent you from feeling pressured into ordering something you don’t want.
How many oranges would you eat at once? One? Three? A 12-ounce glass of freshly squeezed orange juice contains nearly 32 grams of sugar, equivalent to eating three medium-sized oranges, which we normally wouldn’t do in one sitting. With the absence of dietary fiber, fruit juice is more rapidly absorbed by the body. This speedy sugar-dumping process may result in dramatic blood sugar spikes, which can send our energy levels, and willpower, crashing. Instead of a glass of juice, focus on eating fruit in its raw, unprocessed form.
Quick tip: Throw fresh orange slices into 16 ounces of water and add a splash of fresh ginger juice for a twist on traditional OJ.
While it may sounds like a good idea to focus on changing multiple habits at once to drive positive change, studies suggest that this may deplete our willpower reserves; we’re dedicating energy to changing multiple areas and, as a result, spreading ourselves thin. Focus on one area at a time and find a health habit that supports this goal. If you want to eat more vegetables, for example, start incorporating a new vegetable into one meal a week.
Quick tip: Save time by using frozen spinach. Add to riced cauliflower, pasta and scrambled tofu for a simple nutrient-boost.