Been relying on willpower to resist your favourite food and drinks? How long can you hold out before giving in? For most of us the answer is “not long at all”.
The problem with using willpower as the key strategy to resist temptation is that your head has to keep saying “NO” to the constant barrage of messages, advertising and environmental cues that operate 24/7, prompting you to eat and drink.
“How about cake with that coffee?” “NO”; “It’s hot today, want an ice-cream?” “NO”; “A cold drink?” “NO”; “Stressful day, how about a beer?” “NO”; “Been busy? Grab take-away tonight, you deserve it.” “NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, YES”.
Swapping willpower for what I term “Won’t-power”, where you make a conscious decision to avoid situations that will test your willpower around food, turns the volume down on environmental sirens that call you to eat and drink, even though you are not really hungry.
Won’t-power helps bypass cues that prompt cravings and make tasty treats hard to resist. Using won’t-power gives you a reprieve from the voices in your head constantly asking whether you want a treat or food reward.
Have you heard the saying – “out of sight is out of mind”? “Wont-power” exploits the “out-of-sight” principle by getting you to identify situations that put you in a position where you’re very likely to have to use willpower alone to resist things that you really intended not to eat or drink.
Using “wont-power” delivers peace and quiet in your headspace. Say “no” to being put in a position where you have to use up precious (and limited) willpower in order to stick to your health goals. Save “willpower” for emergencies.
Won’t-power is keeping a bowl of fruit in a clear container on your kitchen bench and keeping all other foods out of sight or stored in opaque containers.
Won’t-power is deciding to go to the supermarket with a pre-planned list that leaves the biscuits, pre-packaged snacks and ultra-processed foods off the grocery shopping, on purpose. In an intervention to help adults improve their meal planning and diet quality, those who were provided with group education about nutrient rich foods and support tools (pocket guide, shopping list, refrigerator magnet, weekly e-mail messages, and biweekly mailings) were more likely to use the grocery lists, plan meals ahead and eat more vegetables and fruit compared to those in the control group.
Won’t-power is having a healthy snack BEFORE meeting friends for coffee, so you do not need to look at a menu and can repeat, like a broken record, “I only want a coffee”. A cross-sectional study of more than 22,000 adults in the USA found those who drank coffee or diet drinks had the highest intakes of energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods (aka junk).
Won’t-power is saying “no” to chocolate and confectionery fund raisers and “yes” to healthy or neutral products (socks, toothbrushes, fruit boxes, pot plants).
Won’t-power is having a workplace healthy food policy so meetings always offer water, fruit and healthy choices.
Won’t-power is keeping an apple (or other fruit) handy (desk drawer, handbag, backpack, car console) for when hunger strikes, so you don’t end up drooling over the snack vending machine. A study that followed more than 130,000 adults for four years found those who increased their intake of apples and pears reduced their weight by half a kilogram for every extra daily piece of fruit they ate.
Won’t-power is not overfilling your plate to avoid “clean plate” syndrome which consistently shows people eat about 92% of what they serve themselves. If you are going to “over-fill” – make that with salad and vegetables.
Won’t-power is not buying “value” packs of food products and “stocking up”. A systematic review of randomised controlled trials that assessed the impact of interventions to reduce the size of food packages, portions, or cups, plates and cutlery found people consistently ate and drank more when offered larger, compared to smaller versions.
Won’t-power is taking a walk around the buffet first to see where the healthiest options are located and then starting with these first (aka salad, vegetables and fruit). Research shows you fill your plate, and eat most of what you see first at a buffet. When you are in charge of a setting up the layout for a buffet, place the healthiest food closest to where people will pick up a plate, and place the least healthy items furthest away.
If you want to stop the sabotage of your healthy intentions and prevent autopilot eating, then the time you invest in developing your “won’t-power” strategies will be well spent. Plan ahead to de-cue the constant calls to eat and drink things that you do not really want or need. That way you conserve your willpower and save it to use only as a last line of defence.
Clare Collins is affiliated with the Priority Research Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, the University of Newcastle, NSW. She is an NHMRC Senior Research fellow. She has received funding from a range of research grants including NHMRC, ARC, Hunter Medical Research Institute, Meat and Livestock Australia. She has consulted to SHINE Australia and Novo Nordisk. Clare Collins is a spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia on some specific nutrition issues, including Australia's Healthy Weight Week.
Authors: Clare Collins, Professor in Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Newcastle