How to Boost Your Willpower - Well Blog - NYTimes.com
“Learning self-control produces a wide range of positive outcomes,’’ said Roy Baumeister, a psychology professor at Florida State University who wrote about the issue in this month’s Current Directions in Psychological Science. “Kids do better in school, people do better at work. Look at just about any major category of problem that people are suffering from and odds are pretty good that self-control is implicated in some way.’’
Last month, Dr. Baumeister reported on laboratory studies that showed a relationship between self-control and blood glucose levels. In one study, participants watched a video, but some were asked to suppress smiles and other facial reactions. After the film, blood glucose levels had dropped among those who had exerted self-control to stifle their reactions, but stayed the same among the film watchers who were free to react, according to the report in Personality and Social Psychology Review.
The video watchers were later given a concentration test in which they were asked to identify the color in which words were displayed. The word “red,” for instance, might appear in blue ink. The video watchers who had stifled their responses did the worst on the test, suggesting that their self-control had already been depleted by the film challenge.
But the researchers also found that restoring glucose levels appears to replenish self-control. Study subjects who drank sugar-sweetened lemonade, which raises glucose levels quickly, performed better on self-control tests than those who drank artificially-sweetened beverages, which have no effect on glucose.
The findings make sense because it’s long been known that glucose fuels many brain functions. Having a bite to eat appears to help boost a person’s willpower, and may explain why smokers trying to quit or students trying to focus on studying often turn to food to sustain themselves.
Consuming sugary drinks or snacks isn’t practical advice for a dieter struggling with willpower. However, the research does help explain why dieters who eat several small meals a day appear to do better at sticking to a diet than dieters who skip meals. “You need the energy from food to have the willpower to exert self-control in order to succeed on your diet,” said Dr. Baumeister.