Making the right food choices can make a difference in everything from weight control to heart disease—and experts say doing it often comes down to one thing: willpower. So it's good to have willpower, but it's not like you can flip a switch and have more when you need it. In fact, some surprising physiological and psychological factors cause willpower to rise and fall. Remember these unexpected willpower boosters and reducers the next time you're faced with a healthy-eating challenge.
Willpower decreases when you get fewer than seven hours of sleep.
Not only does a lack of rest make you grouchy, but it also causes the hormones that regulate your appetite to go wonky. "When you're tired, your body's levels of ghrelin (a hunger-stimulating hormone) and leptin (a metabolism-regulating hormone) can become off-balance," says , RD, CDE, LDN, CPT, author of the forthcoming . "That increases your appetite, causing you to eat more and crave greasy and sugary foods." So get a full night's worth of shut-eye to avoid overeating and choosing unhealthy nibbles the next day.
Willpower increases when you feel good about yourself.
How's this for a catch-22? "Willpower is strongest when you're alreadyfeeling good about your body image and health," says , PhD, author of . "That's because willpower uses so much of our emotional resources. And there aren't enough left when we're feeling stressed, angry or sad." The moral, according to Bartell? "Don't start a diet when you just had a fight with a friend or you're frustrated with your kids."
Willpower decreases when you're PMSing or ovulating.
Our estrogen levels surge just after ovulating and before we get our periods, causing our bodies to release stress hormones like cortisol, explains Bartell. This triggers a fight-or-flight response—our bodies think harm's coming our way, so they tap our fat stores for a quick burst of energy. This makes us crave carbs and fats, the ideal fuel for a fight-or-flight situation. Toss in the bad moods that come with PMS, and willpower can bottom out completely because we may think that eating will make us feel better. What to do? Question whether you're really hungry before you grab that chocolate bar.
Willpower increases when you eat something good for you.
It's easier for your body to break down foods that are rich in natural vitamins, fiber and protein than those that aren't so nutritious. And the less work your body has to do, the more energy you have—which makes you less likely to indulge in treats that weigh you down. On the flip side,choosing foods high in fat, sugar, simple carbohydrates and salt only make you crave more of that unhealthy stuff. "It's harder to have willpower when you're eating foods that tell your brain that they're making you feel good," says Bartell. "You can become 'addicted' to the positive feelings you get from eating those foods." Stick to healthy eats and you'll crave junk less often.
Willpower decreases when you're taking care of your kids.
When you're careening from one child-related activity to another, your focus is on one thing: your kids. And who has time to think about themselves, let alone eat well, when you're a busy parent? "It could be much easier to make the most convenient choice for a meal versus the healthiest one," says Palinski. Plus, caring for children might leave you feeling burnt out, exhausted or stressed—maybe even all three—which creates the perfect situation to say sayonara to willpower.
Willpower increases when you're busy, but not stressed.
Sometimes we snack when we're bored at home or the office. Keeping your day filled with tasks to tick off your to-do list—interspersed with enjoyable activities, like meeting a friend for a walk—will keep you focused on things other than food—and help you stay strong against mindless snacking. Just don't overload your schedule because…
Willpower decreases when you're super-stressed.
When you're under pressure—working on a huge project for your job or dealing with a family member's illness, perhaps—your body releases hormones to help you handle it. The downside? "Those hormones may trigger cravings for high-carb foods—your body's way of trying to increase your energy levels while you're stressed," says Palinski. But stress weakens your willpower in another way. "You may be less apt to plan, resulting in eating on the run and making bad food choices," adds Palinski.
Willpower decreases as you keep saying "no."
Every time you turn down a doughnut or piece of candy throughout the day, your willpower to resist the next offer lowers. "Willpower is strongest in the morning," says Taylor Ryan, certified personal trainer, nutrition consultant and founder of . "We all head off to work feeling confident about eating right. As the day wears on, it becomes easy to justify temptation." By quitting time, we're ready to reward ourselves with saying yes to, say, a big scoop of ice cream. "Willpower is like a muscle," says Ryan. "When it's overworked, it weakens."
Willpower increases when you're not too strict.
Having a bite of cake or sip of a shake proves to yourself that you can enjoy a reasonable portion without bingeing, says Palinski.And that self-trust entitles you to more treats every once in a while. If you never, ever indulge, though, you're denying yourself happiness. "Our bodies are natural pleasure-seekers," says , a certified nutrition and health coach. "If we keep denying pleasure, our bodies will scream for it." So constantly saying "no" increases the chances that you'll pig out.
Willpower decreases when your spouse or housemates tempt you.
When your husband frequently picks up pizza on the way home and takes you to restaurants and places with limited healthy food options, your willpower may spin out of control. "Being with others who give in to temptation makes it easier to do the same," says Bartell. Even if they're not trying to sabotage your eating-well efforts, bringing high-fat, high-calorie foods into your home can weaken your willpower. Instead of giving in, encourage your spouse or roommates to purchase treats that they like but you don't—potato chips instead of your beloved nacho cheese–flavored tortilla chips, for example. And have healthy snacks at the ready, just in case they're eating your favorite junk foods in front of you.
Willpower increases when the weather is warm and the light is bright.
There's a lot to love about warmer months—more sun, higher temperatures—and now you can add this to the list: You crave lighter foods. "With warmer weather, shedding winter clothes and having more hours of daylight, you're more likely to get out of the house and get moving," says Palinski. And healthy eats can help you get there. Cold, wintry weather has the opposite effect: We hunker down, eat warm, fatty foods and limit exercise. And just in case you need an extra shot of willpower come spring, Palinski says to remember: "The thought of putting on a bathing suit just might give you reason to eat well."