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The “Power” in Willpower is Glucose

I got some great insights after listening to a live talk by evolutionary psychologist Doug Lisle, Ph.D.

I had to to share them with you, especially one key distinction.

Everyone has experienced the feeling of failure that comes with “falling off the wagon.”

You’ve set out to complete something, and you don’t follow through. Perhaps it’s a diet or an exercise program.

At first, things are going great. But at some point, the “will” in “willpower” gets the best of you. You eat that bowl of chips, or don’t show up at the gym the day you said you would.

Why does that happen?

Essentially, humans always make decisions based on the delicate balance between immediate pleasure and future pain avoidance.

For example, let’s say that you need to go to the dentist to get a tooth fixed.

You know that going to the dentist will be painful, yet, you follow through on your decision to get the problem fixed (sometimes!) because you know that a little pain in the present will avoid you a lot of pain in the future.

In other circumstances, the immediate pleasure you may feel by eating a bowl of chips outweighs future pain. We rationalize this in many ways (“I can work out an extra hour at the gym tomorrow,” or “this little bit won’t hurt.”).

Whenever we don’t follow through, it’s because immediate pleasure outweighs future avoidance of pain (or future gains).

But it also turns out that will power is limited.

When get a certain amount of it every day, and the more we use our “willpower reserves,” the more we deplete them.

That’s why many fitness trainers recommend exercising first thing in the morning. It’s not because it’s necessarily more beneficial to exercise in the morning, versus other times during the day, but because you’re more likely to follow through if that’s the first thing you have to do in the day, versus trying to persuade yourself to exercise after a long day of work, when you’re exhausted and want a break.

What drains our willpower reserves? The biggest factor is a low blood sugar level. In other words, the “will” in willpower is glucose.
That’s why you’re always more likely to succumb to temptation when you’re hungry, because your blood sugar is depleted.

It gets harder and harder to make rational decisions about what to eat when the hungrier you get, hence the recommendation to never go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.

In other circumstances, it’s also a good idea to eat something first. If you’re having an argument with a friend or a relative, have everyone eat a banana before talking things through! That is probably the single most important thing someone can do to come to a more positive outcome.

Here are Dr. Lisles’s five tips for boosting willpower:

1) Clean your space. It’s been found that a clean space boosts willpower. So be a better animal and organize your nest better.

2) Lay out exercise clothes. The only item that can be out of place are your exercise clothes. In the context of an organized room, carefully laid out exercise clothes become an eye sore and will encourage you to take action. Also, exercise in general increases willpower because it improves glucose metabolism.

3) Always eat something healthy first. Glucose gives you more willpower, so have food available. Always keep a healthy snack in your car (A friend of mine called those the “hangry-bag”! No, this is not a typo. It’s a combination between “hungry” and “angry,” because when you’re hungry, you get angry. So keep a healthy hangry bag in your car.)

If you’re invited to eat out and you know that you will be tempted to eat something unhealthy, eat something first. Eat around 300-400 calories of healthy food before you leave, to keep the hunger monster at bay.

4) Decide Later. If you’re tempted to eat something you think you shouldn’t eat, decide later. Eat something healthy first, and then see how you feel about it. That way, it won’t be a mental torture and you’ll still be in control, making the right decision once you’ve put a few healthy calories in your stomach.

5) Go to bed on time. Getting enough sleep is key to maintaining your willpower reserves.

Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude
Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.