Food for Thought: Willpower Is a Mental Muscle

Posted On Nov 7, 2013 By Vito La Fata

willpower to eat healthy

That organ sitting behind your temple makes up 1/50 of your body mass, but consumes a whopping 1/5 of the calories we burn for energy. Think of it this way: if your brain were a car, it would burn gas like a Hummer. Most of the conscious activity in our brain is happening in our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for focus, short-term memory, problem-solving and moderating our impulse control.

What the heck does this have to do with weight loss and fitness? Hang with me for a second …

Now, what's interesting is the fact that this area responsible for our impulse control and focus (prefrontal cortex) is the first to suffer when there is a shortage of the resources (nutrients) it needs to function properly. As a typical example, let's say when you skip a meal, which is like starving your brain and giving it a limited supply of nutrient "resources" it needs to function properly, your brain feels the biggest impact. You are literally sucked dry of any willpower. And willpower is what we need in order to prioritize the actions and choices that allow us to achieve our fitness goals.

If willpower takes place in the brain and your brain needs glucose in the bloodstream to function properly, skipping a meal is like starving your willpower.

woman sitting infront of healthy food and junk food deciding what to eat Studies conclude that willpower is a mental muscle that doesn't bounce back quickly. If you use willpower for one task, there will be less power available for the next unless you refuel (eat properly). In order for you to do your best, you literally have to feed your mind, which takes the old saying, "food for thought" to a whole new level.

Foods that elevate blood sugar levels evenly over long periods of time, like complex carbohydrates and proteins, become the fuel of choice for high-achievers – literal proof that you are what you eat.

Now, here is where this gets sticky. When your brain is running out of the resources it needs to function properly, it reverts back to old default settings. Let me give you an example. After years of habits and poor choices, your brain has a default setting to reach for the bag of chips when you're tired, stressed and lonely. But, if you feed your brain properly, it fuels your willpower to override your default setting that reaches for the bag of chips.

What are your default settings?

Think about your willpower. I mean literally think about your willpower. The reason so many people feel like they have no willpower is simply because they never think about it; they don't understand its biological needs are connected to proper nutrition and instead chalk it up to, "I have no willpower." Your willpower is something you can feed; you can make it an ally in your weight-loss efforts.

So, how do you put your willpower to work? You think about it. Pay attention to it. Give it the respect it deserves. Make what matters most a priority, and do it first when your willpower is at its strongest before it gets depleted throughout the day. This might mean exercising first thing in the morning or preparing food for the whole day in the morning. Your willpower must be managed.

And when it comes to willpower, timing is the key. You will need your willpower at full strength to ensure that you don't let anything distract you or veer you off course. Then after that, you need to maintain enough willpower to get through the rest of your day without sabotaging your efforts.

Now let's tie this all together

Tell me if this example of someone who struggles to lose weight sounds familiar: she always does well in the morning (when willpower is strong), and then by the afternoon, probably having skipped a meal or two (since the average person eats only 2.5 meals), things go a little off kilter. Then after a full day, her willpower wanes (starved of resources), the default settings kick in (bag of chips), the guilt kicks in (I have no willpower mindset) and the downward spiral begins. The poor brain is hungry for glucose (sugar) and the resources it needs, but the person wrongly assumes that she is weak, has no willpower, is a failure. And ultimately, she gives up saying, "I'm just always going to be fat."

How can you maintain the willpower to achieve your fitness and weight-loss goals?

Monitor your fuel gauge. Full-strength willpower requires a full tank of gas in the brain. Don't let what matters most to you – your health – be compromised simply because your brain was under-fueled. Eat right and regularly; this will help maintain proper levels of glucose, the resource your brain needs to keep the willpower tank strong and fueled, so you can make the best decisions when they matter most.