What to Do When Willpower Won’t Work


The holidays are near once again. By “holidays are near,” I mean I’ve been staring down a bowl of Halloween candy for more than a week now, and it’s not going well. And by “not going well,” I mean I just ate two pieces.

We are in the thick of it already, folks. Thanksgiving and Christmas and all of their festivities will be here soon, and it’s time to get in good shape — mental shape, that is.

The holidays are the hardest time of year to avoid temptation. According to one brain and cognitive scientist, Susan Pierce Thompson, Ph.D., willpower is a simple cognitive function available to us in limited doses, which may only last about 15 minutes at a time.

The holidays are especially challenging because there are temptations everywhere. It feels like we need to exercise all the willpower we have against all of the wonderful holiday foods basically all the time. And we only get 15 minutes?!

That sounds awfully discouraging, I know. But don’t worry. I have some better news for you.

A couple years ago, I took a simple nutrition course with a master nutrition therapist. I was skeptical at first, but the holidays hit about a month after the course ended. And guys — spoiler alert — I lost eight pounds that holiday season. It was the easiest weight I had ever lost, and I didn’t deprive myself of any holiday goodness. I can hardly believe myself when I think about it, but it’s true. And the results are completely achievable for you, too.

How I Lost Weight During the Holidays

1. Look at what you’re eating. The number one thing I learned in the class was to check the ingredients on a nutrition label. But the tricky thing about the holidays is that most of what you’re eating doesn’t have a nutrition label readily available. Fortunately, the number two thing I learned was portion control.

2. Eat everything. But only eat some of it. Totally give into those temptations. Have some pie, but don’t have a whole pie or one slice of each of the 17 pies your family offers. Have some mashed potatoes and stuffing and the rest of your favorites, but fill your plate with the vegetable sides. They’ll help you feel full faster and make it easier to decide that a small portion of dessert will do it for this meal.

3. Watch portions. The general rule I learned for portions was that your serving of meat should only be about as big as the palm of your hand, which should equal about four to six ounces. Thankfully, turkey is a relatively healthy protein, so if you’re looking for a little extra, that’s a good way to go.

As for other servings, one cup is about the size of your fist. Aim for that amount of vegetables. If you can, shoot for half that amount for your potatoes and the like.

4. Keep your perspective. If you overdo it at one meal, don’t punish yourself. One meal won’t break you. But be realistic. “One meal” every day isn’t just “one meal” anymore. Remember your health and fitness goals through the season and stick with your exercise routine.

Exercise your willpower as often as you can, but know that it’s okay when you can’t. During moments of mental strength, make choices that a perhaps mentally weaker version of yourself would appreciate.

5. Stay strong. You got this. You’ll know what to do as the holiday temptations linger for the next eight weeks or so … starting with those tiny, conveniently packaged Halloween candies still lying around. Might be time to go ahead and exercise some of that willpower now. Let’s trash those.

How do you stay on track during the holidays? —Megan



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