Train your brain to stick to any diet. Part 2: Willpower

Train your brain to stick to any diet, Part 2: Willpower.

We train for sports, we train before we take an exam and we train to give a killer presentation. But when it comes to making healthy changes, we might realise we need to train for that too.

Train your brain to learn new healthier habits and make positive health changes in your life.

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“I have no willpower”. The oft-uttered phrase sighed through a mouthful of ice cream or as you walk past (not into) the gym.  A lot of life’s unsuccessful moments are blamed on a person’s willpower, or lack thereof. But should we be relying on willpower alone when we make health changes or is there more to it?

Willpower is essentially a person’s ability to abstain from self-gratification. The longer you are able to deny yourself the thing you want, the higher your self-discipline, or willpower. The level, or amount, of willpower, varies from person to person. Some have plenty of self-discipline while others are prone to poor impulse control (I am sadly of the latter, so this topic has huge personal interest for me.)

It’s not you!

By and large, when a person sets a health-related goal, it’s weight loss. The plan might be to eat less, cut out sugar, or exercise more. Why then, despite so people trying to lose weight, does it consistently fail to happen? Are we a nation born with less willpower than previous generations, or is something else at play?

Before we delve into how to use willpower to our advantage, it’s important to understand how our environment plays a  role in affecting our willpower. It’s not simply that you failed or you can’t it – there is more going on than you may realise.

So I present to you what I call the ‘ABC of food you see’

  1. A is for Advertising

We have hundreds of adverts a day shoved down our throat, with many spruiking unhealthy snacks, sugary food or alcohol. In the US alone, over $5 billion per year is spent on advertising fast food.

And guess what? With that amount of money and resources for research, marketers can find our weaknesses and use it to influence us to buy the goods. So we have these cleverly designed adverts that have had thousands of dollars poured into them specifically to make sure they appeal to us and we buy the product. And we see hundreds of them a day.

Every time we see an advert promoting a food or drink we want we have to use our willpower to distract ourselves or tell ourselves no.

The internal conflict inside your head from seeing delicious foods adverts and arguing to yourself why you should or shouldn’t go and buy one can become very tiring. Eventually, some of us might give in.

2. B is for Biology

Biologically, we are driven to seek out foods that are high in energy, high in fat and high in sugar. Back in the day of hunting and gathering, these foods would have sustained us for long periods of time, allowing survival in an environment where we were never sure of the next meal.

Our environmental landscape has changed so food is always readily available, but our biological impulses have yet to catch up. Rationally, we know we ‘shouldn’t’ eat these foods, but the biological urge is strong and we again have an internal argument with ourself justifying why we should or shouldn’t eat something. Very tiring, and possibly negative if there is a lot of negative self-talk.

3. C is for Composition.

Food is designed to taste nice. Incredible amounts of money are spent on specifically designing food so it tastes good and appeals to all our senses. When I was a teenager I was in a focus group for Coke Zero before it was launched. They had hundreds of people coming in to taste four different unlabelled fizzy drinks and rate them. To reward us for our time we got a voucher. Imagine how much they would have spent worldwide just on vouchers alone for the focus group members in designing this new Coke – let alone any other part of the process.

How Willpower Works

Now that we know it’s not all our fault if we can’t stick to a goal, let’s take a look at how willpower works.

Some early research suggested that willpower is a finite resource. So when you wake up after a good night’s sleep, you have plenty of it. As the day wears on, it decreases. Why? Making decisions depletes your pool of willpower.

Regardless of the decision made (whether it’s what to wear or what to eat) or how big or small the decision is, our willpower decreases.

However, some new research considers that if you believe you have unlimited amounts of willpower during the day this will actually prove to be true, as these people tend to have higher levels of self-control than those who believe their willpower is depleted.

We may not have a decisive answer on whether we have unlimited pools of willpower or if it is limited, but we do know that as it decreases so does our motivation and self-control.


When we make a decision it uses up glucose in the brain. So when we think long and hard about what to wear to work, or about what to write in an email, our brain kicks into gear. Our brain runs on glucose as fuel so it stands to reason that the more decisions (and therefore thinking) we do, the more our brain works and uses up glucose.

When we are low in blood glucose we have poor willpower and self-control.  Low blood glucose occurs after not eating for long periods of time. Our body and brain are low in fuel (glucose). Think about a time you were very hungry, you likely couldn’t think properly, spent longer than normal completing tasks, and gave the diet the finger when choosing what to have at your next meal.

A very interesting body of research actually found that diabetics have much lower willpower and motivation with everything in their lives because they have consistent lows with their blood sugar levels so find it very difficult to set themselves goals or follow through with tasks.

5 steps to boosting your willpower

1. if you think you can, you can.

Those with higher levels of self-discipline make better decisions since they are able to see the long-term benefit and not just the instant gratification. When people believe their willpower is limited,  their willpower depletes quickly. But if someone believes their willpower regenerates they show better signs of self-control.

Do this: Believe you have unlimited reserves of willpower, you superhero, you!


Avoid making too many decisions, as this will drain your willpower. An example of this is Mark Zuckerberg, who allegedly wears the same outfit each day so he has fewer decisions to make thus preserving willpower for the big-ticket stuff.

Do this:  Minimise how many decisions you need to make during each day so you can save energy for the decisions that will help you reach your health goal. Outsource tasks such as cleaning, childcare etc if necessary. Shop online, bulk-buy and cook meals, have 3 go-to outfits to wear for busy days, join forces with friends and family for bigger decisions such as gift-buying or holiday planning.

3. Motivation: Keep the fire burning

Motivation is what drives and sustains us towards our goal. Motivation can be intrinsic (an internal desire to change) or extrinsic (external influences). Intrinsic motivation is far more powerful than extrinsic motivation. When we find the internal drive to do something, it’s easier to make the change.

Do this: Think about why you want to make your health change. To have more energy to be with the kids? To prevent getting diabetes like your parents? Find a strong internal motivator to keep you going through the hard times.

4. First things First

Perform the healthy habit you want in the morning if you can. This is when your willpower is at its highest and so easier to complete. So aim to hit the gym in the morning, eat a healthy breakfast, pack your lunch, get 5,000 steps in – whatever your goal may be.

Once the action becomes a habit, you won’t need your willpower to keep it up. Habits don’t require willpower as they are automatic and use a different path in the brain. However, breaking bad habits require willpower!

Do this: Perform your habit as early in the day as you can.

5. Plan

Plan to succeed! Set yourself a goal, consider how you will reward yourself along the journey, check in with yourself and your changes, enlist support and so on.

Do this: Read the next part of the series published next week for a detailed look at how you can pull everything together to develop your own personal plan.


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