Blood Sugar and Willpower: Taking A New Look at New Year’s Resolutions

cheers-1443534 First of all, I need to be honest, I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions (for myself anyway). But I know that a majority of people make them (over 75 percent of Americans) and most people, after a few months or so tend to give up (if you have ever belonged to a gym, you know what I am talking about). The resolutions some people choose are never that easy to keep. Since most of them focus on health issues or eating/weight loss and exercise behavior, I felt obligated to share my opinion (and experiences).

There are many reasons people are not successful with their resolutions, and there is disagreement as to what makes some people more successful. It has nothing to do with “willpower”, a word I don’t use because it insinuates some of us are “better” than others while others are “less than”. When it comes to behavior around eating, some individuals, due to their genetic make-up (the way they were born) get full fast, and consequently don’t tend to overeat (nothing to do with their character). Others just do not get that message to their brains (again, due to their genes, and not because they are weak or have no willpower) and so may need to eat more to feel satisfied. Other factors affect eating behavior of course, but that is one example of why willpower is not my favorite word. For more details, check a previous post for a review of  Willpower

Anyway, while researching the topic of resolutions, I stumbled upon an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2007, Volume 92, No.2, 325-336), “Self-Control Relies on Glucose as Limited Energy Source: Willpower More Than A Metaphor”. The researchers investigated an important point that most people aren’t aware of: self-control processes act as if they depend on “some type of a limited energy resource”. The article reviewed previous research providing evidence that a single act of self-control (for instance, resisting dessert) uses up a limited energy source that makes it difficult to be successful at any other attempt at self-control.

The researchers hypothesized that glucose was the energy source that our brains have a limited supply of, and that the brain uses more energy (glucose, or blood sugar) with an act of self-control verses performing cognitive tasks. Participants in the research were college students, and nine different experiments were performed with different groups to test out various conditions (specifically, “the major goals of this investigation were (a) to establish that blood glucose levels are reduced from before to after performing an initial self-control task and (b) to show that low levels of glucose after a first self-control task predict behavioral deficits on a second self-control task”). In other words, when your are trying to resist something, you use up a lot of brain energy, and if you try a second time to resist something else, it gets harder and harder due to the fact that you have no energy left.

The experiments that were conducted challenged subjects in different ways. For instance, in just one part of the study subjects were asked to watch a video of a woman talking with words appearing under the video which the participants were supposed to use “self-control” and avoid reading. Challenges such as this were then followed by different challenges, with glucose levels monitored. In other parts of the study, glucose was provided in the form of a sweetened beverage (with a placebo of an artificially sweetened drink) to see if this had any affect.

Findings from this study supported the hypothesis that self-control depends on glucose. As reported in the article: “First, measurements of blood glucose showed significant drops following acts of self-control, primarily among participants who worked hardest. Second, low glucose after an initial self-control task (e.g., emotion regulation) was linked to poor self-control on a subsequent task. Third, experimental manipulations of glucose reduced or eliminated self-control decrements stemming from an initial self-control task”.

What does all this have to do with your New Year’s Resolution?  The bottom line is that expecting yourself to have enough “willpower” or self-control to accomplish a bunch of resolutions is not only psychologically challenging, but probably physiologically impossible. The fact that it takes more energy (glucose) to use self-control means that you easily become depleted if you take on too much.  And this is just one of the issues why making too many resolutions is not a good idea. Instead, if you insist on making a new year’s resolution,here is some simple advice. Some you may have heard before, but well worth repeating:

  1. Don’t set yourself up for failure. Instead of biting off more than you can chew (“I am never eating junk food again!”) pick just one thing that has been gnawing at you. For example, do you always complain about lack of sleep? Or eating fast food because you don’t know how to cook? Or do you truly live off of fast food and have the indigestion to prove it? Instead of making an “all-or-nothing” decision which I can almost promise will set you up for failure (not good for either physical or psychological health), start small. Make it doable. Cooking a healthy meal even one night a week is a success that you will feel good about.
  2. Keep it positive. Don’t use “negative” words. Instead of “I am NOT eating this or doing that, how about “I am going to……add a fruit to my lunch. Take a karate lesson. Walk to work. Taking away too much is not only negative, it tends to make you feel deprived and makes you want the forbidden whatever even more.
  3. Don’t talk about it. Many people will disagree with me. Some people feel that if you tell everyone (or someone) that you have a goal that you are more likely to feel accountable. Really? It doesn’t sound right to me (and would not feel right to me anyway) to care about what anyone thinks of me or my health habits or lifestyle. I want to sleep better because it makes ME feel better. Plus, if you tell someone, or make a big deal about it, what if you don’t accomplish what you set out to do? Even the people you share with will feel uncomfortable. They likely don’t want you living up to their expectations either. Do what you want to do because you want to do it. On the other hand, there are some people who truly do love and need the support of others. This is different. If you are happy sharing, then do it. And if you need support, and have good friends or family who truly are supportive, go for it. Having healthy and supportive people around us can be inspiring.
  4. No numbers. I just hate numbers when it comes to health. People get all wrapped up in numbers and I just don’t think that is healthy at all. It takes all the fun out of some really healthy things. Take physical activity for example. It can be really enjoyable to go for a walk, or a hike in the woods, or even to jog slowly around a track and daydream. When you have to count the laps, or measure the miles, or time your speed, yuck. It just is not fun.Yes, there are exceptions, those people who just love numbers. Some people thrive on competition and all of that. Those aren’t the people I am talking about. It is the people who start something but then stop because they can’t accomplish the number. Yes, a “smart goal” is specific, but that can mean making a goal of getting outside twice a week. It does not have to be something ridiculous. The same holds true with eating. It takes the joy out of meals and food, and disconnects you from what your body needs. The number on the scale is also pretty useless when it comes to health. I have known many individuals who have succeeded in bringing down blood pressure, glucose levels, and others who have taken up a sport and gotten fit, but then stopped just because the number on the scale stopped moving down. Why not skip the number goal and just focus on the health aspect?
  5. Pretend it is not January 1st. Really. Yes, it is great to reflect on your life and health and want to make changes that move you in a better direction. But you can do that any time. June, September, your birthday. Actually, our lives change more than once a year in one way or another, and it is important to readjust sometimes. Getting into the habit of even just caring about your health is much more important than picking some unrealistic and extreme resolution on January 1.

So there you have it. No resolutions for me! As I get older, and my life (and body) change, my focus on figuring out how I can feel my best, be my healthiest (physically AND mentally) and live the longest fun life really doesn’t change. I hope you consider a focus on health too.

Here’s to a Happy Healthy New Year!!!!!!

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