It is no secret that dieters feel frustrated by their efforts to resist overeating, and it is well known that even successful diet attempts are usually followed by overeating and weight regain. Recent research attributes the obesity epidemic in the US to overeating rather than a decline in physical activity, and data show that Americans are consuming more calories today than they did in the 1970s.
A majority of overweight adults struggle to control what they eat, especially when hungry. Surrounded by an abundance of tasty and affordable high calorie foods, how can we possibly resist overeating? What exactly is willpower and how can it be harnessed to insure effective weight management?
Surprisingly, according to Dr. Walter Mischel, a psychologist at Columbia University, willpower may have nothing to do with a force of will — a painful or uncomfortable insistence on denying yourself pleasurable foods. According to Mischel, willpower can be thought of as a skill of self-distraction that can be learned and that allows you to successfully navigate your hot emotional response to tempting foods. Curiously, what he has learned about willpower was based on studies of 4-year-olds!
Delaying Gratification Has Its Rewards
In the late 1960s, Mischel studied hundreds of very young children to measure their willingness to delay gratification — specifically, postpone eating a tasty treat. The protocol used to study each child was unvarying: offer a tray of tempting treats, ask the child to select one, ask the child to “wait a few minutes” before consuming it and promise a second treat if the child succeeds in waiting for the researcher to return.
While the researcher was out of the room, each child was observed in order to document the behavior while left alone with the treat. Here is a description of how the children struggled:
“Some cover their eyes with their hands or turn around so that they can’t see the tray. Others start kicking the desk, or tug on their pigtails…One child…looks carefully around the room to make sure that nobody can see him. Then he picks up an Oreo, delicately twists it apart, and licks off the white cream filling before returning the cookie to the tray, a satisfied look on his face.”
The unique contribution of this research is that Mischel has been following these children for more than 30 years. In 1981, he contacted the families, teachers and academic advisers of 652 children he had studied and learned that the long delayers (those who waited the full 15 minutes to eat the treat) had SAT scores that were 210 points higher than those who waited only 30 seconds or less.4 The short delay group had lower academic achievement and more behavioral problems, including drug problems. Unpublished research by Ozlem Ayduk, an associate of Mischel, suggests that the children with short delay times also had a higher body mass index or BMI (i.e., they were fatter).
By far the most interesting group was the group of children with short delay times who grew up to be long-delaying high achievers. The success of this group suggests that delaying gratification or the exercise of willpower is actually a skill that can be learned. This raises the interesting possibility that as adults, we can learn a skill that is of central value in weight management — controlling the consumption of tempting foods.
What’s the Secret?
According to Mischel, the children who delayed eating their treat were able to distract their attention away from the tasty food. The self-distraction techniques were varied. Some busied themselves with toys or games; some turned their back on the food; others pretended it was not real or did whatever they could to not see and then forget about the treat — a version of “out of sight, out of mind.” Mischel says these children learned how to make waiting “second nature” and worthwhile. In other words, waiting or accepting a delay in gratification is a skill that can be practiced on a daily basis until it finally becomes a habit.
These interesting studies suggest that we can learn how to manage tempting foods so that they don’t defeat our efforts to control food intake. This is not a new concept. Techniques to modify eating behavior have been formulated by others and used since the 1960s to assist dieters.
For lasting or long-term weight loss success, the idea is to turn these mental tricks and tactics into habits. Here’s how:
Remove temptation from sight – Change your immediate environment by ridding your home and kitchen of tempting foods. Avoid TV food advertisements by turning off the TV. The key is to avoid looking at tempting foods you are trying to avoid.
Establish daily rituals that force you to practice the delay of gratification on a daily basis – Examples include preparing a meal without snacking, putting away meal leftovers without eating them, and not eating dessert. The goal is to practice the delay of gratification until it becomes habitual.
If you are in a situation where you cannot remove tempting foods, use your imagination to strip the foods of their appeal – At a party where tempting foods are being served, imagine that the food is poisonous or dirty so that it is completely unappealing. Then distract yourself by engaging in a conversation with someone, so you will forget about the food.
Divert yourself from thinking about food by engaging in a pleasant task that occupies your hands - Examples include knitting, sewing, carpentry, or having a good book handy for reading daily.
Make delaying gratification of food worthwhile - Devise a non-food reward that you will give yourself after six days of successful practice of these rituals, then six weeks, then six months, and so on. Of course, you must decide for yourself if you have made it a habit and if it was
worth the effort of training yourself.
Willpower is developing mental tricks and tactics that allow you to control a challenging situation. You can change your environment by ridding your home of tempting foods. But inevitably, you encounter temptation in restaurants and shops or in other people’s homes. So when faced with a challenge, willpower boils down to learning how to divert your attention away from the tempting foods and onto something else that is important or enjoyable for you. This is something you can learn and practice. If you can make it worth your while, you can turn it into a satisfying daily ritual that eventually becomes a habit.