The role of Willpower in the keeping of our resolutions
With ‘cutting down on unhealthy foods and snacking’ often being high in the chart of the most common resolutions made on January 1st, we’re taking a look in this blog post at why many of us cave in and still reach for a high calorie snack.
Is it because of the situation we’re in at the time (e.g. a skipped breakfast, a coffee with a colleague, no time for lunch) or simply our lack of willpower?
Reducing snacking can help those wanting to eat a more healthy, balanced diet. Indeed, Elliston and her colleagues at the University of Tasmania say that, in Australia, around 30 to 41% of people’s daily energy intake comes from snacking rather than from proper meals. They argue therefore that understanding what makes us snack, is an important part of helping people to avoid over-eating.
The team recruited 61 participants (42 women) and asked them to complete a number of psychological measures, including:
- The extent to which he or she thinks about the costs and benefits of healthy eating being short-term or long-term.
- His or her intention to eat more healthily.
- A report as to how often her or she had recently eaten the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day.
- His or her self-report on own powers of self-regulation and willpower.
The participants then recorded via an app over two weeks, the food they ate and whether this was a ‘snack’ or ‘main meal’. The app prompted them to also record at those times the situation in which they were, their mood, whether snacking was taking place around them and so on. The app also proactively prompted them at different times to record these factors even when they were not eating.
The participants reported that:
- There was a greater incidence of them being surrounded by other ‘snackers’ when they had just logged them own snacking episode as opposed to when they were not snacking themselves.
- When they felt ‘in a bad mood’, snacking was more common.
- Having snacks available and easily accessible was recorded more when they were snacking, as opposed to not eating.
It seems that there may be a link between being in a bad mood and snacking, and being around other ‘snackers’ or readily available snacks, and snacking. However, the researchers found no association between intentions and past healthy eating behaviour and the odds of snacking. Elliston and the team suggest that their study represents a successful application of Temporal Self-regulation Theory to explain snacking; that the “results demonstrate that snacking is largely guided by momentary cues and that motivational-level factors may be less important in guiding snacking than previously thought.”
What this means for us
It seems that this research builds on previous findings that cutting down on snacks and eating more healthily, is more about avoiding temptation rather than strong willpower. If we want to reduce our own snacking, we need to try to combat stress and low mood, as well as not having snacks within easy reach or going to places where others are snacking. So, when we’re struggling to cut back on the biscuits, it’s probably best not to buy them in the first place and take a walk around the office when the biscuit tin is being passed around!
Elliston, K. G., Ferguson, S. G. and Schüz, B. (2017), Personal and situational predictors of everyday snacking: An application of temporal self-regulation theory. British Journal of Health Psychology, 22: 854–871. doi:10.1111/bjhp.12259
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