Later, Tater! How to Strengthen Your Willpower Muscle
Having been on diets most of my life, I’ve grown accustomed to a dramatic relationship with food. When I see a cookie or nachos or one of my other favorite treats, the internal debate goes something like this:
I want it. No, I shouldn’t have it. But I want it so much! But no, I don’t deserve it. But yes. But no!
To me, there’s a finality about saying “no” to a food that is akin to saying “never again.” “No” carries the emotional weight of negativity. Endings. Separation. Yucky stuff.
But as I reported in my last post, new research indicates that saying “later” can end the internal yes-or-no debate over food choices. The idea is that toggling between yes and no actually uses up mental energy.
“Later” is simple and matter-of-fact. Less dramatic. Not a tragedy. Not even a discussion. I decide to test-drive this idea. Here’s the log from my day in Later Land.
9:30 AM After a yummy breakfast of yogurt, raspberries, and Fiber One cereal, I find myself standing before a kitchen cabinet gazing at the Cheerios. Why? Bad habit. Mindless eating. For years I’ve reached in for crackers or cheerios—just a little munch or crunch—most times I pass through the kitchen.
“Later?” I ask my body, bracing for a fierce craving.
To my surprise, my body doesn’t object. “Oh, okie dokie,” it says in an inner voice that sounds like Kermit the Frog bopping along. “Really?” I double check, startled. “Are you sure?”
“Well, yeah,” the Kermit voice replies. “As long as we can have it sooner or later—dum de dum de dum—I guess we can wait. No problem.”
Hmm. I leave the kitchen feeling a vague sense of letdown.
1 PM “Later” has morphed into lunch. I join a friend at Caboose, a neighborhood eatery. I have my usual—the ceviche salad (greens, chopped veggies, avocado, and shrimp). The owner passes our table. “Are you ready for your cookie?” he asks me. He says this because I always, always have a butter cookie after the salad. Sometimes he just brings it automatically. I hesitate.
“Um, maybe later,” I say, bracing. To my surprise, my body is OK with this. We walk out of the restaurant. For someone who is used to a dramatic relationship with food, it seems a bit anticlimactic. That’s all there is to it?
4 PM I’ve just mailed a package at the UPS store, which—what do ya know?—is right next door to St. Elmo’s coffee shop, home to seductive Lemon Cooler cookies. “Later” is here, I decide, and prowl on in.
What’s this? Elmo’s is out of Lemon Coolers. Of course there are other cookies. Their little cookie faces smile up at me from their spots in the glass case. Ever the over-indulgent mom, I gently say, “Would you like a peanut butter cookie instead?”
My tummy sizes up the cookie. “I’ll bet that thing is 500 calories,” it says. “It’s twice as big as the Lemon Cooler. Maybe three times as big.”
I hesitate. The attendants are busy waiting on others. “You know, you’re right,” I say to my tummy. “LATER. Let’s go!”
I walk out of the store feeling peaceful—and a little astonished. Really? Did I just walk out of Elmo’s without buying a cookie? Maybe Baumeister and Tierney are right. They say if you exercise your “willpower” muscle, it gets stronger.
9 PM I’ve let “later” turn into “late.” I still haven’t had dinner and I’m starving. I’m gobbling crackers out of my hand, and reaching frantically into the box for more.
Uh oh. I don’t want “late” to turn into “Too late! I’ve eaten 3,000 calories!” One thing I’ve learned at the weight clinic is that allowing myself to get too hungry is a setup for a binge. If I don’t eat a protein-carb snack of 200 calories or a meal every two or three hours, I’ll be roaring down the highway toward a 3,000-calorie binge.
Plus, Baumeister and Tierney have reported that when the blood sugar drops, willpower wilts. Yikes!
I race around the kitchen and pop an emergency TV dinner into the microwave. I grab a Zone bar with 19 g of protein. It’s 240 calories, but if I don’t get some protein in me, I’m going to eat the whole box of crackers.
I settle down in the den and try to nibble, rather than gobble, the Zone bar. I breathe deeply. Easy now.
In 20 minutes, the protein kicks in. I feel better. I can now eat dinner in a controlled way without wolfing down my food.
11 PM I add up the day’s calories and they come in at 1,400, right where I wanted to be since I couldn’t exercise today. I’d give the “later” technique a big thumbs up! This simple trick really works! Add it to your weight management toolbox.
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