May I have some more willpower please?

If a piece of cake is placed in front of a person long enough, that person will eventually eat it. Where does the “will” to do healthy activities such as avoiding fattening foods or exercising regularly come from? There is no specific part of the brain that is called “will power”. Neurotransmitters in the brain do affect our mood and actions but actual “willpower” is a result of developed habits. A person’s response to a challenge will vary. Using the example of cake, one person may eat the “cake” in front of them and want another piece, when another individual may have only three bites and stop. Another person may exercise for an hour to burn the calories of the cake, while a different person prefers to have no dessert at all. All four people have developed a behavior that becomes a habit. Habits can change. Bad habits can be replaced with good habits with practice and trying different techniques.

Developing new healthy habits takes effort, patience and problem solving skills. It is hard to do alone. This column will provide practical information and techniques to acquiring healthy habits for dessert lovers. First decide what type of dessert eater you are and choose the approach that best describes your style of eating.

1. “I want to eat the whole thing.” For the over-eater, choose a “dessert” day once a week to have the dessert you want.

2. “I can’t stop thinking about what I am going to have for dessert.” For the “food thinker”, planning ahead may help. Decide what “starch” options you plan to go without, (such as alcohol, bread or pasta) in order to have the dessert instead at the end of the meal.

3. “I just want to fanaticize about dessert.” The “food teaser” can read the menu, look at the dessert isle in the market enjoying the choices in their mind, and choose nothing at all. Leaving the temptations promptly is important.

4. “I always have to have something sweet after dinner.” Having only three bites of the dessert can let the “sweets lover” practice portion control while still enjoying their habit.

5. “I will skip the dessert now, but always eat something else later”. Splitting a dessert with someone provides a controlled setting for the “binge eater” who would otherwise go home and eat more when alone.

6. “I only wanted a few bites, but I ate the rest. “ For the “picker”, ask the wait staff to take away the remaining dessert, freeze leftovers, or put the sweets out of sight before you eat more than you actually wanted.

7. “I will be good, and just have fruit”. The “dessert alternative” eater may choose fresh fruit, tea or coffee but make sure there are no other hidden calories. For example, coffee drinks and frozen yogurt are often calorie dense.

8. “I will exercise an extra 45 minutes to earn my dessert.” The “exercise to eat” eater needs to make sure that the calories burned during exercise are actually equal to the calories of the dessert.

9. “I can’t resist, it looks sooooooooo good!” The “always tempted” eater can try distraction techniques such as avoiding the dessert menu or standing away from the dessert table. Choose restaurants that do not have good desserts or refrain from keeping sweets in your home.

10. “I ate too much, why not have dessert too.” The “desert my healthy eating plan” eater must not give up. Try not to identify having dessert as a “failure”. Evaluate the situation and try another technique next time. No strategy works every time.

People find that their eating habits overlap with many of the examples listed above. Recognizing your unique behavior is the first step towards developing an approach to a new healthy habit. Good luck!


Carol Penfield MS, NPc is a nurse practitioner and certified personal trainer who specializes in Lifestyle Medicine at Emerald Physicians in Yarmouth.