Monday, July 19, 2010

Self-Control and Problems with Eating

One of the benefits of basic psychological research is that it can help us develop solutions to everyday problems. Unfortunately, such basic research can sometimes have difficulty moving beyond the confines of academic journals and books, and into the hands of the general population who might benefit from practical applications of this knowledge. Furthermore, basic research does not always reach health care practitioners as well, whose practice might benefit as a result.

With this in mind, I thought it might be helpful to discuss basic research on a particular topic (self-control), and discuss how this knowledge might be used to assist people in a practical way (in this case, overeating).

Self-control can be defined as the ability of a person to regulate various impulses, urges, emotions, behaviours, and thoughts. Self-control is important because it allows people to avoid doing harmful things, such as overeating, alcohol and drug abuse, and destructive, impulsive behaviour.

After years of research, psychologists have learned that self-control works like a muscle. Self-control is a function of the brain, and the brain requires energy to work effectively. Whenever we engage in an activity that requires the brain to use energy, it becomes fatigued. For example, if you get someone to resist the temptation to eat chocolate chip cookies, it becomes more difficult for them to then resist something else later on (ex: cake).

There seems to be a limited amount of energy for the brain to use, and if you engage in tasks that use this energy, it can make self-control more difficult. So, if you are mentally or even physically fatigued, it makes self-control more difficult. This finding has been tested in numerous experimental studies. In fact, psychologists have noticed that when glucose levels (which is where the brain gets most of its energy) decrease, people have a more difficult time with self-control. And if you give them more glucose (ex: a sugary drink), their self-control improves again.

From the results of these studies, people can use this information to exert more control over their environment, which can help with problems like overeating. Eating is a classic activity that requires self-control. People with problems resisting the temptation to eat can use the information presented here to help control their eating.

Knowing the circumstances under which you are most likely to make poor food choices is not always obvious. Based on what we know from self-control research, it should be a bit easier to know when you will be most vulnerable to poor food decision-making. As such, here are some ideas about how to use this information:

(1) Knowing when you are most tired, both physically and mentally, throughout the day can help you avoid overeating. If you are someone who has energy lows in the early afternoon and after work (like many people), it will be helpful to not have sweets and other unhealthy snacks around during those times.

(2) Stress is something that can deplete the brain's energy levels, and so managing stress can be an important part of healthy dieting.

(3) To assist with glucose levels and self-control, it might be helpful to have a fruit drink or some other source of energy available when you are vulnerable to problems with self-control. I recommend talking to a dietician about various healthy options.

(4) Self-control research has also found that self-control can be improved. Similar to building muscle by exercising, self-control can be strengthened by regularly practicing self-control. This is important for those people who believe that resisting temptation is a constant uphill battle. The more you practice self-control, the more you improve, and the easier it gets.

Knowing how to set up your environments (ex: home and at work) is a big factor in controlling unhealthy eating (I highly recommend the book Mindless Eating to get a better sense of what I mean). Knowing yourself as a person, including when you are most vulnerable to poor decisions, is very important for managing poor habits. In this case, knowing more about how self-control works, gives you another tool in the fight against overeating.

Dr. Roger Covin
Montreal Psychologist