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Can you blame self-control for not ‘achieving’ health?

Self-control is something we blame ourselves for not having regularly. Also known as willpower, self-control can help us achieve goals large and small. When it comes to health however, we expect self-control to do all the work. We expect ourselves or maybe hope that we can say no everything that doesn’t support our health and say yes to only the things that will support our health.

Self-control levels get low.

The more that we have to use self-control, the lower our ‘gas tank’ of self-control is. Just like driving a car, every time you make a decision that uses self-control, you are using some of your gas. Deciding to resist that bagel in the break room, stop eating breakfast halfway to ‘save’ calories or to stop yourself from having another cup of coffee, all of this takes self-control. By the end of the day, you only have so much left in your tank. Having low reserves of self-control makes each next decision more challenging. If you are working on multiple health goals at once such as getting 8 hours of sleep, drinking enough water and adding in more vegetables, you could be pushing your self-control reserves low enough that you may not have enough self control to say no to other decisions, like having another drink or not eating in front of the TV.

Self-control takes actual energy.

Every time you make a decision, research shows your brain uses energy in the form of glucose. At some point, the more you deplete this energy, the less energy your brain has to replenish itself.

What will help you keep your self-control tank full?

1. Eating when you are hungry and stopping when you are full or eating around every three to four hours. This gives your brain consistent energy to provide glucose after each decision, can help keep your stress levels in check and keep you from getting primally hungry. When you get to the point when you are that hungry, self-control will most likely go out the window. Your body has other priorities at that point.

2. Self believe is a powerful tool. Our opinion of our own self-control can impact how much self-control we have! Being mindful of your self talk can impact your self-control among many other areas of life. Self talk often leads to self believe - what we say we end up believing. Try this next time you want to increase your self-control. What do you believe your levels are?

3. Focus on the things that give you joy, the things you want to do and how those things make you feel. Feeling required to do something, feeling like you ‘should’ do something or feeling like doing this specific thing will take all of your willpower, will drain your self-control tank faster. A great example of this is exercise. If you feel like you ‘should go to the gym’ or ‘should eat this salad instead of this pizza’, making this choice can use your reserves of self-control with incredible speed. One reason why Health at Every Size is focused on joyful movement. When we have joy from moving our bodies instead feelings of should, the ‘need’ burn calories or because someone told us to, we are much more likely to do it!

Two more things.

Blaming self-control because you aren’t able to achieve your weight loss goal? Self-control has nothing to do with weight loss. Eating clean or following a rigid diet takes all of our self control reserves and dries it up, leaving you with none, but expects you continue this pattern day after day. This is one reason why diets don't work. 95% of people who try to lose weight gain it back and then some within 6 months to 2 years. Research show that habits improve health more than weight loss. Research also shows that not one single person, company or entity has discovered what results in sustainable, long-lasting weight loss. It is a unicorn. This does not mean that answer is lifestyle change, this is just another word for diet! Want to talk more about this? Schedule a discovery call in the Work with Me tab!

Health is not an end goal. You don't arrive at being healthy and stay there. Health is a continuum and as a result, practically impossible to 'achieve'. It is such a complex quality of human life that involves so many aspects you don't achieve it. See my first blog post for more!



1. Muraven, M., & Baumeister, R. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin,126, 247-259.

2. Baumeister, et al. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource?  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

3. Muraven, M. (2012). Ego-depletion: theory and evidence. In R.M. Ryan (Ed.), Oxford Handbook of MotivationOxford: Oxford University Press.

4. Vohs, K., et al. (2011). Ego depletion is not just fatigue: evidence from a total sleep deprivation experiment. Social Psychological and Personality Science,2, 166-173.

5. Inzlicht, M., & Gutsell, J. (2007). Running on empty: neural signals for self-control failure. Psychological Science,18, 933-937.

6. Wagner, D., et al (2013). Self-regulatory depletion enhances neural responses to rewards and impairs top-down control. Psychological Science, 24, 2262-2271.

7. Gailliot, M., et al. (2007). Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,92, 325-336.


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