29 Aug 2011

Dieting and Decision Fatigue.

The other day, my husband pointed out an article that 'would interest me'. He was right – as usual.

The article was called 'Do you make too many decisions?', posted at the smart and thought-provoking Farnam Street blog.

Decisions, Decisions ...

Now, before you think this was his subtle way of calling me bossy, you might want to read the article. It deals with the decision density of modern life, and how each decision takes mental effort, thus reducing the amount of energy left for stamina, persistence and willpower.

This leads to what is called 'decision fatigue', which is described in detail in this New York Times article and in Roy F. Baumeister's and John Tierney's book: 'Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength' that's coming out in a few days (September 1st, 2011).

One of the most interesting takeaways of the articles for me was the discovery that glucose plays a vital role in willpower. It explains why dieting is a particularly difficult test of self-control.

The Catch-22 of Dieting ...

Seriously, everyone who's ever been on a diet knows this - myself included. Even people with very strong willpower in other aspects of their lives feel they're lacking when it comes to dieting.

We start the day with the best of intentions, manage to resist the first temptations thrown at us, but each of these brave acts takes up mental energy and lowers our willpower. Towards the end of the day, willpower simply runs out. To replenish it, we'd have to give our brain glucose, hence the sugar cravings.

So here it is, the catch-22 of dieting:

1. We need willpower to resist eating.
2. We need to eat in order to have willpower.

Now, the good news is that, once an explanation has been found, one can start looking for solutions to a problem. *Cheer*.

Dieting and Decision Fatigue ...

Reading the article at Farnham Street came at exactly the right time. Over the past year I'd gained a few pounds, and now the summer holidays have come to an end, I'm working on losing them again. Being a foodie and a wine enthusiast, I have to stay alert. But that's okay; the alternative is worse.

I've written extensively about weight management before in my 'Manage your body weight - the green way' series, but here's a summary of what I'm doing at the moment, in case anybody's looking for inspiration / motivation after some summer indulgence and wants to join in:

1. I register everything I'm eating at http://www.fitday.com - it's very little work and it gives me an overview of how I'm doing. It's easy to miscalculate or lose track of the calories and nutrients you're consuming if you just play it by ear. A reliable food diary shows the facts, which helps by taking away some of the strain of having to make the right decision every time.

2. I manage my environment to reduce temptation, which leaves me with more willpower for when it matters. This means: if I can't or shouldn't eat it, I don't have it in the house. In short: no candy, no crisps, ... and instead plenty of fresh vegetables, low-calorie meals in the freezer, easy snacks like my favourite fruits, nuts, Greek yoghurt, dark chocolate (70% cocoa or more), lemons & soda water (to make stevia-sweetened lemonade), etc.

3. I eat smaller meals but more often: 5 to 6 times a day. (I aim for 6, usually manage 5.) Being able to eat on a regular basis reduces the burden on your willpower.

4. No sugar, except for the bit that's in my daily piece of dark, bitter chocolate, which isn't much, and a bit of grape sugar (dextrose) - see under number 5.

5. My new favourite emergency trick (after reading the articles I mentioned above): if I get a really bad sugar craving and I'm about to give in, I take a teaspoon of grape sugar / dextrose. It works for me, but that doesn't mean it's good for everybody. If you want to do this, do it wisely. Glucose affects your blood sugar levels, so if you're a diabetic, this is probably a really bad idea.

Also, know that 5 grams of dextrose amounts to about 20 calories, so don't exaggerate, register the calories and don't fool yourself into thinking it's good for you. If you focus on eating healthily, you should get a steady release of glucose from the other foods you're eating, so this is just a fix for the most difficult moments.

If you're wondering why I use dextrose instead of normal sugar, cane sugar or any of the other sugar varieties out there: it's because grape sugar / dextrose is 100% glucose. Regular sugar, cane sugar and the others also contain fructose, which is to be avoided. (Read this article / watch the video if you want to know more.)

Recommended Reading ...

Farnham Street blog: http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/do-you-make-too-many-decisions/
Complete New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html
The Book: http://www.amazon.com/Willpower-Rediscovering-Greatest-Human-Strength/dp/1594203075

Photo 'Sick and Tired' by Stephanie Lepoint, available under a creative commons license. © 2007, Stephanie Lepoint.
Photo 'Gluttony' by vitaeer, available under a creative commons license. © 2006, vitaeer.
Photo 'Belgian chocolate' by K.C. Woolf, available under a creative commons license. © 2011, K.C. Woolf.
Photo 'Grapes' by Dave Rutt, available under a creative commons license. © 2008, Dave Rutt.
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  1. I saw the NY Times article and mostly what I took away from it is if you want a good response/decision from someone approach them first thing in the morning since by afternoon they tend to tire of making decisions and don't always make good or fair ones.

  2. Linda: a fine illustration of the fact that we perceive is influenced by our frame of mind? :-)

  3. I've been working on my weight for most of my adult life and what works now is eating the way a nutritionist taught me works for me. I so get how willpower doesn't work. Something finally shifted for me and my life is no longer about food -it is simply fuel. So it doesn't matter what I can't eat. I've been maintaining a 50-lb weight loss for 3 years now. It makes me so happy.

  4. Well, this post is timely for me. Summer ought to be a time of activity, but I tend to work out SO much less because of the heat. And then there are the picnics, and cookouts, and restaurants...Yeah, I put on a few too.

    The only thing that works for me is what you've listed. Avoid sugar, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and work out. I also have a thyroid condition that makes it doubly hard for me, so I have to keep track of everything I eat. I use an app on my iphone to record my calories, and try to eat basically the same thing for breakfast and lunch most days. Takes a few decisions off the table for me. :)

    Sorry about the extra work I assigned you, but if you have more posts like this hiding in the archives, it's good to get them out again, yes?

  5. I remember when I was married I got so fatigued because I just wanted him to make some of the decisions instead of deferring to me. It's exhausting being expected to run the show. Regarding diet, I've recently started focusing on gluten-free, not because of any intolerance, but because I know it's better for the body to go without, I've found I feel better without things that involve wheat, and hey, many of the things that made me fat are gluten-filled (pasta, bread, etc.) so it's double duty good. Focusing on whole foods like grilling the veggies from my garden....but not punishing myself with guilt if I don't go 100% g/f - it's all an evolution.

  6. It sounds like you work really hard at this. I have a different problem. When I get nervous I can't eat and lose weight when times are hard. Last year when Mr A was seriously ill I lost a stone and a half (about 20lbs). I wouldn't recommend this method though.

  7. I'm another one like EcoGrrl who has to make all the decisions. No wonder I'm tired all the time. Interesting.
    Great post.

  8. my life is diet :(

    I tried using dextrose once but I couldn't get used to its taste. But I use sugar only in cakes.

  9. Does anyone else make their big decisions swiftly and labor over the small things?

  10. I'm on meds that elevate weight & appetite, so I need extra exercise & food planning...sometimes I stick to it, sometimes not, but I stay on the right track enough not to let it get out of hand.

  11. Just found your blog. MBJ's blog sent me here. I'm thinking I might be back. If I can recall where I found it.

    I need a sweet. Honey over a donut sounds right

  12. I definitely agree that we suffer from decision fatigue. By the time I get home, I just want my hubby to make all the choices for me. Hee hee on him!

  13. Eat when you're hungry, not when you're craving-- can apply to many things ...

  14. So that's what is wrong with me!!!

    It all makes sense now.

  15. Karen: that's great! :-) Glad you found your way!

    L.G.: no problem at all, I'll enjoy digging up the posts. ;-) I think you've just given me another reason to get an iPhone. :-)

    EcoGrrl: yes, that wonderful garden of yours. :-) It's true how making lots of decisions, big or small, is truly exhausting. It seems to me that most of the time when people say they don't have the time to do X or Y, they really mean they're depleted in mental energy/willpower.

    Rosalind: interesting to see how we all react in different ways. I've seen how for some people gaining weight is just as much as problem as losing it is for others. In the end it's all about health, isn't it?

  16. Delores: I found both articles fascinating. How such a (relatively simple) finding can explain what so many people experience on a daily basis.

    DEZZY: mine fortunately isn't any more. Well, at the moment it is, but if it's just once every couple of years I can live with it. I've found a way that works for me, without hurting my quality of life, so I'm quite happy, even though I go through the odd less optimistic spell. ;-)

    Munk: very often, yes. Getting married: split second. Choosing which type of milk to buy: a whole different ball game!

    Mary: quite difficult, I'm sure, but it sounds like you're managing it well! :-)

  17. Donna: lol, sounds nice indeed, except for the donut – I'm not too fond of them, fortunately :-)

    AA: sounds familiar. Mine bounces them back, though. :-)

    Suze: so true! :-)

    Marsha: doesn't sound like anything's wrong. Instead: you might be normal! ;) (Or not – you are a writer after all) :-)


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