Flavour of the Week

Self-Regulation: Quieting the Internal Cookie Monster

flavour-of-the-week-logo“When me lose control
when me on the brink

need to just calm down
me need to stop and think.

Me Want It (But Me Wait), Cookie Monster

Out of the mouths of babes; well, TV shows directed at “babes”! Sesame Street has always been known for its innovative educational content… but maybe their teachings are not just for kids?

If Cookie Monster can exercise restraint around a giant plate of cookies, then there must be hope for the rest of us!

Willpower. Self-control. Self-discipline. Self-regulation. All essentially variations of the same construct – controlling your own behavior, conduct and impulses to overcome temptations. But why can something that sounds so easy be so HARD? For lots of reasons – from our personality, upbringing, motivation and values (1,2).

But if you find that you cannot resist the potato chips or cookies in the cupboard for very long, welcome to the club! While willpower may be something you are born with, thankfully it is also something you can cultivate over time.

The Role of Willpower – Beyond Just Diet.
We may associate willpower with helping us lose weight by avoiding the ice cream in the freezer, but demonstrating strong self-control is link to more than just our waist line. In the 1960s, a group of researchers at Stanford performed the now-famous marshmallow test (1). They put preschool-aged children in a room alone with a treat and gave them a decision to make: eat the treat now, or wait 15 minutes and get two treats. Would you wait? Turns out that the kids with better self-control (delayed gratification) not only had lower BMIs upon long-term follow-up, but better academic success, improved health, and more stable relationships (1).

When it comes to weight loss, research shows that those with better weight loss success (often defined as maintenance of 5 – 10% weight loss) tend to exhibit higher levels of self-control (3,4). McKee et al. (4) found that successful weight loss maintainers are more likely demonstrate appropriate goal regulation and self-control than those who are unsuccessful. What does this mean? Setting realistic goals, consistently self-monitoring, avoiding deprivation and coping with stress are essential to long-term weight loss success… and these are skills you can develop over time…

Could Willpower Be A Trainable Skill?
Worried because you were not born with willpower of steel? Worry not – turns out you can train yourself to have better willpower!

Leahey et al. (5) conducted two different studies to assess the importance of self-control and willpower on weight loss maintenance. Not surprisingly, the first study compared weight loss “successes” after a behavioural intervention and found that those with higher self-control were more likely to maintain a weight loss of 10% or more. The second study asked the question – can we improve weight loss by targeting willpower? Yes, you can!

Researchers developed a six-month intervention involving weekly sessions led by dietitians, exercise physiologists and/or behavioural psychologists. At each session, participants received instruction on not only diet and physical activity, but a greater focus on behaviour change strategies such as self-monitoring, realistic goal setting, problem solving, assertiveness and relapse prevention. Individuals who demonstrated increased willpower over the course of the study achieved significantly greater weight loss, higher levels of physical activity and a healthier diet (5).

No Baloney’s advice? Research consistently shows that self-monitoring is the number one thing you can do to improve self-regulation and willpower (3). No one enjoys keeping a truthful and accurate food and activity diary (at least, not at first!), but a greater awareness of your current habits, environmental context and trigger situations can lead to big, deprivation-free change over time.

Willpower is like any muscle – you need to use it, but not overdo it! That means being consistent is key, but so is slow-and-steady progress. Try to plan for small, day-to-day changes rather than trying to change everything at once.

Here’s a great list of tips from Roy Baumeister, a guru in willpower research (with our practical two-cents):

  1. Build up your self-control by exercising it regularly in small ways. Start with small goals you feel confident you can achieve. Progressive successes lead to stronger self-efficacy – don’t start with the hardest thing first. Doesn’t even need to be food-related at first – improve your posture at your desk, don’t leave dishes in the sink overnight or floss your teeth before bed. Baumeister suggests that any act of increasing self-control can boost willpower overall.

  2. Learn to recognize signs that your willpower may be waning. If you are ravenous and go for the cupboard when you get home from work, factor in an afternoon snack to buy yourself some time. Low blood sugar is catastrophic for willpower (2).

  3. Don’t crash diet.‘Nuff said! Because most of us would raid the cupboard after trying the Master Cleanse.

  4. Don’t try to do too much at once. Break up your goals into manageable pieces to avoid feeling overwhelmed and throwing in the towel. Do only one thing at a time. Focus on awareness of your habits first, like keeping a diary of your time sitting each day – pretty eye-opening how much time we spend on our keister!

  5. Establish good habits and routines that will take the strain off your willpower. Willpower starts at the grocery store – set yourself up for success and don’t buy your “trigger foods”. Access is everything, so while you don’t have to abolish all ice cream, start with not keeping it in the house.

  6. Learn how to draw up an effective to-do list. Think about your long-term values and what you want to achieve. Make SMAART goals and track your progress with an app on your smartphone (we love the simplicity of Habit List). Everyone likes to give themselves a check mark for doing well!


  1. Mischel W, et al. ‘Willpower’ over the life span: decomposing self-regulation. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci 2011; 6:252-6.
  2. Baumeister RF, et al. Self-regulation and personality: how interventions increase regulatory success, and how depletion moderates the effects of traits on behavior. J Pers 2006; 74:1773-801.
  3. Burke LE, Wang J, Sevick MA. Self-monitoring in weight loss: a systematic review of the literature. J Am Diet Assoc; 111:92-102.
  4. McKee H, Ntoumanis N, Smith B. Weight maintenance: Self-regulatory factors underpinning success and failure. Psychol Health 2013 [Epub ahead of print].
  5. Leahey TM, Xu X, Unick JL, Wing RR. A preliminary investigation of the role of self-control in behavioral weight loss treatment. Obesity Res Clin Pract 2013; [epub ahead of print].

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