Is This Phenomenon Ruining Your Healthy Diet?

This nutrition mistake may be sabotaging you.


Pizza photo via

Oatmeal for breakfast. Salad for lunch. Chicken and veggies for dinner—and a bag of chips, some ice cream, a glass of wine, and two cookies for a midnight snack.

If this sounds like a typical day, you’re not alone. It’s a classic example of depleting willpower.

Research suggests that willpower may actually be a finite resource, rather than something over which you always have complete control. Studies have shown that people who make one virtuous choice find it harder to choose right when faced with the next decision—as if willpower ran out.

“New research suggests that we can potentially strengthen our willpower over time, kind of like strengthening a muscle,” explains Boston-based registered dietitian Matt Priven. “But in practice, I find that willpower is a challenge, because people tend to use up their reserve. They avoid the pizza, but later in the day they don’t have the strength to avoid the bag of chips.”

If this sounds like you, check out Priven’s tips for circumventing your willpower.

1. Don’t rely on it.

Making smart choices is certainly part of any healthy eating plan, but Priven says making willpower your “first line of defense” can be a recipe for failure. Instead…

2. Change your environment.

“Engineer your environment to decrease the likelihood that you’re going to need to rely on your willpower,” Priven suggests. In other words, set yourself up to make as few choices as possible each day. Get rid of unhealthy snacks. Make smaller portions. Batch cook at the start of the week. Sign up for a CSA or meal delivery service that brings nutritious food to you. Decline unnecessary social invitations if they’ll threaten your goals. Do whatever it takes to make healthy living an easy choice.

3. Get rid of barriers to success.

“You wouldn’t start training for a marathon without running shoes,” Priven says. “Don’t start a healthy eating plan without the right tools.” That may mean stocking up on physical tools needed to make good meals; buying healthy kitchen staples, such as olive oil and herbs; or brushing up on your cooking techniques. Knock down as many obstacles as possible.

4. Consider what works for you.

Priven says some clients succeed when they follow a diet, such as paleo, that eliminates choice by establishing strict rules. (He does caution that “any diet is not going to be as sustainable when you have large food groups that you need to avoid.”) Other people, however, do better with a gradual lifestyle shift. It’s all about your preferences.

5. Pay attention to all aspects of well-being.

You may not realize it, but everything from stress to sleep affects how much willpower you have, Priven says. A 2015 Tufts study even demonstrated that sleep deprivation may lead to poor nutrition choices. If you’re trying to clean up your plate, look also to improve your fitness, sleep, and stress levels.

6. Be kind to yourself.

Acknowledge that willpower is a fickle thing, instead of punishing yourself for lapses in judgment. “It is hard to make a behavior change,” Priven says. “Not every decision you make is going to be exactly as you want it to be, and that’s okay.”