Willpower & the Power of Chocolate Chip Cookies


Willpower could be a wonderful thing.  If it really exists.  I’m not convinced it does, at least as an effective force for many of us when it comes to eating.

To me, willpower is about the strength to do what we want in the face of some weighty temptation (pun not intended).  Webster’s leaves out the temptation part and defines it just as energetic determination.  But do we ever hear the word used when there’s not some enticement to do the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do?

Seems to me the issue then is about what we really want.  Can it be what we really want if we’re so easily tempted to do the opposite?

I stumbled across an old article in Psychology Today that mentioned a study showing college students were able to work 11 minutes longer at a difficult task if they were allowed to sample from a nearby plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies rather than having to ignore them (or try to).  The researchers concluded that resisting the cookies left the students with little self-discipline to focus on the task at hand.  Their willpower to continue working waned quickly in the face of temptation.

The researchers also concluded we can build up our willpower “muscle” through frequent use.  But I don’t see any proof of that mentioned in the article. My work with women struggling to avoid foods they think they must, but really don’t want to, doesn’t give me any proof either.

Instead of relying on willpower to help us accomplish what we want, I vote for spending time exploring what we think we want.  In the case of eating well, at Green Mountain we find an approach that includes the cookies (or whatever food we think we can’t have) along with the basics of balanced eating makes willpower less of an issue.  Perhaps some willpower is involved but only a small amount because the seduction of the temptation is seriously robbed of its power.

Does willpower play a significant role in your efforts at eating well?

8 responses to “Willpower & the Power of Chocolate Chip Cookies”

  1. Rayna says:

    hmmm… for me, willpower has never been an issue when it comes to eating. I LOVE food, all kinds both healthy and unhealthy. However, that said, I really don’t have a problem avoiding the bad ones. I get cravings but I’ve some where a long the way learned to deal with them.

    I think it really depends on the person and there’s not one exact science about it. I can control what I eat very well but sometimes have a hard time convincing myself to exercise instead of sitting online blogging and the like. My bf on the other hand has the willpower to exercise all day, every day but if he finds out there’s any junk food in the house he immediately has to eat it.

    I think we both want the same thing, we just sometimes want the immediate gratifications more.

  2. Nancy says:

    I am so jealous of those who say they have no problem with willpower. I would gladly choose the fries over the salad, even though I love salad…and my perfect alternative would be to have both :).

    I also find that if I deprive myself completely, willpower weakens and I splurge in an even bigger way than if I just let myself have a little. I am probably like the folks that would work longer at the task if allowed to have the cookies, and would definitely be distracted by not allowing myself to have them.

    Willpower definitely plays a part of my eating habits… or perhaps I should say lack of it plays a bigger part sometimes :(.

  3. Interesting article! Willpower isn’t so much an issue for me. Since I’ve learned to view food as fuel, I can rely on rational thinking to CHOOSE which route to take. Given the choice of a side order of crispy french fries or fresh veggies, I can think about the options and go for the healthier choice OR realize I have some splurging “wiggle room” available and indulge. It took me a long, long time to get to this point, though. 🙂

    Cammy@TippyToeDiet’s last blog post..Cammy Has a Crush…or Two (a giveaway post)

  4. Sagan says:

    Knowing what we want, and why we think we want something, makes all the difference. Then we can have our smart indulgences and really enjoy everything we eat whilst staying healthy.

    Sagan’s last blog post..A New Addition to the Family

  5. Gina says:

    I think you make an excellent point. I do think willpower is important for me when it comes to stopping eating. Basically, when I am at a restaurant or party, or even at home, sometimes I “want” to keep eating, but I know that I shouldn’t because I’m really already full. I use my willpower to stop eating, take at least a ten minute break, then if I still want to eat more, I don’t let my will power get in the way 🙂 Make sense? I do, however, think if you have too much willpower it can be a bad thing. For example, I was anorexic in high school and my willpower was EXCELLENT. I didn’t eat much at all. My willpower not to eat took over my life, in a negative way.

  6. In 2004 I did Atkins. At the same time, I worked for a company that celebrated monthly birthdays with cake, ice cream and soda. I remember standing at one of those parties telling myself, “I don’t eat cake and ice cream anymore … I don’t eat it anymore.” I didn’t eat any that day, when I was in maintenance mode, I “made up” for my earlier sacrifices by eating 3 pieces of glorious cake (with lots of frosting).

    I think willpower, especially in dieting, causes us to cheat, because we are essentially beating the crap out of ourselves for wanting something we “shouldn’t” want.

    If I would have had a small piece of cake on those birthday celebrations, perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so compelled to make up for lost time.

    Lynn @ human, being’s last blog post..Days of Grace: 105/365

  7. Linda at PictureYourselfThinner says:

    I’m still working on that old willpower thing too, but I agree with Cammy that it can take a long, long time to find your stride in dealing with the splurging. I got a little help from a download I got from a hypnosis site. It was called, How to think like a thin person. It actually had good advice about how a fat person sees a plate of donuts and only thinks in the moment about how good they will taste. But, a thin person looks at the whole picture. They know the donuts will taste good, of course, but they look further ahead and ask themselves, “How am I going to feel 20 or 50 minutes from now, 2 hours from now if I overindulge on donuts?” “Am I willing to deal with the guilt, the upset stomach, the headache from a sugar rush.” Well, you get the picture. It actually works, I’ve been using this technique to look ahead past this moment of temptation to see the whole picture and well, its a great tool. Simple, but great. Linda

  8. Angie says:

    Great post, Marsha. Well said.

    I often see people attempt to rely on willpower to resist certain foods, when, in fact, it backfires and gives this certain ‘forbidden’ food an increased powerful pull.

    I rely on willpower to making eating choices rarely, if ever. Instead, I focus on- “will this food taste good?”, “will this food nourish me?”, “how do I feel when I eat a reasonable amount, compared to how I feel when I overeat?”….

    Such a great thought-provoking post….

    Angie’s last blog post..Saturday at home

About the Author

Marsha Hudnall, MS, RDN, CD

If you’re looking for an embodiment of dedication disguised as obsession, look no further. Marsha is a registered dietitian who has spent the last four decades working to help women give up dieting rules and understand how to truly take care of themselves. Her mission in life is to help women learn to enjoy eating and living well, without worries about their weight. She encourages women to embrace their love of food, which you might call being a foodie. If so, it’s appropriate because being a foodie means you pay attention when you eat. That’s a recipe made in heaven for eating well. Marsha is the President and Co-Owner of Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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