There’s a well-known quip that goes “It’s not my willpower that I have problems with, it’s my won’t power.” Whether it’s dieting, quitting smoking, or just getting out of bed in the morning, our willpower is put to the test nearly every day. Some people seem to have more of it than others. So are there things you can do to improve your self-control? Experts suggest that there are.

Self-control is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes. And the benefits to your life overall are considerable. Dr. Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University, says “Kids do better in school, people do better at work. Look at just about any major category of problem that people are suffering from and odds are pretty good that self-control is implicated in some way.”

In some ways, self-control is a finite resource. In a scientific study, subjects who were asked to exert self-control on a first task did worse on a second similar task. This was in contrast to their counterparts in the control group, who did not have to use self-control for the first task and performed just as well on the second task as the first.

Self-control has been shown to be associated with blood glucose levels. The lower your blood glucose, the less your self-control. This may be a large part of the reason why dieting is so difficult. Dieticians’ advice to dieters to eat several small meals a day is likely due to this phenomenon. “You need the energy from food to have the willpower to exert self-control in order to succeed on your diet,” Baumeister said.

Interestingly, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Georgia found that it was not necessary to ingest glucose in order for it to have an effect on willpower. In the study, published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers divided study subjects into one of two groups. They had the first group rinse their mouth with lemonade sweetened with sugar, and the second group rinsed their mouth with lemonade sweetened with Splenda, which does not raise blood glucose. The first group did far better on self-control tasks than the Splenda group. The lead author, Leonard Martin, wrote, “Researchers used to think you had to drink the glucose and get it into your body to give you the energy to (have) self-control. After this trial, it seems that glucose stimulates the simple carbohydrate sensors on the tongue. This, in turn, signals the motivational centers of the brain where our self-related goals are represented. These signals tell your body to pay attention.”

Both sleep and remembering powerful emotional experiences can have a positive effect on self-control. Laughing or watching a comedy film increased subjects’ self-control in scientific studies. Distraction is also useful. If you can distract yourself with something else (looking at cute cats on Facebook, for example), you are less likely to be tempted to give in to impulse.

Experts advise that like any exercise, you start small and work your way up. New Years’ resolutions are so often broken because people decide to change too many things at once. Pick one resolution, such as quitting smoking, and work on it until you have mastered it. Then you can move on to another. You are far more likely to be successful that way.

Do you know the difference between high glycemic foods and low glycemic foods? If you’ve ever felt light-headed or shaky (and very hungry) a few hours after eating certain foods, then you’ve experienced the “roller-coaster ride” of high glycemic foods. You’ve probably noticed that all foods don’t have this effect on you, and those that don’t are most likely low glycemic foods.

The Glycemic Index or GI is a scale that ranks high-carbohydrate foods according to how much they raise your blood glucose levels after eating. The GI ranges from 0 to 100. Foods with a high GI are digested quickly and cause a significant spike in our blood sugar levels. This increase in blood sugar causes a corresponding increase in insulin to bring those sugar levels back down. Low glycemic foods have less of an impact on your body because they are digested and absorbed more slowly, so you need less insulin to control your blood sugar levels. When sugar and insulin aren’t spiking, you won’t get that light-headed or weak feeling. You just feel normal.

There are many more advantages to choosing a low glycemic diet. Low glycemic foods are beneficial to our health because controlling blood sugar and insulin levels is one of the keys to reducing our risk of heart disease and diabetes. Low GI diets are also useful for controlling our appetite and aiding in weight loss.

When our blood sugar levels are maintained relatively stable, our bodies perform better. A study from the Harvard School of Public Health demonstrated that high GI diets are strongly linked to an increase in the risk of Type II diabetes and heart disease. The World Health Organization recommends that people in developed countries eat as many low-GI foods as possible, to prevent heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

A hundred years ago, our foods simply took longer to digest. They came straight from the farm to our table, in its natural state, containing the original fiber and other natural components they were grown with. Modern food processing practices have stripped our food of many of its natural properties, making it easy to package and store, and extremely quick to digest. And the faster we digest the food, the quicker we get hungry again.

This is the “roller coaster” that happens when we consume too many high GI foods. High glycemic index foods may give you a burst of energy, but this is followed by a “crash” as the insulin takes the blood sugar back down and you feel hungry again. To make things worse, these insulin spikes turn all that excess blood sugar into fat, which is usually stored right around the abdomen.
On the other hand, when we consume low glycemic foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, the rise in blood sugar is slower and more sustained over time. That means you feel fuller longer and are less tempted to eat again so soon. Our energy levels are maintained throughout the day, which not only provides health benefits but also makes us feel better, because we’re not on that up and down cycle from morning to night.

If you would like to increase your consumption of low glycemic foods, here are some suggestions.

Eat less of the following:

Eat more of the following:

Interestingly, the cooking method can affect the GI rating of a food. For example, boiled potatoes are rated an 81 on the glycemic index, while baked potatoes rate as 119 and mashed potatoes 104.

However, rather than obsess about individual GI food ratings, remember that the most important goal is to have a low glycemic diet overall. Eating the occasional high GI food is OK, especially if you also eat a low glycemic food along with it. Try to focus on eating a healthy, balanced diet including a wide variety of whole, natural, and fresh foods. By doing so, you won’t even have to consult the GI scale, because you’ll be eating a relatively low glycemic diet and gaining all the benefits described here.

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