Why You Can't Rely On Willpower To Eat Healthy

"Have you ever heard of "decision fatigue"? The more decisions we make, the less likely we are to make good decisions. So minimize your options and make decisions easier... Create a weekly meal plan to lighten your load of daily decisions. Have a list of go-to restaurants for business lunches in every neighborhood, so you don't have to stress over finding the best ones every time. The devil is in the details". 

~ Paula Rizzo, Mind Body Green


After recently watching a video series by Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. about her program, Bright Line Eating, I learned that willpower is limited. Research shows that anything we do that taps our self-control or requires a lot of thinking or effort depletes our willpower, leaves us in a state of vulnerability, and susceptible to making poor choices.

You see, sugar and flour (which include most refined foods) affect the brain the same as heroin and cocaine, and casomorphines in dairy products are similar to morphine. These along with alcohol and caffeine all fall into the category of "drugs of abuse" that have powerful "reward salience" - an intense type of wanting because the brain develops a strong association between them and reward, causing us to consume them addictively. When we plan ahead we do so with judgement and forethought, but when we decide in the moment, we are driven by addiction and reward. So if our willpower is low we will be much more likely to make unhealthy choices.

Some examples that deplete willpower are:

  • Regulating emotions

  • Making decisions

  • Trying to make a good impression

  • Coping with stress of career or family

  • Exercise


"So the first thing you are going to want to do if you're serious about resisting temptation, is make peace with the fact that your willpower is limited. If you've spent all your self-control handling stresses at work, you will not have much left at the end of the day for sticking to your resolutions. Think about when you are most likely to feel drained and vulnerable, and make a plan to keep yourself out of harm's way."

~ Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., Psychology Today


To be successful with eating a healthy diet you will need more than willpower. By its very nature, it comes and goes. And it can be gone when you need it most. So, while willpower matters, you’ll also need other strategies to keep you on track. One of the most effective things you can do is make a plan in advance. It takes willpower out of the equation so you don’t have to rely on it at all.  

Some examples are:

  • Scrub your environment of temptations you know are likely to test you – like getting rid of all of your junk food.

  • Stock your kitchen with foods you CAN eat.

  • Make sure you have the tools you’ll need to prepare your food.

  • Learn how to make at least 10 different diet friendly options you like that are fairly quick to make.

  • Write down the night before everything you plan to eat the next day.

  • Get up early and prepare food to take with you on the go.


Planning and preparation reduces the number of choices and decisions we have to make in the moment. In time we can turn those behaviors into healthy new automatic habits that don’t require any willpower at all. And these positive habits then allow urges and addictive behaviors to diminish and makes willpower more resistant to depletion in all areas of your life.

What to do when your willpower is depleted? The good news is that willpower can be replenished by taking time out for yourself.

Some examples are:

  • Human connection – reach out for support from like-minded friends.

  • Meditation and prayer – connection with a higher power

  • Gratitude

  • Service – find a way to be helpful

  • Do something that you enjoy – bath, walk, hobbies, massage, etc.



Happy, Healthy Living! 

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 JoAnn Newton is a Holistic Nutrition Educator and Master Massage Therapist with a private practice in Graton, CA.

Passionate about helping people transform their health through holistic nutrition, she facilitates the 23 day online Nutritional E-Cleanse Program with coaching, compassion, and humor.