Every now and then the things we believe intuitively are confirmed by new research and things become a little easier to understand and handle.
Take self-control for example: resisting the many food and drink temptations that assail us BigD club members is a day-to-day struggle:
We must avoid foods with lots of phosphate, like pastries, whole grain bread, cola drinks, coffee, chocolate, dairy products, mayonnaise, margarine, egg yolks, peas, lentils, nuts, puddings and gravies, processed meats and too many more.
(Too much phosphate results in weak and brittle bones, and calcium deposits throughout the body. These usually lead to skin itching [been there, done that], joint pain and eye irritation and sometimes it can lead to unstable heart rhythms and even heart failure.)
- It’s the same with potassium. We shouldn’t eat too much meat, poultry or fish, apricots, avocado, bananas, melons, kiwi fruit, lima beans, milk and cheese, oranges and orange juice, potatoes, prunes, spinach, tomatoes, even vegetable juice.
(Potassium controls nerve and muscle function. In particular, it keeps our heart in rhythm. High levels can cause nausea, weakness, numbness or tingling, slow pulse, irregular heartbeat and heart failure.)
However, the operative word with these foods is moderation. Almost everything has both phosphate and or potassium, and we need both, but in the right quantities.
It’s the same with fluids. On average we need about a litre a day because we tend to sweat and aspirate (breathe) about that much during the course of our day. But the temptation is often to gulp down an extra glassful each time we’re thirsty.
As I said at the start, it’s all about self-control; and science has come to the rescue.
One of my favourite blogs is The Frontal Cortex by Jonah Lehrer. It’s basically about how our brain works, and he has written a lot on self-control both in his blog and for the Wall Street Journal.
Most of us assume that self-control is largely a character issue and that we can better manage what we eat if only we had a bit more discipline. Not so.
In a nutshell: research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited and that our best intentions often fail because of the way our brains are built. The area largely responsible for self-control is the prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. It is also in charge of keeping us focused, handling short-term memory and solving abstract problems.
It has been found that a brain preoccupied with its problems or just tired, struggles to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need. This helps explain why, after a long day, we’re more likely to indulge in a tub of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza.
Some simple tricks can help. The first step to regaining control is self-awareness: the only way to fix willpower flaws is to know about them. Only then can the right mental muscles get strengthened, making it easier to succeed.
- So think of your prefrontal cortex as a muscle: don’t overload it. If you are tired or over stimulated, and find you are tempted by some delicious and forbidden fruit, stop thinking of everything else that is going on and focus on the big NO. Pushing it aside becomes a little easier.
- Distraction is a powerful mental technique. Find ways of bumping tempting thoughts of deliciousness out of your mind: Think of something else, desirable or silly. Replay a movie or a good time in your head, think of coffee as a cloud or a muddy pond. Your brain can only handle so many thoughts, so introduce some that clear the temptation out of your consciousness.
- Again, thinking of the prefrontal cortex as a muscle, exercise it to make it stronger. One researcher studying self-control asked a group of students to improve their posture for two weeks. Interestingly, these students showed a marked improvement on subsequent measures of self-control in other areas.
- Self-control takes real energy. Reduced glucose levels reduce brain performance. Keep your sugar at the right level.
- And the oldest technique of all: remove the temptation. Just don’t buy food you shouldn’t eat, so it won’t be lying around when your resistance is low. This is the burqa technique. If you can’t see it, you can’t want it. Many civilisations have used it for centuries. Give it a try.
- A final word: don’t forget to reward your amazing self-control. A once-a-week treat not only gives you a reason to be strong each day, it is doubly delicious because you’ve earned it!