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Is self control the key to health?

Published January 05. 2013 09:02AM

It's a rather small article, one I first read last September, and I know why I didn't I didn't write about it then. While it presents a provocative new idea, it lacks the typical slew of studies and statistics to support it.

But as Sir George Pickering once said, "Not everything that counts can be counted." And self-control, a quality that's so crucial to all sorts of success, definitely counts even though you may have a devil of a time counting it.

In fact, it's so crucial to success in life that I'd be remiss not to write about it.

The article found in Perspectives of Psychological Science questioned a long-standing belief in psychiatric circles: that self-control, the ability to work out when you'd rather take a nap or eat the carrot when you'd rather eat the cake, is finite, that if you deny ourselves for too long there has to be a backlash.

The long-standing belief that self-control is finite has the research to support it that the new theory lacks. First proposed by Roy Baumeister, the self-control-is-finite theory, has been supported by research cited in over 100 papers.

The new theory, that self-control is more a matter of attention and motivation, simply presents elements of other related research that seem to contradict the prevailing theory.

For instance, the results from studies on feedback during task performance seem to suggest that you do not necessarily run out of self-control. Because of this, Michael Inzlicht of the University of Toronto and Brandon Schmeichel of Texas A&M University propose that self-control may not be a limited resource after all, that self-control doesn't "run out" as much as you lose or change focus.

When you avoid eating the cake, they argue, you do so because you're attentive to the fact that it contains high amounts of sugar, white flour, and fat and that eating those elements does nothing good for your body.

But if you eat the cake, it's not because you can't control your impulses any longer, but that other signals receive more attention than the aforementioned ones. You now chose to focus on the pleasure that tasting that combination of sugar, white flour, and fat bring.

So why bring this information to your attention now? With the first "Fitness Master" column of the new year also comes the time when many readers make the customary New Year's resolutions.

The majority of these are short-lived. The theory proposed by Inzlicht and Schmeichel could very well provide the reason why.

More importantly, they may know a way to make a New Year's resolution a permanent outcome.

They write that "engaging in self-control . . . is hard work [because] it involves deliberation, attention and vigilance" and that what changes if you do choose to eventually eat that piece of cake is your focus and motivation.

Keep your focus, they feel, and your self-control should never wane. If you self-control doesn't wane, your behavior stays consistent.

For 20 years, I've eaten the same lunch during school days: an omelet made only of six egg whites and 100 to 110 calories of cruciferous vegetables (most recently Brussels sprouts). To some this suggests that, at the least, I'm not normal; at the worst, I have a mental affliction like obsessive compulsive disorder, orthorexia, or both.

Inzlicht and Schmeichel would argue that there's another possible reason for my behavior. I simply have a high level of motivation.

More than once during these 20 years a colleague has asked, "Don't you get sick of eating the same lunch all the time?"

The honest answer: sometimes.

But I don't deviate during those times. I don't bypass the faculty room refrigerator for the school cafeteria where I could purchase pizza, pasta, or a soft pretzel.

And I'd like to think that I do so not because I suffer from a disease but because I maintain my motivation.

Eating this lunch makes sense. I like the taste of both items, and I love the fact that when I eat this combination I don't get sleepy an hour or so afterwards.

On weekends, for instance, when I eat a high-carb meal after a long bicycle ride, I need to nap. If not, I nod off while reading, writing, and even driving.

In fact, if I carb up during a school lunch because I plan a long after-school ride, I stand at my podium to grade papers rather than sit at my desk. Sitting at a desk means I will certainly snooze.

I also know that the seemingly obsessive practice of eating the same very healthy things day after day helps me repair muscle mass and keep my body fat percentage low, two elements essential to getting the most enjoyment out of activities I love: racing the bike and working out.

So maybe Inzlicht and Schmeichel are right. Maybe those who insist on subsisting only on healthy food don't suffer from all sorts of mental diseases.

They just possess the focus and motivation to be proactive and deter the physical ones.

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