I have no willpower! (can't stop eating junk food)
August 10, 2017 2:38 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to eat more healthfully for all the reasons people often do (improved health and energy, weight loss, etc). Each day I start out eating well but by mid-afternoon my lack of willpower has reared its ugly head and the day is shot. Help!

Lately, I start each day with the best of intentions: I eat a healthy breakfast and lunch that I feel good about. But that mid-afternoon slump hits and suddenly I can't resist eating junky snacks. And it's all downhill from there - I'm disappointed in myself for "falling off the wagon", I'm tired and grouchy, and I eat something unhealthy for dinner, too (I'm not much of a cook and usually grab dinner on the way home from work - but there are healthy options like salads and sushi - the problem is that lately I'm not grabbing the healthy options!)

To be clear, my mid-afternoon "falling off the wagon" isn't due to hunger. I'm not starving myself. It's just due to boredom, unhappiness at work, and the appeal of a junk food pick-me-up.

And then I start the next day with renewed determination, but again, lack the willpower to actually follow through.

I imagine this must be a really common issue and wondered if anyone here had tips or tricks that had worked for them?
posted by whitelily to Health & Fitness (46 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give some examples of what you are classifying as "healthy" and "unhealthy"?
posted by Sublimity at 2:54 AM on August 10, 2017

I've started doing the keto diet to lose a bit of weight and it's working really well. Basically the idea is that you cut out sugar in most of its forms (pasta, bread, soda etc) and instead load up on fat, protein and mostly vegetables. The idea is that the fat fills you up without actually making you fat and your sugar cravings fade away. Starved of carbs, your body goes into ketosis and burns it's own fat supply to survive, hence the weight loss. You don't find yourself starving or desperate for a sugar fix and if you do there are enough sweet tooth subs (choc peanut butter protein balls etc) that take the edge off.

Anyway I've been doing it for a month and it actually works! I've lost some weight, I have more energy, pretty much everything you listed that you were after. For most people it's not a long term lifestyle change (as a world permanently without pasta is not a world I want to live in) but as a means to an end where I can be on a diet where bacon and eggs is practically mandatory...well there's worse things I've done!
posted by Jubey at 2:56 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

To clarify: my question is more about how I can improve willpower, rather than any specific diet or foods (but thank you for the responses so far!)
posted by whitelily at 3:05 AM on August 10, 2017

Jubey, you ended up where I was thinking the conversation might go. ;)

Whitelily, you might try a keto/very low carb diet to see how it suits you. Omitting starches and sugars, and using protein and especially fat as fuel, tends to change the experience of hunger and satiation, smooth out energy levels during the day, and make it pretty easy to lose fat.

This doesn't resolve the problem of wanting to eat out of boredom, but it does tend to limit how much you can "solve" that problem by eating when you have a bit of a snack and feel so stuffed that you literally can't eat another bite.

When I asked about what you were classifying as "healthy" or not--lots of people have difficulty moving to keto because of the deeply ingrained idea that grains and fruit are healthy and meat, oils and fats are not. I think this is very much a "your mileage may vary" situation and worth an experiment for a month or two to see if it suits you.
posted by Sublimity at 3:07 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ah, crossposted and missed your follow up. Understood that your question is about willpower. The suggestions about diet arise because the whole issue of willpower vs. the futility of bucking biology looks pretty different on the keto side of the aisle.
posted by Sublimity at 3:10 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I, too, would be interested in what you consider junk food. For me, it would center around sugar. The only thing that's worked for me is some variation of journaling my food and counting nutrients and calories for a while. I can give stuff up altogether, but that never lasts for long. But there are certain things that I know will screw up my whole day, like having a brownie for lunch.

OK, so with your update, I think there are certain things that make willpower go out the window and one of them is sugar, if it affects your body as badly as it affects mine. I have sugar early on, and my system craves more all day. So I think it's good, just for a while, to keep track of what you are eating and how it affects you. I hated Weight Watchers because it made me crazy all the time, but it did help me track how certain foods affect me. Funny that you mention sushi and salads-- after doing Weight Watchers for a while I realized how profoundly unsatisfying a lot of salads are for me (sugary dressing and not enough protein) and kind of ditto with supermarket sushi. I still eat sushi all the time but am aware that it has a lot of simple carbs, and sugar in the rice and god forbid that funky mayonnaise.
posted by BibiRose at 3:16 AM on August 10, 2017

I'm lacking a bit in the willpower department but I've managed to lose weight steadily over the last few months by following one simple rule. I'm only allowed to eat fruit between meals. It's amazing how filling 2 apples can be. Like you I eat a healthy breakfast and lunch but I eat whatever I feel like for dinner. I find it easy to sustain this diet without feeling miserable and deprived.
posted by night_train at 3:17 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think it's a lot easier when you're food for several days is purchased in advance. If you bring a specific, healthy afternoon snack each day, it may be less tempting to hit the coffee cart. Then you'd be actively ignoring your healthy plan.

Same goes for dinner. Have a healthy dinner that requires minimal prep waiting at home for you. I feel bad about waiting food, money, and my good intentions by getting a different unhealthy dinner. Plus then eating the healthy dinner becomes the easiest thing. You don't have to stop on the way home. This is often enough to push me into eating better.
posted by Kalmya at 3:28 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

One thing that works for me is to start small, and just resist one thing at a time.

I used to live alone and work someplace with no easy access to food, and it was pretty easy to just not buy junk food in that situation. Now I live with a guy who loves chips and work at a tech company with a kitchen fully stocked with healthy and unhealthy foods, so I have had to come up with different strategies.

So, a month or so ago I gave up sweets (except for in social situations). It was less hard than I expected. After a week of that I gave up chicken tenders (weirdly specific? Yes! But I had a chicken finger problem), and then bread (except for at meals). I was about to add chips to the list when I had a minor setback due to coworkers bringing sweets back from vacation, so I'm sticking with what I've got for another week or so.

I let myself substitute other junk foods for these foods, but I really feel like I have 1) built up some willpower and 2) sometimes I substituted healthy foods - nuts and fruit are also pretty delicious and easy to eat.

Basically, practice willpower. Think of it like a Couch to 5K for not eating junk food.
posted by mskyle at 3:44 AM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

Here's something I do occasionally when the slump hits and I'm not actually hungry: I drink a ton of water, and then get up from my desk and take a walk around the building or take a few flights of stairs, and think about how I'm being so healthy and aren't I proud of myself and hey, yeah, I can work on a lot of stuff still, but I'm pretty great, overall. Then when I get back to my desk, I drink more water and maybe chew a piece of gum. It's more about distraction than anything else, for me.
posted by umwhat at 3:46 AM on August 10, 2017 [25 favorites]

You deserve a pick-me-up, you just need to work on separating that from food. What else makes you feel like you're treating yourself? Maybe super soft comfy clothes to change into when you get home, or taking a longer route home for a pretty view of the sunset, or fancy smelling candles, or if you're working with a larger budget something like a cleaning service so you come home to a clean house. If you have an S.O. you can ask them to help you stick to your habit change by expressing to them when you need extra cuddling/a back rub/additional sexy times/whatever they do that makes you feel cared for.

I'd suggest also maybe cutting yourself some more slack during breakfast and lunch (and maybe add a snack in there) and seeing how your dinner choices change. Aim for health*ier* for dinner, not perfect, and try to find what makes you feel truly satiated for breakfast and lunch, even if it's maybe a bit less ideal than your goal. Then as you get used to that you can adjust all the meals incrementally somewhere a bit closer to what you envision.

And finally, if you usually buy dinner on the way home, I assume you have a regular route and know what all your options are. So why don't you plan your meal purchases out ahead of time? Decide like a week out what you're going to buy and where, and figure out a fallback meal if shenanigans occur. That way you can just look at your plan for that day and know what you had decided on and not have to make choices in the moment when you're hungry and tired.
posted by Mizu at 3:50 AM on August 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

This isn't exactly what you're asking for, but I started running in February using the Couch to 5k app, then graduated to 5k to 10k, which I'm doing currently, and over about the last month, there has been a switch flipped in my thinking, and I don't want to eat garbage food anymore because I recognize how it affects my runs. I understand yoga also can create more mindfulness regarding food choices, as well. Is that anything you'd consider?

Going along with that, too, is that if you are physically active, then eating junk every now and then shouldn't be a big deal.
posted by poppunkcat at 4:17 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I recommend some form of journaling or calorie-counting. Knowing you have to write down and see the caloric result of that bag of chips is sometimes all I need to make a better choice. Or knowing that a serving of my home made ice cream is 200 calories and if I use up all my calories now, I won't get to have that later.

I have similar impulses (the nighttime snack is my nemesis) and when I know I need to buckle down and break those habits, I get out the calorie counting app again.

Also something to keep in mind is that your prefrontal cortex is the most resource-intensive part of the brain and also is the part that helps you make good decisions. If you're tired or hungry, your will power is diminished. So maybe try to see if there's some way you can head off any fatigue or hunger that sneaks up on you before it gets to the point that your executive function powers are diminished. (For me and my nighttime snacking, the answer is just go the heck to bed.)
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:34 AM on August 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm more likely to do this when there's not enough fat and protein in my regular meals or if I've had too much sugar, so first of all make sure you're getting adequate calories and macronutrients.

You can get some interesting snack foods that you feel okay about eating and make sure they are handy. Maybe edamame, cherry tomatoes with salt, apple slices, yogurt, string cheese ..

You can also try to address your boredom in other ways. Schedule an interesting task for the part of the day when you tend to get bored, or take a walk and listen to a short podcast, get some coffee.

You could also try journaling for a few days to identify when the boredom hits and what you are doing when it does, and then plan to drink water/ climb the stairs *before* the boredom typically sets in.
posted by bunderful at 4:43 AM on August 10, 2017

If you give any stock to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (which a lot of people here on MeFi do), I'd recommend the Beck Diet Solution book. It's not actually a diet book, it's a book about cognitive techniques to help deal with the feelings that make someone want to eat junk (or too much) food in the first place. It even comes with a set of flashcards to with responses to dispute that "BUT I JUST WANNA!" feeling. It helped me get a better handle on food, and it's lasted for years. Good luck!
posted by kinsey at 4:44 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Address it from the supply side. Where are you getting this junk food? If you have a bag of chips at your desk, throw it away. Replace it with nuts, or dried fruit, or whatever feels healthy to you.

If you're going out and buying junk food, or, as you mentioned, picking up fast food on your way home, you can somewhat alter behavior by buying a bunch of gift cards to "healthy" restaurants. Places with salads, lean meat, etc. Then don't carry cash or cards, or at least carry them somewhere inaccessible (e.g., if you go through drive-thrus a lot, stash your wallet in your trunk). This removes the choice so that you have to eat healthy.
posted by kevinbelt at 4:53 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I found my afternoon cravings went away the second I switched my healthy breakfast (a smoothie) for a more traditional one - three boiled eggs, toast, butter and a little jam. For lunch I also loaded up on proteins and fats (chicken or fish, oil vinaigrettes, lots of veggies.) I now cut the 2pm craving with a little plain yogurt, banana, and berries and it's taken the willpower part totally out because I feel satisfied every day.

Diets are not about endless amounts of willpower - they're about finding the right mix and timing of your food to feel satisfied. Perhaps try moving some more fat and protein to breakfast and lunch and see if you feel more satisfied.
posted by notorious medium at 4:54 AM on August 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

This is me. Low carb does not work for me, so in case you do not want to jump on that bandwagon, here's what I do:

Thing one is having healthy options at work - I try to bring veggies + hummus or fruit or a string cheese or something to snack on. Trying to power through without snacking doesn't work, so I plan for it and make sure what I'm snacking on doesn't derail my plans. I try to have something salty and something sweet-ish available so I have my bases covered. Sometimes I'll even have a small piece of super dark chocolate!

Thing two is La Croix - no really! - the fizzy sparkling water feels like a treat and fills me up more than still water. In the winter, I might have a cup of tea.

Thing three is having a standing desk. I know not everyone can arrange this, but being able to not be sitting when that post-lunch lull hits helps me a lot. Another option here is to leave your desk and go for a walk outside. Just around the block or something can get the blood flowing and clear your mind so you're not trying to distract yourself with food.

Thing four is chewing gum. Sometimes that little burst of sweetness and giving my mouth something to do is all I really need, and it makes me not want to eat something else and ruin the gum flavor. By the time I'm ready to get rid of the gum, the craving or need to eat something is gone.
posted by misskaz at 4:55 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Interesting thing about "willpower": there's been a lot of research done on it, and on those who fall to temptation and the conclusions refute the moral framing you're beating yourself up with.

The secret to having strong willpower? Don't get tempted in the first place. It sounds facile but the science is quite sound; when faced with temptation, we are none of us very good at resisting. People with "strong" willpower are aren't tempted because they don't desire the thing, or they remove themselves from temptation.

What does this look like for you? Here's a great article by a professor of nutrition with some strategies for exactly your situations. The best part is, every recommendation is backed up by research!

For you this might mean putting healthy snacks on your desk, changing your route home, planning what you'll buy for dinner etc. You can do it!
posted by smoke at 4:56 AM on August 10, 2017 [20 favorites]

When I am bored in the afternoon and want to stress eat junk food*, I try to sub a "treat" with less negative health impact (often a coffee, tea, or sparkly water with some kind of cordial). Or a small thing of cheese. I don't try to convince myself to eat healthy at these moments, just marginally healthierrr.

*every day
posted by athirstforsalt at 4:57 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Diets are not about endless amounts of willpower - they're about finding the right mix and timing of your food to feel satisfied. Perhaps try moving some more fat and protein to breakfast and lunch and see if you feel more satisfied.

This is my suggestion, too- my evening willpower was stronger once I added more protein to my breakfast.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:13 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Interesting thing about "willpower": there's been a lot of research done on it, and on those who fall to temptation and the conclusions refute the moral framing you're beating yourself up with.

I totally agree with this. Do not beat yourself up for your choices. Do not call yourself weak. You are what you are and your body is what it is.

What you can do is eliminate the unhealthy choice altogether, so when you make your 'choice', it's by default, healthy. Agree with the above -- no junk food anywhere, make healthy meals in advance, do not let your tired, end of day brain take over. Make healthy easy.

One thing I also found that really helped is to eat MORE calories -- but only healthy ones. Salad and sushi?? That's only 200-300 calories each. Of course you're going to be hungry after! Of course you want to eat more! Your beautiful strong body needs some proper feeding. A good meal of 500-600 calories with a lot of meat and veggies is going to carry you a long, long way before you crave unhealthy snacks. (Note I did not say 500 - 600 calories of cake or sweetened ice tea).
posted by moiraine at 5:45 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Gretchen Rubin of the Happiness Project once wrote about the difference between "Abstainers" and "Moderators." There's even a handy quiz! And before I read past the question, I knew the answer: I am an abstainer.

Example: At work, we keep granola bars and snacks for the designers that come in, as they're always on the go, and they can have a little break while we write up their orders. Staff is welcome to them too, as we work in an industrial area with no food options nearby. Of course they're the delicious chocolate salty chewy candy bar type ones, and I found myself eating up to five a day (Costco-size boxes, y'know.) I tried to cut down to one a day, and it became all I could think about. When would I have it? Oh no! I had it too early! Oh no! A client walked in just as I was going to have it, and it was grounds for hatred. And then I decided: I can never have one again. And I was happier! I can walk by the bowl of them now and say "I am two years granola bar-free!" I get my joy from the heady rush of a (/s) feeling of superiority when I refuse them. They are dead to me.

It reminds me of how my grandfather quit smoking. He kept one cigarette in his pocket, and when he was tempted, would take it out and tell it he was stronger than it. He didn't quit all the cigarettes in the world, he quit the one in front of him every time.

So, my advice, beyond all the great advice about keeping full on things that you CAN eat and feel great about, is to not quit all the junk food in the world.

If you are an abstainer, you can just quit the one thing in front of you, every time. It makes it much easier to get back in gear the next time. Some days you get the bear, some days the bear gets you, as the saying goes. Hey - I love myself more than I love those granola bars, but pints of premium ice cream are not allowed in the house for REASONS.
posted by peagood at 6:04 AM on August 10, 2017 [10 favorites]

* Willpower is finite, so decrease your stress around work in other ways if possible. It might be something even as small as wearing comfier clothing.

* In Lynda Barry's cognition and comics classes, she provides candy but tells students that they have to draw it before eating it. This makes them conscious of each action they take, and it's a lot more fun than counting calories!

* We have a tea station at work. Making tea can be a mini-event, so it's a great afternoon activity when I'm bored and/or need soothing. It requires getting up, walking to the kitchen to fill the tea pot, choosing a tea, brewing it appropriately, and waiting. Drinking the tea triggers all of the taste and pleasure centers as well. Consider something like this. For other people, it might be coffee.

* Get rid of the junk food around you that you don't want to be tempted by. Seems straight forward, but I realize in certain cases it might not be. We have a candy bowl in my office, for instance, and I can't unilaterally decide to get rid of it.

* I recommend working your way through A Mindful Way through Depression, even if you are not depressed. It's a program in mindfulness that teaches you to recognize what emotions you are feeling in the moment and dealing with those specifically. It will help you isolate exactly what you mean by "low willpower" and deal with it.
posted by tofu_crouton at 6:16 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a very similar tendency to want to eat junk food when I'm bored or unhappy at work, and also to want to buy takeout instead of going home to eat a healthy dinner.

What works for me is substitution - having a lot of filling snacks that I can eat instead of junk. Strawberries are the best thing I've found. They average around 4 calories each, and they're filling. Frozen ones are fine

I also look at it from a harm reduction standpoint. If I'm really craving junk food, it's better to have some defrosted frozen strawberries with a spoonful of sugar on them, than it is to go to the store and buy chocolate chip cookies.

That also helps to keep me from going into the mindset where I have messed up and might as well get some fried chicken on the way home.

I try to keep things at home that are easy to assemble. For example, I like to eat spinach salad with steak, avocados, walnuts, onions and tomatoes. So I know I can come home and quickly eat that, rather than going to a takeout place and spending more money and feeling worse.
posted by Melsky at 6:38 AM on August 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

What stops me eating junk food is a really substantial, balanced meal at meal times. I am not good at doing this. I am always cutting corners and saving time by taking sandwiches to work or what have you, not particularly filling foods which don't have amazing nutritional value. I am much less likely to snack on days that I have a hot, substantial breakfast and/or lunch (e.g. dinner leftovers), simply because I am not hungry enough for junk so the cravings don't ping at my consciousness the way it would on days that I've tried to tide myself over with a medium-sized meal that hasn't really filled my stomach.

I feel like this is non-advice? Eat more to eat less? But it does work for me.
posted by Ziggy500 at 6:46 AM on August 10, 2017

Things that help me with this:

- a walk at lunch - resets my stress levels
- having a piece of cheese (cheese string/Babybel/etc.) and some fruit already cut up handy to have instead of the junk food - the mix with the protein is important for my body
- having a tea ritual where I make tea rather than eating junk
- having dinner food at home - I realize this might not be you and that's fine, but for me if I stop for food on the way home I *always* end up with some empty calories because by dinnertime, my will power is sputtering
- my "just got home, no meal ready" indulgences are cinnamon raisin toast with nut butter, and avocado toast. Those are luxurious enough treats to me to help me bypass other things.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:03 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I know exactly what you mean. When work is being frustrating and annoying, you want to take a break, and you want to be revitalized in 10 minutes or less. It's kind of programmed into us that when you take a break at work it's for coffee or snacks or to pee (because smoke breaks are a thing of the highly judgemental past). So think about what else can be a "break" for you. Is there a convenient thing to go do a lap around (outside around the block, indoors up and down the hallways and stairwells)? Is there a room that's usually empty that you could go do a short exercise in (for me, just a quick bounce to get out of "resting" mode, followed by as long as I can hold a plank for, a couple of squats, and a couple of wall pushups)?

Or maybe you just want to eat something and there's no escaping that. Bringing in healthy snacks is not great for me because I consider myself free to eat them (in quantity) as opposed to only having $1 for the vending machine; what's worked has been that because my craving and pitfall is sugar, I am allowed to get anything I want out of the vending machine so long as it's not sweet. Potato chips, popcorn, trail mix, anything - just not cookies or candy. Thus I satisfy my desire to eat a snack, I even tickle the unhealthy pleasure centers - but since it's the sugar that I really beat myself up over, I don't end up feeling like I failed, and I can keep going with my food intake "according to plan".
posted by aimedwander at 7:16 AM on August 10, 2017

Distraction can beat cravings for me. It's not really "willpower" so much as avoiding and resetting triggers.

Some non-food suggestions specific to afternoon workplace misery:
-Go for a walk, outside if you can. Even a short, 5-10 minute walk on another floor can reset you.
-Do you have a work bff? Regularly having (brief, closed-door) venting sessions got me through many a rough patch at work.
-Clean up your area every afternoon. Be that person always air-blasting their keyboard or wiping down their phone or whatever.
-Look for other jobs online; see what else is out there.
-This may not work for all workplaces, but if I'm chained to my desk, I love to take a brain-break and online shop, filling my cart with thousands of dollars of shoes I'll never buy. It's like indulging another kind of craving, without consequences.
-Can you use work as a solution? Like invent a project and do it for an hour every afternoon? Most bosses like this. Something kind of meditative, like digitizing old paper files, reorganizing a filing system, etc. It's better if this takes you away from your usual area where the cravings hit.

And one bonus food thing that has already been mentioned, but I mention it as it works for me:
Definitely have an afternoon snack, but make it something that doesn't trigger junk cravings. An afternoon snack is healthy for most people, even if you don't feel hungry, because if you go too long between meals it can affect your blood sugar, mood, concentration. I like to combine a veg or fruit, and something with fat and protein (so the classic apple or celery with PB, carrots with hummus, mini cheese and fruit, nuts, etc., are classics for a reason.)
posted by kapers at 7:17 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you can improve your willpower, I think you have to trick it by distracting it with other things. At least, that's how it is for me.

There are many excellent suggestions above. I definitely second making sure you are not hungry by eating satisfying meals. I find that fried eggs work well.

I have also found foods that feel exactly like junk food but actually contain less sugar and/or less calories. Non-dairy ice cream made with coconut milk tastes very sweet, but has as little as 8 grams of sugar per serving. Very dark chocolate is low in sugar as well.

There are many chips now that are made with bean flours or other ingredients that are much healthier and taste just as indulgent.
posted by Vispa Teresa at 7:19 AM on August 10, 2017

When I was stuck in this cycle I started drinking coffee instead; when I wanted the indulgent pick-me-up, an extremely good espresso or drip coffee (with a bit of cream) took care of that soothing need without sending me on a sugar spiral. It also addresses the boredom, because you have to fuss over brewing

YMMV, I know some people react very strongly to caffeine and it would cause more problems than it solves.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:27 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nthing the advice people have given about substitution, and about eating *more* food that's more filling and nutritionally dense.

For example, I run better on protein, but also crave something sweet at work as a pick-me-up, while also needing something portable b/c I'm on the go all the time, so I combine substitution + more nutritious by packing a bottle of Fairlife ultra-filtered, low sugar chocolate milk. It's like the Greek yogurt of milk. Lots of protein and calcium to keep you going but also satiate you, very pleasant, mild cocoa-chocolate taste to satisfy the craving for sweets. Low sugar, no lactose. Especially satisfying when consumed ice cold! I just buy a quart or two when I do my weekly grocery shopping, pour into reusable glass bottles, and pack one in my work lunch bag every day.

Of course this won't cure the root of your problem, which is unhappiness at work, but it may at least alleviate some of the self-destructive symptoms that are making you feel worse.
posted by the thought-fox at 7:33 AM on August 10, 2017

I've been fighting my fall off the wagon around 3 PM by making my own snacks like these oatmeal bars and these apricot chews and bringing them to work for my afternoon doldrums.

I know what's in them, I can control the portion size, and I feel good about eating them rather than chips or a candy bar from the vending machine. In the past, I've also brought in popcorn I popped up the night before.

To start the day off well, I've been making a big pot of overnight oats for the week, rather than eating a bowl of cereal, which always left me very hungry and snacky before lunch time.
posted by Squeak Attack at 7:35 AM on August 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've always had success by making my laziness work in my favour. The healthy food is always within easy reach, but but anything that could be considered junk food is buried at the back of a closet or at the bottom of the deep freeze or similar obscure place. Out of sight, out of mind doesn't just apply to people.
posted by peppermind at 7:40 AM on August 10, 2017

I also want to add that you might try re-categorizing foods. Find snacks that are less "junky" but that are also good, like jerky, fried plantains, peanut butter anything. You don't have to only eat salads to be healthy. I hate eating salads, so I don't. I do, however, eat a lot of meals that are just protein and veggie, like a piece of roasted chicken and grilled vegetables. Healthy can still mean delicious!
posted by monologish at 8:26 AM on August 10, 2017

Do you have any sort of alternative snack ready when the afternoon cravings hit? It's easier to avoid a craving if you have a healthier alternative there ready to go. Make sure it's something you like as well as healthy so it feels like a treat. There is nothing wrong with having a mid afternoon snack because you're bored so don't beat yourself up about that. Just change up your boredom breaking ritual, get up & go to the break room & make yourself a nice cup of tea, take a few deep breaths, get out your tasty healthy snack you've been looking forward to all day & really concentrate on enjoying what you're eating, instead of gorging on chips at your desk while still working or whatever. Change up the whole ritual, the best way to break a habit is to replace it with another one.
posted by wwax at 8:43 AM on August 10, 2017

I'm in the process of losing 85 pounds. I've lost 20 pounds so far. For me the turning point was reading Bright Line Eating (here's the website). As peagood mentioned, some folks can handle moderation. Some folks can only handle abstinence. I have to be an abstainer, although it's taken me 45 years to recognize that. The best part about abstinence is not the weight loss. It's the freedom from obsession.

It may not be the solution for you. It may be. It is for me.
posted by angiep at 8:53 AM on August 10, 2017

80% of "willpower" is setting yourself up for success.

From your description, it really sounds like a) you need to eat something in the afternoon, which is not unusual for the human body b) not eating or eating junk screws up your blood sugar so you cave at dinner because you're hangry.

If "willpower" is supposed to mean not eating anything and then making good choices at dinner, your success rate there is going to be low. If every day you're being surprised with the fact that you need to eat in the afternoon and don't have a good choice prepared, that's basically a decision you're making for yourself.

Alternately, if you prepared snacks that are within your acceptable food choices so that you have a portion-controlled satisfying snack closer to hand/easier to obtain and eat than emergency junk, you won't be falling-apart hungry and grumpy when you're buying dinner.

You can apply similar principles to dinner. Learn to at least assemble rather than buying flat-out prepackaged food. A bag of romaine hearts, a rotisserie chicken (depending on where you live you may also have access to cooked chicken strips in both the lunchmeat and freezer sections as well), boiled eggs, can of chickpeas, whatever. Just start becoming a person who has a few things on hand and can put them on a plate, rather than a person at the mercy of the shops every evening. Learn to cook one or two proteins - poach frozen or fresh fish, cook a chicken breast, scramble an egg. Find a couple of canned or deli soups that fit whatever macros you're trying to hit, maybe a frozen dinner or two, so that there is always some food at home you could eat instead of going into a store when you know it's not a good day for it.

Everyone you see who seems to have great willpower is either quietly setting things up to work out well for themselves, or they're masochists who may be using the discomfort as a form of self-harm, which is not a road you want to go down.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:57 AM on August 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

It's just due to boredom, unhappiness at work, and the appeal of a junk food pick-me-up.

I get this too, usually when I have some ill-defined task to complete and I'd rather do just about anything else, like nom on a giant cookie.

I have found coffee, tea, and carbonated water with a dash of citrus to be a useful substitute for junk food. In particular, licorice mint tea is a weird sort of sweet and I'm not sure if it's confusing my brain or what, but it usually cancels any sort of craving for sweets.

Working more fat into my lunch (olive oil salad dressing, nuts, avocado, hard-boiled egg) gives me more ammunition in my arguments with myself, and if I'm clever in the morning I also bring a small afternoon snack that I enjoy and can eat slowly (almonds, string cheese, dried cherries).

And as others have mentioned, taking a break with a work buddy is also a good distraction. Together you may be able to do something about your unhappy workplace, or at least know you aren't alone.
posted by esoterrica at 9:11 AM on August 10, 2017

You could create a willpower trap for yourself. For instance, you could force yourself to donate a dollar to an organization you don't support every time you eat junk food. But it has to be an organization you feel strongly about so that you train yourself to have a mental block towards the junk food.
posted by ball00000ns at 10:38 AM on August 10, 2017

Has there been a time in your life, or a specific situation, where you did have willpower? What was it, and why do you think you had willpower then? If you can identify what enables your willpower, or what situations create it within you, you might be able to transfer some of that to your current situation.

You might look into one of the apps in your area that allows you to pre-order food (earlier in the day when you're not craving unhealthy stuff) so it's delivered to your home when you arrive and you don't get tempted into junk food for dinner because dinner is already arranged and paid for.

If you're really feeling stuck, there is medication geared towards reducing anxiety / stress, or one that targets unhealthy eating patterns like Vyvance. Beating yourself up for not having willpower is a self-reinforcing cycle of failure, as you have noticed ("I'm disappointed in myself for "falling off the wagon", I'm tired and grouchy, and I eat something unhealthy for dinner, too")

Best of luck!
posted by ananci at 11:55 AM on August 10, 2017

Don't buy junk at the store, and don't carry cash or change that can be used in a snack machine. If you need to have cash, carry a $10 or $20 bill, and if you break it, put the change in a change jar that night. I have found that if I have 4 quarters or a dollar bill it goes in the snack machine, if I don't I can go months without junk food.
If you need something to snack on, get something that you can't physically eat a lot of, depending on your tolerance: vinegar chips, sunflower/pumpkin seeds in the shell, super spicy stuff (there are some Indian and Japanese snacks that fall in this category and are not that unhealthy).
posted by 445supermag at 1:19 PM on August 10, 2017

So what I am trying to say above, is that when you have willpower, do things to prevent yourself from straying when you know you won't have willpower.
posted by 445supermag at 1:26 PM on August 10, 2017

Thanks, everyone! I favorited a bunch of answers but all of the answers had helpful advice and interesting perspectives.

ananci: yes, I had much better willpower when I was younger (in my 20s). I've often wondered where that willpower went. I think it might simply be because I was a happier person then (sad but true). Who knows.

Many of you pointed out that I need to set myself up for success rather than trying to conjure up extra willpower. This is a great point.

I work at a place that has a lot of snacks. There are healthy options but of course I usually don't go for those. I nearly always want a salty snack in the afternoon, so I'm going to buy a less harmful salty snack (maybe individually-wrapped packs of salted almonds?) and bring those to work.

I also love night_train's suggestion about only eating fruit between meals. I'm not sure I can pull it off, but it could be worth a shot, particularly because I'm an abstainer (didn't even need to take the quiz to know the answer to that one! My "falling off the wagon" language is a dead giveaway.)

Giving up one specific snack at a time was another interesting idea, and one that seems well-suited to abstainers.

Taking a walk when I'm feeling really tempted to eat junk is another idea that I think will work well for me.

I'll also check out all the books and articles linked in people's answers.

Thanks again!
posted by whitelily at 2:34 AM on August 11, 2017

Buy only healthy foods and that's all you'll be able to eat :)
posted by infortunity at 1:05 AM on August 12, 2017

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