Why does the chocolate win after a hard day?


What’s your pleasurable vice for which you restrict your consumption?  Mine is chocolate, well it’s one of them anyway – it’s always handy to have multiple options.  But perhaps the question ‘why does the chocolate win after a hard day?’ is just too simple – we’re hungry, chocolate has lots of calories, it’s a fast way to refuel, our brain urges us to eat it (oh, and it tastes great)!

Hmm… except I don’t think that’s the only explanation.  Perhaps we’re normally really good at restraining ourselves, restricting our intake, a paragon of self-control.  But sometimes, that willpower just goes out of the window – as if during our hard day we’ve used it all up.

In fact, that’s quite likely.  Researchers in the lab of Dr. Roy Baumeister & Dr. Dianne Tice discovered a number of things about self-control, including that we have a finite amount and once we’ve used it up, we need a break in order to rebuild it.

So, consider that hard day – perhaps you’ve successfully driven yourself to complete a project, tying yourself to your desk, resisting that chat at the coffee machine, staying later than usual, and then gifted with busy traffic on the way home.  Or the children are at home and it’s just been one of those days when you’ve had to exert your saintly parenting powers just a little too often.  You get to the kitchen, take a deep breath, and having thoroughly spent your finite self-control reserves you open the cupboard, only to be faced with your nemesis from the land of sugary vice.  We can all see who’s favourite to win this showdown.

Of course, controlling our sugar intake is an obvious challenge.  Some are a little better disguised.  Perhaps you’ve just had enough and you say something in a meeting that you really wish you hadn’t.  Or both you and your partner have had a challenging day, and that evening becomes one on which you tackle your gripes of domestic bliss in the guise of dirty dishes not being put in the dishwasher, and it blows up into a domestic storm.

I think firstly knowing that self-control fatigues with use, like a muscle, is handy.  Put the sugary vice in a place that takes a lot of effort to retrieve it – use the fatigue to your advantage.  Use your last vestiges of control to suggest a break in the meeting when you feel yourself on the edge of exploding.  And, watch a movie together and tackle the domestic bliss issues in the morning.

Oh yes, one of the other things Baumeister discovered about self-control was that it needs energy – the same kind that we expend during exercise and refill when we eat and rest.  Darn, as if the ‘eat well and exercise’ mantra needs any more props.  But there it is – yes the chocolate will provide the energy boost that may raise your level of self-control, just before it plummets as your pancreas kick-in to deal with the overdose and strip it away again, leaving you open to another round of sugary vice.

So approach mid-day chocolate with caution – perhaps I’ll smother a carrot with it and see how that works.

Be remarkable,

P.S. I highly recommend the book by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, “Willpower: Why Self-Control is the Secret to Success”, my inspiration for this post.