Damn, I’m Out of Self-Control Again

Let me start off by explaining why I have come across this particular article and why you’ll see more like this. I am in the process of writing a research paper about the effect that diet has on prisoner cooperation. The paper is pretty lengthy, so I’ve had to read and decipher many studies, articles, and experiments that pertain to my topic. This particular one opened up my eyes to the concept of self-control.

Gailliot, M., & Baumeister, R. (January 01, 2007). The Physiology of Willpower: Linking Blood Glucose to Self-Control. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 11, 4, 303-327.

Here is the link. If you’re not into reading long articles, just read my synopsis of it and call it a day.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for making self-control decisions. Self-control is defined as the ability to refrain from habitual or automatic responses. The prefrontal cortex uses glucose to operate; the more glucose, the better the prefrontal cortex works. The article suggests that the amount of glucose in the blood is directly proportional to the efficiency of the prefrontal cortex. To make it simple, we can say 1 glucose = 1 self-control; imagine each unit as a marble.

Imagine a bowl full of marbles. These marbles represent both the amount of glucose your brain has at its disposal and the amount of self-control you have. Now imagine you went to the local convenience store and you really wanted to just take one candy bar without paying for it. You use self-control to prevent yourself from doing it; this action costs you 1 marble. You now have less marbles in your bowl. All day, you control yourself from doing little things like spitting your gum on the sidewalk, scratching a rash, and throwing your jacket on the floor instead of hanging it up. All of these acts of self-control cost you marbles, and by the time you start feeling hungry for dinner, you’re out of marbles. So because of all of the self-control that you exercised that day, you have no self-control left to make a healthy decision about dinner.

You order a double-cheese pizza. You eat 3 pieces. You decide “oh whatever” and finish the box off.

This is a very simplified metaphor, but I hope that it clarifies how glucose and self-control are related.

Self-control is limited. It depletes every time you use it. That’s one of the reasons why we feel almost helpless in making poor dietary decisions sometimes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought “ugh I don’t know if I should buy this bag of chips. Fine, I’ll buy it then eat a few. I’ve already eaten a few, I can handle a few more. Ugh I’m so disgusted with myself, how could I have eaten half of a whole bag of chips in one sitting? Whatever, it doesn’t even matter anymore, I’ll finish the bag.”

Another thing that sucks is that when you do make that poor dietary decision, you likely won’t eat foods high in glucose. That’s because foods with the highest glucose content are healthy fruits and vegetables. You’ll probably eat something fried, genetically modified, or made from powders and pastes in a lab. To provide your prefrontal cortex the glucose it needs, you need to eat high-glucose foods like oranges, raspberries, and celery throughout the day.

Glucose is a part of sugar, so fruits are the best source of it. BY NO MEANS is table sugar or sugar from candy the same thing. Processed sugar is very different from natural sugar found in fruit and is not metabolized the same way. This very interesting diabetes blog has multiple contributors that will sometimes give tips or advice about certain diabetes-related topics. From this particular post I learned that fruit (in healthy moderation) is ok to eat for diabetics while fruit juice might be dangerous;  this is because fruit juice has added sugar.

I kinda want to do an experiment where for one week, my only sugar intake is from fruits and vegetables and for another week, I only eat candy. You know, just to see if I notice any significant changes in my ability to exercise self-control. That’s a horrible idea for many reasons, so I’ll just keep it in the “curiosity would kill the cat” bin.


5 Comments on “Damn, I’m Out of Self-Control Again”

  1. brett rossi says:

    Have any arguments about me putting up this on my twitter?

  2. “New & Improved” blood test tells you if being out of self-control will kill you within 5 years: http://yle.fi/uutiset/research_blood_samples_could_show_risk_of_death/7108754

  3. mzelenski says:

    Brett: No problem!

  4. This is a very cool finding. I might borrow the link for a post about akrasia – will probably link back here too, because the explanation is great! It reminds me a lot of the spoon theory of dealing with chronic illness. Nice to know that the research supports one of my pet theories about motivation!


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