Health Without Willpower

IMPORTANT NOTE: Some of the research used to write the books discussed in this post may have been retracted due to academic misconduct on the part of Dr. Brian Wansink. I made some edits but wanted to leave the post here because it does contain some tools many of my clients find useful.

Have you ever complained that you “just don’t have willpower?” If you can easily choose a healthy, balanced meal for lunch and dinner but later eat a half block of cheese  or way too many snacks on the couch watching TV at night- I’m writing for you.

Research suggests you don’t have a never-ending supply of willpower. Using your willpower in one area affects how much you have left for another area- there aren’t separate buckets of food willpower and work willpower and family willpower.

Why is this important for eating? If you work hard all day to "eat healthy" you may eat too much at night because you run out of willpower. Maybe you used it up choosing that salad at lunch when you wanted a sandwich, being nice to that jerk at work, talking kindly to your kids when you wanted to yell, and sitting calmly through traffic when you want to scream.

Changing your food environment and the way you put together your meals can help.  A lot of research has focused on the way our homes, work and schools are set up and how this impacts our eating. For tons of ideas and details check out these two books by Brian Wansink.

Slim by Design

Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think

If you want the quick version, I'm here for you. Below I listed out some tips and tricks for meals and snacks with both the environment and your fullness and satisfaction in mind. My goal is to help you save your willpower for the hard stuff, like making sure your toddler puts on clothes before heading out the door in the morning or turning off the TV at night so you can get a reasonable amount of sleep at night.

There are a lot of ideas here, because different things work for different people. Research suggests that people are more successful when they pick a couple of small changes and stick to them instead of trying a lot of different things.

I recommend you pick and write down 1-3 ideas from the list below that you think will work for you. Put them somewhere visible every day and focus on one per week.

Of course, there’s nothing like your own personal dietitian, so for individualized help, come see me in personIn our visit I help you think about your strengths, weaknesses and eating patterns. Together, we create a plan just for you. I also help you follow through, checking in regularly to troubleshoot what is and is not working. 


  • Use a reasonably sized bowl and small spoon- we eat less when we use smaller bowls and smaller utensils. No mixing bowls or soup spoons!

  • Take your time. Do the hard work of getting up early enough that you have at least 20 minutes to sit and eat breakfast. Any shorter and your stomach doesn’t have time to tell your brain you’re full so you don't know to stop eating.

  • Make changes slowly. If you’re trying to limit the sugar and cream in your coffee, start by using a little less sugar, then whole milk, then 2%, etc. Drastic changes are hard - be nice to your taste buds and give them time to adapt. You’re more likely to go right back to full cream and sugar if that black coffee tastes terrible.

If you eat hot or cold cereal

  • Add whole fruit (1/2-1 cup) and nuts (1/4 cup) first- these will give you the fiber, healthy fat and protein you need to stay satisfied until your next meal or snack.

  • Make it easy to stick to healthy portions by using extra measuring cups as scoops in nuts and granola. Did you know the nutrition facts on granola tell you what's in 1/4 cup- yikes that's a small amount!

  • Keep only a few healthy and tasty cereals in the house, so you can feel good about making any choice- even if it’s the kids' cereal.

Morning Snack

  • If you’re hungry 2-3 hours after breakfast, that means you didn’t eat enough breakfast, or didn’t eat the right stuff to keep you satisfied (protein, fiber, and healthy fats). A good breakfast should get you at least 3 hours of satisfaction, but for most people it’s 4-5 hours.

  • If you crave carbohydrates like sweets, pretzels, chips- see eating the right stuff above- carb cravings are your body’s way of telling you that your blood sugar is low. Don’t blame yourself- your body is giving you good information!

  • Be prepared. If you’re lucky enough to have space to store snacks at work, take advantage! If you have trouble managing your portions- try single serve packages. A couple of ideas are below- but there's lots of options that work!

  • If you have a fridge: foods like fruit with greek yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese or hard boiled eggs or sliced veggies with hummus or guacamole might be a good fit.

  • Without a fridge: foods like banana or apple with peanut butter, lara bar, a small pack of trail mix or nuts might work.

  • Make it a mini meal. A satisfying snack will have protein or healthy fat as well as a fruit, veggie or other carbohydrate.


  • Be prepared. Sounding familiar- this piece is key! If your lunch is packed and ready to go, you don’t have to put forth any effort figuring out what to eat!

  • Include fiber, protein and healthy fat to stay satisfied. Some crunchy veggies, a piece of fruit, whole grains and lean protein make for a balanced and tasty meal.

Office candy dishes

  • Keep that dish opaque (instead of clear) and away from your desk! Candy is a great play food, but you should choose it and enjoy it instead of eating it mindlessly as you work.

Afternoon Snack

  • Don’t be afraid to have one if you get hungry. Many people avoid snacking if they’re trying to manage their weight, but if you get home too hungry, you probably eat too much before dinner, or eat too much or too quickly at dinner. Save that willpower! Don’t head home hungry, tired and cranky (HANGRY!)

  • See Morning snack above for ideas.

While Cooking Dinner

  • Be prepared. To avoid overeating now, have a tupperware of pre-cut veggies you cut up over the weekend or bought at the store. If you need a dip, grab some hummus or light dressing (I like Bolthouse Farms Yogurt dressings).


  • Put less on your plate. You will eat ~90% of what you serve yourself, so start light. Make sure you give yourself permission to get seconds without guilt!

  • Eat ½ a plate of non-starchy vegetables. The fiber in these crunchy veggies helps keep you satisfied and adds color, vitamins and minerals to your meal. The starchy ones are peas, corn, potatoes, acorn squash- the less crunchy texture gives them away. They're healthy foods too- but better in smaller amounts.

  • Serve in the kitchen. People eat when they see food- so keep most of the food off the table and out of your immediate line of sight. You want to honor your hunger, not eat in autopilot. If you’re trying to eat more veggies, put these on the table, you’re likely to eat more. So eating right from the pot is out :).

Desserts and Snacks

  • Serve sweets in small bowls. Smaller amounts look sad and lonely in a bowl that would hold three. Get a small bowl to fill knowing you can always get more if you’re not satisfied when you finish.

  • Don’t eat from the bag or box. I know it means you have to do more dishes (sigh), but it’s worth it on this one. A bowl has a natural stopping point where you get a chance to check in with your stomach and see if you really want more. Especially when eating with screens it’s easy to lose track of what your body is telling you.


  1. Kirsikka Kaipanen, Collin R. Payne, and Brian Wansink, "The Midless Eating Challenge: Retention, Weight Outcomes and Barriers for Changes in a Public Web-based Eating and Weight Loss Program,"Journal of Medical Internet Research. 14, no. 6 (2012): e168.

  2. Brian Wansink and David R. Just (2014). "Trayless Cafeterias Lead Diners to Take Less Salad and Relatively More Dessert," Public Health Nutrition

  3. Wansink, B. (2014). Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. New York, NY: William Morrow

  4. Ellen Van Kleef, Mitsuru Shimizu, and Brian Wansink, "Serving Bowl Selection Biases the Amount of Food Served,"Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 44, no 1 (2012): 66-70.

  5. Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & Lee, Y. K. (2006). The office candy dish: proximity's influence on estimated and actual consumption. Int J Obes (Lond), 30(5), 871-875. doi: 10.1038/sj.ijo.0803217

  6. Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2005). Bottomless bowls: why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Obes Res, 13(1), 93-100. doi: 10.1038/oby.2005.12

  7. Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annu Rev Nutr, 24, 455-479. doi: 10.1146/annurev.nutr.24.012003.132140;

  8. Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J. E. (2006). Ice cream illusions bowls, spoons, and self-served portion sizes. Am J Prev Med, 31(3), 240-243. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2006.04.003

  9. Brian Wansink, “Can Package Size Accelerate Usage Volume?” Journal of Marketing 60, no. 3 (July 1996): 1-14.

  10. Brian Wansink and Katherine Abowd Johnson, “The Clean Plate Club: About 92% of Self-Served Food is Eaten,” International Journal of Obesity, forthcoming.

  11. Wansink, B. (2014). "Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life." New York, NY: William Morrow

  12. Collin, Payne, Laura E. Smith, and Brian Wansink, “Dish Here, Dine There: Serving Off the Stove Results in Less Food Intake than Serving Off the Table,” FASEB Journal (2010): 878.7.

Posted on June 9, 2016 .