It's around 6 weeks until the main ride of the cycling season, where I'll be riding around 100 miles through the Alpes before finishing at the top of les deux Alpes. So I'm trying to get as lean and mean as possible so I don't have to lug any excess weight up the climbs. As someone that is quite fond of a good cake or three it's a serious test of willpower.
The thing is, that's the typical line of thinking. We think that if we over-indulge it's down to nothing more than a lack of willpower. We're weak, plain and simple. Except new research suggests it might not be quite that simple.
It suggests that we don't pig out because we lack willpower but rather because we reason that it's ok to do so. For instance I could say that if I do an hour on the bike tonight then I deserve the big slab of cake. It's a process called self-licensing.
Previous studies have shown how self-licensing affects our choices. For example, after working harder, people are more likely to choose a cake over a fruit-salad. But before now, no-one's looked to see how self-licensing might affect actual indulgent consumption.
Of course research has linked low willpower with low energy, so the researchers had to ensure that was factored out of the equation. To do this they tricked people into thinking they'd worked hard and had thus earned their treat, but without actually tiring them out.
The results of the study suggests that if people felt they'd worked harder then they over-indulged more than those that were less deserving of a treat.
In the ten minutes available, they consumed an average of 26 grammes of more snack-food, which equated to 130 more calories. As well as feeling like they'd worked harder, they also said they felt more hungry, but this wasn't correlated with the amount they ate. The researchers speculated that the feelings of hunger could have been a further form of self-licensing – "I've worked hard and I'm hungry".
Reading through a few threads on cycling forums this sort of behaviour is far from unusual. So how do you combat it? For me it was simple. A regularly updated food diary took any guess work or intuition out of things. Your intake and outgoings are there in black and white, so you engage your system 2 thinking rather than system 1 and avoid self licensing.
As the researchers say "although many questions about self-licensing require further investigation, the current studies demonstrate that sometimes people strategically choose to indulge and that gratification of our desires is not inevitably governed by our impulses."