What to Do When Willpower Fails

11/30/2011 09:23 am ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012

I have said for years that willpower doesn't work, and that people who rely on it to manage their nutrition will end up actually overeating when their will collapses. Nothing demonstrates this more than the holidays, with all that food, expectation and anxiety packed into a few days. But the reality is, willpower isn't working for the rest of the year, either. When it comes to managing your nutrition -- whether at the holidays or any other time -- it's not a matter of being strong, it's about being strategic. Here are five smart strategies to help you consistently stay on the healthy eating track, from now to New Year's, and beyond.

1) Let me say it again: Willpower. Will. Not. Work. We need to start by just facing reality. There is a lot of tempting but unhealthy food in the world, and in our culture it's made very freely available. If your plan is to simply hang around in the midst of all that food but resist it through willpower -- or maybe superpowers -- you are going to crack. If you crack, and then try to make up for it by more willpower -- i.e., starving yourself -- you are going to overeat even more. Deciding to eat like a bird for the entire holiday season -- or in general -- is going to lead to overeating, or even binges.

2) Don't depend on the gym. So often people think that if willpower fails (and it always does), they will just make it up at the gym the next day. But unfortunately it doesn't always work that way. The one hour you spend at the gym killing yourself on some machine can amount to a drop in the bucket if you're overeating. Of course, it's good to exercise. But I believe that relying on sweating to make up for overeating both doesn't work and perpetuates the willpower myth. Better, again, to look forward to the next day's nutrition, and be honest with yourself about the fact that healthy eating will require more than willpower. In fact, it will involve a good housecleaning...

3) Clean house. Whether at the holidays or any other time of year, if there is temptation in your environment you are sooner or later going to give in to it. There is a lot of unhealthy food out there in the world -- so why have it in your house? Avoid bringing home leftovers from dinners and parties, but also eliminate sweets, treats, processed foods and packaged foods -- none of these belong in your home, even if you believe you can resist them. It only takes a moment of temptation to find yourself nosing through a box of treats, half-unaware of what you're doing. Put up some barriers between you and unplanned calories. For example -- make a rule that if you want to eat it, you have to cook it first. And "cooking" doesn't mean microwaving a frozen pizza. Throw out all of the processed snacks and quick calories and instead go shopping for real food. And that brings us to...

4) Go shopping. Once you've cleaned up your environment and tossed out the temptations, you do not just hunker down to starve. Instead, you go shopping. Again, you should not be trying to live in a world of willpower where you struggle to avoid ever eating anything, and only take on calories when your willpower collapses (so many people eat this way). Rather, you want to be thinking about what would be foods you would want to eat through the week, and that ideally can be easily cooked up in batches, so that you can do a lot of cooking at once. If you have not already, go shopping and lay down provisions of lean meats, legumes, vegetables, rice: staples you can use through the week to keep yourself fueled.

5) See the silver lining. Not relying on willpower means that you can forget about your low-carb, low-fat, no-whatever diet -- which is what most of us do over the holidays anyway. But that's a good thing, and not just at this time of year, but in general. Food-group denial diets are a bad idea to begin with. Like willpower, the magical metabolism diet is a myth. What you need is just food -- real, healthy food. If you don't rely on willpower, you are less likely to binge -- and thus won't need the kind of restrictive diets that you may have been using.

It's the holiday season, but remember -- the eating strategies that apply to this time of year are the same ones you need for January and beyond. And I believe those strategies shouldn't involve willpower.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice in San Francisco, Calif. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the founder of Eating Free.