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Resist temptation with all your (muscle) might

Ellen Warren

Shopping Adviser

July 22, 2011

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You're at the takeout or Starbucks hankering for a tasty snack.

That double chocolate brownie sure looks good (410 calories; 24 grams of fat), but you know you should chose the apple (52 calories, 0.4 grams of fat).

Here's a suggestion: Make a fist before picking your dessert.

The simple act of tightening a muscle — in your hand, your calf, whatever — can help you make the healthier choice.

"Firm muscles can firm willpower and … increase self-control…. Put simply, steely muscles can lead to a steely resolve," says a study recently published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"It's actually quite easy," one of the study's authors told me. It works because "the mind/body association is so strong," said Aparna Labroo, associate professor of marketing at the University of Chicago. She said her study was the first to show that the body, not just the mind, can influence self-control.

Like all easy solutions to temptation, this one has a caveat: It only works for people "who are predisposed to following long-term goals" said Labroo, like "engaging in healthy behaviors."

For those people, tightening a muscle — even sucking in their stomach — "might actually help them hold on to self-control and chose the thing that is less highly indulgent," Labroo said.

For "indulgence-oriented people who presumably did not wish to summon willpower," the muscle clench won't work, the study said.

So when to make the fist? At the moment of choice, when you're deciding between the brownie and the apple.

And, sadly, it's not foolproof. "It's not a magic pill. It's not going to be 100 percent successful," Labroo said.

If you stock your kitchen with brownies, you're asking for trouble. "If the food is constantly in front of you, you will probably give in eventually," she said.

Got a bite-size tip on diet, exercise, well-being? I want to hear from you at ewarren@tribune.com.