Eating right isn’t a matter of will power. In an interesting exploration of willpower (and a fun read if you’re hungry for more details), authors Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney cite studies that show willpower is a function of the brain that depends on glucose. So when your glucose levels get low – as when you’re using all of your willpower to keep from eating that entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s in the fridge – your brain is burning through glucose and causing even greater cravings for glucose to maintain your willpower. This is a lose-lose situation: bad for your psychological wellbeing – “I’m weak… I can’t do this… I’ll never lose weight” – and bad for your physiological wellbeing – you’re cravings get the best of you and all those calories go straight to your waistline. A self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
Moreover, when we blame what is a natural tendency on our own lack of willpower we experience guilt and shame. Our animal instincts – those strong cravings for the calorie dense comfort of your choice – chips, ice creams, cheeses, sodas, fried foods – win out over our desires for a slim figure, a healthier heart, clearer skin, even properly functioning-crampless-bloat-free bowels. Immediate gratification trumps long term health.
The good news is that willpower is replenish-able and can be strengthened just like a muscle. You can learn to break your long-term goals into short-term actions, you can make every food fair game, you can recognize when you’ll need a little bit of extra glucose to get your mind through the day and provide that glucose from a more nutritious source.
Having long-term goals is a wonderful thing. I encourage ten year goals, five year goals, two year goals, etc. But just having goals isn’t enough. People who experience the greatest amount of prolonged success have the discipline to apply meaningful action to those goals. For example, in college most teachers give you a break down of how much every task you do in that class will count toward your final grade. If your goal is to get an A overall and participation is 20% of the grade, if you never come to class, then it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get an A. The same applies to other goals such as weight loss – if your goal is to lose 2 lbs in a week then you must create a calorie deficit of 7,000 calories in a week. That’s impossible to do in one day – it’s probably even impossible to do in two days without going into starvation mode, thereby, encouraging your body to store fat. You have to have a more reasonable weekly plan – AND you have to understand that everything you do during that week will add up (or not add up) to your success (or lack thereof) at the end of the week.
Fortunately, the mind can be tricked. For example, it takes less willpower to avoid a sweet candy if 1. You are not physically near the sweet or 2. Tell yourself that you can have it later. What’s the lesson in that? 1. Don’t put yourself in the way of temptation. Avoid buying highly processed foods full of white flours and sugars. 2. Delay gratification. The brain is actually tricked into using less glucose on willpower when you say to yourself that you can have something in the future. The same doesn’t go for those foods you tell yourself are completely of limits – banned foods you’ll actually end up craving more. So yes, you can have that piece of chocolate cake later if you still want it.
Lastly, glucose doesn’t have to come from those previously mentioned highly processed-white-sugar-white-flour foods. Any food will do – a twinkie will provide you with glucose and a carrot will provide you with glucose. Listen to your body and come to understand when you’ll have the most intense cravings – THEN make the most accessible food source to you a nutritious one. For example, if you get hungry in the early-afternoon after you’ve been focusing all day on a big project at work, make sure you have your carrot slices close at hand (or at least a great deal closer than your twinkies – which perhaps you should just avoid purchasing in the first place to get rid of the temptation all together).
Next time you’re wrestling with your inner animal over eating an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s step back for a moment and level the playing field. You are strong, you can do it, you can lose weight. Tell yourself that you can have some tomorrow or perhaps the next day (or at least after dinner). Then when you do have it – savor it, really enjoy it – bring an awareness to what you are eating (rather than scarfing the entire pint with the freezer door still open. You’ll feel more satisfaction and less guilt and shame. You will never succeed in killing your animal instincts, but you may very well domesticate them.