“The diet worked until I gave up. I just didn’t have enough self-control. If I just had a bit more willpower I would have already reached my goal weight by now. If only I had more self-control to stop eating all those damn cookies!”
How many times have you had these thoughts that left you blaming yourself for not succeeding in your latest diet attempt? How many times did they leave you feeling like a failure? Probably one too many times.
Here is the truth: eating those cookies has less to do with your willpower and more do with the fact that diets don’t work. In fact, the very idea of restriction and self-control results in just the opposite (you can read more about this here: Why dieting is the reason behind binge eating).
Here is why believing that all you need is willpower to succeed, is a myth: .
We Want What's Forbidden
When a person begins a diet it makes certain foods or food groups “forbidden”. This will make them suddenly want the very foods they can’t have, even it isn’t a food they particularly love. The very mindset of restriction will cause your brain to notice those off-limit foods even more. Calorie restriction will drive you to think about food all the time.
A well known study, called the Ancel Keys Study, demonstrated this. In this study men who were put on a calorie restricted diet started becoming obsessed with food. Prior to the study the men had many other interests. However, in the months of calorie restriction they thought and discussed food constantly and reported heightened cravings. They started to take particular interest in cookbooks and recipes and some even made decisions to pursue a career in the food industry! At meal times, all they cared about was eating their meals and many would gulp down food instead of savoring each bite. Their life and their thoughts became food-centered. The very thing they were required to have less of!
In addition, calorie and food restriction impairs the central executive function of the brain, which will impact ability to plan, problem solve, and make decisions. The very things you need to lead a healthy lifestyle. Talk about a disadvantage!
Our Body Will Fight Deprivation
We are creatures of survival and food is what provides the fuel needed, quite literally, to live. If the body feels it’s survival is threatened in any way it will do everything in it’s power to protect it. We have a biological drive to seek out food. If we deprive ourselves our brain chemistry and neural systems will alter themselves to fight back by driving us to eat!
For example, Neuropeptide Y (NPY), a neurotransmitter produced by the brain. When we restrict ourselves NPY activity increases and we will start craving carbohydrates, the body’s preferred fuel source. The longer you deprive yourself, the greater chance a binge will ensue the next time you are presented with pizza. It is not a lack of willpower but a result of your body’s response to deprivation and it’s need to survive.
In addition, as you lose weight you also lose fat. The amount of body fat you have influences hormone production. As you lose body fat your body produces less leptin (satiety hormone) and more ghrelin (hunger hormone). Thus causing you to get hungrier as you lose weight. So how can you possibly fight your body’s physical response to dieting with willpower?!
Distractions Are Everywhere
Social media, TV, parties, family gatherings – these are all situations that can distract you from what you are actually putting in your mouth, also known as mindless eating. Your mind is so busy with all that’s going on that willpower is a weakened force and you may end up eating more than you realize. Practicing mindfulness, working on being present, and tuning in to how your body feels while eating will serve you better than relying on willpower.
Stress & Emotional Eating
Let’s face it, stress is unavoidable in today’s fast paced society. Stress causes an increase in cortisol production, a hormone that can create sugar cravings and promote weight gain in your midsection. In addition, stressful events can put you in a bad mood. Actually, scratch that. They do put you in a bad mood! When we are not practicing self-care and are not in tune with what our needs are we often reach for food to alleviate bad feelings. Willpower is a weak tool to depend on in the face of emotional eating! The better solution to focus on would be to figure out what it is you really need to address your feelings, because food is not going to resolve them in the long run. Diets do not provide that solution, they only give you rules and restrictions.
Willpower Gets Drained
You may not realize it but you are making decisions about 1,000 times throughout the day. Do I wear a dress or a skirt today? Do I drive or take the subway to work? Should I do my assignment before or after dinner? All these jumbled thoughts are questions we ask ourselves and decisions we have to make, small as they may be. And it’s exhausting! So come evening time, if you are in a diet mindset where eating a cookie is “bad”, how much energy do you think you will have to resist all the mechanisms at play that are driving you to eat the cookies? Answer: not much!
If you’ve been blaming yourself for failing the diet – don’t! Diets are set up to make you fail. Willpower, in the long run, is not effective in helping you stick to the diet.
So let’s stop chalking it up to willpower! You are not weak, you have just been misled. You haven’t been given the right tools. It isn’t your fault you haven’t been able to stick to the plan laid out by the (60 billion dollar!) diet industry. One that has made it a social norm to follow meal plans that cut out perfectly wholesome food groups, put you in an excessive calorie deficit, require you to consume concoctions you don’t like, and deprive you of foods you love.
Stop the shame and self-hating. Be kind to yourself and stop the dieting! Instead, start getting to know your body! Learn to depend on your body’s hunger and satiety cues to make food decisions. Eat what makes your body feel good. You have the ability within you to figure it out, if you take the time to discover it. No willpower needed.
You can learn more about Intuitive Eating here: Intuitive Eating – What it is and isn’t.
Are you an Emotional Eater?
Learn why you overeat and what you can do about
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