“If only I had a little more willpower.”
“She must have so much willpower to eat that way.”
“I can’t reach my goals because I just don’t have enough willpower.”
I’m here today to remind you that willpower is just one piece of the healthy living puzzle and there really is so much more to it. Reaching your goals- whether that is losing weight, choosing healthier foods, or getting to the gym require more than pure willpower. Let’s look at the other factors that come into play.
Why Willpower Just Doesn’t Work-
Willpower is simply delaying immediate and short-term wants in order to reach long-term goals. Think about it as passing up the office donuts because that short-term gratification won’t help you reach your long-term weight loss goal.
Have you noticed that it’s fairly easy to say no to the morning donuts, but by the end of the day, you can’t resist temptation and find yourself with a bowl of ice cream wondering where your willpower went? I know I have been there before! Think of willpower as your mental muscle, because it really is. Just like our muscles become fatigued with continued use, so does our willpower. We often don’t realize how many food decisions we make each and every day, but by the end of the day, our willpower reserves have been depleted and we find ourselves making choices that aren’t going to help us reach our goals.
Because willpower is like a muscle, it can also get stronger with time. We will talk about some ways to strengthen our willpower muscle next Monday, but I just want to reiterate that willpower is not the end of the healthy living story. Our culture also plays a role.
We live in a culture where the diet mentality runs rampant- especially for women. It is estimated that 91% of women have been or are currently on a diet(1). We are taught from a young age that we have to meet a specific body ideal or we are seen as inadequate. This is so saddening to me and it all comes back to this diet mentality culture we have created.
I’ll let you in on something though . . . the diet mentality does not work! Whether we are restricting calories, fat grams, or food groups, a “diet” will most likely not have lasting effects. 95% of dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years (1) and that isn’t even the worst of it.
When we lose weight, we lose a mix of fat and muscle. When we regain weight, we gain back mostly fat (2). Let me explain why this important. The amount of muscle we have helps to determine how many calories we burn at rest, or our resting metabolic rate. When we lose muscle, our resting metabolic rate goes down and we burn fewer calories throughout the day (3). After we have gone on the yo-yo and have lost and regained weight, we now need fewer calories to maintain that weight. Bummer, right?
It all has to do with our biology, which we will get to in a minute, but more on the diet mentality.
Going on a diet doesn’t just work against our biology, it also psychologically sets us up for failure. Have you heard of the Last Supper when dieting? It is pretty common and we might not even realize we are partaking. The Last Supper means gorging on all of the foods that will be off-limits on the diet. We do not like to feel deprived and diets are really great at making us feel deprived. This is why I suggest taking a balanced approach and creating lasting lifestyle changes that do not lead to these feelings of deprivation.
Our bodies have been programmed to fight against us when we try to lose weight. A long time ago (like 10,000 years), humans might go a long time with eating, so this was a survival mechanism. Food is readily available today, but we still have this survival mechanism in place. That is why it is fairly easy to gain weight and harder to lose it. When we are trying to lose weight, we sometimes make the mistake of restricting calories too much. Our body sees this as starvation and slows our resting metabolic rate while also sending signals to eat more food. Not fun!
There is also a lot of research looking at the effects that sugar, salt, and fat have on our brain and why it keeps us coming back for more. We don’t struggle with overeating broccoli, but we do struggle with overeating things like Oreos, pizza, and ice cream. Research has shown that foods rich in sugar and fat increase dopamine (the feel good hormone) in the pleasure center of the brain (4). This is the same effect of drugs on the brain and is part of the reason these foods can be “addicting”.
The Entire Puzzle-
I know that this was quite word-y, but I hope it shows that willpower is not the only factor at play when it comes to healthy living. Creating a healthy lifestyle takes strengthening willpower while also keeping in mind how our culture and biology influence what and how much we eat. I want you to soak this information up this week and then next Monday, I will write about some tools and strategies to help you live your healthiest life.
Have a great Monday!
Do you feel that your willpower is drained by the end of the day?
What is one habit that you are going to work on this week?
- Eating disorder statistics & research. Eating Disorder Hope. Website. http://www.eatingdisorderhope.com/information/statistics-studies#Dieting-Statistics-and-Prevalence. Accessed March 6, 2016.
- Pourhassan M, Bosy-Westphal A, Schautz B, et al. Impact of body composition during weight change on resting energy expenditure and homeostasis model assessment index in overweight nonsmoking adults. Am J Clin Nutr. April 2014; 99(4): 779-791. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.071829.
- Bosy-Westphal A, Schautz B, Müller M, et al. Effect of weight loss and regain on adipose tissue distribution, composition of lean mass and resting energy expenditure in young overweight and obese adults.International Journal Of Obesity [serial online]. October 2013;37(10):1371-1377. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 6, 2016.
- Volkow ND, Wang GJ, Tomasi D, Baler RD. Obesity and addiction: neurobiological overlaps. Obesity Reviews [serial online]. January 2013;14(1):2-18. Available from: Academic Search Premier, Ipswich, MA. Accessed March 6, 2016