The subject of willpower and nutrition has come up often lately - with clients, in professional circles and even at home. These past two weeks, I have heard "I don't have any willpower," "I don't think I can do this," and "How can I go without?"
I covered this topic in a video with my 3-week-weight-loss group and I think it's worth sharing here because reframing how we think of willpower is helpful for anyone who wants to make dietary changes.
I'll start by letting you in on a secret.
I don't have willpower. My most successful clients don't have willpower either. That's right - NO willpower, yet still successful. How is that even possible?
You see, "willpower" (as the mythical entity we imagine it to be) doesn't exist. There is no magical force, pill, phrase or situation that will guide you down the yellow brick road towards the Emerald City where your ultimate goal awaits. Remember how that ended for Dorothy? Smoke, mirrors and disappointment. She had the "magic" all along. She simply chose to go home.
You hold the same magic. You have a series of small everyday choices. Each choice provides the opportunity to learn and to build on the energy of the previous choice.
You are in control.
What is willpower?
The American Psychological Association defines willpower as "the ability to delay gratification and resist short-term temptations to achieve long-term goals." It includes the ability to over-ride self-sabbatoging thoughts, and the ability to employ cool-headed behaviours vs. hot-headed, emotional behaviours.
There is documented proof that there is a benefit to using willpower. One study of 1,000 school-age children in New Zealand demonstrated those who displayed "better self-control" in childhood (as noted by family and teachers) had greater mental and physical health as young adults (up until the age of 32).
Great. So "good" children grow up to be healthy adults? And really, what is "cool headed behaviour?" What is self-control? These things are not magic. They boil down to environment and choices.
That's not always easy.
Chemical dependencies will scream and try to overrun your thought patterns. Unbalanced blood sugar (hypoglycemia), hormonal disruptions and bacterial overgrowth in the intestines (dysbiosis) can all influence your decision making process and tempt you to grab an unhealthy, sugary treat. Harvard Health cites that many studies show a correlation between processed foods, brain health and mood. Lack of sleep and high stress also inhibit the ability to make rational decisions.
The good news? These can be overcome.
When my clients balance their diet with the correct ratio of protein:fat:carbs AND focus on a series of small everyday choices that lead to short-term goals, suddenly the long-term finish line seems less overwhelming. It becomes attainable. One step at a time.
Why do you make poor choices?
First, take a look at the structure of life that surrounds you. What is your routine? Is there a routine?
Establishing routine is a must for making good choices. If you follow a set schedule and eat a balanced diet (low on sugar and processed foods while higher in lean protein and healthy fats), you will find it easier to make good nutritional choices on a regular basis. You become calm, cool and balanced.
If you do have routine, but are still making poor choices on a regular basis, you need to explore what's hijacking your efforts. Journalling is a great way to do so.
Keep a daily journal of what you eat, how you sleep, bowel movements, exercise and even mood. This will help you identify triggers and opportunities so you can create a structure that is supportive of your goals. The American Journal of Preventative Medicine reports those who keep a daily food journal lose twice as much weight as those who don’t (based on 6 month study of 1,685 overweight or obese people).
Watch for trends on a weekly basis. You may find that your weekly tennis match or card game with friends are triggers for poor decisions. Or exercising too late in the evening leaves you feeling wiped the next day. These insights provide opportunities to improve the week ahead. You learn from triggers and build on your success.
In my experience, lack of sleep and skipping meals are two of the most common triggers for setbacks.
If applying some structure and journalling aren't moving you in the right direction, I recommend you get very quiet and ask yourself, WHY?
WHY do you have this goal? What is your motivation? If weight loss is your goal, maybe the desire to put on an old pair of jeans or bikini isn't really motivating you in this age or stage. Perhaps your goal is influenced by EXTERNAL expectations of family, friends or the media vs INTERNAL self appreciation and self love.
WHY are you doing this for YOU?
Those motivators are different for each of us. Seeing your kids get married. Grandchildren. Disease-prevention. Overcoming a health issue. Travelling the world. You define what motivates you.
At this point, I have to underline that there can be very real emotional and biological influences that can also negatively impact a person's decision making process.
Please don't ignore addiction and mental health issues.
Depression, purging (bulimia or laxatives), alcoholism, prescription or recreational drug addiction, and other mental health realities require additional support beyond this article. Nutrition alone is not the answer. If you are experiencing these types of challenges, please seek the advice of your medical doctor. He or she is there to help you reclaim control and so you can make better decisions.
Tips to improve "willpower"
Get clear on your goal.
As above, set a goal that resonates with the core of who YOU are and where YOU want to go. Everything else is just noise. Post that goal somewhere where you will see it daily - your computer, your mirror, the fridge, the pantry. This will help you stay true to who you are and where you want to go. It can be as simple as a word - freedom, strength, energy, love.
If you become easily overwhelmed or frustrated, don't change too much all at once. Would you try to run a marathon without training? Heck no! You start off running a certain distance, and then add an extra block, lap or kilometre each week to reach your goal.
The same goes for nutrition. Small, bite-sized goals will get you to the finish line. Cut back to 1 cup of coffee a day, and then switch to decaf. Add protein to each meal. Aim for 5 pounds, 10 pounds, 20 pounds, then 40 or 50. Each small goal creates a river of success.
Learn from yourself. Identify triggers and successes. And move forward.
When it comes to making good nutritional choices, you need to do some legwork. Remember, there is no magical force. Prepare your snacks and a couple of easy lunches/dinners in advance so you can grab when routine fails you. Life happens. If you're prepared, you will always have healthy choices available.
Out of sight, out of mind.
The more you can remove triggers and temptations, the easier it is to make good choices. Empty out the pantry. If that's not possible, claim a shelf for yourself. That becomes your go-to. But don't beat yourself up when you make a slip. Learn from it. And move forward.
This is interesting. Did you know raised cortisol levels (your stress hormone) increase your craving for refined carbohydrates? Yup. You eat refined carbs (sugar, flours, crackers, etc.) and your cortisol levels decline. You feel physically better - and less stressed. But THEN you feel worse as you've taken your diet efforts off track. And that raises stress. You see the connection?
Rather than reaching for food, try deep breathing, listening to music, go for a short walk, get up and stretch, visualize yourself on a beach. All of these techniques are proven to reduce stress. They will also help reduce carbohydrates cravings, which can undermine your blood sugar, hormones and good gut bacteria.
Use the "if/then technique" before social engagements.
If you know you are heading to a social engagement and there will be lots of temptations, you can practice the if/then technique in advance so you know exactly what you will do and say to help you make the best decisions possible. "If someone offers me a dessert, then I will ask for fruit."
If you're invited to a social engagement, then you offer to bring food you know is supportive of your goals. You have options.
Reframe what "willpower" means for you.
When you feel exhausted and feel like you have "no willpower," review your list of successes. Remind yourself how far you have come and what you have learned. And remind yourself of who you are trying to please - you. No one else should matter.
If you have taken antibiotics in the past two years and/or experience bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, eczema and fatigue, you will benefit from supplements to address bacterial imbalances in the gut.
Science is identifying how the microbiome can influence our decision making capabilities. It's truly amazing. Every person or situation is different, but most people benefit from a prebiotic and a probiotic to help return balance to the body. Some will also benefit from some parasitic or yeast support, but that is very individualized and a subject for another day. If you have questions around this, please contact me.
Seek professional help.
If you experience or are prone to depression, an eating disorder, purging, addiction or other mental health issues, speak to your medical doctor. Seeking support for mental health is a sign of strength and self love. It's a good choice.
Remember, no one is perfect.
Don't compare your efforts to anyone else's. Your best is your best at this stage and time. And from each choice (good or bad), you learn.