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  • Writer's pictureDoug Joachim

Diet Is More Than Willpower

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

Very few of us want to overeat. Gorging oneself until the point of feeling uncomfortable or sick is quite unpleasant. Yet, most of us have done it at one time or another. Why do we overindulge? Why can't we stick to a diet? What happened to our willpower? Our decision-making processes are far less conscious than we'd like to admit. Many of our decisions are made in the background or are impulsive. It is a myth that all one needs is a strong constitution to stay on a diet. For years we've been told that willpower is the key to breaking bad habits, however, science says otherwise.

Has there really been an epidemic global loss of willpower over the course of the past sixty years? We as a society haven't changed, the world around us has. In this day and age, and this toxic food environment, weight struggles aren't a willpower issue. We all have willpower until the moment we don't. There are multifactorial effects that undermine our decision-making processes and resolve. Why can't we have just one bite of chocolate? Conversely, why is it effortless to put down a stick of celery after one bite? While on a diet, many of us can easily steer clear of chocolate (and celery). Yet why can't we keep it going for months or years? Our brains have developed over five hundred million years to support our survival. The central processors within our brains govern all of our conscious and nonconscious choices. Our decision-making processes are far more impulsive and less deliberate than we would like to believe. The brain drives us to survive above all else. We cannot override nature and biology for too long.

Our brains are hardwired to drive us to crave sugar, fat, and salt. Foods rich in these compounds have more significant dopamine stimulating effects. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is an integral part of the brain's reward system. It is implicated in the homeostatic regulation of food intake. Evolutionarily, highly palatable foods used to be advantageous because they ensured that food was eaten when available, enabling energy to be stored in the body (as fat) for future need in environments where food sources were scarce and unreliable. However, in modern societies, where food is widely available, this adaptation has become a liability. The bulk of our modern processed foods stimulate dopamine production while simultaneously dampening satiety circuits and hormones like leptin. Thus we eat more than we need and feel less full. Have you ever been stuffed after the Thanksgiving feast but somehow still had 'room for desert'? Satiety signals are overridden because our brain wants to store as much readily available energy (glucose) to prepare for a potential famine situation.

If you played Lebron James in a game of one-on-one basketball and lost, would it be your fault because your jump shot was not good enough? Or is it because you are ridiculously overmatched and have no business being on the court with him? Humans are no match for the modern food environment. The vast majority of us are ineffectual competition for the teams of neuroscientists, chemical engineers, marketers and chefs that make, advertise and package our food. Much of it is designed to overcome our biology and get us to eat more. It is no surprise that almost seventy-five percent of Americans are overweight, and forty-two percent have obesity.

Exerting willpower throughout the day is taxing. Studies show that any task that you do that requires discipline and self-control makes it harder for you to resist urges later. Over the course of a day, the decisions we make may take a toll on our ability to modulate our willpower. We make thousands of small nonconscious and conscious choices all the time. Should I press the snooze button? Do I get up now or wait two more minutes? Shall I make the bed or do it later? What shirt shall I wear? Black or Red? Long sleeve or short? Should I drink a glass of water or have coffee? Or maybe tea? Milk and sugar or nothing? What cup shall I use? etc. These decisions are usually made quickly but make no mistake, they take a toll. By the end of the day, we've made thousands of mundane decisions and maybe even a few critical ones. On a granular level, it may seem endless. Research suggests willpower tends to fade by the end of the day, especially on decision-heavy days. It is at this point that we may give in to our temptations and cravings. Here are five things you can do to fortify oneself against decision fatigue:

  1. Plan daily decisions the night before.

  2. Do the most important thing first.

  3. Stop making decisions. Start making commitments.

  4. If you have to make good decisions later in the day, then eat something first.

  5. Find ways to simplify your life.

The brain does not have one specific area that controls willpower. There are a suite of complex brain chemicals, behavioral conditioning, hormones, heredity, and the powerful influence of habits that underpin willpower. Telling an overweight person to use willpower is, in many ways, like telling a clinically depressed person to ''snap out of it.'' To rely on willpower for weight loss is a Sisyphean feat.

Most experts agree that successful long-term weight loss is a result of behavior and environmental modifications. We are no match for our modern food environments. A convenient, cheap, ubiquitous ultra-processed food environment paired with a sedentary lifestyle makes weight gain almost impossible to evade. Alas, all hope is not lost. There are literally hundreds of thousands of people who have lost weight and kept it off. It is doable. Here are some tips:

  1. Keep a food journal and write everything in it, including why you are eating (hunger, anxiety, boredom, craving etc.)

  2. Weigh yourself regularly

  3. Keep ALL tempting foods out of the house

  4. Replace lousy food in the home with wholesome, nutritious food

  5. Eat more vegetables and fruit

  6. Do not snack

  7. Exercise every day - walk, run, lift weights, do yoga, Box etc.

  8. Increase all of your non-exercise activity (NEAT)

  9. Plan all of your meals (look at menus before you go out)

  10. Have a planned substitution for getting over a craving

  11. Get 7-9 hours of sleep every night

  12. Meditate or do some other de-stressing behavior daily

  13. Drink only non-calorie drinks - no juice, soda, smoothies etc.

  14. Eat more protein. It is the most sating macronutrient.

  15. Cook your meals.

  16. Hire a personal trainer.

  17. For more help, see a cognitive behavior therapist (CBT).

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