Maintaining healthy eating patterns and losing weight have very little do to with willower.
I’ve been in practice for long enough to have had way too many people complain to me about their lack of willpower and how this has made it impossible for them to maintain their nutritional protocol or lose their excess weight. They bemoan their inability to resist overeating, their yo-yo dieting habit, and how hard it is for them to lose weight. This happens simultaneously to self-criticism because clearly, this must be their fault entirely – they are weak willed and not good enough! This could not be further from the truth. Making better food choices, be it for health, weight loss and/or weight maintenance are far more complicated than solely willpower.
If I could change one perception about nutrition in general, it might be that choosing what you eat has very little to do with willpower. It has nothing to do with weakness, or how you are unable to resist your favorite, freshly baked cookies, or the fact that you think you are a bad person for eating a pizza. Overall wellness and the act of achieving and maintaining an ideal body weight for you involves a lot more than a weak or strong will. Unlike the emotional ‘willpower’ you may be blaming yourself for, what you eat and how your body responds to these choices involves physiology and your body’s reaction to certain restrictions you may have placed upon it. Your body despises restriction and will always have a rebound response it!
Side note: Your ideal body, health markers and weight might not be the same as your friends’, so stop comparing yourself to other people!! All physiological reasons aside, using the idea of not having willpower to degrade yourself for you’re the food you choose to eat or not eat will seldom produce a positive outcome. Negative self-talk will result in you feeling like a failure, which will cause you to give up your goals. Treating yourself poorly under any circumstances is never okay and you need to make an effort to stop.
Although there are emotional components to our food choices which do have very real consequences, we are going to discuss the basic physiological drivers today.
One of the most important components of weight management is your hormonal balance. When food is severely restricted you may find yourself constantly thinking about, even obsessing over food. This is the result of you ‘hunger hormone’ grehlin. When your body perceives that it is not being fed adequately (aka low calorie diets), ghrelin leaps into action. It has been shown to increase your appetite, producing an unshakeable drive to eat and promotes the storage of body fat.
Your body responds to starvation by working even harder to maintain homeostasis every miserable step of the way. If you restrict nutrients or calories too much for too long, ghrelin will create a drive to eat. Once the ‘diet’ is over you are also left with higher levels of ghrelin than when you began.
Ghrelin works in conjunction with and in opposition to another appetite hormone, leptin which is your satiety hormone. This hormone is produced by your fat cells, and signals your body when to stop eating.
The issue with leptin and ghrelin is that when your body fat levels reach a certain point, the signals from these hormones get disrupted and imbalanced. More body fat should imply more leptin, but this is not the case. The body starts to become resistant to the leptin signals and therefore does not get the physiological cue to stop eating. In fact, your body thinks it is starving as there seems to be no leptin signal and this causes you to eat even more.
Simultaneously you may become resistant to the calling of ghrelin which leaves you needing less of it to create the hunger response.
This leads to a vicious cycle of caloric restriction, which raises your ghrelin levels causing you to eat more, and store body fat. Your leptin levels rise and your body becomes resistant to leptin, making you eat more, you gain more fat, and so on and so on.
Repairing this involves avoiding major nutrient and caloric restriction! It might be tempting to revert to the pattern of severe restriction which may result in quick fat loss but be warned, your body will fight back. The shift in your hormonal balance will influence your appetite, cravings and desire to eat. When you restrict nutrients and calories you will be left hungrier. There is a difference between caloric restriction and true fasting. This is a topic way greater than the scope of this article. This is a great place to get more information.
If you find yourself constantly hungry and obsessed with food it may be time to take a difference approach (like not dieting). If you find a method of weight loss and maintenance that works for you, keeps your body feeling well and strong, manages your symptoms and is sustainable, then keep going. Some people find that a lower carbohydrate, higher fat way of eating impacts appetite less and is more sustainable for the long-term. For others it may not be quite as cut and dried. As long as you are eating a whole food based, nutrient dense variety of foods and feeling and looking your best (or well on your way there), you are doing okay.
One of the newest and fastest growing areas of research is on the impact of the colonies of bacteria living inside us on almost every physiological function. The trillions of micor-organisms living in your gut are collectively referred to as your microbiome. We know that body composition and hormonal signalling have an impact on the microbiome. A recent study found that the foods you eat or do not and the quantity and quality of your calories has a huge impact on this microbiome and can actually promote rapid post-diet weight gain. This is definitely an emerging area in terms of research and drawing conclusions, but improving the integrity and diversity of your gut bacteria is definitely something worth working on.
Nourish your microbiome with plenty of fresh foods, tons of fiber from raw and cooked vegetables, less added sugar, and more fermented foods like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi and unsweetened kombucha.
Caloric restriction aka dieting can slow down your resting or basal metabolic rate. This forms part of your body fighting to maintain homeostasis and prevent you from starving. Taking less food in makes your body want to expend less energy out for its basic functions causing your body to adapt and slow your metabolism down, utilizing less energy overall. It is tough to outstmart the miracle that is your body!
Stop overly and consistently restricting caloric and nutrient intake. If the majority of the foods you eat are processed and manufactured, throw those out. Replace them with fresh foods, less-processed foods, and whole foods. Weight loss may be slower than on some crazy cleanse, but metabolically this is far less disruptive to your body, more sustainable and more conducive to long term health (aka feeling great).
Being tires and not getting sufficient sleep weakens your resolve around food, and increases your ghrelin levels, making you hungry. Furthermore, being tired elevates your cortisol (a stress hormone), causes impaired glucose metabolism, and decreases leptin. All of this can really sabotage your efforts.
Considering that the majority of people are sleep deprived to some degree, I suggest turning off the TV, shutting down the smart phone and getting to bed.
Practice better sleep hygiene. Go to bed and wake up at the same times, sleep in a dark room with no phones/tv/ipad/computer before you sleep. Life happens and the focus should be on doing the best you can with the sleep thing.
Certain aspects of your genetics are the one thing you have zero control over, and it becomes useless to try to change them. Your hair and eye color for example are created well before birth. Your normal (by normal, I mean healthy for YOU) weight is essentially genetically determined from birth as is your body shape. While you may be able to change both those things slightly, or temporarily, this becomes a constant battle in the long term. It is one thing to improve your diet and achieve your optimal, healthy body but it is completely another to have unrealistic goals that you have to fight your body for, every single day. Life is far too short to subject yourself to that emotional and physical duress on a continual basis
Although you will not be able to change these things, you can fix your mindset. If you have unrealistic body image goals, they need to be thrown out. Subjecting yourself to emotional and physical hardship every day is not worth it. Being healthy, emotionally and physically, is far more important than dropping to an impossibly low weight and will always be supported by eating a variety of whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods.