Willpower - fact or fiction?

My Name is Emma and I am a shopaholic. This is actual fact.

So when my mum suggested that we give up buying clothes, shoes, handbags, accessories for a whole year ..... well I was "shook"! But as you know, I do love a challenge, so I told her to sign me up..... and here we are some 40 days later, and I still haven't cracked. My friends don't think I can do it, but MPK said... oh she will, once she decides to do something she'll do it - and that got me thinking about willpower.

Many many times over my recent journey to wellness people have asked me how I have the willpower to stick to the "diet", or said that they couldn't do it a they have no willpower. In reality when it comes to eating, willpower it isn't really part of it. Flying by the seat of your pants through cravings is no way to lose weight but Managing hunger is.

By definition relating to diet, willpower is simply: ignoring hunger. Choosing to not eat when your body is begging you to feed it. It's not a very good idea. It doesn't work for long term weight loss (this is why "diets don't work"), and it most definitely doesn't work for creating an effortless relationship with food - and isn't that what ultimately we are all trying to achieve. If you break it down whether you are riffling through the cupboards looking for something to munch, or its 10pm and you need that chocolate bar - these scenarios and more are simply manifestations of willpower. By managing hunger, these situations actually cease to exist.

How many times have you been out for dinner, promised yourself that you would be good and just have a salad with dressing on the side and sparkling water, only to come home and eat the entire contents of your kitchen...?? Too many I bet you. But if you had the "willpower" to sit in a restaurant with most likely a dull salad whilst those around you feast on fries... why didn't you have that same "willpower" when you got home?

Ok - so now we ask ourselves What actually is Hunger?

Hunger is a biological survival mechanism triggered by our cells and driven by our brains. Then you eat, you're feeding your cells. Your cells don't run on calories - they run on the sugar byproducts of digestion. This sugar can be created from any of the macronutrients: carbohydrate, fat, and protein, and, your body's preferred sources of this fuel are from sources more slower-burn and reliable, like fat (my fave), and protein.

When your cells run out of fuel, they signal this to the brain. The brain, in turn, triggers hunger. You eat, the cells get fed. Life goes on.

That is, until you decide to deprive your cells of some of the fuel they're used to getting. This can happen in any kind of deprivation-based diet. Anytime you take some kind of fuel away from your cells, you will need to replace it with some other kind of fuel. The cells simply need to be fed. You can try exhibiting all the willpower in the world, but your cells call the shots on this one. If you take it to a point that is lower than your body's biological fuel needs, your cells will be undernourished, and your hunger will rage out of control - Eventually. Many people can keep up a calorie-restricted diet for a period of time, but tend to fall off the rails spectacularly because they just get really, really hungry - plain and simple. Or as I read in a recent article

"Asking people to eat less is like asking them to breathe less.It sounds reasonable, so long as you don’t expect them to keep it up for long."

Same story if you're trying to restrict one macronutrient or another. Your macronutrients are your fuel sources. As we learned above, you can't take away a fuel source outright; it needs to be replaced. People who restrict fat, for example, usually eat a lots of carbs - you have to, because your cells need some kind of fuel. Carbohydrate is fast-burn sugar for the cells - which is not a great plan for appetite control or hunger management. If you want to try a lower carbohydrate eating plan, the same rules apply: don't just eliminate carbohydrates without making a considered choice as to what fuel source you are going to rely upon in its absence.

SO.... Hunger, Hanger and Carb Cravings

The way you feel the need to punch your husband/co-woker/random man on the bus eating a family size bag of kettle chips - if they have the audacity to whistle when you've gone 6 hours without food? That's not normal, and it's all part of this too. All your brain knows is that the cells are starved for the sugar they need to create ATP (cellular energy) and carry on the business of running your entire body. It goes into fight-or-flight mode, making the need to acquire sugar fast, a burning priority. So you crave sugar at the cellular level. When you eat the sugar, you feel momentarily better - until that quick-burn sugar energy runs out and you're right back where you started. Hungry, hangry, and craving Jelly Babies.

This creates a whole new layer of food fucked-upness. You start to learn that "sugar makes me happy" and then it just becomes woven into your fabric. Emotional eating and stress eating have their roots in this learned behaviour; so we've just uncovered yet another "bad" eating behavior that comes about as a result of not effectively fuelling the cells. Pandora's box?

Side note - When I refer to sugar I'm not talking about eating frosting right out of the tub. I'm talking about foods that digest down immediately into sugar in the blood stream: CARBOHYDRATE. Buns, pastries, muffins, donuts. Lower-fibre fruit, vegetables, starchy tubers (yes, even sweet potatoes). Quinoa, lentils, rye bread, fair trade wild rice responsibly sourced from tiny remote villages... Carbohydrate is sugar; sugar is carbohydrate.

All of this is to say: willpower doesn't exist. You simply cannot outsmart a biological survival mechanism long enough to make any kind of permanent sustainable change in your life. A much better strategy is to manage your hunger signalling, so that you don't have insane cravings, a ravenous appetite, and the feelings of failure that come along for the ride.

Ok, I hear you - how do I do this? Well for me this has been trial and error, and you need to sit and listen to your body, and understand a food pattern that works for you. My top tips would be:

1. Choose fuel sources that provide long-lasting, reliable, sustainable energy for your cells.

2. Increase fats and proteins. These macronutrients are converted to cellular energy very slowly.

3. Decrease carbohydrate. This is fast fuel that leaves you hanging and hungry.

Willpower - that is, ignoring hunger, just doesn't work. Hunger is a biologically ingrained survival mechanism that we've honed over the last gazillion years.You simply can't outsmart it and call it willpower. Instead gain control of your appetite, mood, energy and waistline by working with your biology rather than against it.


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