Willpower seems to vanish about this time of the year for women who are worried about their weight. After what’s often a yo-yo struggle with “eating right” most of the year, the pull of holiday food overwhelms any semblance of control.
That word right there – control – is at the root of the problem for weight strugglers.
Diets teach that we need to control what we eat in order to be thin and healthy. Of course, that equates thinness with health, which research is increasingly showing is not true.
Yet the thin ideal continues to thrive even though it doesn’t work for the vast majority of people. I’ll never forget The Body Shop pamphlet from the late 90s with a picture of a nude, plump Barbie-like doll that proclaimed, “There are 3 billion women who don’t look like supermodels and only 8 who do.” It was groundbreaking at the time, and unfortunately, it’s still a message that is trying to break through.
But I digress. This blog is meant to blow a hole in the myth of willpower, to give readers a better understanding of how to end on-off eating patterns and truly enjoy food, not only during the holidays, but throughout the whole year.
What is Willpower Anyway?
Merriam-Webster defines willpower as “the ability to control yourself: strong determination that allows you to do something difficult (such as to lose weight or quit smoking).”
When it comes to eating and weight, we’re led to believe that if we just eat less and exercise more, we’ll lose those pounds we don’t like. If we can’t “just eat less and exercise more,” it’s our fault. We haven’t tried hard enough. We’re weak-willed. We can’t control ourselves.
Why Willpower Doesn’t Work When It Comes to Eating and Weight
The trouble is, there are a lot of biological systems at work behind the scenes that are present precisely to ensure that we get the sustenance we need to live. Those systems feature a host of hormones such as ghrelin, leptin, insulin, cortisol and more – all hormones that regulate hunger, fullness, cravings and the like. They’re what we run up against when we try to lose weight by restricting our eating.
According to Dr. Kari Anderson, binge eating specialist and executive director of Green Mountain at Fox Run, “Those systems make it near impossible to eat less than we need on the strength of will alone.”
And to be clear – when folks in good health restrict their eating by ignoring hunger, they are eating less than they need. When they try to follow diets that dictate what, when and how much to eat, they’re putting themselves squarely at odds with the potent survival drive embedded in basic human biology. The difficulty in following diets has very little to do with will.
(A caveat: Some people may experience feelings of hunger that have more to do with unbalanced hormones rather than actual physical hunger. But the solution here is to work with a professional who is skilled in helping people get their bodies back in balance rather than resorting to typical diet restrictions that drive overeating and feelings of failure.)
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Then there’s the impact of stress. Not just the stress of everyday living, either. Picture a high-powered woman, responsible for running a large department in a thriving business. Then picture her on a diet to lose weight. Needless to say, eating and weight worries can multiply the stress in her life a thousand-fold.
How it commonly plays out is that when stress strikes, humans tend to abandon rational thinking, reverting instead to impulsive behaviors meant to protect us in moments of danger (whether real or imagined). Working late to put out yet another fire that arose during the day, that dieting executive is hard sought to pass up the vending machine when her body cries out for energy and relaxation. And of course, once the diet is abandoned, feelings of failure kick in to drive overeating.
Willpower can’t compete against powerful systems such as these.
From Control to Choice
So if willpower doesn’t work, what can we do to help us eat in a way that supports our health and well-being?
We’ve written about this endlessly on this blog so I encourage you to browse through the hundreds of pages that are here to help women who struggle with overeating and weight. Try this post. Or this one. And this one. They’ve been written by forward-thinking professionals who understand how to work with our bodies instead of against them to achieve peace with eating and weight and support our health.
Which brings me back to the issue of control.
Control when used in the context of eating, weight and willpower is often about fear. Fear that if we give up control, we’re going to gain weight.
But control sets up an adversarial dynamic that has us fighting against something. In this case, it’s about fighting our bodies.
When it comes to eating and weight, try changing that C word to Choice. Because choice empowers us to make decisions in our own best interest. We’re not operating out of fear, but instead rationally thinking about what we really want and how best to get it.
Mindful eating helps us sort out our choices and decide what will work best for us. This article can help you understand the process.
It’s key to realize, however, that we may not always make the best decisions. Which brings up another key concept: living in the gray. Dieters tend to be black and white thinkers – we’re either on or we’re off. There’s no room for imperfection. But when we operate in the gray, we can learn from our mistakes instead of feeling defeated that we’ll never get things right.
It’s a matter of being compassionate with ourselves and knowing that humans are far from perfect.
So this holiday season, give yourself the gift of compassion – another C word that serves us well when it comes to ending struggles with eating, weight, and self-care.