The will power myth

“I just have no will power” one Mom told me, complaining that her latest diet wasn’t working, “I bake a batch of biscuits for the kids to have when they get home from school.  The aroma of hot cookies fills the kitchen and I can’t resist just having one… but half an hour later I’ve eaten half the batch!”

Baked goods are hard to just stop at just one bite.

How many of you can relate?  It turns out this Mom is not alone.  I asked a couple of Mom’s groups on Facebook which foods they find the hardest not to overeat and within 24 hours I had a long list of common culinary culprits.  Sweet baked goods (cakes and cupcakes, cookies, cinnamon rolls, slices, pie, doughnuts and danish pastries) made up 44% of the answers.  Other sweet treats such as chocolate, licorice, twizzlers, soda and ice-cream 23%, followed by bread at 19% and the remaining 10% of answers included savoury snacks such as chips and popcorn, cheese and pasta.

Not surprisingly every single answer was a processed food.  The vast majority contain sugar.  (I have a lot to say about sugar, read here if you didn’t read that earlier post).  Most also contain some combination of refined flour, fat and salt.  You are certainly not alone if you find that these foods are hard not to over eat.  Also known as hyperpalatable foods, these sorts of treats stimulate endorphins and chemicals in the brain.  They make us feel good.  (The reward centres in our brains actually light up on a brain scan when we eat this kind of stuff).  Our dopamine neurones become activated.  Dopamine makes us want more.  (Recreational drugs releasing dopamine is what is thought to be one of the key things that makes them addictive).  With such strong physical reactions that can start even when we just have a small amount of these foods it’s not a surprise that our will power can’t fight the urge to have another, and another, and another.

In addition to these internal reactions to the food we’re bombarded by external cues.  The half eaten loaf of bread is still out on the cutting board, the movie theatre smells of popcorn, the bowl of chips at the party sit right beside us and even if we can’t see it, we know there is still half of that fudge brownie still sitting in the pantry.

Are your play group meet ups synonymous with cupcakes?

To make things even tougher we often have well formed habits around consuming these foods.  It’s the regular playgroup meet up where cupcakes are always involved.  It’s every birthday at the office when a cake is compulsory.  It’s the fast food restaurant we drive passed on the way home from late night soccer practice and their burgers and fries are just. so. gooooooood.  It’s Friday night standard activity has become to put the kids to bed, choose a netflix movie and time the pizza delivery for just as the kids’ little eyes close.  We also form habits to deal with conditions such as tiredness, boredom, anxiousness and sadness.  If our coping mechanism is always chocolate then how can we expect our will power to save us?

The responses to eating these hyperpalatable foods and external cues are certainly much stronger in some people than others.  However, we don’t have to succumb to out of control eating.  The more we keep ourselves the away from hyperpalatable foods and their associated situations and habits, the easier it becomes not to eat them.  This requires some mindful planning (and yes, a bit of will power) at the outset, but as those physical and emotional connections break we eventually find ourselves able to walk passed our old favourite bakery without any urge to go in. (and may even be able to get to the point where you can have the occasional “one” without having to demolish the lot).

Here’s how:

  1. Keep the house free of foods that you know trigger over eating.  Don’t go to the supermarket hungry and always shop with a list.  Tried and proven advice!
  2. If foods that you like to over eat make it into the house, get rid of them.  My husband’s colleagues enjoyed my daughter’s Halloween candy recently for example.
  3. Find foods that you can enjoy and eat without over indulding.  Not one person that replied to the Facebook question about foods we overeat said they over eat a fruit or vegetable (meats, eggs and whole grains, except if they’re processed into bread, also didn’t get a mention).
  4. When going to a friend’s house take a healthy option as your contribution.  We often offer to bring a salad or fruit platter.  It means that there is always something I can load my plate up with.
  5. Make alternative plans for situations that you know are your undoing.  Can’t stop buying that muffin when you meet up with a friend at the local coffee shop?  Meet else where.  Can’t stop ordering take out on a Friday night?  Make a plan to cook before you get hungry.
  6. Identify bad habits that have formed and make a plan to break them.
  7. Form new, healthier habits.  Focus on strengthening them.
  8. Keep at it.  Keep at it.  Keep at it.  The more you over eat the more you need to satisfy that desire.  Conversely the healthier you eat the easier making healthy choices gets.  Our tastes DO change (and it can be an amazing experience when you visit your old favourite burger joint one night and wonder what you ever liked about it – it’s a bit like catching up with an ex-boyfriend).
  9. You have the ability to change your habits.  You have to believe this to be able to do it.

Success breeds success.  It does take time but it gets easier the more we do it to the point that we aren’t trying to use sheer will power against physical and emotional bonds that are much stronger.  We go from mindless over eating to mindlessly making good choices.

Photos from here and here.

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5 Responses to The will power myth

  1. I find if I plan a meal and spend time thinking about it and the flavours and the recipe then cooking it is a joy not a chore and eating it a pleasure. Even if it’s just spaghetti bolognese. Although my spaghetti is pretty good……. 😉

  2. VJ says:

    Thank you for the suggestion on taking veges and dip when I was asked to take nibbles the other night – I took things like baby carrots, chopped cucumber and celery sticks with home-made pesto and hummus (which were really quick and easy) and they went down a treat!

    • runningmelon says:

      That’s great they went down well with your friends! I usually find people are quite glad someone has brought along something healthy and they go really well.

  3. All good advice – until you have to have to have to indulge in something – so badly, that one day I drove down to the shops to get something sugary because there was nothing sweet in the house (see sentence 1 in the “How to” list.) I bought a small sweet fix, devoured it, drove off, problem solved, and got on with my day.

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