It’s midday on Wednesday, and you’re under pressure to get a work project finished by the end of the day while trying to get out of work on time so you can make a friend’s birthday dinner. 4pm rolls around, and someone brings in fresh baked cookies. Despite all your good intentions, you end up eating three cookies…then berate yourself for not having the willpower to say no.
Diets teach us that we need to control what we eat in order to be healthy – that we need willpower. Willpower is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the ability to control yourself : strong determination that allows you to do something difficult (such as lose weight or quit smoking).” When it comes to what we eat, we’re led to believe that if we can just exert control, if we can just eat less, we’ll lose weight and be healthier (never mind the fact that weight is not a good indicator of health). And if we can’t eat less, we haven’t tried hard enough. We can’t control ourselves. We don’t have enough willpower.
But the problem isn’t willpower – the problem is dieting.
Our bodies are wired for survival. We have a complex biological system made up of multiple hormones that work to ensure we get enough food to live. When you start to restrict types of food or amounts of food you eat, your body switches into survival mode. It’s trying to protect you, so it triggers cravings, hunger surges, and often leads to overeating. The more you try not to eat dessert, or skip over french fries, the more you body will crave these foods. Willpower has nothing when it comes to the biological processes within our body. This biological system makes it nearly impossible to eat less than we need – willpower or not.
So if willpower doesn’t work, what can we do to make positive diet changes to support our health and well-being?
We have to work with our bodies instead of against them.
Instead of trying to control our bodies, we have to learn to tap into our body’s innate wisdom and make decisions based on choice and unconditional permission, rather than restriction. This way, we aren’t operating from a place of fear and won’t be forcing our bodies into survival mode. Instead, we think about what we really want and need food-wise. Here are a few tips to get started:
- Give yourself unconditional permission to eat. When you give yourself permission and choice to eat whatever you want, you can actually tap into what your body needs. As your body learns to trust that it has access to any and all foods, cravings and overeating decrease. This is partially due to food habituation, where the more you’re exposed to foods, the less your brain thinks of or cares about it and your desire to eat it decreases. Plus, when you eat what you really want, the feelings of satisfaction and pleasure you feel will help you be more content (and often with less food).
- Use the hunger-fullness scale. Our bodies can naturally regulate when and how much we need to eat – if we let it. Get back in touch with your body’s feelings of hunger and fullness with the hunger-fullness scale, a useful tool to help you begin to pay more attention to what variations in hunger levels and fullness levels feel like to you.
- Practice mindful eating. Mindful eating is about being conscious about what you are eating, why you are eating, and how you are eating. It involves getting back in touch with the experience of eating and enjoying your food. It’s about fully present during meals and snacks, paying attention to the sight, smell, taste and texture of foods.Tuning into what you eat can help you feel your fullness and (even more importantly) be more satisfied with the meal.
- Find the gray. We tend to be black and white thinkers when it comes to diet – either we’re eating healthy, or on a diet, or we’re eating “badly” and are off the diet. There is no room for imperfection or mistakes – it’s all or nothing. This brings up feeling of defeat and leads to overeating or “falling off the wagon”. Instead, learn to find the gray. When we live in the gray, each eating experience becomes a learning experience and we can approach our food decisions from a place a curiosity instead of judgment.
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