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Why Willpower is Overrated

When was the last time that you ate something? Why did you decide to eat? Physical Hunger? The sight and smell of food? Cravings? Stress? If you’re not really sure, just can’t stop eating even it you’re not hungry, or can’t tell when you’re hungry and full, you’re not alone! The American Psychological Association reports that 38% of adults say they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress(source). More than 1/3 of adults have weights which are categorized as ‘obese’ (source).

What causes our hunger signals to run amuck? What triggers us to reach for certain foods impulsively? What makes us decide to reach for that pint of ice cream when we feel a little blue? Deciding what and when to eat is often subconscious, driven by a complicated set of brain chemicals including dopamine, insulin, leptin, gherkin, neuropeptide Y, and Cholecytystokinin (CCK) (source).

When you walk into your average grocery store, you are up against a tricky food environment that creates a whole lot of confusion for our brains, which are wired to pursue reward. Stephen J. Guyenet, Ph.D. in ‘The Hungry Brain’, focuses on ‘outsmarting the instincts that make us overeat’. He says: “The brain values foods that contain calorie-dense combinations of fat, sugar, starch, protein, salt, and other elements, and it sets your motivation to eat those foods accordingly. This motivation is partially independent of hunger-ice cream, brownies, french fries-can powerfully drive cravings and, eventually, deeply ingrained unhealthy eating habits”.

An article in the New York Times titles ‘What Cookies and Meth Have in Common’ (yes, you read that right) might share some insight. Richard A. Friedman, a psychiatrist, connects similarities between processed junk foodsand addictive drugs: they both activate our reward circuit, rewire our brainand nudge us in the direction of compulsive consumption.

He says that ‘Contemporary humans did not experience a sudden collapse in self-control. What happened is that cheap, calorie-dense foods that are highly rewarding to your brain are now ubiquitous.’ (Source) If you feel you’ve been swimming upstream to ‘control’ your eating, you are not alone! But, you might think, if I could just have more willpower, that I’d be able to control my cravings. Maybe it’s not that simple.

In their book ‘Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength’, Baumeister & Tierney write: Successful people don’t use their willpower as a last ditch defenseto stop themselves from disaster, at least not as a regular strategy.” Instead of beating yourself up for not having enough willpower-or fueling an endless restrict-hunger-binge cycle, what if you focused on giving your body-and brain-the type of nutrition that it needed to let it know that it was nourished and ‘safe’? Instead of obsessively restricting, what if you could rewire your brain to reduce the power of food triggers and to decrease the ‘reward’ that you receive from highly addictive foods? Focusing on the quality of food that you eat-and the reason that you eat-instead of a singular focus on the number of calories that you eat, can be a powerful way to achieve these results.

The intentional practice of mindfulness has gained lots of attention lately as an effective strategy for regulating appetite. A recent research review of mindfulness based interventions for binge eating showed that eleven out of the twelve studies reviewed reported improvements in binge eating frequency and/or severity. What is mindfulness? Far from just a practice of sitting still on your favorite pillow, intentional mindfulness holds the potential to change the way that your brain responds to food cues in your environment. Mindfulness training focuses on cultivating the skills necessary to be aware of and accept thoughts and emotions and to distinguish between emotional arousal and physical hunger cues. (source).

Interested in learning more? The Center for Mindful Eating shares some FREE mindful eating meditations here: Still stuck in a viscous cycle? I’m here. Drop me a note!






About Sarah Ferreira

Sarah Ferreira,MS,MPH,RD,CDN,CNSC,IFNCP,CHWC is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with complementary certification as an Integrative and Functional Nutrition Certified Practitioner and Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She is the owner of Mindfully Nourished Solutions, where she uses a whole-person, whole-food approach to explore the impact of nutrition on mood and cognition. Her individualized approach integrates an assessment of nutritional, genetic, environmental, and lifestyle factors into a collaborative nutrition care plan using cutting-edge research designed to facilitate meaningful and restorative changes based around client goals and priorities.

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