Why you need to stop trying to have “willpower”

hungry man and burger I have always disliked the word “willpower”. Maybe because so many people cast judgement when they think someone does not have any. Why do you keep smoking? You need to have more willpower! Why do you keep overeating? You need to have more willpower! Why are you binge eating? You need to have more willpower! Why do you drink so much? You need to have more willpower! If only you had more willpower. I hate that word.

Also, people judge themselves. When they want to change and can’t, most people beat themselves up mentally and verbally. Why can’t I have more willpower?! This makes me sad because changing, especially when it comes to eating behaviors, has nothing to do with willpower.

I like looking at things in a somewhat holistic way. It is never one simple answer and most people behave in a certain way because of a variety of influencing factors. When it comes to eating, I always have felt there are three things that affect us (probably more but to me, these are the three general areas I have encountered with the people I have worked with).

  1. Physiology
  2. Environment and habits
  3. Emotions

First, let’s talk about physiology. By this I mean all the physiological things that are going on in your body that most of us never think about. What most people do not know is that our bodies regulate themselves as far as what and how much to eat. For example, people who try to avoid carbohydrates eventually end up craving them. Why? Because a chemical messenger named serotonin in our brains will drop if we do not eat enough carbs and will send the message that we need to eat them! Have you ever craved something sweet? We all have. Even dietitians usually can’t keep track of what they eat, let’s face it, we all have busy lives and sometimes just eat what is there. But our bodies will definitely tell us, they are keeping track! A good example is a dinner I prepared for my husband the other day. We kind of ran out of food and I had gone out with a friend so had already had an early dinner. I threw together a “Chef’s Salad” because I had leftover grilled chicken, leftover pepperoni slices from a party, some prosciutto I had left from a recipe I made over the weekend, cheese and lots of salad (it was buy one, get one!). He loved it with his Chipolte Ranch Dressing, but I knew he was going to be craving something sweet later at night because there were no carbs in it. He is not a fan of beans and I had no croutons : ( So later at night it was kind of funny when he said “do we have anything sweet? I need something sweet!” So predictable. Nothing to do with willpower and everything to do with physiology.

What kind of imbalances are YOU creating with your eating? In addition to not getting enough carbs, if we don’t get enough calories our bodies regulate that also. Leptin is one messenger that will make sure you know you have not eaten enough. Are you skipping lunch to lose weight? Are you then getting mad at yourself for not having “willpower” at night when you end up binge eating? Not your fault, and not your lack of willpower. Physiology, plain and simple. You can’t fight it, so don’t blame yourself. There are so many more examples, but the bottom line is that your body is much smarter than you are, and having more willpower is not the answer. Trusting your body is. Check out more on this topic (especially for you biology buffs) with these articles:

Appetite Hormones (July 2015 Issue, Today’s Dietitian,Appetite Hormones  By Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD, LD, Vol. 17 No. 7 P. 26)

Gastrointestinal-Brain Connection

The second reason people need to forget about willpower is the power of environment and habits. We all have behaviors that are affected by our environment, and eventually we fall into habits that we don’t even have to think about. Let me ask you a simple question: what do you do when you walk in the door after a long day of work (or school)? Do you kick your shoes off and run to the couch, click on the TV and relax? Do you go straight to your room, remove your work clothes, put on your jogging shorts and sneakers and run to the track? Or do you go straight to the fridge and open the door? Or maybe grab a beer and sit in front of the news?

All of these behaviors are habits. None has anything to do with willpower. The person who has been coming home and going to the track has no more willpower than the person who runs to the fridge to grab a snack or a beer. The issue is that each person has developed a habit over time, triggered by their environment. Just walking in that door sets all behaviors in place. The question we need to ask ourselves is NOT why we don’t have more willpower, but what behaviors are we not happy with and want to change? Changing habits is another long story and not easy. We can start however by changing that initial trigger, not by blaming ourselves for not having enough willpower! What if you avoided that couch and put on sneakers instead? then went and sat outside on the porch just to watch the birds. Anything to break that chain. Wishing you had more willpower or berating yourself because you do not is not the answer.

Finally, the third reason to forget about willpower is to remember that emotionally we are all different. No one has the same life growing up, the same role models, the same experiences or the same biological make up. How can we expect to have the same amount of willpower? Consider the woman I once worked with many years ago. She was a binge eater and was a stay at home wife to a man that wanted her to be thinner.  She had gained weight throughout her 20 year marriage and he just wanted to help her. So what he thought was helpful (“you don’t need that! That is enough for you!”) was actually hurtful. She told me that she would eat her Special K with skim milk in the morning while he had his bacon and eggs, then watch through the window as he drove away. The minute he disappeared from sight, she would go straight to the fridge and start eating. And eating. She had a binge eating disorder that was partly due to emotional reasons. NOT lack of willpower.

The bottom line and take-home message I hope you get is that expecting yourself to have more “willpower” may be a losing battle. Instead, can you consider looking at your lifestyle and asking yourself what behaviors you feel are not contributing to health? Are you restricting too much and then binge eating and getting mad at yourself? Are you wishing you could be more active because you really do want to have more energy but feel you have no willpower to go to the gym?  Are you drinking too much and blaming yourself?  I suggest just start by thinking about which of these three areas are affecting you most. Then work on figuring it out without judgement. Stop expecting yourself to have willpower to fix things that are way more complicated.

Working on your health both physically and mentally is a wonderful thing! Just taking the time to read this post shows you care about yourself and that is a great thing too! Stop berating yourself for not having enough “willpower”. No one does.

Does Exercise Make you Hungry?

man eatingSo many people I know tell me they don’t think it is worth it to exercise because it just makes them eat more. Not only that, It’s not worth it, they say because they don’t lose much weight from it. When they start an exercise program they do the usual thing, jump on the scale often to see if they are losing weight. When the number does not go down fast enough, they stop. It’s not worth it!

Does that sound familiar? Is that you? Do you look at exercise only as a means to lose weight? What if you could fast forward a few years ahead (not that you really want to do that and miss out on life, but just for the sake of understanding my point, just think about fast forwarding to think about what you are doing to your body). From my perspective, and I totally get it, most people with weight issues are looking for the quick fix. That is how the diet industry survives because losing 10 pounds in 2 weeks is pretty appealing. So of course if you decide to join the gym or start a walking program with losing weight as your only goal, well, after a few weeks you will likely stop.

Stop for a minute and fast forward to a year from now. What if you started walking a little bit at lunch time, or after work. Or, if you are not an outdoor kind of person, what if instead of sitting and watching the news, you started to jump around and do some dancing and moving. After a year of this, even just 4 days a week, even for 30 minutes, that is over 100 hours that your body has moved that it would not have. That is your heart pumping blood and getting stronger. I guarantee, you will be a different person, more energetic and feeling better and healthier. Unfortunately, most people don’t think about that, they only care about weight.

I truly care about promoting health, but to appeal to the weight focused I can share that over time (not next week, or next month, but maybe even years) your body is much more likely to be at its best weight if you start to move NOW. You may have heard that “muscle burns more than fat”. True. Exercise burns calories. True. Exercise increases your metabolism. True. But did you know that people who exercise regularly have better appetite control? That means they tend to feel “full” quicker than couch potatoes, or people who don’t tend to exercise or move much. There is more research to do, as we know people vary in their response to exercise (yes, some people do get hungrier however they still get full faster than if they did not exercise). For those who like the details, check out this review article on the topic: article on exercise and appetite

Today I was fortunate to be able to run in the Annual Petit Foundation Road Race in Plainville, Ct. Annual Petit Road Race. It felt so good to be able to finish the 5 K road race at my age! It was great to see my fellow classmates crossing the finish line for this great cause. People of all ages participated whether they walked, jogged or ran, you could feel the joy on this hot muggy day because we all were able to help just by being there. It struck me how important it is to keep moving, and not for the reason of losing weight, or having whatever kind of body you are thinking will finally make you happy. Today made me happy.

I hope you start moving today for reasons so much more important. Fast forward. Do the things you always wanted to do, not just in 2 weeks, but for the rest of your life.

Binge Eating Disorder: New Approaches to Appetite Control

ice creamToday I attended a conference presented by Walden Behavioral Care on the topic of Binge Eating Disorder (BED). Dr. James Greenblatt, Chief Medical Officer at Walden and author of the book “Answers to Appetite Control:New Hope for Binge Eating and Weight Management”  spoke about the complicated interactions between our physiology and brain when it comes to binge eating.  There are specific criteria that define a diagnosis of BED and just one of the criteria includes “recurrent episodes of binge eating characterized by both of the following: (1) consuming an abnormally large amount of food in a short period of time compared to what others might eat in the same amount of time and under the same or similar circumstances, and (2) experiencing a loss of control over eating during the episode. Additionally, in BED there is “significant distress” about the binge eating.

Dr. Greenblatt stressed that some binge eaters experience cravings that are physiologically based, in other words, the cravings are a result of your biology rather than just the environment or a social trigger. In fact, some research showed that brain scans of those who scored higher on a “food addiction” rating scale were similar to those of drug addicts.  There was an elevated activation in the reward circuitry in response to food cues. Again, this does not mean that if you binge eat, you are “addicted” to food, but that everyone is different and some people have the physiology that makes it much harder (and it is not their fault).

In addition, disordered eating such as binge eating often co-exists with mood disorders such as bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, depression and ADHD . In fact, ADHD has been linked to BED (apparently the act of chewing helps to decrease day dreaming brain waves and helps you pay attention). The odds of developing a binge eating disorder is 12 X greater in children with ADHD. Dr. Greenblatt stressed the importance of treating the mood disorder first before the binge eating could be addressed.

Another very important point was regarding the importance of protein. There are over 250 neurotransmitters that send impulses throughout our brains and affect our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, many of these directly affecting our appetite regulatory mechanisms. They are all derived from amino acids. Adequate protein intake is critical, often an issue for some. For example,  vegetarians and vegans may not get enough protein (especially if they are not educated on nutrition) and chronic dieters often have inadequate intakes. And, even if a person does consume adequate protein, it may not always be available, such as in the case of insufficient digestive enzymes or excessive antacid use.

Finally, there was mention of how for a small percentage of people, certain foods substances may contribute to food addiction and binge eating, such as high fructose corn syrup and MSG (he also discussed the gluten craze as well as casein but I may save that for another post!) This does not mean we need to cut out any foods  or that we should never eat them, it just is important to have balance in your life.

The importance of medication (such as mood stabilizers) in some cases was also  mentioned, as well as how medication was not helpful in other cases. The bottom line is that everyone is different, and it is very important to get evaluated by a professional. BED is a serious and debilitating eating disorder, but there is help.

If you are interested in the book which contains a wealth of information from Dr. Greenblatt, check out: http://answerstoappetitecontrol.com/ 

The Truth About Drinks


I remember many years ago going to a Sports Nutrition Conference and never forgetting the message. I heard a researcher named Richard Mattes speak about some cutting edge research he was conducting about how our bodies responded differently to liquid calories. I found the research fascinating. The bottom line message was that when we eat solid food, our brains get the message that we had enough calories and so we feel full and stop eating. His theory was that with liquid calories, we did not get the same message, and so our brain allowed us to keep drinking and take in excessive energy which eventually would result in weight gain.

Recently, I did a search and found that Dr. Mattes has not only been continuing this research, but has strengthened his earlier theory that liquid calories do not register in our brains. What is the important message here? If you fill up on drinks such as juice, soda, beer, wine or lemonade, it will be impossible to listen to your body as far as how much you need to eat. Instead, drink water to quench your thirst (free and healthy!) and limit juices and soda to once in a while instead of daily. Limit alcohol to social occasions and in moderation.

See below if you are interested in the dirty details!

Beverage vs. solid fruits and vegetables: effects on energy intake and body weight.



Volume 20, Issue 9, pages 1844–1850, September 2012

According to  Elizabeth Garrison  in “A summary of Richard Mattes’ research since 2005: Effects of food form, feeding patterns, and specific nutrients on appetite, satiety, and metabolic responses in humans”:

Differences in food form, beverage versus solid, elicit different appetitive, satiety, and hormonal responses. Solid foods, matched on energy content and macronutrient composition elicited lower levels of hunger and desire to eat. Additionally, solid and liquid meal replacements caused different ghrelin, insulin, and CCK responses, all hormones involved with regulation of food intake and body weight. Specifically and most importantly, beverages cause greater levels of ghrelin, a hormone that initiates hunger and desire to eat, after a meal than solids. Therefore beverage and solid meal replacements should not be used interchangeably for weight control or energy balance.