If you’re anything like I was back when I was in grad school for nutrition trying all the diets hoping that I would finally find the answer to my chocolate addiction and tight jeans…
Then you’ve probably wished, prayed, and googled for more willpower.
I was desperate to lose weight… but had no willpower
I felt out of control around food, and nothing I learned in nutrition school helped. I was desperate to lose weight, but had no willpower.
After almost a decade of:
- Putting my nutrition degree to work and reading scientific articles about blood sugar, stress, inflammation, and behavior change strategies.
- Prioritizing personal growth through therapy, coaching, retreats, and my faith community.
Significant investment in my own weight loss with naturopaths, and dietitians.
- …I finally healed my chocolate addiction and felt in-control around food.
And I realized something:
Willpower is a myth.
Why willpower doesn’t work
After I became a dietitian and started helping women manage and prevent chronic diseases and lose weight, I noticed willpower was easy to come by when the sun was shining, life was easy and stress was low.
But… when life got stressful or hard, willpower was scarce.
Boom! There’s your answer, never struggle in life, and you won’t have a willpower problem… no? Tongue in cheek aside, difficult seasons are normal and often when we are praying most fervently for willpower.
After walking over 60 women through the Stress Less Weight Mastery, I have come to realize willpower falls apart when self-care goes out the window.
Think back to the last time something hard or stressful happened in your life: did you maintain your same rhythms of self-care? Or perhaps you never had those rhythms to begin with?
Difficult seasons in life also tend to be when women regain weight they have lost or turn to food for comfort.
There are 3 specific willpower sabotagers that make you desperate to lose weight, but interfere with your willpower.
It turns out willpower can’t stand up to powerful hormonal forces that cause food cravings and fat-deposits (especially in the belly!) when times are hard.
Stress, inflammation, poor sleep, menopause, blood sugar imbalance, skipping meals all can imbalance the stress hormone cortisol that contribute to obsession-level food cravings.
Willpower can’t stand up to these intense hormone-driven cravings.
- You might struggle with either:
Cookie Monster – where you feel like you have to have something and are impulsively or compulsively eating it.
- Devil on Your Shoulder – you can’t stop thinking about food and you’re constantly talking yourself out of eating and exercising willpower.
Emotions, good and bad, can be uncomfortable. Especially if you have never been taught how to honor and manage your emotions.
According to the Window of Tolerance Theory, when you are pushed outside of your comfort zone (for instance from stress, fears, impacts of past trauma, etc.) you will either go into:
- Hypoarousal: shutting down, dissociating, no energy, feel numb
- Hyperarousal (fight or flight, cortisol response): overeating/restricting, impulsive behavior, addictions, anxiety, anger
Willpower can not stand up to being pushed into hyperarousal and eating for emotional regulation.
Hormonal and emotional forces push you to eat, and your mind quickly does the mental gymnastics to justify eating.
One common thought process that is stronger than willpower is all or nothing thinking. You think, “I already blew it, so I may as well eat the rest”.
It’s not your fault that you’re desperate to lose weight but have no willpower
Those 3 sabotagers are important to understand because it means it’s not your fault if willpower deserts you when you need it most.
Having no willpower is not a character flaw or personal failing… it makes sense.
It’s important to understand this point because many women blame themselves or get into self-critical cycles that lead to more comfort eating, anxiety, and depression..
The dirty little secret about willpower the diet industry doesn’t want you to know
Addressing the root of the issue: not engaging in the appropriate self-care
Here’s the dirty little secret that the diet industry doesn’t want you to know: you don’t need willpower to make healthy eating choices if you are engaging in appropriate self-care.
Here’s what I mean by that:
When you have energy because your stress hormones are balanced and you’re prioritizing sleep…
And you feel good because you take time to do things you love…
And you’re not overextended because you hold firm boundaries around you-time even when life gets busy…
It’s easy to choose healthy food and move your body.
The answer to willpower is actually self-care, used in 2 ways
1) Taking specific action to create ideal conditions for making healthy choices in your everyday life.
If you’ve been stuck for a long time, you might need support to identify and overcome barriers that are causing you to turn to food for comfort. You can book a call with me to find out how I can help.
Here’s what one Stress Less Weight Mastery graduate had to say:
One little-known barrier to prioritizing your self-care so you can lose weight without willpower
Often women remain at the bottom of their to-do lists because they believe their value and worth come from the service they provide to others.
You come by this idea honestly, as you probably learned that caring for other people is more important for caring for yourself because those are the messages women receive from family and culture from a young age.
While you may be stuck in those unhelpful beliefs now, it doesn’t have to stay that way.
You can choose, right now to:
- Set aside non-negotiable “me” time every day to move your body, prepare nourishing meals, and/or do something you enjoy for the fun of it
- Say “no” to commitments, people and things that cause you to justify giving up your non-negotiable “me” time
- Prioritize paying for services that will help you care for yourself like therapy, the Stress Less Weight Mastery, or massages.
And when the guilt sets in for caring for yourself, here’s an affirmation to write out, post prominently or say out loud:
I give myself permission to care for myself
I deserve investment, care and attention just as much as anyone else
Practice curiosity and compassion when you slip up so you can learn how to care for yourself better.
When you feel food chaos coming on, or after you’ve slipped up, you can reflect or journal using my “Decode Your Cravings” Method to get in control of eating again.
Decode Your Cravings Method
Practice Curiosity – Why are you having a craving? What biological, emotional or mental trigger made this happen? What is the craving trying to tell you?
1) Practice Self-Compassion
Self-Kindness – speak to yourself like you would speak to a friend
Common Humanity – recognize you aren’t alone, this is a common problem
Mindfulness – let yourself feel your feelings without getting lost in them
2) Practice Self-Care – What do you need to do to care for yourself to prevent this from occurring again or stop an out of control eating episode now?
Hormone Balance – The stress hormone cortisol can lead to intense food cravings and sleep disturbance that make it difficult to make healthy choices
3) Emotional Care – Emotional eating is using food to cope with and numb emotions, feeling your emotions is the anecdote.
Adopt a helpful mindset – All or nothing thinking and self-criticism lead to more eating.
Grounding exercises – tactics like deep breathing, body scan and gentle movement can help you connect with your body when you are about to overeat.
Anytime in the process you may need support:
- Community support – feeling out of control around food is isolating, and sharing in a safe space can help you break free from shame and overeating.
Remember Irene? She said this:
The other major issue, is I truly didn’t know that other people had the same eating/feeling behavior I did. I felt very alone. So learning that others were in the same boat as I, was incredibly reassuring.
- Expert Support – You’ve been stuck for a long time, with all of the love and compassion, if you could solve this issue on your own, you would have by now.
I invite you to book a Compassionate Clarity Call where we can discuss how I can help you go from food chaos to calm, confident, and connected to your body.
An important note about health equity
Inherent in this advice is the assumption that you have the resources and agency to make changes in your life. It’s important to note that not everyone has access to healthy food, safe spaces to move their body, or schedules that allow for these types of behaviors.
If you are someone with the privilege to care for yourself in the ways I suggest (even if it’s hard or you face some barriers), consider how you can support the work to gain equality.