Willpower Alone Will Not Help You Control Portions And Eat Less
I often talk about weight loss with patients, and most tend to know what to do, but struggle to do it. They say ‘I just need to be more strict,’ ‘I know what I need to do, I just have to do it,’ or ‘I’ve done it before, I just fell off the wagon.’
But why is it so hard to do ‘it’, if we know what to do and that it works?
There’s two reasons for this. For one, I find that people don’t actually know what to do. What many people think they need to do to lose weight is often misguided and a result of diet culture baggage. We all collect ideas about weight loss and healthy eating from various places like diets, magazines, commercials, coworkers, friends and online. What you think you have to do is likely a lot harder than it needs to be. (Spoiler alert: you don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen meal prepping, ban your favorite foods, count calories, do tons of cardio or stop eating carbs.)
The other reason is because our culture isn't set up for health and weight loss. Many people rely on their willpower to eat less and healthier. But, willpower and portion control are a result of a healthier lifestyle, they don’t create it.
Without a strong foundation (habits and mindset) it will be difficult to eat less and control portions. If you don’t make lifestyle and mindset changes, and simply rely on your willpower to avoid ‘unhealthy’ foods and eat less, it will be a challenge to get lasting results.
A healthy lifestyle and lasting weight loss are against the grain, and often have a negative connotation. The habits and mindsets you carry with you, are all influenced by this culture, which makes it difficult to find success. The tide keeps pulling you the other way. Let’s look at the different factors that make healthy eating and living so hard, so you can move forward in a way that better aligns with your goals.
Our culture establishes what our normal is. Perspective and normalcy can change depending on various things like your environment, experiences, social community, religion, what you watch on TV and what you follow online. Though, many of our ideas are shaped throughout childhood and leave an impression for life.
The culture in westernized countries, specifically the U.S., revolves around excess. We have access to a variety and abundance of everything, from food to cars, clothing and home goods. We get new things when we don’t really need them and eat when we’re not even hungry.
This is both a blessing and curse. It’s great to live a comfortable and more convenient life but it comes at the expense of waste and clutter (plus the stress of maintaining it all). True scarcity drives rationing (portion control); forced scarcity in the presence of abundance (restriction), often results in overindulging (dieting and falling off the wagon or the restrict/binge cycle). Can you imagine if chocolate or chips were rare and you were lucky to just have one package? You’d probably wait to eat it and wouldn’t have it all in one sitting. Trying to eat just a small serving size of chips with the whole bag in your pantry (and hundreds more at the store) makes it too easy to overeat.
Excess is a result of food business; their main goal is to sell more food (to increase profits). But, most people already eat too much and don't need more food. It’s a struggle for people who love to eat, because it doesn’t take much convincing to override willpower and indulge/overeat.
Another aspect of food business is the use of sugar and fats (and various food additives) that make foods/beverages hyper-pleasurable (addictive), so you keep wanting and buying more. This is also why it's so hard to stop after just one serving size of your favorite chips, pretzels, candy, pizza or ice cream.
A material item can be donated or thrown away when you’re done with it, but with food, the extra gets stored and accumulates as body fat. As we've experienced, it’s not so easy to get rid of it.
Have you ever noticed how much food temptation you’re exposed to each day? This is a product of food business; commercials, billboards, the side of trucks, Pinterest, what our coworkers are eating, candy lined checkout lines or smelling fast food while running errands, are all sources of temptation. These collective, subliminal messages drive our appetite, cravings and eating habits. It's a continual test of willpower.
Excess wouldn’t exist without low quality. It’s easy to buy and waste a lot of cheap things. The types of food in excess are typically low quality, like processed/packaged food, factory farmed animal products (meats, dairy, eggs, butter), farmed seafood and conventional produce. These practices create more food volume with less time and lower costs, but it’s harmful for the environment and our health.
Low quality also means low value. It’s easy to abuse things that we don’t value. When food is abundant and less expensive, it’s much easier to over-consume and waste. Paying more for high quality food is actually a good thing. It not only supports producers creating better food, but it also helps you value it more so you buy and eat less.
The American lifestyle does not typically prioritize health and happiness. It’s common to work long hours, feel guilty about taking sick days and get minimal vacation time. This comes at the sacrifice of enjoying life, maintaining a normal weight and feeling happier.
This relates to portion control and willpower because we use food for comfort, procrastination, boredom and to destress. Also, the stress, anxiety and lack of sleep associated with the typical American lifestyle, wreaks havoc on our hormones, which slows metabolism and stimulates appetite. It’s the recipe for weakened willpower and less motivation.
This lifestyle is also packed full of obligations. Gaps in our schedules are often filled with relaxing activities (watching TV, reading, scrolling social media, catching up on email). There is so little time for exercise and healthy habits. You can’t rely on your willpower to compensate for a lifestyle that doesn’t support it.
Being sedentary is another common downside of the American lifestyle. As we age, we lose muscle mass, so we have to eat more protein and work a little harder to build and maintain it. If you aren’t active, the muscle loss is compounded, which is why people in their forties and fifties feel like they gain weight more easily.
Lean muscle mass equals faster metabolism, or more calories burned at rest. This is why you might feel like you gain weight just by looking at carb, or have to eat very small portions to not gain weight. By adding in more low intensity cardio and weight building exercises, your body will need more calories, which allows for larger portions.
Your Current Eating Habits
We establish many of our ideas and habits surrounding health, eating and weight loss from an early age, so they have a deep origin. Changing them takes time and patience, to form new associations, memories and positive emotions tied to healthy food and eating, which replaces lifelong habits and mindsets that aren’t serving you. It's normal to have setbacks and days where you 'go off diet' because it's unrealistic to expect yourself to change overnight or be perfect in this culture. This is why I stress with patients to go easy on themselves and to not feel like a failure at each slip up.
Telling someone what foods are healthy and exactly what to do to lose weight isn't necessarily helpful long term without the associated lifestyle shifts. This is why diets work for a month or two and then most people fall off the wagon. There are too many changes too fast without addressing the foundation. Of course eating less and better works, but it’s the sustainability that’s tricky.
And for sustainability, you need to address mindsets like negative self thoughts, an all or nothing attitude, striving for perfection, failure and unrealistic expectations. In terms of food habits you must shift your eating ques, food and emotion associations, your eating environment and your meal rotation.
In The End
The first step to eating less and controlling portions is to recognize and detox from all the noise and clutter and turn inward. Your own body is a powerful guide when you listen to it. Instead of allowing external influences to guide your decisions, do what your body needs.
Health and weight loss entails a major life shift from what's normal to something that feels unfamiliar. With small changes mixed into your normal routine, you'll build a healthy foundation. It’s like a snowball, at first it’s small and can fall apart easily, but after a while of consistent rolling, it becomes larger and stronger. Small changes are collective and synergistic.
Finding a balance where you enjoy life and food, but still put your health and wellbeing first, (which is what I help people achieve), is the key to lasting success.
As long as you have the desire for a better, healthier and more vibrant life to keep you going, you’ll do it. Changes won’t feel like ‘sacrifices’ or a negative thing, they’ll become purposeful and appreciated. You have the power to support and advocate for yourself and live the life you want to live.