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Forget Willpower: Seven Steps to a Healthy-Eating Mindset Even If You Love Chocolate

August 29, 2012
By Guest Blogger
|13Comments|


I was always pretty good about eating healthy, or at least I thought I was until I heard the three most dreaded words: “You have cancer.” Even though I am considered an expert in emotional eating and the psychology of weight loss, and have helped thousands of people with emotional eating, I now had to revamp my own entire diet.

Ironically, two surgeries and 33 radiation treatments later, people who didn’t know that I had cancer started to tell me I looked thin. No, it wasn’t the cancer. But yes, when you give up meat, dairy, eggs, sugar, chocolate (which deserves its own category) and most everything that tastes good, you will lose weight. Normally, I would have loved hearing this comment; but the truth is, I would have given anything to have my health back.

And yes, you are correct if you detect an edge in my voice. At the time, I did not know about Kris’ film or even her story; but I read as much as I could get my hands on. It became abundantly clear that I needed to raise the bar on my definition of healthy eating, which now included mostly veggies, fruit, protein shakes and supplements.

As the months have gone by, I find myself occasionally yearning to revert back to my former level of kinda-healthy eating. While I love my veggie meals and salads, I sometimes long to grab something quick that does not require cutting and chopping.

Here are seven strategies I use for staying on my plan.

1. Take crazy sexy good care of yourself. There are times when Ben and Jerry are calling my name, and I have carrots rotting in my fridge. Urges for sweets can be a signal that you need something. You may feel tired, discouraged or unsupported. The truth is – these are nonfood needs. Medicating these feelings with sugar or alcohol only makes things worse. Amp up your self-care, and these urges will make far fewer appearances on your life stage.

2. Give in. There are times when if I want something, I have it. If I tell myself I can’t have it, it only makes me want it more. Pay attention to how you feel during and after you are indulging in unhealthy food. Most importantly, care about how you feel. Usually, the negative experience of how I feel when I have it is enough to cure me of this desire for a good long time.

3. Learn from how you feel. After not eating meat for many months, my body really doesn’t react well to a juicy cheeseburger, no matter how appealing it looks. Keep this in mind while reading the restaurant menu.

4. Put it off. Research shows that telling yourself you can have it later reduces the urge almost as much as having it now. Postponing your indulgence, tricks the brain into thinking you are saying “yes” to it when you are really only saying “maybe.” Don’t tell yourself you can’t have it. Tell yourself you can have it later.

5. Manage your moods. Cancer or any other major life challenge comes with its own emotional roller coaster. Let yourself feel your feelings, but don’t get stuck in them. Use supportive therapists, coaches, etc., along with self-help techniques like Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFTs) and meditation to help manage your moods and reduce emotional reactivity.

6. Forget willpower! The average person makes well over 200 food decisions each day. Willpower is like a muscle. The more you use it, the more you use it up. It’s not something you can get more of really … and the more you use it, the more likely you are to quit. This pattern keeps you in a depressing cycle, starting with a massive commitment to change followed by eroding motivation and relapse into old habits. One of the biggest barriers to success is not lack of willpower, but the belief that willpower is the key to change.

7. Make sure it feels like a choice. It’s always easier to say “yes” to healthy eating if you see it as an ambition, rather than an obligation. What most people do when they decide to eat healthier is create a lot of rules, such as “no meat, no dairy, no sugar, no junk food, no eating after 7 p.m.” The problem with this approach is that it can make you feel deprived. Whatever food choices you make, they have to feel like a choice. Otherwise, you rebel because you feel like your freedom is being taken away.

Like Kris, I won’t say having cancer is a gift, because I wouldn’t give it to you. I think of it more as a cosmic assignment, or more simply put, the ultimate call to love – the call to love and honor yourself, your body, yes, even your cancer, the other wonderful people we share the planet with, and your insanely precious life.

Carol Solomon, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading experts in using EFT to help people stop emotional eating, lose weight, and reduce anxiety and stress. She is the author of the “EFT Tips” newsletter, and the “EFT Weight Loss” CD.

Photo credit: Ed Yourdon



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13 responses to Forget Willpower: Seven Steps to a Healthy-Eating Mindset Even If You Love Chocolate
  1. Lovely post. I disagree on your points about willpower though. How will you back up those statements? I can highly, highly recommend Gillian Rileys books on this subject! Like “Willpower” or “Eating Less”. She is also all about owning choice – and there for leaving deprivation behind :)

  2. I find Dr. Solomon’s suggestion on willpower to be in line with a theory set forth by Kelly McGonigal in “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It” which I just finished reading. It was a very well-researched book, contained plenty of stories and straight forward strategies for putting the science to work in real life and left me realizing how at the mercy of neuroscience my daily habits really are.
    I found this article to supplement my new-found knowledge nicely. For me, “number 7: Make sure it feels like a choice” is the kicker – I am not in the place where the planning for success feels desirable – it all just feels like a chore which I am not motivated to tackle.

  3. Mia and Ellen, thank you for your comments. There is a substantial body of solid research, led by Dr. Roy Baumeister, showing that willpower does, in fact, have a physical basis and operates like a muscle. It can be strengthened to some extent with practice, and fatigued by overuse. (See his book with John Tierney, called “Willpower: Rediscovering The Greatest Human Strength.”)

    His research also clearly demonstrates that there is a limited supply of willpower. And what people don’t realize is that we use the same supply of willpower for other things besides resisting donuts. We use willpower to make decisions and to ward off the urge to go out and play instead of sitting at your desk all day, and the urge to tell off your boss or your spouse when they make a critical remark. In other words, we use willpower to keep our emotions under control.

    So if you’ve had a stressful day, where you’ve had to bite your tongue to suppress your feelings or make a lot of decisions, you can easily find yourself overcome by urges to overeat, with no willpower left over at the end of the day.

    So to me, there is far too much focus on willpower, as opposed to managing our own internal states. Willpower is no match for our own emotionally-driven appetite or the “hidden persuaders” in our environments. Also, see the excellent research of Dr. Brian Wansink, described in “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.”

    What to do? Stop blaming ourselves, rely less on willpower, setting up our environments to be successful and taking more responsibility for managing our mood and energy levels are great places to start.

  4. When you make what you want more important than what you don’t, it becomes less about will power. I find that when I make a serious commitment to myself, I will stick to it no matter what. When necessary, I just remind myself of the incentive for whatever I’m doing. Of course you need to really want the positive benefits and the end result.

    Also, I found that what we think we feel and believe about food is mostly incorrect. That we’ve been conditioned to think we want certain foods that eventually become addictions. Once you eat extremely healthy, you find it all changes. For me becoming 100% raw vegan allowed me to obtain so much more freedom with eating. Now it’s just something I do for my health rather than a crutch or a social necessity. Life is much easier.

  5. I really enjoyed this post and I totally agree that you need to enjoy what you eat while eating healthy as well. If you think healthy food is something you ‘must’ do or you are ‘bad’ you are less likely to stick with it. And willpower IS a muscle that most of us could use a bit more flexing. Thanks for this excellent post.

  6. I was diagnosed with DCIS a few weeks ago. Today we went out to our favorite breakfast place, known for the awesome ( dare I say killer cinnamon rolls) I found myself ordering fruit an scrambled eggs. I didn’t feel like I was depriving myself of anything, but instead it felt like I am meeting the challenge presented to me by breast cancer.
    I am strengthening my willpower muscle regarding food like I have strengthened my willpower muscle in other areas of my life.
    thanks for this post, Carol, it came at a perfect time !
    Keep posting

  7. I believe that keeping things positive is vital. If I say “don’t panic”, you hear “panic!”; if I tell myself I can’t do something, I immediately want to do that something. Maybe it’s just my inner 15- year old raging, but it focuses my attention on that which I want to forget or not notice so vividly. Celebrate the positive! “I’m making excellent choices!” or “Atta girl – well done!” are so much more health-affirming than “I can’t…”, “I shouldn’t…”, or “I’m such a loser – why did I …?”

  8. Sorry for those trying to access my website. It’s working now. Thanks for letting me know! :)

  9. I am curious as to what you use for your protein shakes, if you do not mind sharing.

    Thanks!

  10. Thanks for this lovely article – you are right — it is a choice, and a very good one, to care for ourselves. After all, it is the best version of ourselves that we want contributing to the world, and one huge piece of that is self-love and care.

  11. Dimond, I love the idea of focusing on what you want and taking willpower out of the equation. That just makes sense, and such a practical approach.

    Christina, thank you and yes, forcing yourself to do things usually does not have a good outcome. There are many people who cannot eat salad because they associate it with dieting!

    Beth, I know you are struggling right now, but still learning and increasing awareness all the while at the same time you are managing this challenge. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Blessings.

    Sandy, yes, we all have an inner 15-year-old (or inner 3-year-old) inside stomping her feet. Good for you for adjusting your language and attitude to avoid stirring up rebellion!

    Robyn, I routinely use a simple organic grass-fed, whey protein powder added to almond milk (chocolate, of course) after I do strength training to support the immune system, boost energy and aid muscle recovery.

    Laura – yes, it is a choice, and the important thing as Ellen said above, is that it has to feel like a choice.

    Blessings all, Carol

  12. Love this article!!! I especially like number 2. I eat healthy from Sunday through Friday every week and I allow myself one cheat a week on Saturday. Most of the time, by the time Saturday comes, I don’t want anything unhealthy. If I decide that have a piece of strawberry cheesecake, I don’t feel so bad because I’ve eaten clean all week :-)

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