White-knuckling it through cravings is no way to lose weight. Managing hunger is.
By definition, willpower is simply: ignoring hunger. Choosing to not eat when your body is begging you to feed it. It's not a very good idea. It doesn't work for long term weight loss (this is why "diets don't work"), and it most definitely doesn't work for creating an effortless relationship with food.
Without fail, I get these kinds question from clients:
"What about when I get home after a long day and I'm rifling through the cabinets looking for something crunchy to satisfy my ravenous hunger?"
"What about the crazy snack attack I get every night at around 10pm, just before bed?"
"What about if I'm out at a party and there are tons of bad snacks everywhere - should I just skip the party?!"
All of these scenarios and more are simply manifestations of willpower.
By managing hunger, these situations actually cease to exist.
What is hunger?
Hang onto your hats; I've got some 7th grade science comin' atcha.
Hunger is a biological survival mechanism triggered by our cells and driven by our brains.
Remember that when you're eating food, you're feeding your cells. Your cells don't run on calories - they run on the sugar byproducts of digestion. This sugar can be created from any of the macronutrients: carbohydrate, fat, and protein - so please don't go thinking that I just gave you the green light to crush a Costco bag of Sour Patch Kids. In fact, your body's preferred sources of this fuel are from sources more slower-burn and reliable, like fat (my fave), and protein. But don't get me started on that, because that's a whole other blog post that I've already written.
When your cells run out of fuel, they mention it to the brain.
The brain, in turn, triggers hunger.
You eat, the cells get fed.
Life goes on.
That is, until you decide to deprive your cells of some of the fuel they're used to getting. This can happen in any kind of deprivation-based diet:
Low calorie (including portion restriction; fasting; juicing; HCG injections; the list goes on...)
Anytime you take some kind of fuel away from your cells, you will need to replace it with some other kind of fuel. The cells simply need to be fed. You can try exhibiting all the willpower in the world, but your cells call the shots on this one. Their hunger is not to be trifled with.
So - reducing calories right across the board? If you take it to a point that is lower than your body's biological fuel needs, your cells will be undernourished, and your hunger will rage out of control. Eventually. Many people can keep up a calorie-restricted diet for a period of time, but tend to fall off the rails spectacularly because they just get really, really hungry - plain and simple. Or as Gary Taubes put it in this awesome New York Times article, Diet Advice that Ignores Hunger:
"Asking people to eat less is like asking them to breathe less. It sounds reasonable, so long as you don’t expect them to keep it up for long."
Same story if you're trying to restrict one macronutrient or another. Your macronutrients are your fuel sources. As we learned above, you can't take away a fuel source outright; it needs to be replaced. People who restrict fat, for example, usually eat a ton of carbs - you kind of have to, because your cells need some kind of fuel (just in case that wasn't clear). Carbohydrate is fast-burn sugar for the cells - which is not a great plan for appetite control or hunger management, as explained below.
If you want to try a lower carbohydrate eating plan, the same rules apply: don't just eliminate carbohydrates without making a considered choice as to what fuel source you are going to rely upon in its absence. You can hire me to tell you how to successfully do that, or you can Google it.
Hunger, Hanger and Carb Cravings
That sweet tooth of yours; those unbearable cravings for carby, crunchy, sugary foods; the way you throat-punch your husband if he has the audacity to have a nose whistle when you've gone 3 hours without food? That's not normal, and it's all part of this too.
All your brain knows is that the cells are starved for the sugar they need to create ATP (cellular energy) and carry on the business of running your entire body. It goes into fight-or-flight mode, making the need to acquire sugar, fast, a burning priority. So you crave sugar at the cellular level.
When you eat the sugar, you feel momentarily better (until that quick-burn sugar energy runs out and you're right back where you started. Hungry, hangry, and craving jellybeans). This creates a whole new layer of food f*cked-upness: a Pavlovian response to eating sugar. You start to learn that "sugar makes me happy" and then it just becomes woven into your fabric. Emotional eating and stress eating have their roots in this learned behaviour; so we've just uncovered yet another "bad" eating behaviour that comes about as a result of not effectively fuelling the cells. Pandora's box much?
By the way, when I refer to sugar I'm not talking about eating cake frosting right out of the tin. I'm talking about foods that digest down immediately into sugar in the blood stream: CARBOHYDRATE.
Buns, pastries, muffins, donuts.
Lower-fibre fruit, vegetables, starchy tubers (yes, even sweet potatoes).
Quinoa, lentils, 47-grain bread, fair trade wild rice responsibly sourced from tiny remote villages...
Carbohydrate is sugar; sugar is carbohydrate.
It's not your fault you're not good at starving yourself. It's your biology.
All of this is to say: willpower doesn't exist. You simply cannot outsmart a biological survival mechanism long enough to make any kind of permanent sustainable change in your life.
A much better strategy is to manage your hunger signalling, so that you don't have insane cravings, ravenous unignorable appetite, and the feelings of failure that come along for the ride.
Erin's Top Tips For Managing Hunger and Kicking Willpower to the Curb:
Choose fuel sources that provide long-lasting, reliable, sustainable energy for your cells.
>> Emphasize fats and proteins. These macronutrients are converted to cellular energy very slowly.
>> De-emphasize carbohydrate. This is fast fuel that leaves you hanging and hungry.
Willpower - that is, ignoring hunger - just doesn't work. Hunger is a biologically engrained survival mechanism that we've honed over the last 2.5 million years. It got us to where we are today. You simply can't outsmart it. Gain control of your appetite, mood, energy and waistline by working with your biology rather than against it.