How does willpower work?

Of course, you can avoid the temptations. You just need more willpower!

Setting your environment up to support healthy habits is one thing; helping your conscious brain make good decisions that facilitate health, I’m all for it. But there are a few key things that get missed off that story of willpower being the key to our dietary success.

Why don’t I have any willpower?

Firstly, energy regulation is not in our conscious control. To regulate energy/ fuel we take in, we regulate appetite. This is all controlled by the hypothalamus which is firmly in our reptile brain. Pretty essential for our survival and continued existence on this planet is a brain that knows what it needs instinctively, without having to think about it. We don’t get to control what our appetite hormones do. Our brain will do that for us and make adjustments on a very subtle level. And our genetics will determine the differences you obviously see between the appetite’s of different people.

Studies even show where participants are told a milkshake is worth different calorie values, that levels of the hunger hormone Gherlin will respond accordingly. Those told the milkshake is low calorie were found to increase their appetite hormone Gherlin by 3-fold. That’s not conscious stuff, that’s primal! You can’t outthink your primal brain.

Why is dieting so hard?

Add to this chronic under fuelling that calorie restricted dieting creates, and primal signals dig in even more.

Whilst the slimming club is telling you to keep going or try harder your body is fighting back. You may be bingeing as a result or feel like you’re losing the battle with the biscuit tin. That’s not you failing, that’s the body ensuring your survival.

When a slimming club relies on the scale to track progress there will always come a point where that strategy is flawed. Because the scale doesn’t respond to maths that someone has worked out on their calculator. Because the human body, especially when ensuring our survival is a bit smarter than any app or mathematical equation.

How willpower can help you?

So, when we refer to willpower, what we’re actually talking about is our ability to make human decisions that are in our best interests. Will power is all driven by our human brain… the part known as the pre-frontal cortex.

When we give ourselves permission to pause and take a breath, we have the ability to think clearly and rationally about what our future self will thank us for. We can also interpret our needs so much better. Sometimes that need will be food and sometimes it won’t be…but we have to tune in to find out.

Lots of stress or lack of sleep will also drive our primal instincts so addressing these two things, rather than just embarking on another diet plan, is a good shout.

The human brain can also cultivate self-compassion. It’s the part where we get to think about what we think.

We can’t judge ourselves for letting our primal brain take over; it’s there to protect us by doing what it thinks is best at the time. But with a moment’s pause our human brain can steer us. It can tell us there is no threat, reduce those cortisol levels and support us to make choices that are less sugar/ survival driven as a result.

With a little less judgement and more compassion comes the ability to be curious about why we’re driven to make certain decisions or food choices. We get to analyse and use critical thinking and problem solving to come up with another plan. Staying ‘judgey’ stops us engaging the human brain to the best of our ability.

But a word of warning… If you are under fuelling, you’re going to stay primal; that’s a basic need not being met so warrants staying on high alert.  Dieting also raises cortisol levels making us feel more stressed and triggering the primal response to take over more readily.

The message we get told is don’t stop, keep going, be tough on yourself to motivate you to try harder. My message to you is do stop, do take a breath, do allow room for your human brain to make decisions that benefit you.

If you’d like to find out more about how to tune in and find a relationship with food that allows you to thrive, then take a look at the online programmes
I support people with.

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