Lots of people struggle with healthy eating because their willpower is under-developed.
There are countless reasons why willpower can be a bit fragile; upbringing plays a part, so if people were never denied things as a child they may never have developed resilience powers. On the other hand if children are denied stuff rigidly, including love, they might turn to food or other things as a subconscious vengeance or comfort. On top of that we’re faced with temptation all the time.
Food is omnipresent, on TV, on the radio, at petrol stations, pubs, train stations and even in hospitals. Humans are programmed to scavenge, as well as hunt, for survival and we still have the innate need to stock up on calories while we can. But why are some people better than others at resistance?
When it comes to self-control and willpower it’s the prefrontal cortex (PFC) area of our brain that does all the work. That’s the bit that sits just behind the forehead. This part of the brain is our behaviour control centre, so you often find that people who are quite emotional, stressy, angry or unable to concentrate have unruly PFCs. People who are calmer, more level-headed and practical-thinking possibly find it easier to eat rationally. This might be a clinical situation, just the way our brains are wired, or it might be that we have trained our PFCs either to misbehave or tow the line.
Sometimes the PFC can start the day well but gets agitated by life – traffic, annoying colleagues, unruly children, upsetting partners and friends – then it can’t cope, so we lose the will to resist chocolate, biscuits, crisps and secret toast. Over the years we may have got used to turning to food in times of anxiety or overload, overridng the PFCs off switch, or we may have found other ways of coping, taking things in our stride and putting them into context. There are many forms of coping, without having to overeat (mind you, some of them are just as damaging, even exercise when it’s used as a control mechanism).
What can be done?
Here are a few tips to boost your PFC’s power of resistance.
- Think not only about honing your body but honing your brain as well. Think of your PFC as a separate person who is trying to sabotage you – don’t let it win. Actually say out loud “ I am not letting you get the better of me!” as if it’s a free-thinking person standing in front of you, misbehaving. Even give it a light poke to show you know where it hangs out.
- Minimise stress so that you can focus on being healthy; health body and healthy mind. They are inseparable.
- When your PFC tries to make you eat something you shouldn’t, put it on the naughty step. Tell yourself you will wait and see how you feel later then re-examine your PFC later on, to see if it has thought better.
- Make your PFC happy by doing some exercise. Exercise releases happy hormones and puts the PFC in a great mood, ready to fight anything – including Rocky Road, choc brownies and random fridge raids.
- Keep your PFC off the sweet stuff, it will quickly become a sugar addict and start acting like a naughty child. Are you in control of this child, or is it controlling you. Parenting skills!.
- Just like a child, your PFC needs lots of sleep. If it doesn’t get that it gets whingey and has tantrums. Go to bed earlier, have a lie-in at the weekend.
- Make a pact with your PFC. Instead of saying “We can’t resist *whatever it is*” say “We don’t do that.” e.g. “We don’t eat cake and toast when nobody is looking.”
Watch this video, it shows children being offered a marshmallow. They can either eat it straight away or wait a while. If they wait a while they get two. This was part of a study, The Stanford Marshmallow Experiment When the children were revisited as teenagers and adults it was found that the ones who resisted eating the first marshmallow demonstrated advantages over their peers, such as better SAT scores, better use of reason, less stress. They were less likely to be impulsive, hyperactive or aggressive. How would you do at the marshmallow test? Think of it in the context of waiting for your next meal, where the reward for doing so is losing body fat (because you didn’t give in to snacking).
When it comes down to the wire you are in control of your body. Nobody else, not even your prefrontal cortex. You’ll find that if you work on your willpower every day you’ll soon notice changes in your behaviour. You’ll feel stronger and more empowered. Of course you don’t have to do this, it’s your choice. But if you want to gain better control of your eating and your health, REALLY want to, then you can.