May 30, 2014

Fuel Partitioning 101: Willpower (Addendum)

We have a little unfinished business to tackle from last time. Before Captain Obvious kicks me out of the force, I’d like to clarify a few things about discipline and willpower. I didn’t mean to imply that D&W are figments of our collective imaginations, or that they’re not required to at least some degree in order to get healthy and lose excess body fat. For sure, they are part of the puzzle, but the whole thing only comes together nicely when all the other puzzle pieces are in the right place, too.

Where I work at my festering open wound of a soul-suck non-nutrition day job, there’s a never-ending stream of treats coming in. Someone’s always coming or going, retiring, having a baby or a birthday, or maybe just decided to bake a bunch of cookies or whip up a batch of fudge over the weekend. The result is, hardly a day goes by that there isn’t some kind of yummy, sugary, vegetable oily, floury thing on the front desk, mere inches from my dungeon cubicle. And as I have made clear on this blog, I’m not 100% refined sugar free. I’m not 100% gluten free. I may even, on occasion, ingest a molecule of canola oil via restaurant salad dressing or somesuch. (And now I’ve probably lost the four loyal readers I had.) My point is, once in a while, I’ll help myself to a little bit of whatever these treats are. However, more often than not, I take a look, and then walk right past.

I’ve been known to refuse ice cream cake, cupcakes, cookies, and the like. My coworkers often say I must have a lot of willpower. I usually reply with something along the lines of needing to set a good example, or needing to “look the part” of someone capable of helping others with nutrition.

But the truth is, I don’t have a lot of willpower. 

Willpower implies suppressing a physical drive or psychological desire by relying on the higher functions of your brain. Logic, reasoning, weighing the cost/benefit of a particular action, rather than letting your baser instincts dictate your actions. Frontal cortex stuff overriding the hard-wired reptilian stuff.

But when it comes to food, here’s the thing: You don’t need “willpower” to resist a craving when the craving isn’t there. Most days, I need about as much “willpower” to resist eating cupcakes as I need to resist driving on the DC Beltway at 8 o'clock in the morning. It’s just not something that appeals to me, so I don’t need a whole lot of convincing to get myself to not do it.

How is it that someone can look at the donuts and danishes at the morning meeting, shrug, and think, “meh?” How is it they can sit there with their coffee and not want those sweet treats one bit, but others flock to them like fruit flies to strawberries? (Or, like people eating the standard American diet to sugar?) I’ve been there. I’ve had days where I don’t just want one donut; I want four. And I’ve had other days where I take a look at the box and don’t have the slightest interest in what’s inside.

What makes the difference between these two perspectives? Mostly hormones. Specifically, mostly the hormones involved in blood sugar regulation. This isn’t just insulin, but also cortisol, epinephrine, glucagon, and others. (So it’s not just what we eat that affects things, but how stressed out we are, how much sleep we got the night before, and more.) My point is, by correcting the hormonal milieu, we take willpower out of the equation.

It’s easier to have willpower when your physiology isn’t pushing you in the opposite direction. It’s easier to stick with zucchini and roast chicken when your body isn’t telling you that what you needright now, so help you God—is a brownie. Cravings don’t have to be “resisted” when cravings aren’t there.

Last time, we talked about an insulin resistant, overweight person, who, because of their insulin resistance, is unable to access their stored body fat for fuel. Because this person’s insulin levels are always somewhat elevated (unless it’s been several hours since they last ate anything with an appreciable amount of carbohydrate), they pretty much never tap into all that fuel. And because they can’t tap into it, the only thing to do is take in more fuel. (Yes, that’s one of the more fascinating things about insulin resistance coupled with obesity. Even though this person appears to be overweight, and our society’s ignorant, knee-jerk judgment is that, clearly, this person eats too damn much, on a cellular level, they are actually starving. All their super-awesome fuel is locked away tight. This is why they tend to not want to engage in the “move more” portion of the eat less move more advice. No access to fuel = no energy. Like we said last time, with no fuel in your gas tank, your car ain’t goin’ nowhere. No access to energy? Good luck going for a jog or wanting to pick up a barbell. So this is the “discipline” part of willpower & discipline. You can force yourself to work out on an empty tank, but that can only go on for so long. Eventually your body will rebel—and so will your spirit. (You’ll start to feel sluggish, tired, irritable, depressed, and generally either totally miserable, or pissed off at the entire world. Also, in an ironic turn of events, your body composition will actually get worse. You will find yourself losing muscle and gaining fat.) 

This is why I get so, so angry at mainstream advice hurled at overweight people to eat less and move more. This does (almost) NOTHING to correct the underlying problem, which is that they are hungry and have no energy, thanks to the effing low-fat, high-carb diet all the experts say they should follow. (Like I said last time, we dont criticize people for putting on coats when theyre cold. So why do we criticize people for eating more and moving less when theyre hungry and tired? These moral judgments about W&D really get me.)

But back on track, to the aforementioned insulin resistant, overweight person. Because they’re up and down on the blood sugar rollercoaster and can’t access the fuel in their fat stores, when they get to the down portion, their body tells them they need—you got it—more sugar. (Or more of something that will become sugar upon digestion, like bread or pasta.) This person’s body is telling them they are hungry. But the only message they’ve gotten all their life is that if they want to lose body fat, they need to “eat less.” So this person thinks they need “willpower” to resist the physiological urge their body is producing. They’re hungry, but they shouldn’t eat. Or maybe they can allow themselves to eat, but only a pittance. Something like a Lean Cuisine, or a 100-calorie pack of something. (OT: Epic rant about 100-calorie packs forthcoming.)

This kind of behavior can only last so long, because it doesn’t just imply a will strong enough to eat less than you’d like to; it implies a will strong enough to feel hungry all the time and be okay with it. A will to suppress an actual, legitimate, physiological drive. A will to avoid everything you want—all the fatty, meaty things you’re craving. (I have friends and relatives who are calorie counters and fat gram police, and they often complain about being hungry and cranky. This is not something that can go on forever. And maybe hubby & kids would like wife & mom a lot more if she just let herself friggin’ eat something already. But I digress.)

Willpower is like a muscle: use it or lose it. You’ve got to exercise it or it gets flabby. BUT, willpower is also a finite resource. You can only deprive yourself of something you want for so long before your more primal wiring kicks in and you go straight for whatever it is. (A cigarette? A drink? A new handbag or pair of shoes? I’ll stick to the arena I’m comfortable addressing and call it a family size bag of peanut butter M&Ms.) If, all day long, you say no to this, and no to that, and manage to suppress the desires for multiple different actions (whether for eating a certain food, keeping your mouth shut when you want to lash out at a coworker, or maybe keeping your wallet in your back pocket when you’re tempted to shell out some dough for the latest and greatest shiny, new [but totally unnecessary] toy), eventually, you will reach a point where the willpower runs out, and you will do a cannonball into the deep end of whatever behavior it is. (Or substitute a different behavior. Like, maybe you manage to stay away from the tiramisu, but instead, you whip out the credit card and before you know it, you’ve spent $300 on Amazon.)

How does this relate to the kind of eating I generally advocate? Well, this is why I like for people to find what the late, great Dr. Atkins referred to as your individual level of carbohydrate tolerance. If you can consume “x” grams of carbohydrate and still feel and look the way you’re happy with, then you don’t necessarily have to go lower than that. It’s up to you whether you prefer those “x” grams coming from roasted beets or parsnips, or coming from carrot cake slathered with cream cheese frosting. My point is, if you don’t allow yourself to enjoy whatever wiggle room you feel your individual tolerance permits, you might find yourself going twelve days being “strong” and turning down the cake at your coworker’s retirement party, the mini-Snickers in the secretary’s candy dish, and opting for a lite beer or glass of wine at the office happy hour instead of the chocolaty, creamy mudslide you really wanted, but on day thirteen, when you stop at the grocery store to pick up your bison burgers and organic kale, you end up grabbing a jumbo bag of kettle corn off the shelf and eating half of it in the car on the way home. (Not that I know anything about this. Actually, for once, I am being sarcastic. I have never eaten kettle corn in the car. [It was banana chips, if you must know. And it was just a regular size bag, thankyouverymuch.])

But that’s for people like you and me, who are already following a diet relatively lower in carbs. What about people just starting out, and making the shift to a Paleo/Primal, lower-carb, or just plain real food way of eating? For these people, willpower is a bigger issue—at least, at first.

When you’re first transitioning from a typical breakfast of whole grain cereal with skim milk, a banana, and a glass of juice, to some veggies and a couple of eggs fried in butter or coconut oil, it can definitely take a few days for the cravings to subside while your hormones fall into line. And during this initial phase, while you ease off the blood sugar merry-go-round (I got tired of saying rollercoaster), this is when you sometimes do have to white-knuckle your way through. The good news is, eventually, the cravings go away. (Mostly. More on that in a sec.) The other good news is—depending on your individual carb tolerance, of course—you might have to stay away from the sugary and starchy things you’re craving, but at least now you get to eat the fat! (Which is what your body was probably really crying out for all along, but in the past you were too conditioned to fear eating it, so you reached for a bag of pretzels or crackers instead, thus perpetuating the cycle. Yowza!)

So let’s not kid ourselves. In the initial stages, you do need a little bit of willpower. And even later on, after you’re a card-carrying Paleoite or convert to the Primal/lower carb way of life, cravings will rear their heads now and then. Why do you think there are so many…So. Freaking. Many…recipes out there for “Paleo banana bread,” and “Paleo brownies,” and “Paleo apple pie?” (Made with maple syrup, honey, date sugar, etc.) It’s because we’re only human, and sometimes even the hardest-core adherent to one of these ways of eating will find themselves wanting to jump head-first into the dessert case at the local diner. (This will typically happen when you’re sleep-deprived or overly stressed out.)

And it’s okay to indulge once in a while. In my humble opinion, it’s better to have something you really enjoy once in a while, savor it slowly, relish the hell out of it, feel no guilt, and proceed as normal afterward, than it is to restrict, restrict, restrict, and then spend 2-3 days face-down in the nearest warehouse-store-sized box of Frosted Flakes, trough of linguine, or tray of baklava designed to feed a family of six. (Barring any severe food allergies, of course. If you are one of the unfortunate souls who would spend 2 days in a bathroom after accidentally ingesting a molecule of gluten, then obviously, if you choose to indulge, you might want to make it something other than your average cookie or piece of cake. And if dairy is public enemy #1 for you, steer clear of ice cream, KWIM?)

Okay. I’m getting way off track. All I really wanted to do here is show that there is a time and place for willpower and discipline, but it’s not what we typically think it is. It’s not about depriving ourselves of food when we’re hungry, or forcing ourselves to exercise when we’re exhausted. It’s about choosing what’s best for our long- and short-term goals, and finding our own levels of dietary wiggle room that allow us to reach those goals, but still let us enjoy something we really love from time to time.

And one more note about discipline: in terms of what I tell clients, discipline has far less to do with what goes on in the gym or basement workout area than it does with what goes on in the kitchen. Maybe it takes a bit of “discipline” to prepare 2-3 days’ worth of food on a weekend instead of watching that hour or two of TV. And maybe it takes a little “discipline” to take six minutes out of an evening to prepare lunch for the next day. So yeah, maybe it takes a little “discipline” to have real food on hand and ready to go. But it’s kinda funny…having real food on hand, prepped ahead of time, and ready to go can go a long way toward making “willpower” irrelevant. If sliced skirt steak and chopped vegetables are already ready to be thrown into what Mark Sisson would call a “big-@ss salad” that you could put together in about 48 seconds, you might be more likely to have that salad for dinner instead of reaching for the bag of Chips Ahoy.

*Continue to the next fuel partitioning post: To Carb or Not to Carb - That is NOT the Question

Remember: Amy Berger, M.S., NTP, is not a physician and Tuit Nutrition, LLC, is not a medical practice. The information contained on this site is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any medical condition.


  1. How do eating disorders such as disordered eating and binge eating disorder come into play here?

    For binge eating disorder a lot of the time binging and overeating are due to not dealing with emotions, such as sadness, boredom, anxiety, and trauma and do on. A part of their brain is suppressed preventing them from exercising willpower even when they want to. Restrictive eating can trigger it and it's the most common eating disorder world wide even though it was only recognised several years ago.

    Can a low carb diet help these people? These people are told that dieting is unhealthy and that it's toxic. I am actually starting to see why and appreciate your blog in a whole new way because as you frame this it's not like a normal diet. You're listening to your body and fueling it... You're not restricting eating and forcing exercise you're almost nurturing your body to a place where it's able to perform how we've been demanding of it. It's like you've cut the toxic bs out and are promoting compassion for your inner voice and also your actions towards your body. I just wonder how people with BED can further benefit from your knowledge because so far you've pulled all the puzzle pieces together for me, but there's just this one I am struggling to fit in and understand :).

    1. MANY people have reported great improvements (if not total remission) of binge eating, bulimia, and other forms of disordered eating after adopting a low carb/ketogenic diet. Keto is very good for changing/normalizing certain neurotransmitters that may play a role in those kinds of behaviors. Not everyone finds improvement, though. It's a fascinating area of research and very promising. I wish it was a magical cure for everyone in this regard, but it ins't. Definitely worth a try, but not going to be a miracle solution for everyone.

    2. That is good to know! Thank you so much for your blogs and reply, it means a lot!

  2. Over the last week, I have read a lot of your posts. Simply fascinating work. Thank you!

    I am wondering if you can shed some light on why even after doing a low-carb diet for a significant period of time, people (at least myself) still crave for carb-loaded foods? My personal story is that I did keto diet for over an year, lost 85 lbs, was feeling my best self, and then gave in. I didn't have cravings, it was just that, I felt I accomplished my goal, and wanted to re-introduce carb intake because I was missing out on food that I really enjoyed. Post that, it was a downward spiral.

    As you said, my body (and brain) wasn't really craving for it. I remembered liking carb-loaded foods, and once I re-introduced carb in diet, I assume my body gradually went back to running on carbs. Does this mean that we have to be always consciously stay low-carb (with cheating occasionally)?

    The follow-up question is, if body prefers using fat as source for energy, once fat-adapted, why does body gradually slip back to running on carbs? Shouldn't brain signal to prefer fat over carb? Is it because of the years of "carb conditioning"?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this if you are still around.