April 26, 2020

Willpower Alone Won’t Fix Your Sugar Addition

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In June 2019, I did something I thought I'd never be able to do.

I waved goodbye to simple carbs and refined sugar.

Bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, and a whole slew of sugary naughtiness. Banished from my diet.

It didn't happen overnight. I've been on this healthier eating kick for years. 

I started slow, switching to wholegrain everything, and ditching fizzy pop and fruit juices. 

Alcohol was next, although as a whisky drinker it wasn't mandatory for me to cut that out - whisky has zero carbs. It's just that the rebellious part of me enjoys abstaining from the social pressures to drink.

I dropped white sugar and milk from my diet, which meant my morning bowl of porridge consisted of rolled oats and water. 

Yes, for about three years of my life I ate 'gruel' (as a dear friend referred to it) for breakfast. And yes, I enjoyed it.

Starchy foods were the last things to go (including my beloved oats), but it was hard to break my attachment to the carbs.

Macaroni cheese, rice, every type of bread, those little chocolate covered cornflake treats you get in Asda supermarket, and the occasional double pack of custard creams (which would typically be consumed by me within a 24 hour period - those people who can eat just one biscuit (AKA cookie), then put the pack back in the cupboard... they ain't normal to me).

Between a bit of a belly fat issue, the hangry episodes, sugar crashes, low energy afternoon slumps and brain fog, I knew something had to change.

And it did, eventually. 

When people find out I follow a low carb lifestyle, they usually do one of three things:

1) Give me the... "are you crazy?" side eye look.

2) Give me the look of pity "oh this poor thing is depriving herself of food". 

This is typically followed by "Sooo what DO you eat then?"

3) Tell me they could NEVER give up pizza, or pasta or chips because they don't have the willpower...

But having willpower has little to do with it.

Willpower isn't the magic bullet that everyone thinks it is.

Willpower is a limited resource that helps us make decisions, which we consider to be good for us, in the moment. But, as with all resources and good intentions, willpower fades, and with it so does our ability to stick to the decisions we've made.

Let's say Nikki wakes up in the morning and decides this is the day to kick start that diet she's been meaning to start. 

Only leafy greens and chicken for dinner for her tonight. But, it's been a long, tiring day and she's hungry beyond belief.

She opens the fridge and sees a big chunk of chocolate cake staring back at her. What's she going to do? Eat the cake, right?

Why did she eat cake? Because it was there. Tempting her to take a teeny weeny bite.

The 'see food' diet is brutal. 

I've been there before.

Willpower alone isn't saving any hungry souls from the temptations of cake. Nor will it provide the backbone for creating good habits that last.

To achieve positive and consistent change, there needs to be a change made in the environment. 

And for someone to change their environment they need to (a) make a decision to do so (driven by willpower when it's at its strongest), and (b) put safeguards in place to help them pre-commit to the cause. 

As psychologist Ray Baumiester writes:

The essence of [a pre-commitment] strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path. You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken. So you make it impossible—or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful—to leave the path. Pre-commitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens. He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to be untied no matter how much he pleaded to be freed to go to the Sirens. His men used a different form of pre-commitment by plugging their ears so they couldn’t hear the Sirens’ songs. They prevented themselves from being tempted at all, which is generally the safer of the two approaches.

Here are a few of my pre-commitment strategies:

  • I stopped buying foods high in simple carbs and refined sugar - If I can't see it in my cupboards or fridge, I can't be tempted to eat it.
  • If I'm going to visit family or a meal out with friends, I have something to eat before I go. Something small. Yes, this sounds backwards, but if I'm satiated with healthy food, I won't be lured into eating the non-negotiable stuff.
  • When I'm working my phone goes on Do Not Disturb (DND), and into another room. I don't hear any pings or rings, or see any notifications pop up until I next check my phone. DND mode gives my family the reassurance that they'll still be able to reach me if an emergency were to arise (three consecutive calls and my phone will ring). I get to work distraction-free.
  • I don't keep email or social media tabs open in my browser, and only check these once, maybe twice a day.

Having 'good willpower' is nice and all, but that's not what saves the day.

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