QUESTION: “How can I find and stick to a better and healthy eating plan, knowing some of the things I eat are sabotaging my weight loss? I can’t find the willpower to refuse the foods I shouldn't be eating (mainly too much almond butter) to see some positive results on the scale. I currently follow a vegan diet.”
DR. NEAL: Thank you for your question. Willpower is something EVERYONE struggles with.
My own patients believe that my willpower is somehow stronger than theirs, which is why I don’t struggle with… insert their condition here. This is a false assumption.
Oh, and when patients do tell me this, I never get defensive! This is because they have opened the door for me to level with them.
Just like I’m going to do here.
My willpower is no different from yours or anyone else’s. Many find it hard to believe but for the longest time, I had zero interest in performing most healthy habits.
Even when I was eventually diagnosed with a chronic disease, I would take my medications, but I wouldn’t do anything else to help improve myself. I didn’t want to exercise, I didn’t want to change my diet, I didn’t want to meditate… nothing.
It wasn’t until my medication dosages had to go up and I had to think about paying for my own health insurance that I started to SLOWLY change my habits.
I repeat – this was a VERY SLOW process.
And even then, I would experience moments where my “willpower” would be completely gone. I would relapse into old habits.
Why does this happen? I will share with you what I’ve learned from experience along with what researchers have discovered.
Tips on Committing to A Healthy Eating Plan
1. Think of Your Future Self
Begin with this thought, “Do something today for which your future self will thank you.”
When it comes to gathering the strength to refusing foods that you may feel are sabotaging your progress, remind yourself that you are doing this for your future self. Even if you perform just 1 small behavior today that makes you feel better, that’s a step in the right direction.
Because tomorrow, you may not feel the physical effects of that 1 small behavior right away, but you will mentally. You will begin to gather momentum – and to use quote Newton’s First Law of Motion, an old cliché – an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an unbalanced force.
If you can repeat that 1 small behavior again within the near future, like saying “no” to a food that you find is holding you back, it will continue some of that momentum and likely help you feel a bit better about your situation.
These little wins can be so important because it often leads to increased confidence which can help motivate you to continue your progress and move on to bigger changes later.
2. Have a Back-Up Plan for “Willpower”
I must mention something about willpower. Far too often, we blame our lack of willpower for our inaction. But the truth is willpower comes and goes. Frankly, it’s exhausting to rely on our willpower all the time.
In fact, I probably have less willpower than you when it comes to pizza, French fries and donuts since those are my problem foods. Think of willpower like a muscle – exercising it every so often is a good thing, but too often, and it leads to fatigue from overuse. Willpower operates this same way. Using it every now and then is good but relying on it all the time will just lead to exhaustion and disappointment.
This is often why, the end of the day is often the most challenging time to try and eat more nutritious foods or fit in some time to exercise. We just spent an entire day using up that willpower muscle at work, dealing with colleagues, sitting in traffic, paying bills, dealing with family issues… and on and on.
And then we somehow expect we’re going to have enough willpower left to make a good decision when it comes to exercising or sticking to our healthy eating plan by preparing a home-cooked, nutritious meal! It’s probably not going to happen – that muscle is spent.
So, we need back-up for our willpower… tricks we can rely on when our willpower is just not there anymore. Which brings me to another famous saying.
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3. “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin
One thing we can do to back up our willpower is to have a plan. The beauty of this is it takes out the guesswork and removes willpower from the equation.
This plan doesn’t need to be complicated. I talk about this more with my next tip. Researchers have repeatedly discovered that we are more likely to meet our goals when we have a plan. Even if you start small it will help.
So, you could decide that you will cut back on your almond butter consumption by 1 serving a day… or maybe it’s ½ a serving every other day. It doesn’t matter, just have a plan. Researchers are also discovering that if you write down your plan, write it down somewhere, anywhere, it tricks your brain into thinking it’s real, which in turn, makes it more likely to happen.
I have made it a habit to write down even something as simple as my daily to-do list.
4. Keep Things Simple
Keep the healthy eating goals simple for now and consistency will follow. Complexity is the enemy of action. If a behavior is simple and convenient, consistency will almost always follow.
5. Have Patience with Your Healthy Eating Plan
Habits take time to form. So, why do we expect to be able to break our habits with a quick snap of our fingers? It doesn’t work that way!
Again, consistency is key. Have patience with yourself. Understand that you may not see the results you’re looking for right away. But that doesn’t mean good things aren’t still happening! You can’t see how the neurons in your brain are beginning to change as you begin this journey.
You can’t see that by cutting back on just 1 serving of almond butter, you’ve reduced the number of calories floating in your bloodstream, which in turn, may make fat cells near your abdomen shrink.
But if you stay consistent and have patience with yourself, eventually you will feel and see those wonderful effects.