Losing weight ultimately boils down to a battle of wills - you against your body. Your conscious mind may want to lose the extra fat, but your body does not. It interprets weight loss as a sign that you’re starving to death and in response it fires off every trick in its arsenal to prevent that from happening and “help” you survive.
Many of those tricks are physical (like slowing your metabolism, reducing fidgeting to conserve calories, and changing your microbiome to set up easy weight regain), but the majority of your body’s impediments to your efforts are mental. Mental temptation is really just another chemical signal. Your emotions, your drives, and your wants are significantly determined by hormones and neurotransmitters. Changing your diet changes your chemical environment. Doing it the right way helps your chemistry reinforce your willpower while doing it the wrong way sets you up to lose the battle of wills against your own subconscious.
Food is satisfying and eating anything releases endorphins in your brain to trigger your opioid receptors. Removing the rewards from overeating (or constant grazing) makes those first few weeks unpleasant. It’s also why you aren’t really dealing with temptation when you eat, but when you’re NOT eating. It would be so much simpler if you just had to resist temptation 3 times a day. Instead, you need to ignore the little voice in your head hundreds of times all day long.
Fortunately, like with everything, it becomes easier with practice and repetition. The more you resist temptation, the less challenging it will be the next time. As I always say, to succeed in weight loss you need to get your body’s chemistry working for you instead of against you. The same applies to the chemical signals that control your willpower. I’m going to go over some general tips that will strengthen your internal resolve against temptation and then go over an example of how to structure your day to reinforce your willpower and set you up to succeed.
Set up your chemistry
I need to quickly explain some complicated physiology so bear with me a second. I’ve previously written about the importance of you microbiome for your health and well-being. An imbalanced microbiome can cause all kinds of mental dysfunction like anxiety, depression, autism, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. This is because many species of bacteria in your intestines create neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine for your enteric nervous system, sometimes referred to as your second brain.
The enteric nervous system is a sheath of neurons the surrounds your digestive system and powers the complicated process of digestion. There are more neurons in this region than in your spine and peripheral nervous system. It connects back to the central nervous system and brain through the vagus nerve. This allows you to feel problems with digestion, those butterflies in your stomach from anxiety, etc. What’s interesting is that this gut-brain axis doesn’t flow equally in both directions. In fact, 90 percent of the traffic is from the enteric system to your brain. Scientists are learning that this is why digestive dysfunction impacts mood and emotional well-being far more than we previously thought.
Build your microbiome: Bad diet, too many antibiotics, not enough time outside, and a lack of dietary fiber causes us to lose important species of bacteria. To fortify your willpower, you first need to fortify your microbiome. Check out the article on the microbiome for specific probiotic suggestions to introduce lost bacterial colonies and prebiotic foods you should eat each day to keep them healthy and supplying you with the neurotransmitters you need to stay mentally strong.
If you need further incentive for strengthening your microbiome to help your weight loss, a study from a few years ago analyzed the dietary data from 36,377 American adults between 1971 and 2008 and found that people today are 10 percent heavier than those from the 1980s even if they consume the same amount of calories and have the same level of activity. They suggest several theories like exposure to more weight-triggering chemicals in pesticides and packaging, but their primary hypothesis is that changes to our microbiomes are making weight gain easier. If you want more details on how a dysfunctional microbiome causes obesity, you can check out the article on the microbiome that I mentioned before.
Improve your insulin sensitivity: Something that will really test your willpower is sugar. Easily digested sugar (like in soda and processed foods) causes a massive insulin spike. Too much insulin then clears out more sugar than it should have and your blood sugar will actually dip too low. The easiest way for your body to get back to normal is to send out signals to eat more sugar. This then gets you trapped on the carb rollercoaster. Your willpower will be tested worse than ever, you will likely give in and you’ll keep racing towards weight gain. Cutting out the easily digestible sugars is the first step, but to keep those cravings in check when you have more complex carbs (like whole grains), you need to work to improve your insulin sensitivity. If your body requires less insulin to remove blood sugar, then you won’t risk triggering the carb rollercoaster when you do eat carbohydrates. Here are some things you should do daily to improve your insulin sensitivity:
Curcumin: I went over this recently so I won’t go into it to much here. Studies show that daily curcumin improves insulin sensitivity and protects against weight gain (also helpful for weight loss).
Exercise: Strength training or cardio helps improve insulin sensitivity by using a different mechanism to shuttle blood sugar into working muscles. Relying less on insulin makes your muscles more responsive when it is present.
Eat carbs early: We are naturally more insulin sensitive in the morning than we are at night. This means the same meal in the morning results in lower post-meal blood sugar levels than it would at night.
Stop eating after sundown: We are learning more and more about the importance of circadian rhythms. They not only set our wake-sleep cycles but also the wake-sleep cycles of our muscles, organs, and bacteria in our microbiome. We are meant to be awake and eating during the day and fasting and sleeping at night. For example, your muscles become insulin-insensitive at night. You may eat sugar and your body may release insulin in response, but your muscles don’t take it. Going against our biological schedule causes metabolites to stack up and cause problems. We also do most of our healing and regeneration in a fasted state so eating at night interferes with that as well. Sticking to a proper clock improves fat loss, endurance, and muscle mass. Going against it causes increased body fat (even at the same calorie intake), increased cancer risk, lower insulin sensitivity, and a host of problems.
These are all good practices in general for weight loss. It improves your chemistry which amkes weight loss easier. It’s not only physically easier to shed pounds but mentally as well. You won’t trigger as many defense systems to encourage you to abandon your diet and gorge. It’s easy to win the battle of wills if you don’t need to fight it in the first place.
Set up your day
I laid out some general good practices, but I also wanted to go over some simple things you can do each day to improve your willpower. I put them in the order you should tackle them throughout your day.
1. Make your bed: This is a tip you see in all kinds of articles about improving willpower or bettering yourself. It works for a simple reason, studies show that every moment of self-control makes it easier to perform the next one. Starting your day with a win fills you with a bit of pride and makes you more willing (and likely) to complete another task, and another, and another. Every win reduces the pull of temptations until they don’t even entice you at all.
2. Exercise: Exercise first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. It doesn’t need to be intense, even a walk outside is great. Starting your day with activity has a ton of benefits. For one, you don’t want to do it, so overcoming the first bit of resistance from your subconscious improves your ability to do so throughout the rest of your day. Other studies have found that sticking to an exercise routine improves your willingness to delay gratification and resist temptations. It also sets your chemistry up better for weight loss than doing the same activity later on. Exercise first thing in the morning improves insulin sensitivity throughout the day and doing so on an empty stomach has been shown to activate fat-burning genes.
3. Reduce your options: “Variety is the spice of life.” While a little variety in your day keeps things interesting, variety in your diet seems to just make you eat more. Whether looking at a single meal or an entire diet, it seems that people and animals consume far more when there are more options. The last bite of something is never as satisfying as the first bite and eventually your body and brain will be satisfied and tell you that you’ve had enough. However, if you can switch to another food when you’re bored of the first one, you’ll end up eating more of both. The more options you add, the more you can eat of each before you grow tired of it all. Having tons of options also exhausts your willpower. It’s known as decision fatigue. The act of making decisions degrades your ability to make quality decisions later on. Decision fatigue not only taxes your decision-making, but your self-control. The more decisions you have to make throughout the day, the less likely you are to resist temptations at the end of your day. It’s why the worst diet choices tend to be made late at night. Trying to figure out what to eat for each of your meals throughout the day decreases your likelihood of making the right decisions later on. Reducing the variety and planning out your meals will reduce decision fatigue. Keeping at least one meal like breakfast or lunch (or both) the same each day will increase the “boringness” of that meal and make you less likely to overindulge. I always say that food should be enjoyed, but not every single meal needs to be an adventure.
4. Have some walnuts: If you find yourself dying for a snack in the afternoon, make it a handful of walnuts. Not only are they a healthy option, but an interesting study found that walnuts in particular improve willpower. The study found that adding about 315 calories worth of walnuts to your diet activates the right insula region of the brain (involved in appetite and impulse control) and limits your reaction to desirable foods. Obese subjects were given smoothies containing walnuts or placebos with an identical calorie amount and taste (they then switched later in the study). Both groups took functional MRI brain scans while viewing images of desirable foods like cakes and hamburgers, undesirable foods like vegetables, and neutral images like flowers and trees. When both groups had their turn with walnuts in their smoothies, the right insula region lit up showing that participants had more cognitive control of their decisions. They were more attentive to their food choices and better able to make healthier decisions. Both groups also reported they felt less hungry throughout the week and more full when they had walnuts in their smoothies.
5. Change your dinner menu: Saturated fat is not the killer that we’ve been led to believe, but as I’ve said previously it isn’t harmless. One of the drawbacks of saturated fat is that it has been shown to “jetlag” your circadian rhythms. Refined sugar also pushes back the clock. This means you will find it harder to fall asleep and the quality of your sleep throughout the night will be impacted causing you to get less restorative sleep even if you do get a full 7 to 8 hours. Research has found that cutting the sugar and saturated fat from dinner and adding in more fiber improves sleep quality in as little as a week, even before subjects experienced weight loss.
6. Stop eating before bed: As I mentioned above and in the article on time-restricted eating, when you eat can be more important than what your eat. Eating contrary to our built-in circadian rhythms causes metabolic dysfunction and weight gain. One study observing the eating habits of 110 college-aged kids found that those with a higher body-fat percentage ate the majority of their calories closer to melatonin-onset (when their circadian rhythms started preparing them for sleep). Even when comparing calories and food content, it was the ones eating close to bedtime that had the higher amount of body fat. Eating too close to bed not only increases your weight but disrupts the quality of your sleep.
7. Reflect on your wins: We are quick to dwell on our failures and overlook our successes. As I mentioned in point 1, each win instills a sense of pride and increases your likelihood of accomplishing more positive tasks. The time for temptation and willpower is over, so take a moment to reflect on your wins. Focusing on the positive helps contribute to an overall positive attitude about the future. It’s an exercise worth performing that will increase your willpower the next day.
8. Get some sleep: I’ve mentioned ways to improve sleep quality for a reason, poor sleep leads to poor decision making. Too little sleep the night before throws off your hormonal balance the next day. After getting 6 or less hours of sleep, you’ll produce more of the stress hormone cortisol and appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, you’ll produce less of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin, and your body will be less sensitive to insulin (which makes you more likely to store body fat and increases the risk of diabetes). An interesting study also found that sleep loss increased the release of endocannabinoid 2-arachidonoylglycerol (2-AG) later in the afternoon and evening of the following day. This hormone binds to the cannabinoid receptors in the brain (like with marijuana) and increases the feelings of pleasure that people derive from eating sweet, salty, and fatty snack foods. Other studies have shown how lack of sleep decreases activity in the region of the frontal cortex responsible for evaluating food choices. Another study observed Chinese workers in high stress IT or call center jobs and found they ate unhealthy food in the evening for comfort from their job stress, but only if they had a poor night’s sleep beforehand. All this means that after a poor night of sleep, you’ll be hungrier, you’ll find fattening food more enjoyable, you’ll be less able to make rational food choices, with poor insulin-sensitivity you’ll store more of it as body fat, and you’ll interfere with the quality of your sleep again, setting you up for the same cycle the next day.