Many of us have resolved to lose weight or eat better, even though we've failed at these goals in the past. Maybe we had initial success, then a gradual reversion to old habits, followed by frustration and guilt.
As an integrative practitioner, I often see these results. We berate ourselves because it seems like such a simple problem to solve: eat less, exercise more! And yet we still struggle. The fact that millions of others also fail at the same goal is no consolation. We just don’t understand why we fall short.
To complicate matters, weight loss isn't just about vanity—there are health issues to consider. Extra weight means increased risk for heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes. In other words, if protecting or restoring good health and longevity doesn’t motivate us .... what will?
Why are good dietary and lifestyle changes, which are the most affordable and effective paths to better health, so difficult?
Fortunately, we aren’t the only ones asking these questions! A community of researchers is determined to figure out why some people have such a hard time with temptation. More importantly, this work is leading to strategies to overcome these challenges.
Ways to exercise your willpower
Perhaps you’ve heard someone say that the brain is a muscle, and like any muscle, it needs exercise to stay in shape. The same could be said about willpower.
One approach is mindfulness. By thinking about a craving, we teach ourselves to overcome it. One researcher taught smokers to resist temptation by visualizing it as a wave—a passing phenomenon rather than a permanent fixture. They were shown how to deconstruct the craving, analyze how it was affecting their minds and bodies and ultimately overcome it.
This simple approach produced excellent results. Participants who received mindfulness training reduced their smoking significantly. Meanwhile, the control group, who had not received any instruction, smoked just as heavily.
As with many things, environment matters. Stress, for example, can make it difficult to make good decisions. It’s hard to be mindful, to take a few extra moments to reflect on our choices, when we’re in an all-out rush.
That may seem obvious, but there are even more fundamental processes at play. Parts of the mind associated with restraint and careful judgment simply get turned off by stress hormones. No doubt this was an important survival function for our ancestors, but now it simply paves the way for impulsive choices we regret later.
Understand how foods affect our willpower
On a day-to-day level, what we eat is a significant part of the problem. Processed foods, for example, boast endless lists of chemical ingredients that are shown to directly influence the brain and central nervous system. These foods can create a type of chemical dependence in our brains.
We know this is true because we’ve experienced it. Despite our best intentions, one piece of junk food leads to another. The problem is not our willpower; it’s how we metabolize food. Processed foods are, to some degree, pre-digested. They are quickly metabolized and converted to glucose, or blood sugar. Our bodies react rapidly, secreting insulin to tell cells to take in sugar. Soon, glucose levels plummet and that mini egg roll you were avoiding becomes almost irresistible.
New research shows that a blood sugar spike is frighteningly similar to a cocaine high. Once the initial rush dissipates, our brains command us to get more. The mind whispers no, but the body screams more.
To make matters worse, these glucose spikes have a cumulative effect. People who abuse drugs and alcohol become desensitized, and a number of studies are showing that people who abuse food have a similar experience. They simply need more to get that same rush.
So let’s reframe the discussion. We’re not fighting weak self-control; we’re fighting eons of evolutionary biology. This internal wiring can be a barrier or a tool, it’s our choice.
Make your body happy by eating whole foods
Understanding the biology behind cravings can help us overcome them. Just as our bodies and minds react poorly to unhealthy foods, they respond well to better choices. Granted, to lose weight, we will have to cut down on calories. But the most important change is adjusting what we eat.
We know that processed grain and sweets create unhealthy, and counterproductive, blood sugar spikes. To avoid these, we simply modify our food selections. Whole grains take longer to metabolize, releasing blood sugar more slowly.
Fruits and nuts are also beneficial, while providing superior nutrition. Lean proteins, omega-3 fatty acids and whole foods with fiber promote healthy metabolic balance. Add in green leafy vegetables and plenty of filtered water.
Harness willpower with ancient wisdom
These small changes reflect both modern research and ancient health wisdom. For example, scientists are now acknowledging the close interdependence between organs. Events in the stomach affect the brain, and vice versa.
These findings mirror the teachings of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), in which organs closely influence specific traits within each other, and create complex relationships that govern physical, mental and emotional health.
In TCM, the liver, heart and kidneys are the keys to motivation: The liver absorbs toxins, including toxic emotions; kidneys govern will power and discipline; and the heart is the palace of true joy, love and compassion. A strong kidney-heart connection advances healing. There are a number of ways to strengthen these connections, including acupuncture, specific herbs and nutrients, and mind-body practices.
Nature is replete with botanical and nutritional ingredients that reduce unhealthy cravings and maintain healthy glucose levels. American ginseng, medicinal mushrooms, seaweed alginates, kudzu root, chromium polynicotate and alpha lipoic acid are just a few examples. These botanicals help even out glucose metabolism, ensuring that blood sugar levels never go too low or too high and that cells get all the sugar they need to function well. They also help shift food cravings to healthier, more nutrient dense choices.
Exercise is also a necessary part of the equation, but it doesn’t have to be brutal. Simply walking 30 minutes a day can do wonders. There are also exercises that tone the body and quiet the mind. Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong are excellent options. Because these practices focus on breathing, they restore our natural calm. The stress and anxiety that so often dominates our lives just melts away.
Remember, diet is not something we do occasionally—we do it all day, every day. The question is what kind of diet we choose. By mindfully selecting foods that support a healthy metabolism, we reduce cravings and reset our bodies to a new normal. Pretty soon, good nutrient-dense food is all we want to eat.
Isaac Eliaz, M.D., M.S., LAc is a respected author, lecturer, researcher, and clinical practitioner. He is the founder and medical director of Amitabha Medical Clinic in Santa Rosa, California. He received his M.D. from Sackler Medical School in Tel Aviv University, Israel and his M.S. in Traditional Chinese Medicine from the American College of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
He has been a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine since the early 1980s and has been treating cancer and chronically ill patients using his holistic, integrative and highly personal form of healing for over 25 years.