More thoughts on self-control (see 9/9/11 post)….

Willpower.  The word resurfaces from time to time in the ocean of diet advice around us.   We’re likely to feel its tug again soon, as an important new book calls willpower a muscle.  That is, you can strengthen it with practice.  And you can kill it with overexertion.

Year of research actually back these ideas.   They obviously have a lot to say for those swimming through that diet advice.  Willpower muscle strength can indeed spell diet success or failure.  As with a gym routine, many of us struggle to start and stick to it.   However, even those who flex their muscles well in other situations can find themselves suddenly weak when it comes to food.   How does the muscle metaphor translate to weight loss and diets?

The book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, draws on Dr. Baumeister’s decades of self-control research.  The benefits of self-control have been well-documented.   And studies have established that practice indeed bolsters self-control.  Baumeister’s work goes farther, finding that self-control can flag when people are fatigued and stressed.  And, importantly, this applies to the fatigue and stress of working to control oneself as well.  This all strengthens the case against restrictive dieting, and for our efforts to change habits in small, persistent ways.

It can be hard to see, though, how this applies to those—many–who say “It feels like a force comes over me”, as they head for the brownies.  “I just wasn’t thinking,” as they hit Burger King;   “I knew I was doing it but didn’t care,” as they demolish the Doritos.

Further, what’s happening when a person’s done well for months, then suddenly finds herself slipping back, regaining every lost pound?

Eating habits challenge willpower muscle-building in multiple, daunting ways.   For starters, “you can quit smoking or drinking altogether, but you always have to eat”, many chronic overeaters point out.  In other words, eating itself prods the desire for more.  Once you’re used to eating certain amounts, you’ll be hungry ‘til you get that amount, at least at first.  And in muscle-building contests, hunger has an unfair advantage.

So:   overeating tweaks more hunger.  On top of that, certain foods will themselves urge you to gorge.  Specifically, once you’ve gotten used to foods “engineered to be hyperpalatable”*, you will want much more.  Some of us experience a drive for these that’s as strong as an addict’s for drugs.  This includes most junk foods and fast foods, many canned or packaged supermarket foods, and chain restaurant food.  In other words, these hard-to-control foods surround us as completely as that diet advice sea.

It’s as if we’ve got to do twice the work to build muscle that should tone up with practice.

A further complication can exist outside of our awareness, too.  Say you’ve built the muscle, as the person who’s followed a better diet for months.   She’s gotten “clean” of junk food.   It’s possible the muscle simply isn’t strong enough yet.  But it’s also possible—and here’s a real complication when it comes to weight–that something about being thinner and in control feels uncomfortable.  A person’s self-image, perhaps as fat, perhaps as helpless over appetite, can feel ingrained and somehow “right”.  Changing it feels unsettling.  It builds anxiety if left unexamined.  “I can’t explain why, but it just feels like it’s not for me,” one client noted recently.

Paying attention to how change feels can help.  So can some of the ideas offered by Baumeister on how to build willpower.  So can some of the coping skills offered in self-help books and in therapy.  It’s not that the willpower muscle can’t build for healthier eating and weight.  It just may take more time, effort, support, or self-awareness.

*see The End of Overeating, by David Kessler, Rodale Press, 2009

For self-control building tools, also see Eat Sanely:  Get Off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good, by Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D.  (click on “Workbook”, above, or order ebook Kindle edition directly)