Most people believe that if they just had enough willpower they could overcome their cravings for the foods that they suspect are causing them to become too fat, and/or drive their blood pressure (BP), blood sugar (BS), and/or cholesterol levels too high. There is little debate that willpower is needed to overcome cravings and establish healthier food habits. With foods, we talk more about intense cravings rather than addictions although addiction to drugs and say Krispy Kreme donuts both involves the same parts of the brain. Stanford psychologist Kelly McGonigal explains how one key to breaking free from addictions or intense cravings requires learning to differentiate between the inner experience or desire to consume a craved food or drug and the more important goal of being happy or content with the achievement of one’s life goals. Giving in to cravings does not make one happy but often leads to people feeling worse and is often compounded by feelings of guilt or shame. McGonigal explains how mindfulness meditation is a technique used to help become aware of the gap between intensely wanting something you crave and achieving life goals that leave you happy, content, and healthy. She explains some of the psychology involved in cravings and how to better focus one’s willpower in this TED talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_fQvcBCNbA.
Dr. McGonigal also has a book titled The Willpower Instinct that discusses some of the neuroscience involved in stress and cravings. It also offers a variety of psychological and physiological techniques one can use to help strengthen willpower to better cope with stress and strengthen one’s resolve to overcome the addictions and cravings that seem to trap us into wanting things that we do not biologically need, but still crave so strongly they are hard to avoid (1).
The Food Industry Creates Addictive Foods
The commercial food industry knows all too well that people tend to get hooked on or crave foods that are high in salt, sugar, and/or fat. Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Moss's book titled Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us explains how big food companies like Kraft, Coca-Cola, Campbell's Soup, Kellogg, Capri Sun, Nestle, Oreos, Cargill, Lunchables, Pepsi, Frito-Lay and many others use their understanding of how to manipulate levels of ingredients like salt, sugar, and fat in foods and drinks to make them as appealing as possible. In reading that book, you will learn how they test various levels of food ingredients to maximize what they call the "bliss point.” Food scientists spend a lot of time figuring out how to create food products that are hard to resists. From the perspective of the food industry, the more irresistible or addictive the foods are the better. These companies create foods that people are more likely to consume repeatedly for many years. As Michael Moss points out, the food industry refers to its best customers as “heavy users.” If you have never read Moss’s book it is definitely an eye opener (2).
While one clearly needs willpower to adopt and stick with a healthful diet, it is important to recognize that using willpower as the way to stick with a calorie-restricted diet is a formula for failure. Dr. McGonigal’s book does a good job of informing us about how neurotransmitters in the brain help regulate willpower. She also provides techniques that one can use to enhance one's own willpower.
However, sheer willpower alone will not be useful and might even lead to eating disorders. Willpower is a useful tool, but, used naively, it is not the solution to weight control. Why? Because pitting willpower against a potent biological drive like hunger is a formula for failure. People who go on calorie-restricted diets and have a lot of willpower are in fact the ones most likely to end up with a serious eating disorder. We know almost everyone who ends up bingeing and purging got their start by doing their best to stick to a calorie-restricted diet. Pitting willpower against biological drives makes no sense. Can you use willpower to override the drive to breathe? Not for that long, and those who are the most determined to not breathe will be the ones "binge breathing" the most when their willpower finally gives out. This is not to say willpower is not important for adopting and then sticking with a healthful diet and exercise plan that is needed for long-term weight control. Willpower is necessary to overcome temptation and cravings to consume the fattening foods and drinks most overweight Americans have become addicted to. It’s just important to implement it the right way.
Willpower is undermined by confusion, which is why the food industry pays for questionable research that helps confuse the public about the dangers of foods high in saturated fat, cholesterol, salt, refined sugars, and grains, while staying low in protein, etc. The tobacco industry always questioned data linking smoking to cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, emphysema, etc. They knew that creating confusion increased stress and undermined the willpower of people who wanted to quit. Keeping people confused about the dangers of a modern diet or, years ago, the dangers of smoking helped undermine the willpower needed to stop smoking then or adopt a healthful diet today. The food industry today, like the tobacco industry years ago, knows how to make their products as addictive as possible. Overcoming addictions or intense cravings often requires abstinence.
Pavlov Showed How to Get Rid of Cravings
We know that eating cheeseburgers leads to craving cheeseburgers and this is true of most foods we eat and drink habitually. Of course, dietary habits and cravings are largely learned. Someone who has never eaten a cheeseburger does not crave cheeseburgers, just as someone who has never smoked tobacco does not crave cigarettes. People often wish there was a way to get rid of their cravings. If there was a way to get rid of their cravings for foods high in salt, sugar and/or fat, they say, then they could easily adopt a healthful diet. But there is a proven way to get rid of cravings and that is to use willpower to resist the craving and eventually, over time, the cravings weaken and eventually go away. Pavlov's dogs learned to salivate when he rang a bell because the bell was followed by food. In another study, Pavlov took dogs already conditioned to salivate to the sound of a bell and rang the bell but it was no longer followed by food. At first, the dogs salivated to the bell but over a few weeks of hearing the bell and never being fed, the dogs stopped salivating when they heard the bell. People who quit smoking years ago lose their cravings for cigarettes. I used to crave cheeseburgers, Haagan Das chocolate chocolate chip ice cream, and pizza, but those cravings are now long gone. This does not mean that one has to avoid all foods that promote ill health all the time. Most people can consume alcohol in moderation, but for those who cannot limit their intake to relatively safe levels, abstinence becomes the best option. The same to cravings to eat unhealthy foods. If someone has sufficient willpower to allow him/herself to eat craved foods in small amounts occasionally, then it is not imperative to give them up completely. But cravings for foods or drinks that one cannot control are best dealt with by abstinence.
Bottom Line: Using willpower to fight cravings makes perfect sense. However, using willpower to fight hunger and stick to a calorie-restricted diet leads to failure most of the time. In those with the most willpower, sticking with a calorie-restricted diet can leave that person so hungry and frustrated that it can lead to the development of serious eating disorders. Using willpower to try to overcome strong biological drives like hunger or being tired and needing sleep is unhealthy, but using it to improve the quality of one’s diet and sleep habits makes perfect sense.
By James J. Kenney, PhD, FACN
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.