Let's start by defining what exactly "self-control" or "willpower" is (2 words I'll use interchangeably here)...The American Psychological Association writes:
The "marshmallow test" was my first formal introduction to the idea of willpower. It is a famous social science experiment conducted by Walter Mischel from Stanford in the 1960s. His team put a pre-school aged child alone in a room and gave them a marshmallow. The children were instructed if they went 15 minutes without eating it, they could have a 2nd marshmallow. Some kiddos could wait and others could not. The team tracked the ~90 children to see how their behaviors correlated with later successes in life. They found that those who delayed gratification with the marshmallow were more successful later in life. Sounds like a neat little package, right? Believing that self-control is behavioral - you either have it or you don't. HOWEVER, Tyler Watts from NYU and UC Irvine researchers later repeated the experiment in the 1990s with >900 children and accounted for variables such as race, ethnicity, parental education, and financial status. They found that self control (and later success) was more-so shaped in large part to the child's social and economic background and not necessarily a "behavior" to be controlled.
So in essence, the child's ability to "control" themselves around food and delay gratification had more to do with whether or not food (or even opportunity) was scarce than it did with their inherent ability to control themselves.
This makes a lot more sense with what I see in my office: When food is limited by choice, belief, or situation, it becomes more powerful and harder to resist. It's less of an issue of "self-control" or "willpower" and more about circumstance.
When food is limited by choice, belief, or situation...it's less of an issue of "self-control" or "will-power" and more about circumstance
Restriction by another name
This whole idea of self-control is tricky because everyone seems to have a different definition of what it looks like when it applies to food. When I dig deep with clients, they usually report that they believe it is the ability to...
"...'say no' to food when they see it..."
"...choose the 'right' food..."
"...to stop eating when they're 'supposed to'..."
But how realistic are these beliefs? Check out the below image...
So much of the above is driven by the mis-guided idea that cognitive knowledge / belief alone "I know what and how much my body needs" is MORE valuable than the communication from and with the mind and body that drives human behavior. In essence, people believe that self-control is the ability to make a food choices regardless of what needs the body / mind communicate. The disconnect leads to feelings of failure, guilt, and shame.
Consider another signal
Hunger is so fear and shame driven by our society, so let's look at it from another physical signal such as the need to go to the bathroom. When your body sends a signal that you have to pee, sometimes it is reasonable and necessary to ignore / delay honoring the signal - perhaps you can't step away, the bathroom isn't accessible, and/or it's not urgent "enough." However, ultimately, you will end up in the bathroom and fully empty your bladder (or risk some ridiculous pain / soiling yourself).
But would you ever shame yourself or someone else by saying, "I have no self-control because I have to go to the bathroom"? Or "I have no self-control because I can't stop mid-way through going to the bathroom"? Or "I shouldn't completely empty my bladder because of my body size"? Or "There's clearly something wrong with me because I have to pee and he doesn't"?
Absolutely not. We recognize and accept that our body speaks to us and has individual needs to be honored. We don't believe we should be able to control our behavior despite what our body needs.
People believe that self-control is
Self-control vs Deprivation
Our diet centric world gives the impression that dieting (aka, restricting the amount or type of food) should be possible, regardless of circumstance. However, research into the effects of restriction demonstrate the opposite effect.
Our body (and mind) doesn't know the difference between circumstantial restriction (eg, famine, poverty) and intentional restriction (eg, dieting, good/bad food). Humans are a species designed to thrive. So in situations of starvation / restriction, its reaction is the same - increased fixation on food, increased appetite, increased portions, decreased energy expenditure. Ancel Keys is most notable for his work exploring how starvation affects the human body (and spirit). It also gives me concern about the pressure we put on patients who live or come from situations of poverty to "eat better." Is it realistic (or even ethical) to restrict food when there isn't much "choice" to begin with? This previous blog post explores how circumstance can affect the ability to make health "choice."
Interestingly enough, restriction can affect people for generations to come - both metabolically and behaviorally. Metabolically, future generations are more likely to exhibit insulin resistance and increased weight (decent summary here). Behaviorally, those who have experienced restriction are conditioned to eat regardless of despite hunger/fullness signals and encourage others to do the same "just in case" the food might run out.
Most people in the United States and the world aren’t too far away from a state of starvation – wars, depressions, and famines aren’t far down the line in many families. When food / types of food are rationed, we are forced to stop eating before feeling satisfied. Then when food is available, we eat beyond the point of comfort because you never know when the next meal will be. Both circumstances make it hard to make “choices” about food. When our upbringing comes from a place of poor foundation, it’s helpful to recognize those circumstances don’t still exist. (side note: sounds a little like dieting, right?)
For a case study on how restriction can affect our food relationship, check out this blog post
where I talk a bit about the evolution of my own relationship with food.
So how DO I develop self-control?
Consider whether or not your "definition" of self-control and willpower is in line with what your physical and emotional needs OR is it about meeting society's moral standards around food. Perhaps a more effective way to develop this idea of self-control (lack of guilt) is to explore how food rules affect you and how to find a balance between your individual needs and health pursuits using a system such as Intuitive Eating (previous blog post here).
Stay nourished friends!
DISCLAIMER: The information presented here is meant to be for general education. If you want individual guidance to reach your unique health goals, please contact me or a local dietitian directly
Dietitian, personal trainer, mother, wife, runner, and triathlete staying healthy one bit and bite at a time