Exactly Why Overeating Doesn't Reflect Your Mindset Or WillpowerOct 21, 2023
If you struggle with overeating either because of hunger or food cravings, you may have been led to believe it’s your fault. That you need to shift your thinking and mindset, or, that you lack willpower or discipline. I believe that’s BS - if you demonstrate willpower in other areas of your life, then it’s not a willpower issue. If your biology is out of whack, you’ll experience hunger and cravings - battles that your mind cannot win!
Your biology is way more powerful than your psychology.
When was the last time you ate more than you needed even though you didn’t want to, or devoured an entire jar of peanut butter because it wouldn’t stop calling your name from the pantry? Or, have you ever reached for a snack and it opened the floodgates? A small handful of nuts becomes out of control until you’re full and never want to look at an almond again! It was almost as if you truly did not have control over your behavior. Then, you felt bad about your choices and blamed yourself on some level. If you’re anything like the women I work with, it happens more often than you’d prefer.
In this episode you’ll learn that your lack of willpower is not a willpower issue at all.
Your body’s biology is way more powerful than your brain’s psychology. Because of an ancient survival mechanism called homeostasis, your body’s need for fuel will always win - regardless of how determined your mindset is. In just a few minutes, you’ll learn how to shift any overeating or food preoccupation simply by tweaking your current food choices and eating patterns.
When you eat in a way that truly stabilizes blood sugar (ie blood glucose) you’ll reduce hunger, eliminate cravings, and have more energy than you can possibly imagine. You’ll feel cool, calm, and collected around donuts, and experience a kind of grounded, stable energy that isn’t dependent on your grande mocha in the afternoon.
Click above to listen to this episode and let me explain exactly why overeating is not a reflection of your mindset or lack of willpower.
I’ll never forget it…it was a dark, cold, wintery Sunday night in New York City. I was chilling on the couch when I was sucker-punched from the side with an intense craving for lemon pound cake. The bodega up the street always had the freshest, most amazing lemon pound cake that I was obsessed with. I tried so hard for probably an hour to “will power” myself to “stay disciplined” and “think” my way out of the craving. Long story short, that failed, and I got dressed, trudged through the snow to the bodega and bought not one, but 2 lemon pound cakes and devoured them on the way home. I can remember that it felt like my body needed them - and in some way, my body did need them- and they tasted so good. Did you know that it’s been proven that sugar and fat on your tongue are as instantly addictive as certain street drugs? My sugar addiction lasted many years until I finally learned the power of eating to balance blood sugar.
At the time, I was following the hype about low carb and ketogenic eating and wasn’t getting enough carbs to support my body and brain. The result was that my blood sugar had bottomed out and my brain and muscles needed circulating sugar to keep me alert, alive, and aware. For whatever reason, my body interpreted that to mean lemon pound cake. Now, this wouldn’t be a big deal if it happened in isolation, but, this happened all the time. After a while, I started to believe that there was something wrong with me, emotionally, and that this pattern was something along the lines of disordered eating. Because I thought my behavior was a mental or emotional issue, I hired a Freudian psychoanalyst and worked with him for four years! It was a wonderful experience and I learned so much about myself. While I certainly had some emotional things to address, I discovered that my penchant for lemon pound cake was not a distraction from my feelings. It was simply because I was hungry.
All these years later, I still love a good lemon pound cake, but my desire for it is never distracting, and I’d certainly never leave the comforts of my couch to go retrieve some. In the years since those days, I’ve found that when I balance my macronutrients throughout the day, and make sure I’m getting high quality foods, I’m rarely hungry. In fact, sometimes my blood sugar is so stable that I don’t want to eat and have to force myself to in order to avoid getting out of balance.
Disclaimer: I am in no way suggesting that emotions and eating aren’t tied together in very mysterious and significant ways for some people. I’m offering you a new perspective as a wonderful tool for determining if you might want to seek the help of a professional, or, if maybe you just need to eat differently.
If you’re hungry, you’re hungry! No degree of self love, willpower, or self talk is going to quell hunger. The tricky part is that if you’re a woman over the age of 37, sometimes hunger isn’t clear because of a disruption in the appetite hormones leptin and ghrelin. You may not even realize that you’re hungry - hunger is not a true reflection of the need for fuel. In fact, if you’re hungry, it’s already past the point of when you should have eaten, and your blood sugar has already bottomed out.
The first thing to know is that hunger is your body’s survival instinct to ensure your brain gets a steady flow of glucose, commonly referred to as “sugar” or “blood sugar”. Hunger is a sign that your body needs fuel. When looking at it this way, you may think that waiting to eat until you’re hungry is the way to go, and there are some voices out there who encourage an “intuitive” approach to eating who say you should eat when you’re hungry. There are a few problems I have with this approach because hunger is a slippery slope.
Hunger is not your cue to eat…it’s the signal that you’re past the point of needing to eat, and your brain is now having to motivate you.
Your body has an ancient system of preservation called homeostasis. It’s a collection of complex orchestrations designed to keep you alert, safe, and able to protect your own survival. This includes things like the need for sleep, fear, temperature regulation, weight gain, weight loss, energy, and yes, hunger. Essentially, it all points back to your brain - which is the master organ of your entire body. It’s the thing that determines your aliveness because it’s in charge of every aspect of your body - and it never stops running. Even while you’re asleep, your brain is busy! Your brain’s preferred fuel is “sugar” in your blood known as glucose, and your brain must have a steady flow of it, just like your vehicle needs gasoline. No gas, no go!
The glucose in your blood is created by either ingesting glucose or breaking down more complex carbohydrates. If your brain is low on glucose, the fastest way to get it up and running is to ingest foods that contain glucose. When your brain doesn’t have the glucose it needs, it will begin conserving tasks. This is why you can’t think clearly when you’re hungry, or why you get shaky if you haven’t eaten. Your brain uses a number of tactics to conserve energy and to alert you that it needs fuel. One of these tactics is hunger! It’s your brain prompting you to eat so that it gets the fuel it needs to keep you operating fully.
The second thing to know is that appetite and hunger are two different things. Hunger is your biological need for fuel and appetite is your desire for food. You might need fuel but not have an appetite. This could be a helpful thing, or something that bites you in the butt if you’re not clear on your strategy and intentions. If you have a huge appetite and feel hungry, it’s really hard to make good food choices, and there is a greater tendency to eat more food than what your body actually needs. Lacking an appetite isn’t a sign that you should wait longer and until you’re hungry. The practice of “eating when you’re hungry” can backfire if you’ve waited too long to eat, or if your appetite hormones are out of whack. Mild hunger is a pleasant feeling as it enhances food satisfaction. If your life is such that you’re able to eat as soon as you sense a little bit of hunger, that works. And, if you struggle with overeating and hunger, try eating sooner, certainly before you get super hungry.
Leptin and ghrelin are the two appetite hormones that signal hunger and fullness. Ghrelin is produced in the stomach and signals your brain when it’s empty, and therefore prompts hunger. When you’re in a phase of eating less, more ghrelin is produced, triggering hunger. This is why you get hungrier when you’re in a weight loss phase. This is also why you get so hungry if you’ve waited too long to eat, and why listening to your appetite can be a tricky proposition. And if your ghrelin production is low, you won’t feel hungry. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need calories to fuel the rest of your body. And this is why it’s problematic to eat according to your appetite.
Leptin on the other hand signals satiety when you’re full. It’s produced in adipose tissue (body fat) and helps to regulate energy balance prompting fat loss when you're in a calorie deficit and fat gain when you’re in a calorie surplus. These two hormones can get imbalanced, especially if you’re overweight, and therefore aren’t accurate for predicting when it’s time to eat.
You can see that hunger, appetite, and fullness have so much more to do with your biology than your psychology. There are things like energy balance, blood sugar regulation, and appetite hormones at play. These things are very powerful drivers of how, when, and why you eat, and they are in place to ensure your survival.
In short, you cannot think your way through hunger.
Your body’s mechanisms for survival are super powerful, and your biology will always win in the end. Your appetite is not an accurate predictor of your body’s need for energy (ie calories) and your brain’s need for fuel (ie glucose).
There were some compelling studies that indicated that willpower is exhaustible, and that your psyche can only will for so long before that struggle gives out. Then, there was some more recent research that debunked this idea. Either way, relying on willpower to control what you eat is usually a losing battle.
There are also great conversations out there on why building discipline is so important, because in some ways your behaviors become habits. And while I love this idea, and love the virtue of discipline in general, I also believe that there are so many other areas in your life to develop discipline, like staying consistent with your workouts.
Cultivating discipline with food isn’t needed when you reduce hunger and cravings by eating to stabilize your blood sugar. Another conversation that’s out there, especially in the self-development communities is that overeating is the symptom of unresolved emotions and/or ineffective thought patterns. While this can absolutely be true, I’ve found that changing your psychology and emotions is a tall order that not everyone has the time or bandwidth for.
Learning to truly love yourself unconditionally might be a life-long project for you - as it is for me. I struggle to feel 100% worthy and it’s most likely my biggest challenge in life. It is a wonderful task, and I want you to love yourself so much that you give your body the gift of regular strength training and nutritious and supportive foods. And if you’ve been trying to change your eating habits through self-love, willpower or discipline, and find that it’s not working, please learn my methods. You’ll free up so much energy and bandwidth that was spent on fighting with yourself internally.
Overeating is a hiccup in your biology, not your psychology.
When you reduce hunger and eliminate food cravings, you don’t have to wrestle with yourself, or mandate tougher self discipline. It’s easy to eat the foods you know are in alignment with your health goals, and it’s easy to walk past the dang chips.
Is this helpful? If so, please let me know by leaving a comment below.
Your feedback helps me know what things to talk about each week so I can help you create the body you need to keep up with the life you love. And if this episode resonates with you, keep your eyes on your email inbox because I’ll be opening up my 12 week group coaching program The Nutrition Project soon. That is where you’ll learn the exact methods I use to help my clients improve energy, reduce hunger and cravings, and lose weight- if that’s your goal.
I encourage you to check out my Blog and learn more about my approach to eating because it has worked miracles for myself and my clients. In fact, I’ve had several women come to me worried about disordered eating, and discover that once they regulated their eating, they no longer felt disordered. If this is you, please give my methods a try. And, if you’re struggling with more than just your eating patterns, and do have some heaviness in your heart, I’m a huge proponent of seeking out counseling. Even just being able to talk out your worries and upsets can be life changing. You deserve to feel as awesome as you are. And I promise, there are solutions to help you conquer your biggest challenges.
Did you hear that my official podcast is coming!?
Very soon you’ll be able to find these episodes wherever you listen to podcasts. It’s years in the making and I’m so excited for you to join me. I’m creating a very special gift for you when you post a review of the podcast, once we’re live. So stay tuned and get your earbuds ready for some good times ahead.
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