Why Willpower Doesn’t Work with Overeaters
The reason people have weight issues is they have too much willpower. Read this again. The reason people have weight issues is they are using willpower to control their eating.
Using willpower as a means to try and control eating is the cause of overeating. So, potential clients you may previously assumed didn’t have any willpower, actually have way too much of it.
You, and science, has direct proof that of this. Time and time again you see clients where no matter how much you try to motivate them, design their exercise programme around them and support them with your knowledge, time and effort, they just can never get a grip on their appetite. Or they can, but only for a short while.
Somehow, the weight they lose and how much better they feel, never seems to equate to them actually preferring to eat in the new healthier way.
Anyway, back to the revelation about willpower being the cause of overeating.
Artificial Attraction to Food
People develop large appetites – the need to eat much more than the body uses – are considered to be ‘artificially attracted to food’. Being artificially attracted to food means you don’t possess the normal human aversion to overeating. Normally, human beings have an inbuilt instinct which makes them unable to overeat. The physiology of humans is such that overeating (and eating too much non-nutritional food) reacts and causes extreme discomfort. This strongly deters the person from overeating. This reaction to overeating is developed as a kid.
Overeaters – those artificially attracted to food – don’t have this inbuilt protection against eating too much or eating non-nutrition. They don’t feel this discomfort with overeating and so feel an impossible drive to overeat. No matter how much willpower they employ, the need to overeat will always win through.
They have no ‘off’ switch when it comes to eating. You can help them try to ignore it for a while but it will always be there.
Willpower is Artificial Control
I’ve used the terms ‘normal’ and ‘artificial’ to describe the differences in attraction to food because those who are normally attracted to food are using the normal, instinctive way to control their eating and those artificially attracted to food are using an unnatural – artificial – way to control their eating.
Those with artificial appetites are using a massive amount of willpower in an attempt to keep their eating to a normal level, whereas the normal eaters’ require no external effort to do this.
I know the bit about the normal eaters not using any willpower may ruffle some feathers because they feel as though they are making an effort. This is mainly because people comment on how they must have bundles of willpower but the reality is there is only natural overeating protection happening.
However, if you genuinely feel you are having to make some sort of effort to control your appetite, yet manage to not overeat, you are an ‘in betweener’. Partly instinctively protected from overeating and partly requiring effort to control the proportion that isn’t controlled automatically by your physiology. Those who are ‘in between’ the two extremes of eater often can manage their only slightly raised attraction to food quite well using eating rules and exercise habits early on in life. But if they decide to increase their willpower use to maybe reduce their weight to below a normal level, they lose more natural protection and their appetite can really take off.
So, how did we all end up in these very different places with our eating?
It all began in childhood. I know, stay with me though, it’s important to understand how it really is for clients who struggle with their eating.
People who grew up with an artificial drive to eat were told, as kids, that unless they were very careful with food they would eat too much and become overweight. They would have also been told other stuff like being overweight was a really undesirable state to be in, which made the need to control their eating even more urgent.
Overeating Protection Lost
However, pre-occupying the child’s brain with thoughts about what they ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ eat or ‘can’ or ‘cannot have’ totally obliterated their natural ability to only need to eat a normal amount. They gradually lost their overeating protection insurance policy!
The parents or carers taught the child this way because this was either the way they approached their own eating, or they just thought that using willpower with eating was a positive thing. But all it did was clog the child’s brain up with ‘self-control’ thinking and simply took over the brain-space where the instinct to not overeat was meant to function.
The child wasn’t an overeater to begin with, but losing their instinct certainly made them into one. They have been dependent on willpower – using various eating, and maybe also exercise, rules and tricks – ever since. It’s very depressing for them because the tool they are using to fight their large appetite is the very thing that created it.
This may be new information to you. But now can you feel more, in fact complete – empathy – towards people who have large appetites? They are already using 100% willpower compared to the normal appetites who aren’t using any effort at all. In fact, the more they try to get rid of their large appetite, the worse it gets.
Can you now appreciate why we must end the assumption that people who overeat are lacking in willpower? And, as far as knowledge goes, they know full well what is healthy food and what is not! They have been studying this from a very early age.
Can you see why many people suffering in this way can be further damaged by us when we simply ask them to ‘change their behaviour’. The way of eating they naturally always fall into is simply the expression of their true appetite. This is the amount of food they need to eat.
Even though they are raring to get started and the changes even seem easy – at least at first – you are asking them to use willpower. No matter how much knowledge, support and focus you can give them, they will remain without protection and so increasingly artificially attracted to food.
It’s a true dilemma for personal trainers because any client who has always had a weight issue is suffering from a very high level of artificial attraction to food. Using a simple willpower approach will make their condition worse. Yes, they will be able to control their eating in the short-term but their artificial appetite will always bounce back even stronger in the end.
Are you willing to give this the serious consideration it deserves?
It might mean missing out on some short term ‘successes’ but you will be doing the best by your client to refer them out to a specialist. Once in specialist hands, they may be able to work with you again along the line. But first, they need to work with someone who can take their attention away from the brain clogging ‘willpower’ and even any focus on ‘weight loss’. They need to be expertly guided into restoring their eating instinct so they can enjoy the same guaranteed protection against overeating enjoyed by other people.
The specialist you are looking for is an Intuitive EatingTM Counsellor. Intuitive EatingTM is about cultivating a healthy relationship with food, mind, and body. The programme is a way of changing the thinking beyond recognition and is a mind-body self-care eating framework. It has 10 principles based around stopping using willpower and it has given rise to over 125 studies to date showing benefit. You can look for a genuine “Intuitive Eating” Counsellor here https://www.intuitiveeating.org/certified-counselors/. Many counsellors offer remote counselling.
The only question remaining is, are you ready to be part of the real solution to overeating?
By Alison Hall
Alison Hall is an Intuitive Eating Counsellor working to permanently normalise appetites. She is founder and owner of Try Freedom – Intuitive Eating Therapy. She is also founder and owner of HFI Training so understands about the difficult situation personal trainers find themselves in with this very special client population. Please get in touch if you’d like to find out more about how to know when to refer and how to help less affected people protect themselves by to use more instinct and less willpower!
HFI are now offering a partly on-demand and partly live online up-skilling course – Dealing with Artificial Attraction to Food – Ethical Approaches to Eating Behaviour Change for Personal Trainers. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss anything about this topic, a particular client or the course.
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