In the current lockdown mode, people turn to food as compensation for the loss of freedom. Many individuals have become accustomed to a more sedentary, sedate lifestyle. Work from home — WFH — is the new norm. Unfortunately, it is a big challenge to do it well because of the inefficient telecommunications infrastructure. The internet is often too slow or non-existent. There are dinosaurs who work in offices who are still reliant on the fax machine. The Wi-Fi is a now subject of scorn. The telecom companies have poor systems and the hapless customer service reps witness the terrible temper tantrums of the VIPs.
What do people do? They complain, they vent their ire on others. They binge and eat. It is understandable to a certain extent — oral satisfaction and verbal grumpiness.
In this light, we look at the relationship between willpower and diet.
Scientists have unmasked the myth of willpower in the context of diet and weight control.
Decades ago, the easy explanation for peculiar dietary behavior was willpower. Over-rated and over-used, willpower was said to be the reason for a thin individual’s non-indulgence in decadent sweets. He/she remained indifferent and unmoved. The heavyweight feels a compulsion to nibble or munch. This type of behavior has become exacerbated or different during these uncertain times.
Weight-loss researchers consider willpower an obsolete, discredited concept.
In a weight loss study prepared by the New York Times, here is the report: “To attribute dieting success or failure to willpower is to ignore the complex interaction of brain chemicals, behavioral conditioning, hormones, heredity and the powerful influence of habits.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, psychiatry professor Dr. Albert Stunkard noted, “Willpower is just a pejorative way of describing your failures. Willpower does not have any meaning.”
A study of behavioral modification by the University of Michigan, “Behavioral Control of Overeating,” analyzed the elements of self-control in relation to weight loss. It revealed that women who were treated with behavior modification techniques lost from 26 to 47 pounds in a year. These women had regular sessions with therapists. They recorded in detail their food intake and moods (just before eating) in their daily journals.
The focus of weight-loss programs moved toward behavioral steps that a dieter takes regarding eating.
What is behavioral modification?
It is a weight-loss strategy that involves changing eating habits and making new habits.
Behavior affects the brain’s chemical balance and vice versa. People who have “night eating syndrome” tend to overeat in the evening and have trouble sleeping. They also wake up in the middle of the night to eat.
This happens more frequently during stressful times such as the prolonged period of isolation.
Studies show that such people have below-normal blood levels of the hormones melatonin, leptin, and cortisol. Melatonin is the hormone that helps us sleep.
“Willpower as an independent cause of behavior is a myth,” according to a psychiatrist who counsels dieters. He helps them change their attitude, be positive about their ability to lose weight. He warns them about the formidable forces that work against them.
Part of the problem is the toxic environment for weight control. Fast food is readily available. Our society has become sedentary. Social media promotes all kinds of eye-catching, rich tasting food. We see mostly decadent desserts. There are hardly any ads for healthy food like vegetarian, salt-free, low-sugar, low-calorie dishes. People crave comfort food, sweet drinks, and alcoholic cocktails to compensate for the lack of mobility.
The Yale Center for Eating and Weight disorders reported that a person’s ability to control eating varies and “you cannot attribute that to biology.
“There is a collective public loss of willpower because of the terrible food environment… One needs much more than willpower, now more than ever, just to stay even.”
Discipline is the key. People must learn how to say “No” and resist the temptation of eating fattening foods and drinking sweet sodas or alcoholic beverages. In weight-loss programs, dieters admit that they need to learn how to live with dessert in the refrigerator and NOT to eat it. This also applies to having drinks at the bar.
To be successful, they should arrange their lives so that they rarely confront such temptations.
(This exercise is probably considered cruel in the context of current crisis.)
According to Dr. Rena Wing of the University of Pittsburgh, “If you make certain plans, you will be able to engineer your behavior in such a way that you will look as if you have willpower.”
What matters ultimately is one’s (mental and physical) health and well-being. Losing weight and keeping fit are just two steps to a youthful figure, attractive appearance, a more productive and happy life. Discipline and balance would enhance the process. One point to remember is that one has the choice to make occasional exceptions. One can compromise to feel satisfied, plus or minus the calories.