No willpower when it comes to food? Read this.

‘ The chocolate bar calls my name. No, really – I can’t NOT eat it if it’s in the house.’

Many people I talk to lament that they can’t control themselves when it comes to sugar or junk food – that they don’t have the willpower to say ‘no’ despite their best efforts. This implies that they have all the control. Now I’m not saying there isn’t an element of discipline that may initially be required when changing the way you eat, especially for people who have lost touch with their appetite and satiety signals which can happen when the food eaten drives unfavourable hormone responses in the body; a phenomenon which is common in the current food environment. However, there are other more powerful forces at play here. Your No physiology has far more say in your food decisions than you think, and I’m going to cover one of the main ones I see (and one of the easiest ones to correct) that will help people control their food intake, rather than let their food control them: the blood sugar rollercoaster

This is one of the biggest drivers of cravings in my experience. The type of diet that many people follow is either carbohydrate heavy or devoid of protein and fat. Both situations are going to set your blood sugar up for rise and fall of (what can be) epic proportions. When carbohydrate is broken down into the bloodstream into glucose, this takes our blood glucose level out of homeostasis (normal). One thing our body likes is homeostasis – a blood sugar level too high or too low will send signals to the brain that this needs to be corrected. The greater the fluctuation, the louder this signal is. Insulin is the hormone responsible for removing glucose from the bloodstream to be used immediately for energy or to store it for later use (in our muscles and liver) and return the blood glucose level to homeostasis (normal). However, a meal that has a large amount of carbohydrate (a high carbohydrate load) will accelerate this process, as will a meal that has minimal protein or fat (even with a lower carbohydrate load, as the proportion of carbohydrate will still be greater). This is because insulin responds first and foremost to carbohydrate, with a minimal response to protein containing foods, and (for most people) a negligible response to foods predominantly containing fat. When this process is accelerated, insulin moves too much glucose into cells and our blood glucose level rapidly drops to below normal (an over-correction). The signal to our brain therefore becomes a panic signal: blood sugar has dipped below normal and needs to be rapidly restored – enter sweet food cravings as our brain recognises these foods are going to return our blood glucose levels back to within that normal range much quicker than, say, a salad. Along with the cravings, we may experience ravenous hunger (where 15 minutes earlier you felt fine), irritability (‘hangry’) and (in particularly bad cases) dizziness, light-headedness, sweating and vision loss.

The quicker the carbohydrates are digested (especially in the absence of fat and /or protein), the higher the rise and fall in blood sugar, and the greater the effects on energy and subsequent cravings for food (and ‘lack of willpower’). You may be fine for the morning and rapidly cave in post 3pm. Or it might be that Monday and Tuesday you are sweet, but by Wednesday you are raiding the kids ‘treat’ box in the pantry.

This isn’t just an issue with regards to blood sugar management and fat loss goals, but more importantly it can make you feel pretty rubbish. So many people start a tirade of negative talk that they weren’t able to say ‘no’ to a paleo muffin or chocolate biscuit, that they have ‘failed again’ and they ‘may as well finish the entire packet as it’s the last time they’ll eat X food again.’ Or their inability to resist a sweet treat clearly indicates they aren’t worthy of whatever health goal or life goal they’ve set themselves, and will eat junk food as a form of punishment (or undereat to try to get it under control), and so starts the rollercoaster ride of the blood sugar crash.

While I’d like to say it’s really easy to figure out which foods are most likely to cause this process, recent research tells us that there is wide individual variation. You are your own best investigator when trying to figure this out. It is useful, of course, to know where carbohydrate comes form in the diet and starting to explore how these foods affect you specifically. You can use an app like Easy Diet Diary, My Net Diary, Fat Secret to help you determine where the carbohydrate is in your usual diet if all of this is new to you. That said, an energy dense, carbohydrate source is more likely to trigger a blood sugar response. These include (but are not limited to):

  • Dates
  • Other dried fruit
  • Honey
  • Rice malt syrup
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Cereal (including Nutrigrain, Cheerios, most cereals with a Health Star Rating)
  • Honey
  • Coconut sugar
  • Kumara
  • Potato
  • Grapes
  • Fruit juice
  • Vegetable juice with a fruit juice base
  • Vegetable juice with beetroot/carrot base

This doesn’t mean that all of the above choices are bad! At all, however, in the wrong amounts, and when eaten in isolation of other food choices, these are more likely to spike your insulin levels than other foods. Artificial sweeteners do not get a free pass either, unfortunately, with some showing the same physiological effects as sweet foods, eliciting a glucose/insulin response.

So… it’s not willpower, people – it’s physiology.

The easiest and *best* way that helps mitigate this is NOT a supplement. While these can be useful in certain situations or medical conditions, for most people it comes down to food timing and balancing. Protein and fat don’t have the same insulin effect, so they are not going to cause the same blood glucose rollercoaster that carbohydrate does. Incorporating these as the majority of your energy source is going to slow down the digestion of the carbohydrate you eat and the subsequent rise in blood glucose. Without reaching the same ‘highs’, your blood glucose doesn’t have the same drops – and cravings, hunger and crashing energy levels are FAR less likely. Fibre from non-starchy vegetables are another way to have this effect and help maintain a homeostatic state.

Despite what I say, what other experts tell you or what the literature or dietary guidelines tell us, you are your own best investigator when it comes to figuring out what works for you. One of the easiest ways to measure how food affects your blood sugar control is to assess the qualitative signs after eating: do you feel like falling asleep after a carb-based meal? Do you get moody, irritable, ‘hangry’ a couple of hours after eating? Are you fine, fine, fine, STARVING a few hours after eating? These are all good indicators that your blood sugar is in control of your actions (rather than you). From a quantitative perspective, getting a glucometer (finger-prick blood glucose reader) from the pharmacy and testing your blood sugar two hours after eating a particular food or meal is another good way to see how this affects your blood sugar levels. If it lurks above the 7 mmol/L mark at this point, then potentially the carbohdyrate type (or the context with which you ate it) isn’t ideal for you. Remember, this isn’t just about the food you’re eating at that time, it has implications for your food decisions later in the day. This is potentially more important if you find you have ‘no willpower.’ If you need help figuring out what to do from here, contact me for a consultation, we can sort it out.

Finally, pro-tip: when eating a meal, eat the protein and vegetables before tucking into the carbohydrate component. This will lower the post-prandial glucose response and the overall effect on your energy levels, levelling them out as opposed to leading to a crash.

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