Are you one of the thousands of people who could eat all the time? Even just after a meal? And you aren’t even in an energy deficit?
The good news is that your obsession with food may not necessarily be about food. Understanding the real reasons why you think of food all the time will help you to overcome your obsession and live a much happier and healthier life.
Can you tell when you crave food the most despite not being hungry?
Is it when you work or maybe getting stuck with work? Is it when you don’t want to do something or want to procrastinate on an upcoming task?
Do you start craving food during a task that requires lots of focus or after a stressful situation that soaked up your willpower and self-control? It can be anything, from getting stuck in a traffic jam, to giving a presentation or even not telling your boss that he is an idiot, even though you think it all the time.
Food may be just a tool you use to keep your self-control in annoying situations.
Willpower and self-control are limited resources. If you spend too much effort on one task, your working performance on the second task decreases. It goes even further; some research suggests that when people face challenging tasks their blood sugar levels drop, which diminishes their willpower. However, drinking a sugary drink before starting a new task replenishes the willpower and restores the ability to work hard. Metabolic energy (calories) increases the persistence to work on demanding tasks. Thus, it is not surprising that many people are emotional eaters and start craving food after a stressful situation. In this scenario, high-calorie food can serve two purposes:
1. It activates the reward centre in the brain and makes the person feel better.
2. It refills the willpower and self-control if the person has to continue performing stressful tasks.
In this context, stressful tasks don’t even need to be work-related. It can be anything you don’t want to do, even house work, like doing the dishes, or speaking to a relative that makes you feel like your life is a mess.
To cut it short, without even realizing, you may be using food as a tool to force yourself to do things you don’t want to do.
By the way, sleep restores willpower and self-control. For this reason, we usually feel much more motivated to work in the morning than in the evening. During the day, our willpower and self-control diminishes. This is also the reason, why most violent incidents happen late at night. People lose their self-control to follow social norms and instead act impulsively. For this reason, it is not surprising, that many people follow their diet in the morning, but fall off the wagon in the evening and overeat on comfort food.
The more challenging the task you have to fulfill or the more decisions you need to make, the faster your willpower and self-control is depleted. The less self-control and willpower you have, the lower your chances to work productively, to give your best when training hard and to eat right for your goals (no matter if it is eating healthily or following a calorie-restricted diet).
What to do
Split your willpower focus on different tasks throughout the day
Set times when you use your willpower for work and other times when you use it for your personal goals (e.g. exercise and healthy diet).
For example, during working hours when you need to focus on work, use your willpower only for this task. Determine what foods you should strategically have to support your mental performance (if you have a job where you need to think a lot or need to be polite to other people). Don’t try to diet hard and starve yourself while performing challenging tasks, as both depletes willpower.
Schedule more challenging tasks for the morning and easier, fun-type of tasks for the evening. It will help you reduce food cravings in the evening, when your self-control is depleted anyway.
In the evening, you can make your diet compliance to your major willpower task. Focus on staying on track with your diet. Spend evenings doing things you enjoy and that don’t require lots of willpower, like reading a book, watching TV, surfing on the internet, hanging out on social media, etc., which distract you from thinking about food all the time.
Tip: If you want to lose weight, and use social media as a relaxation tool, it may be a good idea to unfollow all the people who constantly post food porn.
Set rules and routines
There are several steps for willpower. One of them is setting rules. Rules are important. Without rules you don’t know what to do and what to follow. NOT having a plan is nightmare for your willpower. Making unnecessary decisions every day depletes willpower that could be used for more important tasks. The more willpower you waste on trivial stuff, the less willpower you have for work and living a healthy lifestyle.
Why not pre-determine what you eat for breakfast every day? Why should you waste your willpower early in the morning by thinking: should I have pancakes for breakfast, or rather cereal, or toast…but what should I put on my toast?
Or even worse, you decide to grab your breakfast on the way to work and get to a place that has dozens of different options that overwhelm you and put you in a state of analysis-paralysis: What option has the better macros? What has more protein? What is healthier? What will keep me full for longer?....
This depletes some of your willpower even before starting the working day. Routines, limited options and restrictions make success in life so much easier.
Many people ask me whether being vegan is hard because I have only limited options available when I go out for meals. No, definitely not. Being vegan makes everything so much easier for me, because I don’t need to waste my willpower deciding which of the dozens of dishes I should choose for dinner.
How to fuel your willpower
Why do we care so much about fuelling our workouts and getting our post-workout nutrition right, but disregard the importance of fuelling our self-control and willpower, which is the basis for achieving our goals?
Build in strategic, willpower-replenishing meals during the working day, rather than trying to push through. If you try to push through, then the chances are higher that you will eventually give in to cravings because a long, annoying meeting depleted your willpower.
You can fuel your willpower to work in the same way as an endurance athlete fuels his body during a long race.
During this time, high carb options, ideally concentrated, fast-digesting glucose sources, are good choices. I love dextrose tablets as a concentrated form of glucose. They act fast, are efficient and don’t add too many calories. If you would like to bring a healthier aspect into the concentrated carbs issue, juices or smoothies are another option.
Of course, whole foods like fruits are healthier, but it takes longer to absorb the sugar because of the high water and fiber content. Also, fruits not only contain glucose, but also fructose, which isn’t a problem in general, but for this certain task of refueling willpower, glucose is better. Thus, you may not get the willpower boosting effect from fruits as fast and as powerful as you may need it (dried fruits may be an exception). The same applies for all kind of sweets like chocolate, cookies & co.
Although they contain sugar, they aren’t as efficient as glucose or dextrose tablets when it comes to boosting willpower. Also, they add much more calories to your macros budget compared to glucose in isolation.
Additionally, dextrose tablets as a carbohydrate source have another beneficial effect. You can keep it in your mouth for a long time waiting until it dissolves. Some research on endurance athletes suggests that mouth rinsing with a carbohydrate solution (without swallowing it) is enough to improve performance during exercise. It seems like carbohydrates activate oral receptors, which leads to a subsequent activation of brain areas involved with reward, which in turn improves performance. Thus, it is plausible that not only carbohydrate solutions, but also other carb sources have the same effect, especially when kept in the mouth long enough.
Because of practical constraints in the working environment, dextrose tablets are a great choice, as they are small and can be kept in the mouth discretely for a prolonged period of time. On the other hand, sitting in the office with your mouth stuffed with bananas may appear a bit socially awkward.
However, don’t confuse fuelling your willpower with rewarding yourself with food for something you have done. This approach may backfire, as food shouldn’t be used as a reward. An athlete who needs to fuel during a marathon race, doesn’t consume calories to reward himself for running, but uses it as a tool to enhance his declining performance. The same should apply for functional food to boost cognitive performance and willpower. Also, as you may have noticed, I don’t suggest eating your favourite comfort food to make you think harder. What I propose is to consume glucose (or oligosaccharides that are built of glucose units, like dextrose). It is about the function of this specific molecule, not your personal taste.
Additional strategies to refuel your willpower
Take a nap: If you have the opportunity to take a nap during the day, especially when you notice that your willpower is diminishing and you start craving food, do it. It may save you lots of unnecessary calories.
Tell yourself why you do what you do: You don’t necessarily need glucose to motivate you to work (increased glucose consumption for willpower replenishment should be seen as the emergency solution). Intrinsic motivation is another tool to increase your willpower and self-control. Even if you are overwhelmed by your workload and want to run away, tell yourself why you do what you do. Is it to help others? Is it to secure income for your family? Is it because you actually love your work, but forgot it because of the stress. Reminding yourself of the purpose will refill your willpower.
Use sugar strategically: You can use sugar strategically before large meals if you want to keep enough willpower and don’t want to overeat. Having sweets before (dextrose tablet or maybe order a juice before you even choose your meal) can reduce your appetite, increase willpower and may be a good strategy to reduce dessert consumption after a meal (Check out Menno Henselmans’ interview on ad-libitum dieting for more info).
Losing weight and working hard at the same time
Performing mentally demanding work and restricting your energy intake is twice as challenging, as doing just one of these at a time. Sadly, sometimes this situation is unavoidable. There are a few things you can do:
- If you can choose your workplace (e.g. you are a student and need to study for an exam), choose places in which food is inaccessible. You could work in a library for example, as it is usually forbidden to eat in libraries. This will work against your impulse to get some food, once you get stuck with work.
- If you like working from cafés, take only as much cash with you as needed to get a drink. If you don’t have any money to get food, you won’t get tempted (don’t take your credit card with you!)
- If you have to work in an office, create a safe environment. Bring only the food with you to work you plan to eat this day and not more. You can even leave your purse at home to make sure you don't have the option of getting some junk from the vending machine in your building. Ask your colleagues to keep their junk for themselves and not to offer you any food.
- You can have dextrose tablets as an emergency solution to refill your willpower, as they don’t have too many calories (12 kcal/ tablet). Also, they are so sweet that it’s unlikely that you will overeat on them.
Do you really want us to eat all the sugar in the form of dextrose?
I know, sugar is not particularly healthy. However, my point is that when you are in a situation that requires lots of willpower and self-control, it is better to have a few dextrose tablets than trying to resist food cravings, eventually losing self-control and ending up eating an entire bar of chocolate. It is about choosing the lesser of the evils. A few dextrose tablets cause less damage than a bag full of cookies, a doughnut or a bar of chocolate.
To sum up:
If you think that you have a problem with food, because you are obsessed with it, there is a chance that your current willpower demanding lifestyle creates your obsession and not the food. Food is just a tool.
Do you want to take control of your life and finally overcome your food-tool-obsession issue? Then you may be interested in working with me and getting my full support on your journey to your new self.