The voluntary ability to override our own hunger and satiety queues is limited. In other words, we don’t have as much control or “willpower” over our dietary intake as we have been led to believe. Our bodies need a specific number of calories to function optimally and when we fail to meet those energy needs our body fights back.
I like to equate calorie restriction to holding your breath. When we hold our breath long enough the body send signals to the brain to breathe. The longer we hold our breath the greater the chance we will have the unconscious reaction to gasp for air. In other words, your willpower will only take you so far.
It’s the same with calorie restriction. The biological pathways may be different, but the response is very similar. The more drastic the restriction, or the longer the duration of time in calorie deficit, the greater the likelihood your body will fight to override your willpower. This is why the first few days of a “diet” are often easier than subsequent days. It is also why we feel at times we may be addicted to food, when in reality it’s our body signaling that we are low on gas.
When calorie restriction fails and a diet is no longer able to be maintained it’s not willpower to blame, it’s biology. Failure to maintain a restrictive diet is not a personal or moral flaw. It is in fact a biological response that is trying to keep you alive. Set yourself up for success and start with these four tips.
Managing calorie concerns
Stop obsessing over calories! Calorie counting can be up to 50% inaccurate. Not to mention that nutrition labels are imprecise and can be off by up to 20%. This means we could be eating 20%-50% less or more than we think.
Use calorie estimation as a guide and not a rule. It’s ok to use calories to get you into a ballpark, but it is not something to live and diet by. Our calorie needs are not static. There are many factors that come into play when determining energy needs. These include energy output, muscle mass, genetics, climate, illness, and even the menstrual cycle. One simple calculation cannot pinpoint exact calorie needs. Instead work with a dietitian who can help find an appropriate calorie range and provide instructions on fine tuning with satiety queues.
Shift the focus from quantity to quality. Hopefully, it is a bit clearer why focusing on calorie deficit (restriction) alone can be counterproductive. It’s time to put calorie counting on the back burner and shift the focus to the quality of the foods on your plate. Recent studies show that the quality of the foods consumed may be more impactful on weight management than strict calorie control. Choose foods that are high in fiber, vitamin and mineral dense, bright and colorful, and low in added sugar.
Enjoy in moderation. Dietary quality is important, but enjoying your food is also high priority. It has been shown over and over again that restriction can lead to the feeling of loss of control and ultimately over consumption. This can occur outside of calorie restriction. Unless there is a medical need or ethical reason to avoid specific foods, or food groups, it is best to include them in moderation. This may be challenging at first, but remember one ice cream, piece of candy, potato chip, or celebratory dinner will not make or break your health.