Don’t Blame Your Lack of Willpower for Your Troubles at the Scale
by Emily Farris, Kansas City Enhance Health & Wellness Magazine, Jan-Feb 2011
“If only I didn’t like pasta so much…”
“If only I could resist the chocolate croissant at the coffee shop every day…”
If any of those statements sound familiar, you’ve probably blamed your willpower, or lack thereof, for excess weight at some point in your life. But Dr. Rick Tague, M.P.H. and founder of the Center for Nutrition and Preventative Medicine in Leawood and Topeka, Kansas, would tell you to stop being so hard on yourself. In fact, he says willpower has very little, if nothing, to do with weight.
“For those who have not studied the science, it seems so obvious to think, ‘Well, if that person just had self control they wouldn’t be obese.’ But the fact is that when you really research the details behind what triggers the weight gain, it’s not so simple. It’s not so much about willpower and character,” Dr. Tague says. Weight is influenced by factors more complicated than willpower, which means that the solution is more complicated than “just don’t eat that.”
Tague believes that there are three reasons people don’t lose weight: appetite, metabolism and nutrition. But even if you think you’ve heard all of that before, his theory might surprise you.
Reason One: Appetite
“Adding an extra layer of warmth” might be an easy excuse for winter weight gain, but there’s a reason people tend to overeat in the colder months: The less time they spend outdoors, the less they’re exposed to the sunshine necessary for creating vitamin D in the body. This, says Tague, changes the brain’s biochemistry and can mix up the body’s appetite signals.
“The brain recognizes the vitamin deficiency, for example, and it will send you out to get more food in an attempt to compensate,” he says. And unless the food is high in vitamin D, like salmon or tuna, the body won’t get what it needs and will send more appetite signals to the brain. “Then, the more weight you gain, the more fat dilutes the fat-soluble vitamin D in the body and the levels drop further,” Tague says. “Then you crave more food, usually carbohydrates and gain more weight, so the problem gets worse.”
A vitamin D deficiency, he says, is just one example of how brain biochemistry can affect a person’s appetite. And there’s an important difference between appetite and hunger. Appetite, he says is not stomach-growling physical hunger – it’s a lack of satiety, and really anything that motivates a person to consume calories.
“Willpower generally isn’t an effective strategy for controlling appetite because appetite is not in the realm of willpower or character,” Tague says. “Studies have shown time and again that trying to manage appetite strictly with willpower, while ignoring the biochemistry of appetite signals in the brain, is ineffective.”
What is effective, he says, is managing the levels of micro and macronutrients in the body. “You really need the whole spectrum of vitamins, minerals and essential fatty acids at the same time, along with a good overall nutrition plan,” he says.
While a multivitamin isn’t a magic pill for controlling appetite, it’s a start. But Tague says that in order for vitamins to be truly effective, people need to be aware of their bodies’ deficiencies so they can take appropriate supplements.
Leigh Wagner, integrative nutritionist and registered dietitian at the University of Kansas Medical Center, believes biochemical testing is an important step before beginning a weight-loss program. “Sometimes people are deficient in zinc or vitamin D and will need a supplement. Or if someone is low in selenium we might recommend that they eat a couple of Brazil nuts each day,” she says. “Biochemical testing is so beneficial because it helps you figure out exactly what your body needs to function at its best.”
Reason Two: Metabolism
While Tague admits it takes a certain amount of dedication to get out of bed at 6 a.m. to run two miles in 20-degree weather, most slow metabolisms can be attributed to modern life. “Our bodies were not designed to be sedentary; they were designed to be physically active,” he says. “With our sedentary jobs, we’re sitting around, our muscles are in atrophy and our heart rates are down at resting rates.”
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to manage metabolism, and most of them don’t involve having the “willpower” to hit the gym regularly.
Activity: Muscle burns fat, so exercise can increase your muscle mass. But even if you don’t run or lift weights, incorporate more activities into your day like highly physical chores and walking. And earlier is better. Not only does it affect mood, energy and appetite for the remainder of the day, but is also gets it out of the way.
Diet: “Unprocessed foods that are higher in fiber, like vegetables, require more energy to be digested, so choosing unprocessed foods will increase your metabolism,” Tague says. And a sugar-filled, flavored latte for breakfast can affect more than just calorie count. “It signals the body to increase insulin, and insulin moves those sugar calories into the fat cells and you start gaining weight that day,” he says.
Nutrients: Ensuring you have the right level of nutrients in your body can affect more than just your appetite; it can affect your metabolism. “If you don’t have adequate iron stores in your body, your muscles are not going to be strong and healthy,” Tague says. And he says vitamin D is as important for strong muscles as it is for bones.
Sleep: Skimping on the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep can do more than affect your mood and appetite. “With sleep deprivation, your metabolism will be geared more toward fat storage than the burning of calories,” Tague says.
External Temperature: In cold weather, your body works harder to stay warm. So instead of cuddling up under a blanket, go for a walk. Even drinking cold water and eating ice can increase metabolism because your body uses extra calories to heat up the water or ice.
Fidgeting: “When they do obesity studies, they’ll record an obese person at the desk job all day and then they’ll take a video of a thin person at the desk job all day,” Tague says. “There’s a major difference, and usually it is that the thin people are fidgeters.”
Attitude: Sometimes increasing metabolism is as simple as acting like a thin person, Tague says. “Instead of making fewer trips across the room to get a file, or a cup of coffee, make more trips. Make it a point to get up more often.”
Tague emphasizes a diet rich in lean proteins, high-nutrient-dense, non-starchy vegetables and some fruits – because even when people think they’re doing themselves a favor by eating lots of fruits, Tague says they could be slowing their weight-loss.
“(At the center) we have an order of preference for vegetables and fruits,” he says. “Berries would be at the top and things that have a higher sugar and starch content would be at the bottom.” And when it comes to starchy fruits like bananas, Tague says half is plenty, but it’s not willpower that will keep someone from eating the second half of the banana.
“If you control the appetite, then all of a sudden you can control portion sizes, but if you don’t have the appetite control, you’re going to eat the whole banana.” Which brings Tague’s theory for weight loss full circle, or at least pretty close: Appetite affects nutrition, and nutrition affects appetite; they both affect metabolism. So it must follow that bad nutrition choices can’t be attributed solely to a lack of willpower. Even putting back too much fried food can be traced back to the body’s biochemistry.
“What’s the most common vegetable in America? French fries. We don’t have a deficiency of starchy carbohydrates in America; we have an excess,” Tague says. “So we end up having a deficiency of quality protein, vitamins and minerals.”
Those deficiencies, combined with high consumption of starchy foods, can create the perfect biochemical storm for weight gain – and a roadblock for weight loss.
“More carbohydrates trigger more insulin release, and insulin is such a powerful hormone that affects metabolism and appetite tendencies,” he says. “High insulin begins to store fat, not burn it. Often times it’s related to, over time, people consuming more carbohydrates than they need.”
Unfortunately, all of that can just lead to a craving for even more carbohydrates because, Wagner says, carbohydrate addiction and overeating is all rooted in malnutrition. “When your body’s not functioning properly, it’s not absorbing what it needs, which can lead to cravings,” she says. “Those cravings are going to lead you to scavenge around for more bad foods.”
Tague believes the answer is an individualized approach: finding out where each person is deficient, regulating those deficiencies while factoring in other medical issues and taking the time to counsel patients on overall nutrition.
“We have registered dieticians, and their whole job is to counsel patients on nutrition. We problem solve. We teach them how to do half a banana,” he says. “We take the time to talk about blueberries versus apples.”