#304 3 Ways to Strengthen Your Willpower to Eat Better in 2021
Dr. John Day
Dr. Day is a cardiologist specializing in heart rhythm abnormalities at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah. He graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School and completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology at Stanford University. He is the former president of the Heart Rhythm Society and the Utah chapter of the American College of Cardiology.
3 Ways to Strengthen Your Willpower to Eat Better in 2021
In this article, I’ll share 3 ways that have worked for thousands of my patients to strengthen your willpower to eat right. While we all want to eat right but it always seems like life somehow gets in the way and derails our willpower. But if your “WHY” is strong, temptations can be eliminated, and your support is strong enough then willpower is no longer needed.
1. Find Your “WHY”
Everyone has a WHY or a purpose for what they do. And having a WHY or purpose in life is what makes us more goal-oriented and resilient to the struggles we face. Having a clearly defined purpose can give us willpower we never thought was inside of us. It can bring a level of happiness we have never experienced before. It can relieve the stress that has been crushing us for years. Those are psychological effects that have real physiological impact on the rest of our bodies.
Purpose is powerful. That’s why the most important thing that happens inside someone when they decide it’s time to fight back against medical conditions whether they be diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity or atrial fibrillation has nothing to do with their blood flow, the electrical signals moving through their bodies, or the biochemicals that are supposed to help keep all of these things in balance. Rather, it has everything to do with what they think about their lives.
So let’s do some thinking: What is your life’s purpose? What does the fulfillment of that purpose look like in your mind’s eye? Could more healthy years of life help you fulfill that purpose even more? Could a life without medications give you more energy and vitality to achieve your life’s goals? Or perhaps a life where you are healthy enough to play with your children or your grandchildren?
Finding Your WHY Can Be Difficult
Are you struggling with this? That’s OK. A lot of people do—especially those who have been beaten down by the wily foe of medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, or atrial fibrillation. If that’s the case for you, a series of conversations with your family members, close friends, coworkers, a faith leader, or a therapist can help you either bring your life’s purpose back into clarity or to develop a new purpose for the years ahead.
A patient of mine named Kyle recently told me that he’d always questioned whether he had simply been born without willpower, and felt ashamed that he couldn’t seem control his impulse to swing into the nearest drive-thru whenever he was on the road. When he stuck a sticker on his dashboard reminding himself of the first purpose of food, though, everything seemed to change. “All those years, every time I’d get an urge for fast food, I’d told myself ‘but this isn’t good for me,’ ” he said. “Somehow that wasn’t enough. But everything changed when I switched to thinking about food in a different way, not as something I can’t have because it’s bad for me but as something I should have because it’s good for me.”
The effect Kyle saw in his life has been well documented by Western researchers. When Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab looked at dozens of studies examining messages about nutrition, they found positive messages about what food can do for us are more motivating than negative messages about what food might do to us. Of course, we can’t make something like a double-bacon-cheeseburger good for us just by thinking it is. We still have to surround ourselves with the kind of food that is actually healthy for us.
Eating Right Isn’t About Willpower
Most of my patients believe eating right is all about willpower. And that’s one of the key reasons why so many diets fail. For example, almost all people who begin eating a vegan or vegetarian diet, for instance, eventually opt to consume at least some meat. And the same holds true for all the other diets like like keto, paleo, Mediterranean, or even Weight Watchers.
A lot of people point to grim statistics like these to suggest that perhaps we’re not meant to eat that way. On the other hand, there are millions of people who do eat this way, very successfully and very happily.
Once, after giving a lecture at a Mayo Clinic cardiac conference, a well-respected fellow cardiologist approached me as I was gathering my computer and notes. “I’m afraid I just don’t have the willpower that they have in the centenarians you studied in your book, “The Longevity Plan,” he said.
“Willpower?” I asked. “What makes you think they have any more willpower than you? For a very long time, the centenarians in this village didn’t need willpower to resist the temptations that destroy our health. They simply lived in an environment that was 100 percent conducive to health and longevity.”
There were no temptations and the village provided all the support they needed. Willpower wasn’t even needed. There were no decisions to make, I told him. There was no internal struggle. There were no “shoulds” or “should nots.” Their entire environment was conducive to healthy, happy living.
2. Temptation Elimination
For my patients who no longer want to be weighed down by chronic medical conditions, the first thing I counsel them to do is to go home and throw away all the junk food. Yes, trash anything with added sugar and get rid of all the processed and prepared foods.
With a house free of junk food, binge eating the foods that cause disease is a lot harder. In a moment of weakness, as always happens, you’d have to leave your home in search of junk food to satisfy the cravings—giving you precious time to let cooler heads prevail.
Second, now that your kitchen is stocked with healthy foods, it’s time to eat. You can eat as many non-starchy vegetables as you want, as much as you possibly can. It’s almost impossible to eat too many vegetables. Whenever a vegetable runs out, replace it as soon as you can; in your home, eating something healthy should always be easier than eating something unhealthy.
If the only choices are healthy ones then willpower is no longer needed. Soon you’ll be able to effortlessly eat like the centenarians we described in our book, The Longevity Plan, who all made it to 100 plus without the need for medications.
Other Ways to Make It Without Willpower
There’s no reason for self-flagellation, but putting something on the line can work miracles without willpower. For example, an atrial fibrillation patient named Heather, for instance, gave her trainer a crisp $100 Benjamin Franklin and instructions to donate it to the election campaign of a politician she abhorred if she failed to make her goals twice in a row. One year down the road, the trainer put the $100 in a card and told Heather to buy herself something nice.
Sometimes the Medications You’re On Make it Impossible
Paulina was an atrial fibrillation patient of mine. She had done a commendable job prioritizing her sleep, and was reliably getting seven or more hours of sleep every night in regularly scheduled intervals. She was stressing less. She had done everything she could, short of moving to another city, to surround herself with a clean environment.
“Even still, when I was trying to address those last few steps, and particularly when it came to what I was eating, I just felt so powerless and self-defeating,” she said. “I knew how I was supposed to eat and exercise, but I was still feeling quite tired, I think as a result of the medications I was on, and it felt like the more tired I got, the less willpower I had to get outside for a jog and to address my mostly good—but sometimes really bad—eating decisions. However, even when I was eating clean, my weight still wouldn’t go down which I think was due to the AFib medications I was on.”
After her ablation ablation procedure to rid her of atrial fibrillation and the need for medications, something clicked. “For the first few days I was tired and hurting. For a few weeks, it felt like, although I wasn’t having any more AFib episodes, my energy hadn’t come back to even the level it was before the ablation. But then it happened.” A surge of energy. An easier time walking, and even running, from here to there. Deeper breaths, which filled her lungs with air and filled her heart with confidence. And, with all of that, a renewed sense that she could truly win her lifelong fight with obesity.
3. The Right Support
What’s the difference between those who succeed and those who don’t? In large measure, it is support. One of the key findings of a study of 11,000 Americans’ eating habits was that those who switch to vegetarianism or veganism need support to avoid feeling as though they are “standing out from the crowd.”
Changing lifelong eating habits takes a level of willpower and determination on par with what is expended by people training for marathons and triathlons, or who engage in ultra-athletic training such as CrossFit. Going it alone is almost impossible. If we’re going to be different, as it turns out, we really need people to be different with.
In the case of Paulina, my atrial fibrillation patient from the prior section who couldn’t exercise and eat right until she was able to get off her medications experienced what I like to call the “Big Reset” after a life-changing ablation procedure. After Paulina got home from the hospital she gathered her family and asked for their help in doing something profound.
Together, she asked, could they commit to a 95-percent unprocessed plant-based diet with no added sugars—the only exception would be Sunday dinner when they would have meat and a desert, each week? Together, she pleaded, could they decide on an exercise regimen, like a commitment to the gym and a brisk walk or bike ride after dinner each evening, that they could do together, as a family?
She looked at her teen-aged children and her husband. “I was crying a little,” she recalled, “and I said, ‘please, if we can, I think my life depends on this.’ I love my family, but I would have never had the resolve to be that vulnerable with them. But there I was.”
Her youngest daughter, 8, was the first to respond. “Mommy,” she said. “Of course.”
Her middle son, 13, was next. “You know, I didn’t really like junk food anyway,” he lied.
Her oldest daughter, 16, didn’t hesitate. “Anything,” she said.
And her husband, married to her for 18 years and in love with her since the day they met in high school, made it unanimous. “What will we do first? Go on a walk or head to the market?”
There might not be anything particularly magical about walking, cycling, or going to the gym with your family or committing to a mostly plant-based diet free of added sugars and processed foods. But doing it together made this new healthy lifestyle stick. And fortunately, since adopting this healthy lifestyle her atrial fibrillation hasn’t come back, her weight is way down, and she remains medication free.
How to Make it When Your Family Isn’t Supportive
If you have a spouse or partner who is willing to support you on your commitment to eating right, consider yourself lucky. For a large percentage of my patients they simply don’t have that support at home. Does that mean all is lost?
A patient of mine named Louise learned this the hard way. In her late forties, Louise noticed that she was starting to develop chest pains, and that she would sometimes get winded just walking from her downtown parking lot to her office a few blocks away. That led to a cardiac workup which ultimately resulted in several heart stents to open up blocked arteries.
It was the proverbial wake-up call. Louise’s son was just about to graduate from elementary school. The idea of not being there for his high school graduation was too much to bear. In my mind, that was a very good thing: Louise had something to live for and look forward to that was still quite far down the road.
“The odds of seeing that dream become a reality are going to be a lot better if you change how you eat,” I told her after her workup, which included a review of her diet.
“Your life literally depends on your daily food choices.” Louise was convinced. And she began in the most logical place: the grocery store.
When Louise would go shopping for herself and her family, she would work hard to make conscientious choices about what she was putting in her cart. Soon, though, her husband, Gary, started to notice that a lot of the things that had been staples in their cupboards, like Oreo cookies and Little Debbie snack cakes, were disappearing.
When Gary confronted her about this, she told him that she had decided they were going to eat healthier. His response was to get in the car and drive directly to the store, where he loaded up a hand basket with all the things Louise hadn’t purchased. “If you’re going to eat healthier,” he told her that evening, “I’m very happy to support you, but these foods make me happy and I’m going to keep eating them.”
What Gary didn’t understand was that in bringing those foods into their home, he wasn’t supporting his wife at all. Rather, he was significantly increasing her risk of another stent, heart attack, or even a young death. Without a home free of junk food, her chances of eating healthy were really low, just like how having easily available liquor in the home of an alcoholic would drastically reduce that person’s chances of staying sober.
What Louise didn’t realize, on the other hand, is how much she had hurt her own chances of success because she didn’t invite the most important person in her community to become involved in her effort to get healthy; she’d simply made a decision for both of them.
They remained angry at one another for weeks, and Louise found it hard during this period to focus on making healthy choices. She found herself sneaking cookies, and when Gary noticed she was doing this, he used it as an opportunity to score points in their ongoing argument. That just made Louise angrier, which in turn made it even harder for her to focus on eating healthy.
“I know it seems incredibly dysfunctional,” Louise told me. “And the thing is that was such a strange place for us to be. Over twenty years of marriage we’d always been so compatible. Up to that point, I don’t think we’d ever had an argument that lasted a whole day, let alone several weeks. It was awful.”
I’m happy to report that Louise and Gary have worked out an arrangement that is helping them both work toward a common goal.When Gary is out of cookies and cakes, he has agreed to go to the store to get them for himself, and this actually has reduced his consumption of junk food, since it takes extra effort on his part to get it. He has also agreed to keep these sorts of food in his basement office, where Louise is unlikely to just happen upon it when looking for healthier foods.
Sometimes Support Can Be an App
Not everyone can reach a working agreement like Louise and Gary. And for those with teenagers it can even be harder to keep junk food out of sight. In these cases, having a trainer you report to at the gym or even a smartphone app can make the difference between success and failure.
I have a sweet tooth. Even though I’ve eliminated more than 99% of added sugars in my diet for the last 10 years, junk food cravings have never left me. As I can never fully escape the presence of junk food, for me the simple habit of recording every bite of food I’ve taken for the last 10 years on my iPhone app has given me all the willpower I need to eat right.
Like any video gamer, I always want the highest score possible. To me it is a game. I want all my food numbers, as close to perfect as possible. The graphs and charts on the app all have to look good. And knowing that a careless bite of junk food could ruin my score or mess up the chart on my app, I don’t do it.
Bringing It All Home
If you’re relying on willpower to eat right for 2021 you’re in for a huge disappointment. No matter how strong your willpower is it will eventually fail you. The key is to create the right environment where willpower is no longer needed. By having an unshakable WHY, eliminating temptations before you’re ever tempted, and having the right support system eating right can be the only option available for you in 2021. This was the secret to the centenarians in our book, The Longevity Plan, and can be the secret as well to your new life without chronic medical conditions.
Did you like the artwork associated with this article? It was my wife’s painting of our old Park City, Utah farmhouse where we used to live from the mountain trails above (you’ll have to really magnify the painting to see the small red farmhouse).
Disclaimer Policy: This website is intended to give general information and does not provide medical advice. This website does not create a doctor-patient relationship between you and Dr. John Day. If you have a medical problem, immediately contact your healthcare provider. Information on this website is not intended to diagnose or treat any condition. Dr. John Day is not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your medical decisions.
I was excited to see a newsletter from you, Dr. Day!! I love the information and the encouragement to stay eating healthy! It is the boost I need to restart with better eating!
Thank you so much! I know you are busy and it takes time, but I among many I am sure appreciate it when you can send out a newsletter. Thank you! I love the artwork!
What app do you use on your iphone to track what you eat? Do you eat meat sparingly every day or do you mostly plant-based?