Weight Loss: Does Willpower Matter? (cont.)

Likewise, a drop in levels of serotonin -- a brain chemical linked to depression -- could signal an increased desire for carbohydrates.

As we learn more about the role of hormones linked directly to appetite, like ghrelin, leptin and cortisol, we'll also likely discover more about how imbalances can increase our cravings and make resisting some foods especially hard, Aronowitz says.

"What can seem like willpower may, in fact, be biology at work," she says.

Finding Your Inner Strength

While doctors don't always agree on just what is behind a person's ability to resist tempting foods, one belief that seems universal is that we all have such an ability.

For many, the key lies in understanding their tolerance level for "food frustration," and the ability to plan ahead for how to handle it.

"If you know, for example, that you'll be at a holiday party with lots of tempting treats, going into the event relying on nothing but your willpower almost always guarantees disaster," says Huberman.

But going in with a plan for how you'll handle the temptation will give you a sense of control -- that feeling of "willpower" to resist what you really don't want to eat.

"Maybe you'll allow yourself three of the 10 things being served, or you'll allow yourself to eat as much as you want of one favorite item but nothing else, or you'll simply excuse yourself from the table and go to the restroom just before the dessert cart hits your table," says Huberman. "Whatever it is, if you have a plan of action in mind before you hit the buffet table, then you may be surprised at how strong-willed you really are."

Another technique: Get to the root of your temptations by learning more about what it is that is pulling you toward a certain food, Musante suggests. While taste is one factor, sometimes more is at work.

"We all have food memories, certain events or emotionally charged situations that can be related to certain food items," says Musante.

What some people see as a lack of willpower to resist a certain food, he says, may really be an unconscious reaction fueling a desire to recreate a comforting food memory, or avoid a painful one.

"When you think your willpower is giving in, think about what eating that food will mean to you -- and how it will make you feel," says Musante. Once you identify that, he says, your will to resist it may seem a lot stronger.

Finally, Aronowitz says, one of the best ways to avoid eating too much of the foods you don't want, is, ironically enough, to allow yourself to eat them. As wacky as this may sound, Aronowitz says that deprivation almost always weakens our resolve.

"The more you deny yourself what you want, the weaker you will feel when you're around it, and the harder it will be to resist," she says.

The trick to controlling your desires: "Allow yourself a small amount -- more than a taste, but less than a portion," she says.

Published November 17, 2006.

SOURCES: Stuart, R.B Behavioral Research and Therapy, 1967; 5: 357-365. Warren Huberman, PhD, psychologist, NYU Medical Center, New York. Gerard Musante, PhD, director and founder, Structure House, Durham, N.C. Abby Aronowitz, PhD, specializing in weight loss therapy, Huntington, N.Y.; author, Your Final Diet.

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