Tips from Nancy Clark
Making Dietary Changes: Willpower -- Or Nutrition
"I wish I had more will power. I just can't seem to stick
to any diet and lose weight."
"If only I had more will power, I wouldn't be tempted by the
vending machine. Every afternoon at 3:00, it's like a magnet for
"I'm a junk food junkie. I need some willpower to clean up
For the athlete with a sweet tooth, cravings for junk food, or
with excess body fat, will power is deemed the missing character
trait that leads them into nutrition temptation. Athletes who lack
willpower commonly beg me to put them on the straight and narrow
and empower them with the ability to "just say no" to
food sins. They are convinced lack of willpower is the root of their
food struggles. I tend to disagree.
The following case studies explain why I disagree and offer another
way of thinking about food management. I believe in nutrition skillpower
more so than willpower.
Case #1. Sweets Craver
"If only I had more willpower, I could get sweets out of my
life" complained Rick, a 27 year old triathlete. He trained
hard, tried to eat healthfully but inevitably would succumb to his
"downfalls": chocolate chip cookies, candy bars and ice
cream. These sweets undermined his intentions to fuel his body healthfully.
"I just have no willpower in the afternoon when my training
is done for the day. I want a reward...and chocolate rewards me
I reviewed Rick's typical food and exercise program. He ran first
thing in the morning, grabbed a small breakfast on-the-run (banana
and bagel), then headed for the office. He did his second workout
at the gym during his lunch hour, then rushed back to the office.
Come three o'clock, he was "starving" and would attack
the vending machine.
Rick was indeed correct in describing himself as starving; he was!
He had consumed only 500 calories, yet had burned at least 2,500
calories. By afternoon, he was 2,000 calories "in the hole."
No wonder he was craving sweets. His depleted body was screaming
at him for quick energy.
Rick believed that lack of willpower regarding chocolate created
his eating problem. Wrong. Getting too hungry was the problem. He
could prevent sweet cravings by eating more calories earlier in
the day. I encouraged Rick to eat a banana and a granola bar before
his morning run, refuel afterwards with 16 ounces of orange juice
and a bagel with peanut butter, then have half his lunch (a turkey
sandwich and a yogurt) at 11:00 (an hour before his second workout),
and refuel afterwards with another sandwich and juice. By feeding
his body adequately, he prevented the urge to binge on sweets.
"I'm amazed!!! I no longer crave sweets. I haven't had any
chocolate all week and I haven't even missed it." Rick needed
nutrition skillpower (not willpower): better fueling patterns.
Case #2. Diet Failure
"If only I had more willpower, I could lose weight" complained
Roberta, a 42 year old recreational runner. For years, she had been
on and off diets, only to feel totally unsuccessful. "I've
been trying to lose these same eight pounds for 25 years."
Feeling totally helpless, she came to me as a "last resort"
to help her achieve herweight goals.
When reviewing her dieting history, I noticed Roberta would diet
by trying to exist on fruit for breakfast, salads for lunch, yogurt
for snack, and fish with vegetables for dinner. Spartan intake,
to say the least-as well as a very limited amount of food. I asked
"When you are not dieting, what do you eat?" She quickly
listed her favorite foods: granola for breakfast, PB&J sandwich
for lunch, spaghetti for dinner. Every time she went "on her
diet" to lose weight, she denied herself of these favorite
foods. She even went to great extremes to keep cereal, peanut butter
and bread out of her house so she wouldn't eat them. She deemed
them too much of a temptation for her weak willpower.
I encouraged Roberta to stop looking at food as being fattening,
and instead enjoy it as one of life's pleasures. Given she has liked
granola, breads and pasta since childhood, she's naive to think
she can stop liking them. Instead of trying to keep these foods
out of her house, I encouraged her to eat them more often. I pointed
out that her standard "diet foods" (fruit, salad and fish)
had no power over her because she gave herself permission to eat
them whenever she wanted. I encouraged her to eat granola every
day for breakfast (and even lunch, dinner and snacks) to take the
power away from that food--and simultaneously teach her how to manage
eating granola in an appropriate portion.
If you, too, struggle with weight issues, you need to learn how
to manage your favorite foods--not how to deny yourself of them.
By enjoying appropriate portions of whatever you'd like to eat,
as often as you'd like, you no longer need willpower to avoid them.
Nutrition skillpower, not willpower, enhances permanent weight loss
without denial and deprivation.
A skill that enhances portion management is to eat mindfully (not
mindlessly), chew the food s-l-o-w-l-y, taste it and savour each
mouthful. By doing so, you'll need far less quantity to be satisfied;
you'll be content to eat a smaller portion. You will also diffuse
the urge to do "last chance eating." (You know,
"Last chance to eat bagels before I go back on my diet...")
You can have more bagels (or whatever) when your body becomes hungry
again. Nutrition skillpower wins again!
Case #3. Junk Food Junkie
"If only I had more willpower, I would fewer donuts, chips,
ding dongs..." fantasized Jason, a 22 year old graduate student
and rugby player. "I know I should eat more healthfully, but
I just happen to love junk food..." In the past, Jason had
tried to go "on the straight and narrow" by limiting his
intake to "good clean calories"-a pattern that left him
feeling denied, deprived.
I reminded Jason there is no such thing as a "good" food
or a "bad" food, but rather there is a good diet or a
bad diet. He could healthfully balance "bad" foods into
an overall good diet. I encouraged him to shift his meal patterns
to front-load his calories and prevent the hunger that can all-too-easily
lead to overconsuming "junk." I helped Jason recognize
when he ate healthfully, he not only felt better but also exercised
better and felt better about himself. Skillpower, not willpower,
helped him improve his food choices.
The bottom line
If you believe you need more willpower, think again and consult
with your local sports nutritionist. At www.eatright.org,
you can find a local nutrition skill-builder.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD is Director of Nutrition Services
at SportsMedicine Associates in Brookline MA. She is author of Nancy
Clark's Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Second Edition ($23) and her
new Food Guide for Marathoners: Tips for Everyday Champions ($20).
Both are available via www.nancyclarkrd.com
or by sending a check to Sports Nutrition Materials, 830 Boylston
St #205, Brookline MA 02467.
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