Diet Failure: Is it Lack of Willpower – or Carbohydrates?

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Diet Failure: Is it Lack of Willpower – or Carbohydrates?

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I normally write my blogs from my experiences, but the issue of willpower versus carbohydrates lead me to some significant articles from both The New York Times and Bottom Line Health magazine (links to original articles at the end of this piece).

A dear friend of mine, who struggles with her weight, has long recognized that her diet demons are processed carbohydrates (white bread, regular pasta, potatoes, cookies, cake or some other processed snack food). For her, carbs are the slippery slope of her dieting efforts.

In emailing back and forth with her, I questioned the difference between a carb trigger and a simple lack of willpower. Why can’t we have “just one bite” of a cookie without destroying our diet effort for a day or a week or a lifetime?

She knows from years of diet struggles that the impact of carbs in our diets can override our willpower.

Research confirms that processed carbohydrates are our ultimate diet villains. You may possess strong willpower (good for you), but for many dieters, that slice of cake or bite of bagel is a death knell to sticking to a diet and ultimate success.

According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, processed carbohydrates that are known to cause abrupt spikes and falls in blood sugar appear to stimulate parts of the brain involved in hunger, craving and reward.

A Stanford University study notes that after decades of research but little success in fighting obesity, it has been disappointing that the message being communicated to the American public has been boiled down to ‘eat less and exercise more.’

An underlying assumption of the ‘eat less’ portion of that message has been ‘a calorie is a calorie.” But the new research sheds light on the strong plausibility that it isn’t just the amount of food we are eating, but also the type. A more helpful message than ‘eat less’ may be ‘eat less refined carbohydrates and more whole foods.’

Scientifically speaking, here’s how that chocolate brownie can sabotage your diet effort:

Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly because they’re so simple that our bodies have little left to do with them before converting the food to energy. Such foods are said to have a high glycemic index (GI) because they trigger a fast and pronounced increase in blood glucose levels. But soon after high-GI foods are eaten, blood glucose begins to plummet again…and by about four hours later, it winds up even lower than after a 12-hour fast. That’s the crash that people complain of—and it triggers big hunger.

In contrast, low-GI foods (most vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and minimally processed grains) cause more gradual and less extreme increases and decreases in blood glucose levels. That why they keep you feeling fuller longer and don’t trigger intense cravings.

Researchers suggested that the sharp decrease in blood sugar that occurs a few hours after high-GI foods are consumed not only stimulates greater hunger, but also makes the brain find the very idea of high-GI carbs more pleasurable and rewarding. Thus the cycle of overeating is propagated.

The findings suggest that, if people succeed in avoiding high-GI foods, they may be able to interrupt the self-perpetuating cycle of carb cravings. In other words, if you can muster the strength to stay away from simple carbs for a while, it will get easier for you keep off of them.

I believe this is true; the longer you stay away from high-GI foods, the easier it becomes to draw on willpower. I was on a cruise last week and – although I slipped up a bit with some high-GI food treats – I was still able to exercise my willpower. Having read the NY Times and Bottom Line Health articles, I would venture that having being off high GI carb binges for the past several years, I could enjoy the cruise food – in moderation – but still draw on willpower NOT to gain 10 pounds while away.

There are no easy solutions to the challenges of dieting. But acknowledging the long-range impact of carb triggers can make a huge difference

Excerpts from Bottom Line Health

Excerpts from New York Times