Willpower vs. Skillpower

Katz quote

{REPOST} Clients talk to me all the time about willpower and discipline, or their lack thereof. When we set our mind to changing a habit or getting healthier we have a tendency to think it all depends on our capabilities to be disciplined and have self-control. Why can’t we just will ourselves to do what we need to do? The truth is, willpower is a depleting resource and is not reliable.

One definition of willpower is “control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.” To me this conjures up thoughts of struggle and hard work, which many of us associate with changing habits. What if changing habits didn’t have to be so hard and we could take some of the work and difficulty out of it?

I recently downloaded a book called Disease Proof, The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well by Dr. David Katz. Dr. Katz is a top doctor in the field of preventative medicine at Yale University and an expert in the prevention of chronic diseases. In his book Dr. Katz talks about the concept of willpower vs. skillpower. To make a change, and make it last, it is critical to have the skills, tools, and information you need to be successful. Basically, instead of relying mostly on determination and grit, we can make change easier by using certain tools and arranging our environments so that the healthier decision is actually easy and more natural.

Recently a client was telling me about a friend, who we’ll call “Jill”, who struggles with eating well and managing her weight. She said one day Jill had posted pictures on social media that she had eaten 2 eggs for breakfast, then she showed a picture of her salad she had eaten for lunch that was just greens and dressing. Then about mid afternoon Jill’s coworker was having a birthday so out came the cupcakes to call her name so she dove in, blaming her lack of willpower for her inability to resist the temptation.

Jill’s choices seem pretty healthy, right? Good quality protein for breakfast, then a big heap of leafy greens for lunch which no one could argue isn’t healthy. The problem that I see through my dietitian lens is that it wasn’t enough calories, aka fuel, and likely wasn’t very filling because it wasn’t well balanced with other nutrients and therefore just left her hungry and wanting more. When those cupcakes presented themselves it was actually less about willpower and more about a lack of the skills, knowledge, and tools to put together healthy, balanced, satisfying meals that would fill her up. Of course her willpower failed her because she was starving and her body was screaming for carbs, its’ preferred source of energy.

We often set ourselves up for failure with restrictive, seemingly healthy diets. If I was to guess, Jill was probably trying to avoid carbs, which is so common. But by cutting carbs she cut out a whole group of foods that have the fiber, protein, and nutrients that can help fill us up and actually less vulnerable to cravings and extreme hunger.

A more balanced option for her 2 egg breakfast would be to add a piece of 100% whole wheat toast topped with avocado with some berries on the side. The whole wheat toast and the berries provide good complex, slow-burning energy and fiber and the avocado provides good fats to make our meal more satisfying.  

For her salad for lunch the key there is to add more balance too. We aren’t rabbits and lettuce typically isn’t enough to fill us up, nor does it give us the balance of nutrients we need. So how could she add more balance to her salad? She needs some protein and carbs. One way would be to add a handful of garbanzo or black beans. Beans are a natural little bundle of complex carbs that are full of fiber and protein too. She could also add chopped up apple for some crunch and some more slow-burning carbs. That along with olive or canola oil based dressing to give her more good fats would fill her up and make her meal more satisfying.

I tell people often that when we want to eat healthier we often think it is about restricting and all the things we shouldn’t eat and need to cut out of our diets. In reality it is more about adding, not subtracting. This is the way to boost our willpower and help us make smarter decisions in the midst of temptation.

By eating well balanced meals most of the time we make it easier to eat well and fuel our body with what it needs. A quote I love from Dr. Katz book is, “the single best way to control the quantity of food you eat is to improve the quality of the food you eat.” Taking the time and effort to develop the skills, acquire the tools, and build knowledge in regards to what healthy eating really looks like can take the difficulty out of eating well and get you off of the yo-yo dieting rollercoaster once and for all. Do you have the skills you need or are you and your willpower just trying to muscle through?