Why Mainstream Dieting Fails: Food Addiction and the Myth of Willpower

Alona Pulde, MD, is a family practitioner specializing in nutrition and lifestyle medicine. Alona developed the Lifestyle Change Program used for patients in the film Forks Over Knives and in her clinic, Transition To Health. She is the author of the book Keep It Simple, Keep It Whole: Your Guide to Optimum Health. Alona joined Whole Foods Market in 2010 as a health and wellness medical expert.

A week or two into your transition to the Forks Over Knives Plan whole-food, plant based diet, the degree to which you’re already feeling better may make you excited and enthusiastic to continue. This is fantastic! And for some, it’s really that simple. They continue transitioning their full diet to whole, plant-based foods, and it just works for them. They no longer crave the chocolate cake (or chips, or cheese, or whatever their particular yen was) and their path is relatively smooth from now on.

But many people have a different experience. Not only do they still crave the chocolate cake a few weeks into the transition, they feel terrible about craving it. They tell us that they feel like they shouldn’t want it, because now they’re eating clean and should be “pure.” Plus, they worry that they lack willpower, an elusive virtue that we’re supposed to be able to access at times like these.

If this sounds familiar, stop beating yourself up for being a perfectly normal person. Cravings and yearning for certain foods are very familiar to most of us. But why is this?

Forks Over Knives Plan

Forks Over Knives Plan

by Alona Pulde

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Let us start by recognizing what this desire for foods that give us contentment is not. It is neither a sign of weakness nor a lack of moral character. Food makes us feel better emotionally and physically by stimulating what we call the “Dopamine Pleasure Cycle.” When we eat, the chemical dopamine is released in our brain, which gives us a pleasurable sensation that makes us want to eat more. This is a survival mechanism to ensure that we eat.

So you can put all that talk of “willpower” way to the back of your mind. Repeat after us: “I am hardwired to crave calorie-rich foods.” Generally speaking, the more refined or calorie-dense the food, the greater the dopamine hit. This wiring worked great for our ancestors. When they required energy and they came across various fruits and vegetables, the craving for calorie-rich foods would steer them to choose, say, bananas over leafy vegetables. Bananas, of course, have enough calories per bite to easily make a meal out of them, while the leafy vegetables by themselves do not.

Mainstream dieting is destined to fail because it emphasizes what we can’t eat. Restriction and portion control go against our nature to eat to satiation. They rely on “willpower” to ignore real feelings of deprivation and even hunger. But we are not programmed to be hungry! When we restrict, our body receives the message that it is starving. Eventually it fights back, and this is the moment that most of us fall off the “diet” and back into our old eating habits. Here’s how you break the cycle.

Change your lifestyle rather than dieting. Focus on all of the amazing foods you can eat until you are truly satisfied. Eliminate the notion that “willpower” has anything to do with this equation. End restriction and deprivation by choosing whole, plant-based foods. By eating this way you’ll be able to eat until satiated without restricting.

Understand your cravings. What you’re feeling is real. But you don’t have to give in to it the same way that you might have before. Instead, figure out a way to resolve the cravings within the scope of your new lifestyle. Ask yourself, did you take away everything that gave you pleasure before your transition? You need balance in your meal plan, so if you’re feeling deprived, it’s important to address it. Cravings for unhealthy foods tend to pass over time as you transition to finding healthy foods that you love. This is called neurological adaptation; you’re used to being hyperstimulated, so ordinary stimulation seems bland. There will probably be bumps at first. If you are used to a diet of high-calorie-density foods, the change to low calorie density foods will require a period of adjustment. Over time, by eating foods that are natural to us, your body will get used to the lower, more normal levels of dopamine stimulation and this will begin to feel good.

Don’t panic. Don’t panic that you’re craving unhealthy foods; just take a deep breath, look in your well-stocked pantry, and ask yourself, “What can I eat?” If you’re craving something sweet, for example, try fruit or a fruit-based ice “cream”; or if you’re craving something crunchy, try baked pita chips with hummus made from navy beans, lentils, or chickpeas and sun-dried tomatoes.

Don’t go hungry. This is perhaps the most important of these because this is when we make some of our worst food choices and why meal planning is so necessary. If you feel hungry, make sure you’re eating at meals until you are comfortably full. If you know you’re going to have a particularly busy day, pack snacks to eat between appointments. Finally, give your body time to adjust to its new reality. Little by little you’ll learn how to respond to the clues your body is giving you to tell you what it needs. We don’t want you ever to feel deprived. There has never been an easier time to go plant-based than now when such abundant resources are available to help you. A world of nourishing foods that taste amazing and satisfy you is here, waiting for you to discover it. You can begin with the recipes in The Forks Over Knives Plan, of course!

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