Eating and Self-Control

My wife and I have had debates regarding how much choice influences eating habits. Her opinion, if I understand it correctly, is that everyone is the same, but some people lack self-control and therefore have poor eating habits, while other people have more self-control and therefore eat better. My opinion is that certain people are subject to cravings and desires that other people are not subject to, and therefore some people find it more challenging than others to maintain good eating habits. These “challenged” people must therefore exercise greater levels of discipline and self-control to maintain the same eating habits that other people do naturally.

For example, I’m overweight and my friend Mark isn’t. When Mark and I eat together, he tends to eat noticeably less than I do. It’s not that he says “I’ve had enough, I better stop eating.” What happens is that as he’s eating his stomach tells his brain that he’s full, and he simply doesn’t want to eat anymore. My stomach does the same thing with my brain, except that it doesn’t do it until I’ve eaten three times as much as Mark has.

So what of it? I think my wife doesn’t like my line of thought because she thinks I’ll eat too much of the wrong foods and then excuses like “I’ve got cravings” or “The devil made me do it!” or “What can I do? I’m just one man” will issue from my lips, and then sooner or later I’ll have to be enrolled in an eating disorder treatment center. But that’s not the case for me. That is, yes, I could use my theory as an excuse, but I recognize that whether or not I am subject to influences that my wife, Mark, and others are not, doesn’t really matter if I’m going to achieve my goal of being fit and healthy and doing an Ironman. If I’m going to be an Ironman, I need to eat certain things in certain quantities and avoid other things. If that means I have to exercise greater self-control than someone else would to achieve the same results, then fine. It’s no difference than saying that someone who makes $10 per hour will have to work more hours than a guy who makes $15 per hour in order to buy the same TV. Yeah, duh. I only bring up the matter because I think when we understand the true nature of how things work, it makes it easier to control them. If I know I have to work harder than someone else to get the same results, then I’m less likely to get discouraged if I feel like I’m putting forth more effort and getting less results than they are, because I already know I have to work harder than they do, and that what applies to them doesn’t necessarily apply to me.

Now here’s the thing–I believe we can change our cravings. In fact, I know we can. I know this because I’ve found that when I’m exercising a lot, my cravings change. When I’m heavy into training I find myself craving wheat bread, water, vegetables, and fruits rather than hamburgers, fries, and milkshakes. It’s not the fake “Oh, I’d much rather have a piece of wheat bread instead of that cake” that parents use to try and convince their children to eat healthfully–I really do feel like eating more healthful foods. By the way, does that tactic ever work with kids? My experience is that they look at the adult as if they’re crazy, and never trust anything the adult says ever again. I mean, would you?

I have nothing but my own anecdotal evidence, but I believe that our cravings for foods are influenced by at least three factors:

1. Habits/experience, or “what we’re used to”

2. Exercise/fitness

3. Choice

It’s been hard for me to cut down on cheese and ice cream, but the less I eat of it and the less frequently I eat it, the easier it gets to eat less and less frequently. Exercise as I already mentioned above completely changes my appetite. And finally, I think the mind has a huge impact. I think I can choose to like certain foods and “trick” myself into believing it. My hope is that by exercising self-control for an extended period of time (a few years), exercising, and choosing to like healthful foods, maybe I can change my cravings to the point where it’s second nature, and maybe I’ll be just like Mark. That is, maybe I’ll crave better foods and smaller quantities of food, and it won’t be something I have to constantly watch, it will just be normal.

  • Joshua

    On a related note, here’s an exchange between me and my coach:

    Me: Do you have any recommendations for dealing with cravings for foods that are sweet, fatty, or both?

    Coach David Warden: Let yourself eat foods that are sweet and fatty. If you body is craving sweet and fatty, it probably means it needs it. But the difference is the kinds of sweet or fatty foods and the portion size. For example:

    – Piece of whole fruit (peach, strawberry, grapes, whatever you like) instead of a donut.
    – Almond or peanut butter instead of regular butter on toast.
    – Coconut ice cream instead of regular ice cream (yes, it is loaded with fat, but it is a better kind of fat. If you are going to have fat, eat the kind that is better for you)
    – Tuna fish or turkey instead of read meat.

    Eat right after a workout to reduce cravings later in the day. I hate “rules” in nutrition planning, but a simple “guideline” would be to only eat foods that are high in fat and sugar right after a workout.

    Psychologically, you know that you can still have them, and physiologically, it is the best time to take them in. Try not to eat after dinner, as this is where a ton of extras calories are consumed.