Want more willpower? Eat fat.
In a world divided on almost everything, willpower is one thing most people can agree on. Most of us need more, want more, or can’t find it at all.
Is willpower a concept or a physical thing?
Turns out it’s a measurable form of mental energy that feels to us like a concept. Most scientists believe that it’s a finite amount of mental energy. One upstart study out of Stanford U using a very small sample of students proved that the students who believed it was an infinite resource did better at challenging tasks than those who believed it was finite. Two points for the importance of mindset, but let’s look at the physiology of this mental energy for clues on how to make the most of it.
Our brain uses 25% of the glucose circulating in the body on any given day. Mental energy is a power hog, considering the size of the brain and the intangible nature of thought. Nonetheless, it needs fuel just like the other organs in the body in order to function. If you aren’t feeding your body fuel with staying power, you will end up depleted of the energy needed for those kinds of tasks that use willpower.
What does long-lasting fuel look like?
In a word? Fat. Some fats are healthy, some are not. The bottom line is, the science of healthy fats gives willpower staying power.
First, let’s start with the conventional wisdom around eating to maintain a healthy weight. It’s calories in minus calories out equals why-we-weigh-what-we-do, right?
You are not a science lab and it is impossible to accurately “count” the calories you take in and expend unless you are kept in a hermetically sealed lab with food prepared for you, exercise, sleep, elimination, etc. all monitored. Your activity level changes day to day, measuring food is not an exact process, food labeling has been found to be inaccurate, and hormones and genes play a role in how we metabolize — or make use of — the food we consume.
Let’s talk about consumption. Think 300 calories of salmon works the same in the body as 300 calories of pizza? It doesn’t, and although both contain fat let’s first do a little fat science.
- The fat in salmon is 2/3 mono- and poly-unsaturated fat; 1/3 saturated fat.
- The fat in a slice of cheese pizza is 50/50 saturated fat to mono and polyunsaturated.
- Both are close in amounts of protein. The notable difference is not the ratio in types of fat, but that the salmon has no carbohydrate and no sugar or starch.
A comparable amount of pizza (by calories) has 57 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of sugar. The difference in what happens in the body is vastly different. The salmon will fill the person, but won’t create a spike in insulin leading to a drop in blood sugar and the cravings that follow that. According to Dr. Mark Hyman, “The insulin drives most of the available fuel in your bloodstream into fat cells, especially the fat cells around your middle, otherwise known as belly fat. So your body is starved of fuel, and this stimulates your brain to make you eat more.”
Willpower is no match for a body primed to seek out food.
Enter healthy fat.
Fat is a complex subject and fat cells play many roles in our wellbeing.
Pertinent to this conversation though is the fat / willpower connection. More fat in your diet of the right kinds will keep your blood sugar levels normal, insulin levels will follow, you will be satiated, your brain will get the message, “I’m full” and you won’t have cravings, period.
Cravings test the iron-willed among us.
It’s an evolutionary mandate that the body is fueled against danger, famine, and the daily processes of living. If we choose more carbohydrates and sugar than is needed, it messes up the system. The body is sending the right signal, but for the wrong reason.
Healthy fat includes saturated fat.
Saturated fats from plants (like coconut, nuts, and avocados), fish, and organic grass-fed meats are important for health. They do not cause heart disease and are now recognized as vital to our heart, brain, and endocrine health. Including sat fat in our diets, along with some poly and mono-unsaturated fats, is a healthy move.
Recently, the US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee finally ended its years-long promotion of low-fat diets as cures for heart disease or weight loss. Dr. Mozaffarian, writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association on this topic said, “Low-fat diets have had unintended consequences, turning people away from healthy, high-fat foods rich in added sugars, starches, and refined grains. This has helped fuel the twin epidemics of obesity and diabetes in America. We really need to sing it from the rooftops that the low-fat diet concept is dead. There are no health benefits to it.”
I’m sure the good doctor would have added that it has also caused people to feel weak and hopeless as their resolve to exercise, lose weight, write that book or anything else that requires commitment, disappeared and they gave up.
Willpower finds its superpower in a healthy, high-fat diet.
Oh, and in a lab setting, people who ate more fat calories compared to an identical amount of calories with lower fat and higher carbohydrates burned an additional 100 calories per day just being alive. Do the math on that one and I’ll bet there’s a whole egg in your future.
Whether for boosting willpower, metabolism, heart or brain health — and the list of benefits goes on — more is more when it comes to fat in the diet.