Willpower, mindfulness, and overcoming carb cravings
As we breeze through this new information, learning and (hopefully) getting excited about the keto diet, there's something we cannot skip over when we talk about going keto.
Lurking in the midst of every list of keto flu symptoms, there lies the one. The Big One -- the hardest to overcome. It's the one that can keep ketosis indefinitely and cruelly out of our reach if we can't address it and kick it swiftly in the pants:
We can chug electrolytes all day, but if we cave to the often intense and overwhelming carb cravings that come early on, we'll always be hovering near ketosis and never quite in it. Ketosis requires a stretch of several consecutive days to weeks to achieve, and the process stalls out if it gets interrupted by a carb binge. Giving in to cravings for temporary relief puts us metabolically back at square one -- a discouraging truth!
"Willpower" might be the first word that comes to mind when thinking of resisting temptation. To have willpower is to have the psychological strength to avoid harmful activities and choose beneficial ones. One might be naturally gifted with it or lacking in it, depending on individual constitution and personality.
It seems to be the case, however, that willpower might not be the sole force needed for a successful diet. Diets are hard to stick to. It doesn't mean we're weak or flaky if we can't quite get it right. It just means we're human.
(Also, keto isn't your average diet.)
Will Willpower Power Us Through?
Saying no to some of the foods we used to enjoy is tough. The ability to say no is the core concept of willpower, and some seem to have a better grasp on it than others.
There was once a belief that willpower exists only in limited quantities. We wake up each day with X amount of it, and the more we use it (avoiding procrastination, saying no to sugary foods, diligently exercising, etc.), the more it gets "depleted." At the end of the day, we might have zero willpower left over, or we may even be in the negative. The end result is stress and ill health. And, we'll supposedly engage in self-destructive, indulgent behaviours if we spend too much of it.
Sound dicey? There's a lot of questionable content in that theory, which is now called "ego depletion."
Mental fortitude isn't a quantifiable substance; there are no willpower tokens. And how can anyone suggest that doing the right thing, making the right choices, is inherently an exhausting, detrimental task? Is this theory implying that bad habits empower mental health, while good ones take a toll? There are some holes in this once-popular wisdom, and it's been debunked.
Many modern psychologists back the belief that we have unlimited willpower. Rather, willpower isn't something you can measure. It's more like a state of being: A state in which we perceive ourselves as capable and strong.
So the first real takeaway from our cravings talk should be: You really are capable of overcoming those cravings. Having willpower is great to have in your toolbox, and you'll always have enough. But it's not the be-all and end-all of the keto diet.
How do we switch from continually giving in to cravings to saying no to carbs, especially when the urges can be so powerful?
Enter mindfulness, the healthiest thing anyone can do for their brain (next to switching to a brain run on ketones, of course). Cravings generally result from negative feelings like boredom or stress. Mindfulness is a technique that lets us identify triggers, recognize them as such, and make the conscious choice to engage in good habits.
Even when the stomach is satisfied, the mind can remain restless, mechanically searching out its old, comforting go-to snacks. One part of us knows very well that eating cake is going to set us back from ketosis, but another part of us -- a part we have seemingly no control over -- overrides that reasonable, intellectual understanding and makes us reach for it anyway!
Mindfulness gives us a better understanding of ourselves and control over our minds, where cravings originate. It all begins with keeping an eye on your mind, in a way, and being aware of what's going on in there.
Many people walk through their lives in a state of perpetual distraction. The mind is constantly going through disaster scenarios, judging the self and others, trying to prepare for future events, and mulling over past ones (or in some cases, playing the greatest alternative rock hits of the '90s on repeat). This "mental chatter" is where unhealthy urges originate. It's a noisy backdrop which few people ever stop and look at.
Mindfulness is, throughout each day, taking a few moments to slow down, relax, and recognize the anxious inner monologue for what it is. Recognize it as a negative or distracting thought. Think about what triggered it. Feel the emotions you're feeling without reacting in an automatic, knee-jerk way (like heading straight for food). "This is how I'm feeling. It feels bad/overwhelming/intense, but it will not last. I have a choice in how I'll react to it."
Slow, controlled breathing is the best way to override automatic instincts and enter a mindful state. Drinking a glass of water, going for a brief walk, or taking the time to intentionally talk to yourself about staying strong are all ways to handle an intense craving.
The more you stop, relax, and intervene when you're having an anxious mental chatter moment, the better you'll get at self-control. It's a skill which takes practice to get good at, but the more you do it, the more awareness you'll bring to personal triggers and thought patterns. The old, unthinking coping mechanisms will be replaced with healthy, conscious ones. And you will lose weight.
The keto diet says no to carbs. That requires some degree of willpower. But remember, keto also says yes to healthy fats, tasty proteins, creative cooking, and avocados. Yes to exercise, support forums, and the occasional whiskey. So here's to staying mindful, positive, and true to our goals -- cheers!