Willpower is often considered the magic quality that separates winners from losers – the thing that makes you stick to your goals and help you say yes to hard work and no to those cookies. In order to succeed we “just” need willpower. But what is it really, and how can we get more of it?
I’ve recently discovered that willpower seems to have little to do with character or mental training – and a LOT to do with what we eat. But the solution is not about following a calorie depraved, supposedly “healthy” diet, as you might expect.
The depressing cycle
It’s funny, isn’t it, how those goals we set for ourselves – to eat healthy, to start exercise, to work on our todo-list, quickly can change from something that feels reasonable, desirable and realistic to virtually impossible.
The last few years, I’ve been learning a great deal about mental training, affirmations, and many other different ways to improve health, performance and energy level. I would get super enthusiastic about the latest thing, telling everybody around me that THIS IS IT! The problem was just, if I even got around to try it out, I would follow my latest method for a few days, maximum a few months before I fell back into my old habits again – EVEN if the method did seem to work.
For every method that I failed to stick to it grew more and more obvious, that the problem must be my lack of willpower. Or maybe I didn’t REALLY want to change after all? Maybe it all came down to my lack of self-esteem, that I was acting self-destructive since I didn’t believe I was worthy of a better life? I was starting to lose hope – it seemed like I was forever doomed to a life dominated by fear, inertia and general lack of energy. And no, accountability, the thing that works wonders for most people, didn’t help anymore either.
Improved energy and willpower from day one!
After I started my new practice of the “positive” morning pages it quickly became clear to me that one of the things that made my life difficult was that I didn’t know what to eat. I had learned about (and tried) so many different diets, each claiming to bring you health and happiness, and some being the exact opposite to each other.
In my confusion, while not being able to decide whether to have a green smoothie or a paleo meal for breakfast I often ended up with my usual black tea with milk and (full grain, but still) sandwich, later followed up with coffee and another sandwich. I realized that my eating habits, not to mention the decision angst involved, was part of the reason to my lack of energy.
“I need to find out what to eat and not. I need new inspiration around eating” I wrote in my morning pages.
The very same day, I coincidently found it, after watching a TED-talk with the not so revealing title “Hacking yourself” with Dave Asprey.
4 weeks into my latest “thing” I’m happy to announce, that my will power, ability to focus and general energy level have improved enormously – without doing one bit of affirmations, meditation or other forms of mental training. As a side effect, I’ve also lost enough weight to finally fit back into those skinny jeans that’s been hiding in my closet for 1 1/2 years. (Since I don’t own a scale I cannot give you the exact numbers, but at least 5 kg/10 pounds seems to have melted away the last few weeks, without me starving myself or otherwise suffering for even a second. )
To make it even better, this “thing” includes no rigorous fitness practice – in fact, I’ve limited my “sport program” to 2 X 15 minutes /week, and I’ve been sleeping way less than normally. I even had a glass of wine or two most evenings.
So what is this magic method? As crazy as it might seem, the first secret to more willpower (and effortless weight loss) is to eat embarrassing amounts of BUTTER!, topped of with equal amounts of coconut oil. But, as always, things are a little more complicated than that, so before you head off to eat butter with a spoon, stay with me for a moment.
How can butter improve will power?!!!
In his book “The Bulletproof Diet” , Dave Asprey uses a very vivid picture to describe our brain: As you might know, our brain basically have three parts – the “lizard brain” , the limbic system and the neocortex. The lizard brain is what we have in common with almost all living creatures, including slugs. It’s job is mainly to take care of body functions – breathing, blood circulation, guts, reflexes….
The next section, the limbic system, is something all “higher Creatures”(mammals, birds, and to a certain degree even reptiles and fish) have.
Dave Asprey calles this our “labrador brain”. It can do a lot of things – and it has a great capacity to learn from experience. It is also very impulsive and easily distracted, and lacks the ability to create or stick to a plan.
The neocortex, finally, he calls our “human brain”. This is the center of logic and abstract thinking. It is also the center of our impulse control and willpower. The neocortex is what makes you leave your cosy bed in the morning to go to work, even though you’d much rather go back to sleep.
The importance of blood sugar levels
To function, the brain needs a constant supply of energy. For this reason, our body stores glycogen in the liver, and as soon as our body have used up the calories from our latest meal cortisol gets released to transform glycogen to glucose to feed our brain and body. Once the glycogen supply is used up (usually after 4-6 hours) the body turns to the fat stored in our muffin top instead, and from that point the brain and body runs on fat instead of sugar.
Unfortunately, the transition from burning sugar to burning fat takes some time – if you’ve ever experienced “hitting the wall” while running or similar, you know what I mean. If this happens while you’re sound asleep it doesn’t really matter – you’re already lying down motionless and unconscious, which is pretty much all you can do once you “hit the wall”.
If your blood sugar gets too low while you’re awake, however, you will feel an irresistible urge to EAT SUGAR NOW!!! And as the brain feeds the three “brains” in order of their importance for your survival (breathing and reflexes first, then your labrador brain and the luxury “human” neocortex brain last) your ability to use willpower and stick to a plan will be virtually non-existent.
This is why so many dieters give in an and eat a whole bunch of those forbidden cookies in the afternoon, after being “good” having a salad with fat-free dressing for lunch.
Considering what happens to people when they drink alcohol is another great illustration of what happens when the neocortex is not working properly, since this part of our brain first gets affected when we drink…
So where does the butter fit in all this?
Turns out, butter and coconut oil, among some other delicious things, have some great fat chains that the body very easily can turn into ketone bodies, a type of fat that can be used to fuel our brain instead of sugar, so by relying on these fats for your energy supply you can keep your brain – and body – happily humming on an even energy level for hours and hours, instead of being a victim to the constant energy levels and mood swings that comes when you rely on the fast fuel from sugar and other carbs and starches.
And when the body knows it has plenty of energy, it will also give a fair share to the neocortex, making sure you have all the willpower, focus and impulse control you want.
For years and years, I thought that one of my greatest problems was that I was too impulsive. Now it seems that the problem was that I was eating so poorly that most of the time my neocortex was too starved to function – leaving the impulsive and often fearful labrador brain in control!
What if I’m a vegan, or allergic to milk?
No worries. The most important thing to help gain more mental energy is to provide your brain with a stable energy supply – This can be done by eating any nutrition rich high-fat low-carb diet, or, if you can tolerate grains and legumes, simply by getting very aware about GI.
Butter from grassfed cows contain a lot of vitamins and also Omega 3, which is super-good for your brain and heart, using Ghee (butter oil) instead of butter will give you most of those benefits without the small amounts of lactose and milk protein that are found in normal butter.
If you want to stay away totally from cows, the coconut oil alone is marvelous too – you just have to find another good soure for the omega 3 and vitamines A & D. (can be tricky if you’re a vegan, so, thinking about it, you’d probably better get some supplements. )
But isn’t saturated fat and cholesterol bad for you?
The myth about the dangerous cholesterol, seems to be one of the ones hardest to kill. True, Cholesterol stuck in your blood vessels are extremely bad news, and will dramatically increase your risk for stroke and heart problems. But, on the contrary to what most people believe, it isn’t too much fat in your diet that’s causing these problems, it is STRESS. And one of the more stressful things you can do to your body is to keep it riding the blood sugar roller coaster! (overtraining is another commonly overlooked stressor)
In fact, cholesterol is incredibly important for a multitude of bodily functions, including brain function, building of healthy cell membranes and synthesis of many hormones, including testosterone and estrogen. It’s so important to your survival, that even if you cut it out of your diet 100 %, your body will keep producing it on it’s own, at least as long as you have some kind of fat in your system.
Also, not all saturated fats are created equal. High temperature processing – frying, deep-frying, grilling… makes most food less than healthy for your system. So go for low temperature (boiling, steaming) cooking as often as you can.
OK, so from now on I just put extra butter on my marmalade toast?
Unfortunately, this doesn’t work so great (believe me, I’ve tried – part of the reason those skinny jeans had to go into hiding in the first place…) Sure, you will benefit from the nutrition butter provides, and it will help even out your blood sugar swings, but the thing is, if sugar/carbs are available, the body will always use those first. And if there are more sugar/carbs available than to keep the blood sugar level on a decent level, the body will immediately store those carbs as fat, to use at a later eventually point of starvation, that for most of us never comes.
And since those fast carbs get stored away really quick to prevent your brain from damage from too high blood sugar levels, you often find yourself with low blood sugar and sugar cravings even though you just ate! (and, remember, when blood sugar get low, impulse control and will power goes out the window together with the neocortex) .
So the trick is to use the time when the body naturally transits into fat burning mode at night, and stay there through the day by eating NO carbs until dinner. Yes, this includes fruit and sugar- or starch-rich vegetables like carrots and pumpkin.
Going all no-carb, however, might provide you with a new bunch of problems, so a small serving at dinner (the equivalent of one apple, or, in my case, one glass of wine) will in most cases keep you the happiest.
Will I be able to stick?
I’m notorious for getting all excited for a new method or diet, only to abandon it the next week, so why should I stick to this one? Of course, after one month it’s too soon to tell – What speaks FOR sticking to this diet, however, is that it’s so EASY.
I had already experienced the mentally stabilizing benefits of a low-carb- high-fat diet several times before, once trying a vegan LCHF diet and once eating Paleo for close to 6 months. So why did I abandon these diets?
I switched from vegan to paleo after hearing too much about how legumes, together with grains and milk products could interfere with gut function and be part of the reason behind my autoimmune disease, and even though I was feeling great eating paleo it was, frankly, too much work, and in the end I felt all this cooking and planning was just too stressful. Also, as someone eating more or less vegetarian for 15 years, I wasn’t all that happy about basing my diet on meat.
The “bulletproof” method, on the other hand, is super easy: basically, I get almost all my calories from butter and coconut oil, meaning I eat about 4 tablespoons of fat 3 times a day.
Now this on it’s own isn’t all that tasty, and also way to low in nutrients and fibers, so vegetables and proteins do need to be added, but the good news is that almost everything tastes delicious when drenched in butter, so cooking is SUPER SIMPLE 🙂
Even eating out is easy: I just have to remember to bring my container with butter and coconut oil to the restaurant, order a salad or some grilled vegetables with a bit of protein (you can almost always get a salad with chicken filet or eggs) add my butter and oil, ignore the disgusted faces of my dinner companions and I’m all set.
In another article I will tell you more about how to easily create great bulletproof meals, so make sure you’re signed up for my newsletter!
ps. Want to see that video? Here it is – it doesn’t reveal so much about the diet, though, but more can be found on the Bulletproof-website (or stay tuned – more will be revealed here too 🙂 )