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Why More Willpower Isn’t the Answer to Fight Food Cravings

By Cassie Christopher September 12, 2023 Health and Fitness

Many women I work with in their 60s and beyond are frustrated that after decades of dieting and trying to get food figured out they are still struggling with food cravings.

Perhaps this is you?

You think if only you could have more self-control, discipline, or willpower then you would choose carrot sticks over rocky road, and your doctor would applaud your cholesterol numbers.

This belief that willpower is the answer to food cravings is compounded by personal experience.

You may have had seasons where you were able to exercise an iron will over food and get the results you wanted. But somehow, this season of life is different, and you can’t seem to get back to that fever-dream of a lifestyle.

But the truth is, willpower doesn’t last forever. And that’s especially true when life throws other stressors your way… like, I don’t know… say, a global pandemic?

Unfortunately, the very things you try to control eating, like dieting, can kick food cravings into high gear.

How Dieting Leads to More Food Cravings

Most diet regimens can be boiled down to lists of “good foods” and “bad foods.”

Especially when diets started from a young age, or you’ve been dieting on and off for many years, the list of bad foods can make you feel restricted and deprived, increasing your cravings for those foods.

Furthermore, the stark categorization of foods in our minds leads to “All or Nothing Thinking” where you believe you’ve blown it if you enjoy even small quantities from the “bad” list… causing you to give up altogether or justify larger indulgences.

Dieting Can Also Imbalance Key Hormones That Lead to Foods Cravings

The stress hormone cortisol – a powerful fight, flight, or freeze hormone – can cause intense food cravings which I call “The Cookie Monster” or “Devil on Your Shoulder.” You can learn more about how cortisol gets elevated and how it impacts food cravings in my blog post “How to Conquer Food Cravings.

The appetite hormone ghrelin builds up in the body the further you get from your last meal. If you wait too long between meals, ghrelin will signal appetite and food cravings to your brain.

The bottom line is, willpower alone can’t fight these powerful hormones when they cause food cravings.

Emotional Eating Causes Willpower to Crumble in the Face of Food Cravings

Another powerful foe of willpower is using food to cope with emotions. Boredom eating, stress eating, too-tired-to-care eating all share one commonality: using food to numb uncomfortable emotion.

Because food (especially when it is “forbidden food”) activates several pathways in your brain and body that make you feel pleasure and reward, it works to make you feel better.

Subbing out your craving for low-cal popcorn with a walk or a bath isn’t going to work because these activities don’t stimulate the brain in the same feel-good way that food does.

So What’s a Gal to Do About Emotional Eating?

The answer to emotional eating isn’t to have more self-control or go for a walk. The answer is to stop using *anything* to numb your emotions – and actually feel them.

Emotions are transient. If you feel them and practice specific self-care techniques, they eventually let up and move on. (If you want examples of these self-care techniques, check out Michelle’s story).

Feeling your emotions means you don’t have to eat them.

4 Tips to Abolish Food Cravings Without Willpower

Now that you understand where food cravings are coming from, let me offer my top tips to get rid of food cravings without willpower.

  1. Eat regularly – waiting too long between meals causes stress and appetite hormones to increase, making you more likely to reach for a cupcake rather than a salad for dinner.
  2. Pay attention to sabotage words in your mind or speech like “failure,” “blew-it,” “should” – these words are signs of All or Nothing Thinking which makes it hard to have consistent progress towards your goals.
  3. If you realize you are using food to care for your emotions, get help to heal the emotional root of your problem.
  4. Reflect on times in your life when willpower was easier to come by. Think about what was different then.
  5. Oftentimes stress and sleep issues are major culprits for food cravings, and by focusing on supporting those areas of your life (or others that you discover while reflecting!) you may find yourself with more willpower after all.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What foods are you craving? What strategies have you tried to eliminate food cravings? Have they worked for you? Why or why not?

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Teddee Grace

Just clicked over and the links to your free guide to balancing stress hormones were not working.


Thanks for letting me know Teddee, I have updated my blog post. That guide has been replaced by this one, which people tell me is super helpful for any kind of stress eating:

The Author

Cassie Christopher is a Masters-trained Registered Dietitian who helps women in midlife and beyond create a supportive relationship with food, their bodies, and health so they can eat with joy instead of eating to seek joy. You can get immediate help when you're experiencing a craving by downloading Cassie's Cravings Busting audio guide.

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