Diana Kelly Levey

What’s Willpower Have to Do with Weight Loss?


January 14, 2019 | Categories:

Have you ever blamed your lack of willpower as the reason why you couldn’t lose weight, why you ordered the double chocolate fudge cake for dessert, or why you hit the drive-through after work?

You’re not alone. More than one in four participants in the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America Survey reported “lack of willpower” as their number one reason for not following through with healthy lifestyle changes like losing weight, eating healthy foods, and exercising regularly.

I spoke to to two leading food psychologists about why diets don’t work, why willpower isn’t enough, and — most importantly — how to combat self-sabotage to increase your chances of reaching your weight-loss goals.

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What Is Willpower?

So what is willpower, otherwise known as self-control? Is it an elusive trait that only successful dieters have? Do some of us possess an infinite reserve of it, while others of us have only a droplet?

“Self-control varies by individual,” says Stephan Guyenet, Ph.D., author of The Hungry Brain: Outsmarting the Instincts That Make Us Overeat. He says that eating behavior can be divided into two categories: There are impulsive, unconscious processes that lead us to overeat or eat unhealthy foods, and rational, conscious processes that help us try to maintain control and guide our impulses in a better direction for long-term well-being.

If you feel very tempted and motivated by food, you are more likely to gain weight over time, says Guyenet, citing research conducted by Leonard H. Epstein, Ph.D., at The State University of New York, Buffalo.

But there’s also a degree to which we’re all able to inhibit and control those impulses, which would map roughly to what we think of as willpower, Guyenet adds. “If you have a low ability to control or redirect your impulses or ignore them, you’re going to be more susceptible to overeating — even if it’s healthy foods.”

Can (Lack of) Willpower Sabotage Your Weight-Loss Efforts?

When you link your success with dieting to willpower, you’re setting yourself up for failure down the line. “Many people believe that weight loss is all about willpower,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D, author of Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again. “They think, ‘If I’m failing, it’s up to me. If I’m successful, it’s because I am strong enough,’ ” she says.

If you’re successful in losing weight on a diet, you might credit the diet itself with your success, says Mann, a professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota. But if you don’t lose or you regain weight, you’re likely to blame yourself, she says. “Don’t blame yourself because … regaining weight is part of dieting,” she says. “It’s an expected physiological response to going on a diet.”

When you’re on a diet, you’re constantly exerting willpower over the impulses that drive you to eat and constantly trying to avoid temptation. “Fighting the urge to overeat daily for years is extremely challenging,” says Guyenet. “All is takes is for your vigilance to go back to where you were before you were on a diet, and eventually you’ll lose that motivation. Most people can’t fight themselves for months and months and years. Those impulses are very persuasive, and they generally wind up winning in the end.”

Why Does Your Body Hate Diets?

Since regaining weight is part of dieting, Mann says, “it’s not a sign that you didn’t diet properly or that you did something wrong.” As humans, we have evolved to survive famine, and that happened because people who survived had certain characteristics that live on in us.

Among its famine-fighting tactics, your body changes your hormone levels when you’re not taking in enough calories, which makes you hungrier on a diet than you would normally be on that amount of food, says Mann. Those fluctuating hormones might keep you from feeling full, so when you diet you’re more likely to fall prey to the candy bowl on your co-worker’s desk after lunch. (Can You Lose Weight Working a Desk Job?)

“Because your hormones change, it’s going to be that much harder to resist tempting foods that are near you because you’re going to feel hungrier,” says Mann. Those misbehaving hunger hormones of leptin (the satiety hormone that suppresses appetite) and ghrelin (the hormone that increases appetite) are already stacking the deck against you when it comes to following a diet and keeping the weight off, she says.

Your body eventually adjusts to eating fewer calories, and your metabolism changes. “There is evidence that for regular dieters, even a year or so later, your hormones and metabolism can still be messed up,” says Mann. So if you start eating a little more than when you were dieting, you’re going to gain weight again.

Why Willpower Doesn’t Help You Lose Weight

Willpower gets harder after you’ve lost weight for three reasons, Mann says: “It’s harder to resist something if you feel hungrier than usual, it’s harder to resist something if your brain cannot stop thinking about food, it’s harder to resist something if you’re craving it. Practicing willpower gets harder right when you need it the most.”

This is why it’s not a good tool to rely on when you want to lose weight. “What other tool gets worse only when you need it?” she asks.

Why You Give In to Cravings

The next time you find yourself with an empty chocolate bar wrapper or the leftover pizza crusts and wonder what happened, blame your brain. “The system in your brain that controls food motivation and that makes us crave certain foods — like chocolate and pizza — responds to cues that are visual, smell, and taste, and even location and situation,” says Guyenet.

When you eat a food, your brain is hardwired to look for certain things in that food that would have promoted survival in our ancestors’ days. Your brain is looking for concentrated sugar, fat, starch, protein salt, and glutamate (which lends umami flavor), and when it finds those properties in food, signals get sent from your digestive tract to your brain that start spiking dopamine, the neurotransmitter in the reward system of the brain, says Guyenet. “So if you just ate a slice of pizza, your brain says, ‘That was awesome! I’m going to register all the sensory experiences with that and make those motivational triggers for you,’ ” he says. Since that pizza caused your dopamine to spike, then the next time you smell pizza, see pizza, or even drive by a pizza restaurant, that cue starts to trigger your brain, motivating you to want the pizza. Your brain recognizes those cues from last time, he says, since the sight or smell of food “triggers our motivation to eat particularly calorie-laden foods.”

Can You Use Willpower to Resist Temptation?

This trigger in the brain means the problem you face is that any food you want to resist does not require just one act of resistance or willpower, says Mann. “If my kids are eating cookies in the house and I resist them, I have to resist them a gazillion times, not just the one moment when they’re offered to me,” she says. “They’re still there, they’re still tempting, and the problem is, successfully resisting something a bunch of times doesn’t get you anything. Because the moment you fail at resistance, you’ve blown it.”

We’re constantly surrounded by foods we need to resist, and each one needs to be resisted over and over. The job of willpower is so big, says Mann, it “would need to be practically perfect in order for it to truly work. And it’s the opposite; it’s really wimpy.”

Now that you know how willpower works, you can learn how to work with it, rather than against it. Here’s how to get started.

5 Ways to Combat Self-Sabotage

1. Avoid temptation

Rearrange your routine and habits so that you’re not constantly encountering temptation. For example, even though she’s against dieting, Mann experimented with cutting out added sugar for a month. How did she do it? To avoid temptation, she tasked her husband with taking the kids to the bakery after band practice. A self-proclaimed dessert lover, she also distracted herself by watching TV while her family was eating dessert, or she made herself something else to eat.

2. Make it hard on yourself

Create a barrier between yourself and tempting foods, suggests Guyenet. “If the cues are not there, generally the craving won’t be there,” he says. You’re better off when the food isn’t in front of you (or easily accessible in your freezer or desk) so you don’t have to fight anything. Practice the adage “out of sight, out of mind.” Put treats and tempting foods in opaque containers or high up on a shelf in a cabinet you won’t open often, so you’ll have to put forth effort if you do want to indulge.

“For most people, the right thing to do isn’t to have none of something, it’s just to have less of something,” says Mann. “I say that because generally when you forbid yourself something, you do start to want it more.”

3. Fill up on veggies

Eat your vegetables first whenever possible because they can help you fill up so you’re not as hungry, reducing the chance you’ll make poor food decisions later. “If you’re hungry and you prioritize filling up on vegetables first, you’re bound to eat less of other foods because vegetables are pretty filling,” says Mann.

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