Why Willpower is NOT enough for weight loss (and what DOES work)

You decide to lose weight. You need to get ready for a vacation, reunion, or you just want to fit into that pair of pants that seemed to get smaller overnight. You vow that this time the diet is going to work! You’re going to eat what you’re supposed to – follow the diet and go to the gym.

But here’s the problem. If you’re relying on willpower alone to meet your goals, you’re probably going to fail.

Why doesn’t willpower work? Are we weak? Do we not have enough willpower? Some studies have shown that willpower is a limited resource [1, 2] and can be depleted through the use of mental energy and stress.  Using willpower can even deplete glucose, the sugar our brain runs on, and there are more self-control “failures” when glucose levels are low [3]; still other studies argue against the “limited resource” theory of will power and say we have unlimited amounts [4]. Yet other studies said that if someone believes in unlimited willpower, they actually do better in self control tests than someone who believes willpower is a limited resource [5, 6].  So, if believe you have more willpower, you do!  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, apparently.

The truth is, it’s hard to eat well in our society. We live in an “obesogenic environment” which is just another way of saying that we have access to cheap, tasty, high-calorie food everywhere, and lots of conveniences to keep us from moving around too much. If you wanted to make someone gain weight, our environment is the perfect place to make that happen. So, if you want to eat healthfully, you are swimming upstream in our environment, and willpower is unlikely to be enough to keep you on the right track.

There are many things that get in the way of willpower, like:

  • Food is EVERYWHERE
  • Emotional eating
  • Stress
  • Food cravings
  • Lack of time to prepare food
  • Convenience
  • Distracted and mindless eating
  • Physical hunger
  • TV commercials, billboards, social media as constant cues to eat
  • Highly palatable foods that hijack our brain’s reward system
  • Food addiction
  • Temptations
  • People pushing us to have food
  • Habits

What DOES work:

Have balanced, healthy meals that fill you up.  Incorporate some protein, fiber, or healthy fat at each meal to be most filling.  The best source of fiber is non-starchy vegetables, which helps you feel full and provide valuable vitamins and minerals that will keep you feeling energetic. Include multiple colors of vegetables and fruit every day to provide the best balance of nutrients.  The best source of healthy fat is plant-based whole food sources like avocado, nuts, and olives.  Reduce or eliminate refined flours and sugars, because they are empty calories and will have the opposite effect of making you feel full.  They will spike blood sugar and leave you feeling hungry for more refined carbohydrates, and they lack key nutrients.  Also, drink plenty of water.  Dehydration can sometimes be confused for hunger as well as cause a sluggish metabolism.

Get beyond “diets” and be kind to yourself. Just because you eat unhealthfully for a meal (or a day!), doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Forgive yourself, and move on. Better yet, don’t set stringent rules to begin with. I’m a firm believer that diets do not work, and I wrote about it here: http://freshapproachnutrition.com/why-diets-are-doomed-to-fail-and-what-to-do-about-it/ and along that same line, remember that hunger is a physical need, and fighting our physical need to take in food is like trying to hold your breath – eventually you’ll have to take a breath!

Always have a (general) plan for what to eat. You don’t have to plan out your meals exactly. But if you have a pack of nuts, piece of fruit, or a protein bar in your bag, you will not be as tempted to stop for fast food while you’re out running errands. Pack lunch for work, or have an “emergency meal” like a frozen dinner or container of soup at your workplace so you always have options that don’t involve going to the drive-thru. Another strategy is to make grocery lists and plan some basic ideas for meals in advance. Bonus: this can relieve dinner-time stress.

Create healthy habits that fit into your lifestyle. Try replacing bad habits with good ones. It’s much easier to replace bad habits rather than extinguish them. Examples would be that instead of hitting the vending machine or coffee shop for a caffeine or sugar fix in the afternoon, take a 10 minute walk. It’s more refreshing and will make you more alert. Bonus: you’ll sleep better without the caffeine, and sleep is crucial to weight loss and overall health. Make healthy choices the easy choice by placing fresh fruit in a bowl on the counter, and cut-up vegetables and hummus or other healthy snack options in your refrigerator at eye level where you can see them.

Set small goals and subgoals.  You can’t overhaul your entire lifestyle in one step.  Our brain is comfortable with familiarity and resists huge changes because it seems threatening. A more effective strategy is to set smaller goals and related subgoals. For example, to stop drinking soda could be a goal, and a subgoal could be to buy unsweetened sparkling water or some stevia-sweetened water enhancer that you can try to see if you like it.  Make a plan to order water or seltzer water with lemon or lime or unsweetened tea when you go out to eat.  Once you have made the switch and feel that it is a habit, you can move on to another goal.

Prepare plans for moments of weakness. You know they’re going to happen. Why not be prepared? Examples: If you’re going out to eat at a restaurant, then plan in advance what to eat. Look online for the menu and make a decision while you’re not overly hungry, and order first so you don’t end up changing your mind. Practice saying “no” to food pushers. Take a different route that doesn’t take you right by your favorite ice cream shop after work, if that’s a weakness. Don’t grocery shop while hungry or after a stressful day. What are your areas of weakness? How can you plan to conquer them?

Monitor your thinking for negative or self-defeating thoughts. If you find yourself thinking “this is too hard,” or “I’m never going to reach my goal,” replace those thoughts with more positive thoughts like “I can get to my goal one small step at a time,” or “developing new skills takes time.” These thoughts are realistic but positive enough to keep you going.

Learn strategies to deal with temptation.  Avoid tempting situations in the first place by making a public commitment to change, and ask friends and family not to tempt you.  When you are tempted, distract yourself with a walk, or have a cup of herbal tea or flavored water. You could even distract yourself by brushing your teeth. The minty flavor it leaves in your mouth might be enough to keep you from desiring the food you were craving. Another strategy is to remind yourself of your goal. You might write some self-reminders that you can look at when tempted, like “I’m going to feel so great when I lose the extra few pounds,” or “I will have so much energy if I get 30 minutes of physical activity today” or whatever inspires you.  You can put them on your phone to look at and set reminders several times throughout the day.  There are even apps that help you do this.  One such app is MyDietCoach and I’m sure there are others if you do a search.

Bottom line, don’t rely on just willpower and you will have a MUCH easier time with staying healthy!