Q: Is Willpower the key to weight loss?
A: No. This is a common myth.
Q: But everyone believes this to be true.
A: Everyone used to believe that the earth was flat. It isn’t. And willpower isn’t the key to weight loss.
Using willpower for weight loss implies that you are resisting doing things that you want to do, because you know you “shouldn’t”. People can use discipline for a short time, but this kind of strategy is not sustainable over the long term.
Q: Why not?
A: The urge to eat is so powerful. When you are confronted with a high fat, high sugar treat like a chocolate cake, you are driven by inner programming that helped our ancestors survive. If they saw food they ate it, because they didn’t know when the next meal would be.
You can use self-discipline to resist this urge to eat, but the evidence is that willpower is a limited resource. It takes energy, and when you are using willpower for one thing, it limits your ability to resist something else. (e.g. if you do window shopping for things you can’t afford – in other words depleting your willpower – it will make you less able to resist chocolate that is offered later)
So you can enforce willpower on your diet and you might be able to maintain this for a few weeks, but the chances of remaining self-disciplined about never eating “bad foods” for the rest of your life is not realistic.
Q: So if willpower isn’t the key to weight loss, then what is?
A: Weight loss comes down to your habits. Your habits are the key to everything you do. If you have good healthy eating habits, you won’t be overweight. If you have bad habits you will. If you change your habits you can change your results in life. In any area of life, and that includes managing your weight.
Q: But I don’t see how habits can change my weight, when I really like chocolate cake? Surely I need willpower to resist it?
A: Willpower is resisting something you want. You really desire it, and you have to tell yourself “I’m not allowed to have it” over and over again. This is not a good long term strategy is it? Eventually one day, you will give in. And for most people that day is the day that they end their diet and start to gain weight again. The beginning of the yoyo diet.
From a behavioural point of view, there are so many ways to change your chocolate cake habit, but here are two for starters:
Are you exposed to the temptation of chocolate cake more than you need to be? Many people don’t control their environment enough. They are constantly exposed to the tempting foods, when the smallest changes in behaviour could limit this.
Secondly, changing your habitual thoughts about treats like chocolate cake can make a significant difference.
With clients on my weight loss programme, previously when confronted with a chocolate cake, all they could think of was the pleasure of eating it.
However as they progressed through the programme, they were able to see that the fleeting reward of a slice of chocolate cake did not compare to the value they placed on their health and their newly reducing weight. Suddenly the choice was not about having a short term hit of calories, but whether they wanted to sabotage all the gains they had made.
This kind of thinking explains how a person on a hunger strike is able to resist the powerful urge to eat. It’s not willpower that drives them. It is because they have a “cause” that transcends their immediate needs for food. If your priority changes to being healthy and being a healthy weight, you will find it easier to make positive decisions about how much chocolate cake you can eat.
Oh, and I should also say that losing weight doesn’t mean you necessarily have to stop eating chocolate cake altogether…
Dr. Khandee Ahnaimugan is a medical doctor who provides a bespoke behavioural programme for weight loss. To book a comprehensive assessment at his Harley Street Clinic please email firstname.lastname@example.org or phone +44 (0) 20 3130 4770.
Photo: Tim Pierce