Willpower or Won’t-power: What works for weight loss?

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Most dieters start out buzzing with enthusiasm, determined to meet their weight-loss goals. Healthy eating and avoiding temptations top the menu – and fueled with their new-found “willpower”, they’re convinced they’ll stick to their goals. But as the days and weeks go by, willpower diminishes and junk food and other diet-disasters find their way onto the menu once again; the kilos refuse to budge anywhere but upwards. Feelings of disappointment and failure become overwhelming. To add to the punch, most dieters then get mad with themselves for lacking discipline and not having enough willpower to see their challenges through. If this sounds like you – take heart. The fact is, willpower is simply a weak ally in the war against temptation. It’s not you that lacks staying power, it’s willpower itself.

Read on to find out why willpower is not your best bet when it comes to avoiding temptation foods and learn what you can do instead.

What is willpower?

Willpower is defined as “energetic determination.” It’s a state of mind born of a desire to improve or change something we do, and that can be a good thing. But it’s all too easy to treat willpower like a magic spell – just believe that your state of mind is enough to make you change behaviors or resist temptation and “poof!” all desire to eat that bag of Doritos disappears. (We wish!)

We also tend to overestimate the idea of willpower, thinking it’s the be-all and end-all of dieting success and that if we don’t have enough of it, we’re doomed. Think about the last time you decided to cut back on junk food. Did you think that “energetic determination” (better known as willpower) would help you stay on course? When you failed, did you think “I just don’t have enough willpower”?

Actually, your willpower was never going to be enough in the first place; a different approach is needed. And here’s why.

Willpower is a diminishing resource

Studies testing the durability and dependability of willpower to change behaviors, to avoid temptations, or to tackle major projects have shown that willpower is a diminishing resource.

Through a number of tests in a variety of situations, researchers at Case Western Reserve University concluded that you cannot use willpower for too long or for too many tasks because it does not remain constant, but in fact weakens with use. They showed that the strength of willpower reduces in direct proportion to how much it is used and that the more an individual relies on willpower, the less available it becomes. Given these findings, it is easy to see why the ability to consistently say no is so short-lived.

Oh, sweet (gooey, chocolate) memories

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Willpower also fails because it can’t match up to the power of human memory. Human beings respond to all types of stimuli through the five senses. Think about the last time you heard a song that transported you back in time. You probably remembered the scene vividly, recalling when it was, where it was and who you were with. Your mind may have gone back twenty years or more and yet the memory was crystal clear, as were the feelings associated with it.

So what do you think happens when you see or smell one of your favourite foods? As with the song, you are besieged with stimuli that stir up your senses and your emotions, taking you back in time to when you last sunk your teeth into that gooey chocolate-chip biscuit. (And didn’t it taste goooood?)

When faced with the food you are so ardently trying to deny yourself, it’s very hard to resist the temptation to indulge because memory overwhelms you. Willpower has some serious forces to battle with and if you rely on it for too long, it will weaken and eventually fail.

Now what?

If you can’t rely on willpower, what can you rely on to resist temptation? The answer is so evident, that you’ll slap your forehead for not thinking of it! Here it is… drum-roll please… Limit what you allow to bombard your senses. Keep the tempting food out of your way, and you won’t have to use up your willpower resisting it. That’s it! Simple huh?

Out of sight, out of mind

Whoever coined this phrase must have been on a diet and must have discovered that willpower wasn’t enough! “Out of sight, out of mind” is the golden rule for avoiding diet-disaster foods. It means that if it’s not in plain sight, if you can’t see it or smell it, it won’t bombard your senses and entice you into eating. Of course, you can’t avoid every encounter with tempting foods; you can’t clean out the pantries of the world! But you can control what is in your house, which is statistically the most likely environment for calorie-control slip-ups. Our advice to you is to remove all “temptation” foods from the house right away – drop this page and do it now if you have to! Give it to the neighbours, throw it in the bin, feed it to the cat – anything you can to get rid of it (except eating it of course).

Foods to keep out of sight and out of mind include:

  • Trigger foods
  • Any food that you know you can’t limit to one serving
  • Any snack or food that you eliminated when you last lost weight because you knew it was unhealthy and too high in calories
  • Finger foods that are primarily carbohydrates and sugar
  • Foods that you use to manage stress or uncomfortable emotions

If you are reluctant to get rid of certain foods because you may inconvenience the family, remember that unhealthy food is unhealthy for everybody. If you really believe that you are depriving other people in your house of biscuits, lollies, or junk food, they can always eat them out of the house.

If you are away from home and come face-to-face with an “out of sight, out of mind” food, then you may need to draw on some willpower to say “no”. However, remember that saying “no” is just a good habit. And the more it becomes a habit, the less you need to rely on willpower. Perhaps Benjamin Franklin said it best when he said:

“It is easier to suppress the first desire than to satisfy all that follows it.”

References :

This article was compiled in consultation with Calorie King experts and in reference to the following sources:

Peter Doskoch, Angela Priris, ‘Willpower: Why it wanes’, Psychology Today, March/April 1997, Available: http://www.psychologytoday.com (Accessed: July 2004)

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.

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