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

Most dieters start out buzzing with enthusiasm, determined to meet their weight-loss goals. Healthy eating and avoiding temptations become top priority and, fuelled with their newfound “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; while the extra kilos refuse to budge anywhere but upwards. Feelings of disappointment and failure become overwhelming. To add to the punch, most dieters then feel disappointed with themselves for lacking discipline and not having the willpower to achieve their goals.

If this sounds like you – you’re not alone! 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 discover a more effective strategy for losing weight by resisting temptations.

What is willpower?

Willpower is defined as “energetic determination.” It’s a state of mind born of a desire to improve or change something you do, and that can be a really good thing. But it’s all too easy to treat willpower like a magic fix. Simply believing your state of mind and determination is all it takes to make you change your behaviours and resist temptations isn’t the answer. Willpower alone won’t be enough to banish all your desire to eat that bag of Doritos…

The idea of willpower is often overestimated, believed to be the be-all and end-all of dieting success. Think about the last time you decided to cut back on junk food. Did you think that “energetic determination” (aka. willpower) would be enough to help you stay on track? When you failed, did you put it down to “I just don’t have enough willpower”?

Actually, your willpower is 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 behaviours, help you 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 rely on willpower for too long or for too many tasks, because it does not remain constant, and in fact weakens with use. They showed the strength of willpower reduces in direct proportion to how much it’s used, and that the more an individual relies on willpower, the less available and effective it becomes. Given these findings, it’s easy to see why the ability to be consistent and stay on track is so short-lived.

Oh, sweet memories

Willpower also fails because it can’t match up to the power of human memory. Humans 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 a song, you are besieged with stimuli that stir up your senses and 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 a serious force to battle with and if you rely on it for too long, it will weaken and eventually fail.

So now what?

If you can’t rely on willpower, what can you rely on to help you resist temptation? The answer is so evident, you’ll slap your forehead for not thinking of it!

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 on resisting it. Simple, huh?

Out of sight, out of mind

Whoever coined this phrase must have been on a diet and realised 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 every pantry around the world, or avoid every restaurant with dessert on the menu! But you can control what’s in your house, which is statistically the most likely environment for calorie-control slip ups.

Try to remove all “temptation” foods from your house right away – pause here and do it now if you have to! Give it to the neighbours, throw it in the bin, donate it to a homeless shelter – whatever it takes 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 high in calories
  • Finger foods that are primarily made up of carbohydrates and sugar
  • Foods that you use to manage stress or uncomfortable emotions

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

If you’re away from home and come face to face with an “out of sight, out of mind” food, 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: “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)

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