Why Relying on Willpower for Weight-loss Can be Overrated

Having more willpower isn't necessarily the key to weight-loss

How many times have you bullied yourself for not having enough “willpower?” Have you ever felt guilty for giving into an urge to eat something that wasn’t the healthiest for you?

Unfortunately, in our society, having excess weight is often seen as a character flaw or a sign that a person does not try hard enough. At the same time, we are leading stressful, busy lives and are continuously bombarded with food.

When society sees weight struggles as a character flaw, it’s hard to feel like it’s not your fault.

They say…

  • “You just need more willpower.”
  • “Just work harder.”
  • “Just resist the temptation to eat, and move more.”
  • “Here’s some candy to munch on while you wait for your doctor’s appointment.”

The bottom line is that our environment is screaming that we should be thinner, but constant mixed messages (often flawed) are setting us up for failure.

Responding to Willpower

So, what are you supposed to do if your doctor keeps telling you that all you need is more willpower? How do you respond when well-meaning loved ones ask if you are doing enough? It’s hard not to think that they are right and you are wrong. After all, there is logic to their argument, right? The only problem is that those arguments are based on the idea that weight-loss is always simple and that you just have to resist temptation and be stronger.

Meanwhile, if obesity/excess weight were that simple, countless people out there that are physically active, avoiding candy and eating carefully would be more successful. The science shows us that weight is very complex and difficult to manage. Having excess weight does not mean you are a moral failure. This is the body’s response to a perfect storm of biological, genetic and environmental factors that promote weight issues.

We have to take into account the many and varied factors that can affect your ability to reach and maintain a healthy weight. There are genetic factors that may predispose some people to having extra weight. We also have to consider these factors too:

  • Hormone imbalances
  • Inflammation
  • Varying differences in insulin sensitivity
  • Challenges that limit physical activity
  • Addictions and mental health issues
  • Stress
  • Poor sleep
  • And so on

On top of that, there are environmental factors such as toxic exposures, lack of financial resources, poor access to clean and whole foods, large portion sizes, insufficient support from loved ones and more.

Considering the complexity of weight and the fact that ultra-processed food is cheap and easy to get, it would seem that using willpower isn’t as simple as they make it sound. That being said, willpower is an important part of weight management for many people. However, what I teach my clients is that willpower is only a tiny part of the process. You should probably rely less on willpower than you think.

Other Steps You Can Take:

1. Get Support

I recommend getting at least one close friend or family member to support you. Explain your goals and ask for help. It’s great to have someone to call when your confidence is low. If possible, also enlist support from anyone that you live with and even people you work with.

2. Set up Your Environment for Success

The goal here is to make it difficult to indulge in foods that you know are not going to help your weight. Remove them from your environment (home, work, etc.) as much as possible. Ask those around you to keep junk food out of your sight. There is no shame in this. Seeing and smelling unhealthy foods can trigger your brain to desire that food.

3. Lose Weight Slowly

There is evidence that people who lose weight rapidly have a higher chance of gaining it back. I know that it is enticing to imagine yourself losing a ton of weight quickly. But the truth is, this usually involves severe restrictions that are not sustainable. If you do it slowly, you will suffer less and you can gradually develop lifestyle habits that will stick for life.

4. Gradually Develop New Habits

Sustaining a healthy weight has a lot to do with the right habits. Your brain relies on habits, and when you have one, your brain wants to continue it. When you have good habits, this works for you. Slowly work your way up to one new healthy habit at a time. This can make the change seem almost imperceptible so you don’t need a lot of willpower.

Imagine starting by adding just one additional cup of vegetables each day for a month. After that, add another one additional cup per day. You will barely notice you are making a change, but that daily action will start to slowly build into a solid and sustainable habit that boosts your health. Slowly building healthier habits helps you reduce the pain of change.

5. Go Easy on Yourself

You are not perfect. I am not perfect. That is the beauty of being human. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to eat more than you should sometimes. It’s what you do after the fact that matters. You can beat yourself up and potentially go into a downward spiral of repeating that behavior, or you can forgive yourself and start fresh the next day. Just try to remind yourself that you are making this effort to improve your health and forge on. You are not alone!

About the Author:

Jill Cruz, MS, CNS, has a Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition from the University of Bridgeport, CT, and is a Board Certified Nutrition Specialist. Jill specializes in weight-loss, metabolic syndrome, fitness nutrition and health optimization. She combines her strong science-based background with tons of practical nutrition, fitness and lifestyle guidance, and a special emphasis on mindset, accountability and building a pile of healthy habits.

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