Weight Loss: Does Willpower Matter?

Sticking to a diet has little to do with will, experts say.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

For decades, dieters and doctors alike believed willpower was the key to successful weight loss.

"Many people go through life believing that they can't stick to a diet because they have no willpower. They believe that some innate force is keeping them from resisting food temptations," says Warren Huberman, PhD, a psychologist who counsels patients in conjunction with the New York University Program for Surgical Weight Loss.

The truth, experts now say, is that the ability to stick to a weight loss diet has little to do with will -- and everything to do with changing the way we think about food.

"People like to think of willpower as some mystical, magical power over which they have no control ... but in reality there is no such thing," says Gerard Musante, PhD, founder and director of Structure House, an inpatient weight loss program in Durham, N.C.

Believing that willpower is at work only serves to make you feel less in control of your eating habits, experts say.

"Once you buy into the idea that self-control is something that is out of your control, and the domain of some indigenous character trait that you either have or you don't, then on some level you accept that staying on a diet is also not within your control, " says Huberman.

Understanding Temptation

When formal studies of weight loss got under way in earnest in the 1950s, willpower was the basis for most diets. Patients who were unsuccessful at losing weight were told by their doctors to simply eat less -- and those who couldn't were labeled as having no "willpower."

But by 1967, research conducted at the University of Michigan began to change everything. It was here doctors discovered that the ability to lose weight wasn't rooted in willpower at all -- but instead, in simple behavioral changes.

When patients were taught how to substitute a fulfilling activity for filling up with food, their appetites, and eventually, their weight, became easier to control.

Those findings went on to form a major focus of weight loss today -- behavior modification. Experts now believe that sticking with a diet isn't about willpower, but about the ability to understand and ultimately change behaviors linked to how and why we choose the foods we eat.

"If you find yourself resisting a food you really want to eat, that's not willpower, that's a choice - and within each of us lies the power to make these choices about everything in our life, including the food we put on our plate," says Huberman.

While it might sometimes seem as if you're being overtaken by an overwhelming desire to eat a certain food, what you're really experiencing, says Huberman, is an unconscious behavioral reaction -- or sometimes, just a bad habit.

"In either case, it's important to realize it's not some mystical force of the universe that's controlling your desire to eat something, it's your own behavior -- which also means it's something that can be changed," says Musante.

The Biology of Willpower

If unconscious behavior is one dark angel sitting on your shoulder and whispering "eat that now!" many experts believe that innate biological drive is another. Our need to eat is far stronger than any sense of "willpower" that could exist.

"Eating is a basic human need. We all need a certain amount of food to survive, and our brain and our body is hardwired to overcome any obstacle that stands in the way of that survival," says psychologist Abby Aronowitz, PhD, author of Your Final Diet.

Indeed, Aronowitz says, possibly the strongest biological drive we have is to satisfy our hunger. And the greater the hunger, the stronger the drive.

"When incentive is high, we can put off our needs temporarily and sustain for a while on our reserves," she says. But sooner or later, hunger kicks in. And when it does, what we perceive as our willpower goes out the window.

"At some point in time, any diet which is too restrictive is going to allow that natural biological drive to eat to take over, meaning the floodgates are open and defenses are down," she says.

So while grabbing that huge donut off the coffee cart may make us feel weak-willed, what we really are may be hungry, says Aronowitz. Resisting that temptation, she says, may be as simple as getting adequate nutrition, and finding an eating plan that doesn't leave you starving.

Additionally, evidence continues to mount that certain hormones may also be influencing what may seem like willpower. Aronowitz points to evidence indicating that when estrogen levels rise -- as they do just before ovulation in women -- it can increase the desire for certain foods, including chocolate.



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