Weight Loss: Does Willpower Matter?

Last Editorial Review: 11/20/2006

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.

Likewise, a drop in levels of serotonin -- a brain chemical linked to depression -- could signal an increased desire for carbohydrates.

As we learn more about the role of hormones linked directly to appetite, like ghrelin, leptin and cortisol, we'll also likely discover more about how imbalances can increase our cravings and make resisting some foods especially hard, Aronowitz says.

"What can seem like willpower may, in fact, be biology at work," she says.

Finding Your Inner Strength

While doctors don't always agree on just what is behind a person's ability to resist tempting foods, one belief that seems universal is that we all have such an ability.

For many, the key lies in understanding their tolerance level for "food frustration," and the ability to plan ahead for how to handle it.

"If you know, for example, that you'll be at a holiday party with lots of tempting treats, going into the event relying on nothing but your willpower almost always guarantees disaster," says Huberman.


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But going in with a plan for how you'll handle the temptation will give you a sense of control -- that feeling of "willpower" to resist what you really don't want to eat.

"Maybe you'll allow yourself three of the 10 things being served, or you'll allow yourself to eat as much as you want of one favorite item but nothing else, or you'll simply excuse yourself from the table and go to the restroom just before the dessert cart hits your table," says Huberman. "Whatever it is, if you have a plan of action in mind before you hit the buffet table, then you may be surprised at how strong-willed you really are."

Another technique: Get to the root of your temptations by learning more about what it is that is pulling you toward a certain food, Musante suggests. While taste is one factor, sometimes more is at work.

"We all have food memories, certain events or emotionally charged situations that can be related to certain food items," says Musante.

What some people see as a lack of willpower to resist a certain food, he says, may really be an unconscious reaction fueling a desire to recreate a comforting food memory, or avoid a painful one.

"When you think your willpower is giving in, think about what eating that food will mean to you -- and how it will make you feel," says Musante. Once you identify that, he says, your will to resist it may seem a lot stronger.

Finally, Aronowitz says, one of the best ways to avoid eating too much of the foods you don't want, is, ironically enough, to allow yourself to eat them. As wacky as this may sound, Aronowitz says that deprivation almost always weakens our resolve.

"The more you deny yourself what you want, the weaker you will feel when you're around it, and the harder it will be to resist," she says.

The trick to controlling your desires: "Allow yourself a small amount -- more than a taste, but less than a portion," she says.

Published November 17, 2006.

SOURCES: Stuart, R.B Behavioral Research and Therapy, 1967; 5: 357-365. Warren Huberman, PhD, psychologist, NYU Medical Center, New York. Gerard Musante, PhD, director and founder, Structure House, Durham, N.C. Abby Aronowitz, PhD, specializing in weight loss therapy, Huntington, N.Y.; author, Your Final Diet.

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