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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 6, 2010

Losing weight takes practice, not just will

By Charles Stuart Platkin

When people begin the process of weight control, or any behavior change, they often wonder if they have enough willpower to succeed. "Willpower" is more or less about self-control, but simply knowing that resisting a piece of cake (immediate gratification) now will help you be trimmer, fitter and healthier in the future (the long-term greater benefit) doesn't seem to cut it. As one researcher explained: A person standing right in front of you may seem larger (short-term reward) than a 70-story building in the distance (long-term, greater reward). So the question is, do you need "willpower" to lose weight and get in shape, or is it something else?


Honestly, do you dramatically stomp your foot on the kitchen floor, saying, "This is the last time! I will lose the weight! I'm going to empty the refrigerator and cabinets and never eat junk food again"?

Do you really believe that all you need is a good healthy dose of drawing a line in the sand to break the patterns you've been living by?

The fact is, research has shown that we have a limited amount of self-control or willpower. Mark Muraven and Roy F. Baumeister, reporting in the journal Psychological Bulletin, found "evidence that self-control may consume a limited resource. Exerting self-control may consume self-control strength, reducing the amount of strength available for subsequent self-control efforts."

Think of using willpower as working your muscles meaning it can be exhausted and fail if used too much. There's even evidence that just watching others use willpower can exhaust your own willpower. And research at Florida State University found that acts of self-control deplete large amounts of glucose. Self-control failures are more likely to occur when glucose is low.

Willpower has been called a "glucose guzzler" zapping you of much-needed energy.

So yes, there is some level of self-control involved in weight control, but it's significantly less than you believe.


Harvard researcher Daniel M. Wegner argues that conscious will means you're in control and actually doing something to affect an outcome. In other words, you are causing the results by your actions. For instance, exercising more, resisting the cake and eating healthier foods will result in losing weight.

According to Wegner's writings in "Pr cis of the Illusion of Conscious Will," the feeling that we are simply exerting willpower to do these things may not be a true reading of what's happening in our minds and bodies. Is it really nothing more than simply resisting temptation? Or is changing a behavior more about doing the prep work that sets you up to succeed?


When you see a magician performing an illusion, you don't "see" how the magic works it just works. But the magician did not just come on stage and perform the illusion. He or she worked hard, doing research, getting the equipment, developing a performance technique and then practicing, evaluating and reformatting and practicing more.

Losing and controlling weight appears to be just about willpower, but really it's about the preparation, the practice, the planning, etc. You need to give yourself the power to lose weight.

Wegner continues in his writings: "The real causal sequence underlying human behavior involves a massively complicated set of mechanisms. ... Each of our actions is really the culmination of an intricate set of physical and mental processes, including psychological mechanisms that correspond to the traditional concept of will in that they involve linkages between our thoughts and our actions."


The point is to not get discouraged because you think you lack the willpower or discipline to lose weight that's not what's going to get you through.

Weight loss/control is not as simple as willing yourself NOT to eat that cookie. What will work: preparation, personal diet detective work (see www.dietdetective.com/column/be-your-own-diet-detective.aspx) and being realistic and honest (see www.dietdetective.com/column/getting-smarter.aspx) with yourself about your behaviors. Using mental rehearsal thinking in advance about uncomfortable eating situations and creating an if/then plan for how you're going to overcome them (www.dietdetective.com/column/lessons-from-olympians.aspx), figuring out what you'll eat instead of the high-calorie cookie (www.dietdetective.com/diet-detective/columns-calorie-bargains.aspx), making sure those types of food you want to avoid are not even in your sight (www.dietdetective.com/columns/don't-be-a-diet-hero.aspx) these are just some of the techniques that will give you the ability to practice "self-control."

Lastly, creating automatic behaviors helps give you power. It's just too difficult to constantly think about dieting. Successful maintainers have figured out ways to make their behaviors and choices second nature.

Activities like setting your alarm clock at night, putting on your shoes before leaving the house and driving to work don't require much thought. The idea is to apply the same principles to your diet. Arrange your personal environment so it maximizes your chances of losing weight and maintaining the loss and minimizes your chances of slipping up. Avoid cues that tempt you. Don't leave foods in the house that are going to "set you off" or at least put them out of reach. Make exercise something you have to do in order to complete another daily task (walking a child to school, biking to work, etc.).