The popular myth goes something like this: to lose excess weight you need to diet, to diet you need willpower, if you fail at the diet it’s because you didn’t have enough willpower, so it’s your fault you couldn’t lose the excess weight.
So much for the ‘alternative facts’.
Now for the truth: it’s virtually impossible to use willpower to maintain a diet long-term.
Ever followed a diet, lost a good amount of weight, but then put it back on again? Well, you’re not alone. Almost all dieters regain lost weight within 1-5 years of losing it (most within the first year). Chances are you probably blamed your ‘lack of self-control’ or ‘weak willpower’. So, let’s just get this out of the way once and for all. You should not blame yourself for regained weight due to lack of willpower.
The fact is your willpower, or lack of it, has very little effect on the success of a diet (hint: long term, the diet would fail anyway).
The whole basis of a weight loss diet, be it low calorie, low carb, low fat or clean eating, requires restricting or forbidding certain foods. Often, these are the foods we frequently eat (when not dieting!); they are the foods that fill us up and taste good! Since these foods are also readily available and we encounter them frequently, not eating them requires multiple feats of willpower every day.
Imagine you are in the office, it’s your colleagues birthday and he’s brought a delicious chocolate cake to celebrate. You are on a diet and know you shouldn’t eat it. So when your colleagues gather round to enjoy the cake, you politely refuse. That’s willpower exercise number 1. One of your colleagues comes to talk to you while eating a slice, you try not to pay attention to the cake and stay rooted in your chair. Willpower exercise number 2. Your colleague stays to chat for 5 minutes, still eating that beautiful cake, you try to ignore it and concentrate on what your colleague is saying. In that five minute time period you have to wilfully resist the cake another 5 times. Finally your colleague leaves, and you are left sitting at your desk in eye line of the remaining slice of the heavenly chocolate cake. Eventually, after some time, you get up and take the last slice. Even though you resisted the cake multiple times (an impressive feat of self-control!) one moment of weakness and you might as well have eaten the cake at the first opportunity!
Since willpower is one of the weakest of human mental powers, and using it actually fatigues us, diets are by definition doomed to failure.
This might sound a bit (very) gloomy. But here is the good news. You can lose weight and keep it off without the constant mental marathon, in a gradual and healthy way.
This may not sound very appealing if you have an event coming up and want to lose weight very quickly. But the simple fact is, if you want to keep the weight off long-term, you have to make lifestyle changes that you can sustain. The great news is that it’s not too difficult to do. Healthy choices can become habits with very little need for willpower.
Here are 5 simple tips for losing weight and keeping it off :
1. Create obstacles
If you are sitting looking at a bag of chips in front of you, you are going to need to use willpower to resist eating them every time you notice them there (which is a lot of times!). Get rid of the willpower factor by moving the chips further away from you, say to the other side of the room. We are naturally inclined to take the path of least resistance. By adding a small obstacle between us and the tempting food (in this case having to move across the room to reach the chips), we can drastically cut how much of it we eat. ! Since we don’t want to be avoiding any foods we like completely – that’s why diets don’t work – reducing the amount we eat is a good middle ground.
2. Out of sight, out of mind
Keeping tempting foods out of sight reduces the amount we eat even more. Try putting the cookie jar on the top shelf of a cupboard behind other stuff. Chances are you’ll forget about it after a while because you won’t be confronted by it every time you open the cupboard. That is, until you really fancy a cookie and then you’ll have to climb onto a chair in order to reach it (another obstacle).
With the chips and cookies out of easy reach and out of sight, try having some healthier snacks ready to hand and visible. Try having a bowl of grapes, cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, or sliced bell pepper close to hand. Better yet, mix them up together! Snacks like these satisfy a sweet craving, are hydrating and energising. For something savoury, try having a plate of cucumber slices with a sprinkling of salt. You can still have the cookies and chips, or whatever snack gets you going, but we’re more likely to go for something that’s well within reach.
4. Plan ahead
If you have an event coming up that you know will have a lot of temptations, plan ahead a strategy for dealing with it. For example, if you know there will be a big spread of food to choose from, decide to have a plate of salad or veggies before you eat anything else. This isn’t about disallowing yourself the other goodies, it’s about forming strategies that will prevent you from overeating them. Once you’ve decided on your strategy, say it aloud to yourself several times before the event, ‘when I am tempted by the buffet, I will eat a plate of salad/veggies first’.
This works in a couple of ways. Forming a plan of action in advance reduces the stress of worrying about how you will react in the moment. It also removes the need to make difficult choices when you are there and likely to be distracted, say with a conversation.
5. Your cue to action
The easiest way to turn a healthy choice into a habit is to associate an action with a cue. Think of how automatic brushing your teeth is in the morning; seeing your toothbrush is the cue that triggers you to make the action of brushing your teeth. Brushing our teeth is such a well established habit that most of us wouldn’t have to see our toothbrush to remember to clean our teeth. It’s automatic.
Say you wanted to start exercising in the morning before work. Decide on the exact time you want to exercise, for example immediately after brushing your teeth, then put your exercise clothes in the bathroom where they will be visible while you are brushing. For the first few weeks you will have to consciously think about exercising after brushing your teeth, but before long it will become automated and you’ve formed a healthy new habit!
This can apply to all sorts of behaviour. If you have the habit of going to the grocery store every weekday to pick up some lunch, start going to the fruit aisle first and grabbing an orange.
Mann, T.P. (2015) Secrets from the eating lab: The science of weight loss, the myth of willpower, and why you should never diet again. New York, NY, United States: Harper Wave.
Wolpert, S. (2007) Dieting Does Not Work, UCLA Researchers Report. Available at: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/Dieting-Does-Not-Work-UCLA-Researchers-7832 (Accessed: 6 February 2017).