People who desire to lose weight often rely valiantly on willpower to achieve an ideal body. Self-control is great but I’d like to encourage people to stop relying solely on willpower to lose weight.
Here is why
Regardless of willpower, a person who finds a bowl of ice cream in front them seven days a week is eventually going to cave (unless they are lactose intolerant…cause ya know, gas). We live in an environment with easy availability and access to unhealthy foods. It’s no wonder that so many of us gain weight.
On the other hand, resisting immediate urges is one of the most highly adaptive qualities that humans have. Resisting urges is why people can meet long term health goals, it’s the reason we get work done without consistently checking social media or watching cartoons
It’s also the reason I didn’t just steal a piece of cheese off some guy’s plate as I was ordering a coffee to help fuel the writing of this article.
When we inhibit the urge to engage in a behavior that would be counterproductive to our long-term goal (like not getting punched in the face for being a cheese thief) we are expressing willpower (Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999).
People who want to shed some weight clearly have a long-term goal that will involve some sacrifices. It’s a process that doesn’t happen overnight. While all dieters have the long-term goal of losing weight they also have a hedonic desire to eat tempting foods. This desire can be activated easily by the site or smell of food.
Researchers examining willpower have compared self-control to a muscle. Similarly to how a muscle becomes fatigues with work, our ability to use self-control is exhausted with continuous use.
Also, like a muscle, it has been proposed that continuously practicing overriding urges can improve our self-control strength (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000). However, some research suggest that willpower cannot actually be trained (Miles, Sheeran, Baird, MacDonald,Webb & Harris 2016).*
It is also possible that due to our obesogenic environment (characterized by easy access and availability of unhealthy food) we may be in a constant state of exhausted self-control (Hagger et al., 2010)
Most of us understand that dieting is extremely challenging when temptations are all over the place. This makes it hard to pick the appropriate scenario for when to use self-control.
Motivation and incentives can help with regulation efforts but the best solution might be to avoid temptations all together when possible. This strategy involves personal environmental modifications.
The physical environment describes the settings where people obtain food. Availability and accessibility of food are the two biggest influences on consumption (Story, Kaphingst, Robinson-O’Brien & Glanz 2008) and thus should be addressed.
The sight of food serves as a continuous temptation (Wansink, 2004; Wansink, Painter, & Lee 2006). This isn’t exactly breaking news. Ice cream, cookies, or in my case peanut butter in the house is going to get eaten (usually within 24 hours).
It seems obvious but one of the best strategies to avoid overeating highly tempting foods is to not let them in the house. This isn’t to say you should avoid eating these foods all together nor am I suggesting you should always say no to these foods in social situations because I don’t believe that is healthy either.
If you can avoid having it in your house you will likely eat less and not feel so bad when you do eat it. One of my food weaknesses is nuts. Not exactly a bad food, but I could put down 2,000 calories of mixed nuts in one day with no issue. Instead of cutting it out all-together I just get a small quantity each time I go to the store.
So rather than getting an entire box of candy bars just get one at the store. Instead of buying a 12 pack of soda just get one at the check-out lane. If you want to get ice cream don’t buy the entire pint, just buy a single serving.
Reduce Ease of Access
Making tempting food less available is a great strategy to reduce the need for willpower. Another self-regulation strategy would be to increase the effort with which it takes to obtain unhealthy foods. This can reduce the number of times you eat unhealthy food and also the amount of unhealthy food you eat. Here are a few suggestions (Wansink, 2004)
- Repackage bulk foods – if my roommates had their peanut butter in small individual servings it would be much less likely that I would steal it from them. I hope you read this Joe – also… sorry. Take big bags of chips, cereal, or bags of candy and make single serving containers
- Store tempting food out of eye site – this might mean putting foods like ice cream in a basement freezer.
- Make food rules – one food rule might be “no second servings”
- Reduce plate and glass sizes – this helps with portion control
A big part of my job is to serve as a model of health to my clients and the athletes I work with. I can certainly resist temptations when the occasion calls for it (need to make weight for a powerlifting meet or planning a beach vacation #summerbod) but I’m a human, just like you. I love the same unhealthy foods as most other people. I practice self-control as often as necessary (remember how I didn’t steal that cheese?) but I still cave.
To rely on willpower alone would be a mistake. Take the initiative to reduce the availability and ease of access of unhealthy food so when you do indulge it’s not such a huge deal and you’ll have no need to feel bad about doing so.
*In this self-control study the researchers did measure how much chocolate participants ate. In order to train self-control they had participants use their non-dominant hand for 6 weeks. This type of self-control training is common in research so it makes sense for the study but I don’t think this is what a practitioner would recommend to a client in order to practice self-control for resisting tempting foods.
Hagger, M.S., Wood, C., Stiff, C., Chatzisarantis, N.L. (2010). Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin 136(4), 495-525.
Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: Dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106(1), 3-19.
Miles, E., Sheeran, P., Baird, H., MacDonald, I., Webb, T.L., Harris, P.R. (2016). Does self-control improve with practice? Evidence from a six-week training program. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 145(8):1075-91
Muraven M., Baumeister, R.F. (2000). Self-regulation and depletion of limited resources: Does self-control resemble a muscle? Psychological Bulletin 126(2), 247-259.
Story, M., Kaphingst, K.M., Robinson-O’Brien, R., Glanz, K. (2008). Creating healthy food and eating environments: Policy and environmental approaches. Annual Review of Public Health, 29: 253-272.
Wansink, B. (2004). Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annual Review of Nutrition 24, 455-479.
Wansink, B., Painter, J.E., & Lee, Y.K. (2006). The office candy dish: Proximity’s influence on estimated and actual consumption. International Journal of Obesity, 30, 871-875.