Willpower Doesn't Work for Weight Loss. Here’s What Does.

Uncategorized Jul 13, 2019

Forget Willpower

According to Mark Twain, “The only way to keep your health is to eat what you don't want, drink what you don't like, and do what you'd rather not.”

Most people think all we need to lose weight is good, old-fashioned self-denial and willpower.

Nothing, in my view, could be further from the truth.

Amanda says no to a yummy cupcake now in order to shed 50 pounds by next year. And she has to slog through self-denial like this every day till she reaches her goal weight — 365 denied cupcakes later.

Willpower — self-denial now to reach a worthy goal later — may help us reach some goals, but weight loss isn’t one of them.

A few of us with extraordinary willpower can resist the daily onslaught of temptation, but the vast majority of us can’t. Research shows that 99% of people trying to lose weight through willpower fail long-term.

Eating is simply too strong a survival drive and willpower too limited a resource. We can muster only so much every day, then willpower fatigue sets in and we have no more.

Willpower is a hopeless weight loss strategy.

What are we to do, then?

It turns out that shedding excess fat requires different, subtler powers — new skills rather than sheer will, smart shifts rather than heavy lifts.

Let’s look at these powers more closely. If willpower can’t get you get the lean, healthy body you want, what can?


1. Fillpower

The best way to ditch willpower is to enjoy “fillpower.”

Diets that keep you unsatisfied and hungry require lots of willpower. But when you enjoy real, satiating food, you keep hunger at bay till the next meal. “Fillpower” replaces willpower and you no longer struggle to pass up that cupcake. You simply don’t want it anymore.

We've all experienced how much “fillpower” we get from steak and how little from cake. That’s because the most satiating foods are protein and fat (steak) and the least satiating are sugar and starch (cake). (Fiber can also be satiating, but less so.)

“What?” I hear you asking. “Lose weight by eating steak? But steak contains fat and we’ve been taught that eating fat makes us fat.”

This actually turns out to be untrue. Research shows that it’s not fat but carbs — be they bread, pasta, rice or sugar — that act like Miracle-Gro for our bellies and butts.

Steak contains calories, of course, but by cutting our appetite, it prevents us from taking in even more calories from other foods — like cake. 

The best way to lose weight is to lose hunger. So, dig in! Enjoy satiating foods and enjoy the hunger-busting power they give you.

The best fix for those who crave cake? Let them eat steak!

“Fillpower” is the crown jewell of weight-loss strategies.


2. Taste Power

In addition to being unfilling, “diet food” is often tasteless and uninteresting. We’re told we need to eat boring fare like skinless chicken, unbuttered veggies, rice cakes and salads with low-fat dressing to lose weight. It's no wonder people throw in the towel.

But there’s plenty of food out there that’s both healthy and tasty. You don’t have to suffer to lose weight.

Perhaps you were eating oatmeal as a sort of health duty because you were told it was good for you. If so, when you come down to breakfast in the morning, try something your taste buds can cheer about instead, like bacon and eggs (which are better for you than carb-loaded oatmeal anyway).

Forget boring “diet food.” If you enjoy your diet, you’ll stick to it. If you don’t, you’ll ditch it. The best food for your waistline is food that tastes good.

Tasty food is a powerful tool for weight loss.


3. Real Food Power

If you want to lose weight, the best way to get there is to eat real food. I know it can be hard, but it’s important not to get sucked into all the highly processed, additive-laden, food-like substances that pass for food in our supermarkets and restaurants. If it’s manufactured and comes in a box or package, be suspicious.

Real food resembles what’s found in nature, with minimal processing or additives.

Note that not all real food is good for your waistline. For example, fruit, rice and honey are real foods but because of their high carb content are best avoided if you're carrying extra weight.

So, toss the fish sticks and fries and enjoy the salmon and asparagus. It's real, it's delicious, and your body will thank you.

Real food is a potent tool for real weight loss.

4. Signal Power

As I explained in a prior post, hunger is actually only one of at least a dozen reasons we eat. We’re prodded to eat by habit, conformity, emotion, addiction and hyperpalatable food, to name just a few.

One of the prime rules of healthy eating is to eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. Or don’t even start if you’re not hungry in the first place. It’s really very simple.

The body evolved a wonderful system of signals to keep us fed but not overfed. It sends hunger signals when we need food, and satiety (full) signals when we’ve had enough. These signals evolved to serve us and we put our health, and our waistlines, at risk when we ignore them.

People overeat — and gain weight — when they eat for reasons having nothing to do with hunger. Tune in to your hunger and satiety signals and you’ll cut down on a lot of unneeded food — and a lot of unneeded fat stores on your body.

Don’t eat because it’s lunch time, because others are eating, because you’re bored, because you need to clean your plate or because there’s food in the fridge. Just eat when you’re hungry.

Your body’s hunger and fullness signals are powerful weight-loss allies.


5. Imagination power

Years ago, my sister offered two dessert choices to her young children. “Oooh,” she said eagerly, “you can have these yummy, fresh strawberries I just got at the farmer’s market today! Or,” she added as an afterthought, “I think we still have some of that old ice cream sitting in the freezer.”

Their imaginations primed, the kids opted for the strawberries, of course, and the ice cream was quickly forgotten. The strawberries were center stage and real to them, and they may even have started salivating over them. They could see and taste the delicious, red berries before they were even taken out of the fridge.

You can use a similar approach to draw yourself toward any healthy food choice. Drool over it mentally, making it up close, vivid and yummy. And do an opposite number on unhealthy choices like ice cream. Imagine it as distant, black-and-white and pixilated with a bland, why-bother taste.

Imagine, savor and connect with healthy food you want to encourage yourself to eat, while distancing yourself from food you want to discourage.

Savoring healthy food in your imagination can be a potent weight-loss strategy.

6. Replacement Power

This is a simple but potent strategy most people don’t think of.

The willpower approach tells us to buck up and “just say no” to cake, leaving us feeling deprived.

A much better approach is to replace the cake with a healthier alternative. Think of something else that would be satisfying and enjoyable but wouldn’t pack on the pounds.

If you replace the cake with a handful of fresh berries, for example, you’ll be able to finish your meal with something sweet but without having to resort to willpower or feeling resentful.

Don’t think all or nothing. Think: What can I have instead?

Rather than going without, empower yourself by replacing poor food choices with good ones.


7. Knowledge Power

It was Francis Bacon, the Renaissance thinker, who said, “Knowledge is power.”

How true this is. It’s knowledge that lifted us from the cave to the Moon. And it’s only knowledge that can lift the burden of obesity from the Earth. To shed those extra pounds, we need reliable, evidence-based science.

This is easier said than done. We’re complex creatures and the scientific study of weight loss is challenging and fraught with controversy. We can’t go to one website to learn this stuff in an hour. 

But to make your search for the truth a tad easier, it helps to remember three things when evaluating a particular diet:

  • Popularity isn’t relevant. Just because a diet is widely accepted (even by authorities) doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. Bloodletting was widely accepted by doctors for centuries.
  • It should square with evolution. Is it likely that we evolved to require foods that didn’t exist till the 20th Century, like vegetable oil?
  • It should work. Is there good evidence showing that people who follow this diet actually lose weight long-term?

So get out there and try to figure things out. I'm here to help.

Knowledge is power and can lighten your load.

8. Simple Power

But don't overdo it. Don’t fall into paralysis by analysis. At some point you need to draw a line and take action to shed those pounds.

You need knowledge, but it can’t be too complicated or you’ll get lost in a sea of details you won’t be able to remember or apply. It’s simple, actionable knowledge that’s powerful.

Simple, broad principles — like, “Eat your meat and veggies” and, “Don’t drink calories” — will serve you best. Obscure details about insulin levels or selenium supplements won’t.

Don’t overthink your eating. Simplicity is powerful for weight loss.


9. “Don’t” Power

This simple but powerful strategy is a favorite of mine.

You're at a dinner party and your host offers you a piece of key lime pie for dessert. You've decided to decline, but how do you say it?

Do you say, "I can't eat pie" or "I don't eat pie"? These may sound equivalent but they're actually very different. Say them to yourself right now and notice how each one makes you feel.

If you're like most people, saying “I can't eat pie" is disempowering and makes you feel like you're taking orders, perhaps from a sort of inner drill sergeant taking something away from you.

But when you say, "I don't eat pie," it's very different. You're no longer a victim. Now you're speaking from your inner compass, you know who you are and you're calling the shots.

You don't even have to say these words out loud. You can say them to yourself when you're deciding what to order from a menu.

Silent or spoken, saying "can't" makes you feel resentful and helpless while saying "don't" makes you feel strong and confident.

Learn to say "don't" instead of "can't." The difference is powerful.

10. Normal Power

It’s normal to have a lean body. It’s not an aberration and it’s not reserved for the very lucky (with good genes) or the very disciplined (always dieting and exercising). It’s unexceptional, it’s part of human nature and it’s within your reach.

We can see this by going back in time. Ten thousand years ago we were wiry, spear-wielding hunter-gatherers. By 1980 we had traded our spears and boomerangs for Lycra but our bodies hadn’t changed much.

But since then there's been a worldwide obesity epidemic. In less than 4 decades we've packed on more pounds than ever before in human history.

In 1980 only 15% of Americans were obese. Now it’s 40%.

In addition to the 40% obesity rate, 30% of us are overweight. This adds up to 70% of us being heavier than we should be.

And leaves 30% of us as normal weight or lean (BMI under 25).

Here’s the thing, though. Because we see heavy humans all around us, it’s tempting to view heavy as the norm — as a normal and inevitable part of the human condition, at least for most of us.

But it’s not. The extra fat so many of us have put on is an unusual situation. And it’s actually surprisingly easy to take off (for more on this, stay tuned).

The take-away here is that people living before the obesity epidemic — from spear-throwers 10,000 years ago to joggers 40 years ago — were just like you and me. Yes, they did eat differently, and we’ll cover this issue later. But the point is that they didn’t have to deprive themselves, starve, struggle or muster any willpower to stay slim. It was their normal state. They enjoyed eating naturally, as you can, and were naturally slim, as you can be.

Human history is powerful proof that lean is in your genes and well within your reach.




Stay connected with news and updates!

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.
Don't worry, your information will not be shared.


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.