The willpower delusion

Dieting through sheer force of willpower doesn’t work for most people. Relax and make small changes.

According to Cancer Research UK, almost two thirds of us know the health problems associated with being overweight but fail to do anything about it. And almost 70 per cent of women and 60 per cent of men surveyed about this inability to act on their heftiness blamed lack of willpower as the main barrier to losing weight.

I’m not sure I blame them. I know that a lot of people do well at slimming clubs, others like to follow clear-cut calorie controlled plans at home (I’ve written many myself for newspapers and magazines) and I’ve seen a fair number of people shed and maintain weight loss on strict low calorie meal replacement plans, but they simply do not work for everyone.

I totally get the lack of willpower ‘thing’. Back in my University days I remember following a specific slimming programme as part of a module for my nutrition degree. It was called The Scarsdale Diet by Dr Herman Tarnower, the 1970’s forerunner of Atkins and Dukan, though a little less severe. I lasted less than 24-hours, because frankly, I don’t have the determination to bend my natural desire to feel full and enjoy food to the rules laid down by others. I don’t have the willpower.

I know what works for me. I eat lots of vegetables, a fair bit of fruit, lean fish and meat, wholemeal bread, pasta, porridge and some dark chocolate. Sometimes I have puddings, but most of the time I don’t. I snack on nuts (a handful, not a massive packet) and if I’m really hungry between meals, will have some muesli or whatever fruit is around. At the weekends, I’ll have a drink with friends, but if I’m not going out, I probably won’t. Add to this as much walking as I can squeeze into a day that includes raising two little children and working, and this is about as good as it gets for me.

The truth is though, losing weight isn’t about how much willpower we have, it’s about accepting that everyone is different. I’ve been in the diet and nutrition business for over two decades. I’ve reviewed hundreds of different diets and helped many people cut their weight and the thing is, when a person finally cracks the weight loss issue, it’s not because they have willed it so, it’s because they have found a way of eating that suits their likes, dislikes, personality type, family situation, finances, kitchen-skills, working life and so on.

When you find it, it will be a way of eating and moving your body (because the calories you burn do count), that simply fits in with you, not a diet and weight loss plan that requires you to do unrealistic lifestyle contortions to meet the latest guru’s crazy demands.

There is a really key word there – ‘unrealistic’. It is important to take that in because when we embark on a diet such as cabbage soup every day or only eating steak, eggs and milk, we know, it is unrealistic. We know it will be nigh on impossible to stick to and not surprisingly, the higher the expectations of a diet, the more likely we are to give up on it.

Giving up / falling off the wagon / failing; however you chose to put it, almost inevitably leads to feeling bad about oneself. When we don’t stick to our diets we spiral into guilty feelings, we say we’re not ‘good enough’ to keep it up and more often than not, that guilt and bad feeling leads up to binge on all the ‘banned’ foods we’ve been trying to leave behind. It’s a kind of two fingers to the creator of the diet whether it be Weight Watchers, Slimming World, Dukan or, I hate to say it – me. It’s normal and predicatable and cruicially, avoidable.

So here’s my advice, for what it’s worth. If you know that you are more than likely to buck and rear against strict rules, don’t try to follow them in the first place and please, forget the whole concept of willpower. Doing anything by willpower implicitly involves denying yourself, which often leads to resentment and bad feelings. Instead, think about making small, do-able changes that will help in the long term to nudge you gently in the right direction.

Seemingly silly things like swapping from a deep pan pizza to a thin crust. The same size average portion of the former is 90g with 265 calories. The thin crust is 60g with 160 calories.

A pack of four blueberry muffins from a supermarket give you around 430 calories each. A single muffin you buy from a garage forecourt can easily be 600 calories on it’s own.

Buy crisps in a multipacks and they weigh 25g with 134 calories instead of 34.5g with 183 calories, when bought individually from coffee shops, newsagents and other grab-and-go outlets.

Have a regular latte with skimmed milk instead of a medium size with whole milk. The former has 67 calories, the latter, 172 calories.

A 20-minute walk burns about 100 calories, a 20-minute cycle ride around 150 calories. It may not sound much, but it soon begins adding up if you do it regularly.

Small changes count. Start making them today in ways that don’t leave you feeling as though you are turning your life upside down and require you to clear out your cupboards and restock with lettuce leaves and cottage cheese or sign up to run next years London Marathon. Remember, getting healthier should feel good, and done gently, carefully and cheerfully, it really does.

Another tip is to avoid the diet word. Don’t yak on about what you are doing to others and just get on with it. Telling everyone you’re ‘on a diet’ is like inviting an audience – the pressure mounts and once again we can feel annoyed and resentful. I would also suggest that for people who don’t like rules, there is no need for weighing scales because the less you keep checking your weight, the less you will obsess about tiny movements of the needle up or down and slip back into that dieting mentality.

Your waistband will soon tell you whether your small efforts are working and if they are, the little confidence boosts each change creates will probably inspire you to keep going and make more small steps in the right direction. Better this way than drastic yo-yoing, self-loathing and beating yourself up about your lack of willpower, instead congratualte yourself on each small, healthy change you make and watch your waistline shrink as your confidence grows.

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