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Why Willpower Is Powerless When It Comes to Dieting

Combating “to hell with it” syndrome

Vic Napier
Jul 10, 2018 · 7 min read
Photo by Alex Loup via Unsplash

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No matter how dedicated people might be about losing weight, they rarely have a detailed plan in place for changing their eating behaviors. For the most part, they rely on willpower. Unfortunately, people who rely on willpower alone to lose weight will almost certainly fail, either in the short run, or in the long-term objective of staying slim.

Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is well-known for making significant discoveries about self-control and willpower. In his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, he examines the hidden challenges of weight loss. One of the most disheartening of these challenges is the fact that weight is remarkably resistant to self-control.

Let’s take two public figures as examples: Oprah Winfrey and Newt Gingrich. Both possess a strong sense of determination and purpose, yet both have experienced shame and humiliation over their failed weight-loss efforts. The iron will and self-control that brought them success in their careers was useless when it came to controlling their eating habits. In her magazine O, Oprah describes sitting at the Emmy Awards ceremony praying to lose to her talk-show rival, Phil Donahue: “I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself by rolling my fat butt out of my seat and walking down the aisle to the stage.”

In her excellent book The Secret Life of Fat, Sylvia Tara reveals that Gingrich has similar sentiments. In 1995, shortly after his ascension to the post of Speaker of the House, Barbara Walters asked him what he considered his biggest embarrassment. “I’m most embarrassed about my weight…I know it’s entirely a function of my personality that I swim, I eat the right things, and then I either have a chance to drink some Guinness or to eat some ice cream, and I cave.”

It hasn’t always been this way. Only recently has our weight skyrocketed and our efforts to manage it failed so miserably. During the Civil War soldiers averaged about 5’8” and weighed around 143 pounds. By the early 1980s men were about the same height as they were during the Civil War, but their weight averaged forty pounds more, according to the Centers for Disease Control. What happened? It seems that as soon as we have food in front of us we can’t help but gorge ourselves. As Gingrich says, just offering us the chance to overeat assures that we cave.

Baumeister tells us that bookies in England routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss. That is stunning when you consider that the people making the bets — the dieters and their friends — have control over just about everything. They determine the target weight loss, the amount of time allotted, and the conditions under which they will attempt to lose the weight. Yet the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later: the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future. Almost everyone fails.

Baumeister got curious about this, so he set out to explore the challenges of weight loss and why even those with a high level of self-control find it elusive. First, he did a meta-study. In a meta-study, the investigator does not do any experiments of their own. Instead, they look at experiments others have done, combine all the data collected in previous experiments, and subject it to new statistical analysis. Across dozens of studies, Baumeister found that people with proven reserves of self-control did only slightly better than the average person when attempting to control their weight.

Baumeister tested this finding by creating a 12-week weight loss program for undergrads at Florida State. He identified students with high self-control and followed them throughout the course. They did slightly better than the low self-control individuals, but not by much, and not for long. As the program wore on their self-control seemed to flag. In the end, there was little difference in weight loss between the two groups.

How can self-control be so insignificant when it comes to weight loss, yet so effective in other areas of people’s lives? There are many reasons, but one probably familiar to all of us has been dubbed the “what-the-hell effect” by researchers.

In one experiment, a group of people — some of whom were trying to lose weight by dieting — were lured to what they thought was a taste test, where they were asked to rate various snacks. All participants arrived hungry, having not eaten for several hours before the experiment. When they arrived at the lab, the experimenters gave them either a small milkshake to ward off the hunger pangs or two huge, high-calorie milkshakes. When they finished their milkshakes they were led to a small room with cookies, chips, and other goodies, which they were asked to rate.

The non-dieters behaved as you might expect: those who consumed the larger milkshakes ate fewer snacks. The thing that stunned the investigators was that the dieters who received the huge milkshakes ate the most snacks. The researchers went on to conduct additional experiments to confirm these surprising results. Again and again, the dieters who fell off their diets the most spectacularly were the most likely to subsequently overeat. The failed dieters seemed to think, “What the hell. In for a penny in for a pound. Makes no difference now, so go for the goodies.” Once the dieting subjects broke their diet, they continued to break it with joyous abandon.

Still, it makes no sense. Any reasonably logical person understands that one 500-calorie mistake is only compounded by throwing caution to the wind and gorging on whatever happens to be handy. But that is what we do. Psychologists call it rationalization. We use arguments that seem rational but really aren’t. It might seem like eating more makes no difference after a huge dieting failure, but that simply isn’t true. The more you eat, the more weight you gain. Telling yourself otherwise is rationalizing — or, as I like to call it, rational lies. These lies sound rational, but they aren’t.

But to get dieting back on track, it takes more than catching those rational lies when they try to fool us. One of the things Baumeister found was that self-control takes energy. Real energy. The kind you get from food.

I can hear the groans of defeat. If self-control takes energy that comes from food, and we are on a diet limiting our food intake, how the heck is it possible to lose weight? As soon as our body has an energy deficit, our self-control goes out the window and we start eating. Very true. Congratulations. You just articulated one of the hidden challenges of weight loss.

Baumeister tells us about an experiment in which chronic female dieters were asked to volunteer for a taste test. However, before the test they were asked to watch an emotional scene from Terms of Endearment. Half the participants were instructed to quell their emotions and the other half were told to freely express them. Following the movie, they were shown to a small room, given several tubs containing varying amounts of ice cream along with a rating form, and left alone. Of course, the experimenters were actually measuring whether subduing one’s emotions had any effect on how much was subsequently eaten. The dieters who were asked to suppress their emotions ate almost twice as much ice cream as the other group. They had used up their ability to suppress their overeating behaviors by suppressing their emotional behaviors while watching the movie.

In another experiment, female dieters were asked to watch a documentary in one of two conditions: either sitting right next to a bowl of M&Ms or sitting across the room from a bowl of M&Ms. Following the documentary the women were asked to solve some (unsolvable) algebra problems. Sure enough, the ones with the M&Ms tempting them within arm’s reach gave up on the algebra problems first. The group exposed to a lower level of temptation spent far more time on the problems before giving up. Again, it seems that the ability to resist temptation lessens with overuse.

In a twist on this experiment, experimenters added non-dieting volunteers to the mix. It turns out that non-dieters were not effected by the presence of the snacks, no matter where they were located or what kind of movie was shown. Their performance on subsequent tasks, like solving unsolvable puzzles, was the same.

Earlier I mentioned that self-control takes energy — specifically, energy one gets from food. How do we know this? Because when presented with a choice between healthy foods like vegetables and high-energy food like candy and fruits, dieters subjected to experiments similar to the ones I’ve described invariably went for the quick-energy, high-glucose snacks. Glucose comes from high-calorie foods containing a high proportion of natural or artificial sugars. Candy, for example.

Resisting temptation takes self-control, and glucose becomes diminished following periods in which self-control is needed. Consequently, dieters expending a lot of self-control to resist breaking their diets set themselves up to crave high-calorie, glucose-rich foods. Interestingly, we tend to reach for candy to restore our glucose levels, when healthy foods have the same effect. Why is that?

Baumeister tells us that when we are in an energy-deprived state, we feel our emotions more intensely than at other times. This is what a craving is. When we are emotionally vulnerable, our attraction to the visceral joy of candy is far more intense than it is at other times.

We can breeze right through the grocery checkout counter surrounded by racks of candy and not be tempted as long as we are already satiated. On the other hand, when we have depleted our self-control and glucose, we might walk to the store just for a sugary fix. This is why the long-standing advice to avoid grocery shopping when hungry is so effective. This is a form of structure — making changes in the environment or our own internal states in order to control our behavior. And creating structure is the key to long-term weight loss.

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