Is There Any Such Thing as Willpower?


Is There Any Such Thing as Willpower?

Several years ago, a NY Times article came out on willpower and started as such:

A thin person, the kind who has always been thin, is confronted by a chocolate cake with dark fudge icing and chopped pecans. Unmoved, he goes about his business as if nothing has happened.

A fat person, the kind who has always struggled with weight, is confronted by the same cake. He feels a little surge of adrenaline. He cuts a slice and eats it. Then he eats another, and feels guilty for the rest of the day.

The simplest, and most judgmental, explanation for the difference in behavior is willpower. Some seem to have it but others do not, and the common wisdom is that they ought to get some.

If you google “willpower,” you’ll get thousands of hits because it has become an accepted “thing” in our western culture.  However, the truth is that it’s a myth.  The concept of willpower has been discredited by science.

Willpower is a metaphor

”There is no magical stuff inside of you called willpower that should somehow override nature,” said Dr. James C. Rosen, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont. ”It’s a metaphor that most chronically overweight dieters buy into.”

Practicing good nutrition habits is really more about education, behavior modification and finding positive strategies to deal with weak moments, which we all have.  Attributing dietary successes or failures to willpower is wrong, because it ignores the complexity of the issue at hand, which is behavioral, chemical, biological and hormonal.

Willpower does not describe failure

UPenn professor of psychiatry, Dr. Albert Stunkard, has stated “’Willpower was a kind of all-embracing theory that was used all the time to make doctors feel good and make patients feel bad.  Most people think that willpower is just a pejorative way of describing your failures,” he said. ”Willpower really doesn’t have any meaning.”

According to the NY Times article, “the behavior modification approach had its roots in a 1967 study called ”Behavioral Control of Overeating,” which tried to analyze the elements of ”self-control” and apply them to weight loss. The study, by Richard B. Stuart of the University of Michigan, showed that eight overweight women treated with behavior modification techniques lost from 26 to 47 pounds over a year. They had frequent sessions with a therapist and recorded their food intake and moods in diaries. And the therapists helped them develop lists of alternatives to eating, like reading a newspaper or calling a friend.

Behavior modification is the gold standard

Based on my research and studies, it would appear that behavior modification strategies really are the gold standard in achieving long-term weight loss/nutrition success.

What does that mean? 

It means changing eating habits and making new habits, through the use of new behaviors. Examples include drinking water before a meal, eating before going to the grocery store, or eating slowly and mindfully with gratitude.

Willpower is a myth

So, in reality, willpower is ”essentially an explanatory fiction.”  It sort of gives people a sense that they understand why the behavior occurred, when in reality all they’ve done is label the behavior and not explain it.  And this is precisely why many scientists label willpower as a myth. 

And subsequently, this is also why behavior modification with strategies really is a better answer, because you learn what behavioral steps you can take before you get in the situation where you’re in the chair in front of the television with a bag of chocolate chips.

Furthermore, it seems logical that relying on the false concept of willpower adds stress and doesn’t address the underlying issues, which quite often is tied to emotional eating. This means eating to cope with stress or frustration or tiredness. Food is considered a reward and overeating happens when you’re on autopilot. Labeling it a “willpower” fault doesn’t fix the problem because this ignores what’s motivating you to overeat. Telling yourself you just need to be stronger and conjure up more willpower isn’t a viable solution, either.

You don’t need more mental toughness. You need an approach that will work and keep you from overeating.

Consider the following steps to get started:

  • Stop blaming yourself for past failures, and instead, reflect on what the real, underlying issue(s) might be
  • Pay attention to why and when you overeat. There’s always a reason and it’s not because you are weak or lazy.
  • Ask yourself what you are really hungry for?Is it a true craving?Are you stressed?Are you searching for a reward?Are you anxious?Sad? What are you trying to avoid? Are you bored?
  • Reflect on why past diet attempts failed.What was lacking – support, accountability, motivation, unique strategies?
  • Think about new strategies to prevent mindless eating. Pay attention to your specific, personal triggers.Why do you reach for the bag of chips? OK, what can you do about that – a walk, a protein shake instead, read a book, etc.…
  • As you start to implement these strategies, pay attention to when you get stuck. If you are reflective and mindful, then you should be able to tweak and adjust your strategies.

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