I'm beginning to think there's no such thing as willpower. Here's why.

June 23, 2010

By Shaun Chavis
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Every dieter has had some failures. And most likely, he or she blames lack of willpower for it.

But what if willpower doesn’t exist? After years of dieting, I’m beginning to think that it doesn’t. Here’s why:

Since learning to cope with a slow metabolism earlier this year, I’ve been losing weight fairly easily, at about 1.5 pounds a week. But I rarely spend time battling my thoughts over whether or not to cheat. I’m losing at a great pace—without willpower.

In my experience, there may be another recipe for success, besides the will to lose weight. Here are the six things—a combination of strong motivators and lots of planning—I attribute to my success:

  • Seeing results. The success I’ve had so far motivates me to keep going.
  • Dealing with less-than-stellar consequences. Seriously nasty diseases loom in my future if I don’t lose weight.
  • Having a treat budget. I allot some calories for a bit of dark chocolate every day, so I’m not totally deprived. (And I won’t dive into a bag of Dove bars, either.)
  • Starting big. Eating a big breakfast satisfies me most of the day, so I don’t even think about food.

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  • Sticking to the plan. On weekends, I plan my meals for the week ahead, and I email my plan to someone for accountability. What’s for dinner? It’s a no-brainer. I’ve already got the plan, the recipes, and the ingredients ready to go. If I know I’m going out, I even plan what I’m going to order the weekend before.
  • Keeping up with workouts. I also plan my workouts on weekends for the coming week. No. Brainer!
  • But I’ve still wondered: Did I start doing all these things because I had the will to lose weight, and now that the plan is in place, the willpower is taking a backseat? Or is willpower the magic ingredient that constantly makes all this work, kinda like The Force?

    I went to two experts for their thoughts on willpower. First I spoke to Sonthe Burge, MS, RD, LD, who is coaching our CarbLovers Diet group in Birmingham and also works with patients.

    “I believe it’s skill, not will,” she says. “The problem is that someone else [plans your food] for you early in your life, then you go to college, and you have to figure it out for yourself, and no one teaches you how to eat, how to plan meals, or how to cook,” she says.

    She believes planning and process are key factors to dieting success. “When I work with people, most of the time [the reason they can’t lose weight] is a lack of these skills instead of willpower.” Over the long haul, according to Burge, putting good habits in practice will pay off.

    I also emailed Gerard J. Musante, PhD, member of the American Board of Professional Psychology and founder of one of America’s Healthiest Diets, the Structure House Weight Management, a residential weight-loss program in Durham, N.C., and Structure House Online Weight Loss.

    Musante’s program teaches patients exactly that—how to structure your life in order to manage your weight and health. His thoughts on willpower?

    “Willpower is not a real thing,” he explains in his email. Most people think of willpower as a power to resist or not respond to something around us, and Musante says that’s not a reasonable idea.

    “In reality, we are always responding to the cues of our environment. We respond to the temperature our skin feels, the light our eyes receive, the aromas that our sense of smell experiences, the sounds that our ears receive. We cannot not respond to food anymore than we cannot not respond to these other stimuli.”

    Musante’s answer—like Burge’s—is to rely on skill, not willpower. “I suggest a proactive approach to weight control rather than a reactive approach,” he advises. He suggests planning ahead of time the three meals you’ll eat throughout the day, discovering your triggers that lead to you to “misuse” food, and minimizing the circumstances that lead to these triggers.

    For example, if you know you’ll overeat chips and salsa at a Mexican restaurant, plan to eat a hearty breakfast, tell the waiter to hold the chips, and order a chicken soft taco with a side of rice. Problem solved.

    So what do you think: Will…or skill?

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