Weight Loss: Does Willpower Matter?
Sticking to a diet has little to do with will, experts say.
For decades, dieters and doctors alike believed willpower was the key to
successful weight loss.
"Many people go through life believing that they can't stick to a diet
because they have no willpower. They believe that some innate force is keeping
them from resisting food temptations," says Warren Huberman, PhD, a
psychologist who counsels patients in conjunction with the New York University
Program for Surgical Weight Loss.
The truth, experts now say, is that the ability to stick to a weight loss
diet has little to do with will -- and everything to do with changing the way
we think about food.
"People like to think of willpower as some mystical, magical power over
which they have no control … but in reality there is no such thing," says
Gerard Musante, PhD, founder and director of Structure House, an inpatient
weight loss program in Durham, N.C.
Believing that willpower is at work only serves to make you feel less in
control of your eating habits, experts say.
"Once you buy into the idea that self-control is something that is out
of your control, and the domain of some indigenous character trait that you
either have or you don't, then on some level you accept that staying on a diet
is also not within your control, " says Huberman.
When formal studies of weight loss got under way in earnest in the 1950s,
willpower was the basis for most diets. Patients who were unsuccessful at
losing weight were told by their doctors to simply eat less -- and those who
couldn't were labeled as having no "willpower."
But by 1967, research conducted at the University of Michigan began to
change everything. It was here doctors discovered that the ability to lose
weight wasn't rooted in willpower at all -- but instead, in simple behavioral
When patients were taught how to substitute a fulfilling activity for
filling up with food, their appetites, and eventually, their weight, became
easier to control.
Those findings went on to form a major focus of weight loss today --
behavior modification. Experts now believe that sticking with a diet isn't
about willpower, but about the ability to understand and ultimately change
behaviors linked to how and why we choose the foods we eat.
"If you find yourself resisting a food you really want to eat, that's
not willpower, that's a choice – and within each of us lies the power to make
these choices about everything in our life, including the food we put on our
plate," says Huberman.
While it might sometimes seem as if you're being overtaken by an
overwhelming desire to eat a certain food, what you're really experiencing,
says Huberman, is an unconscious behavioral reaction -- or sometimes, just a
"In either case, it's important to realize it's not some mystical force
of the universe that's controlling your desire to eat something, it's your own
behavior -- which also means it's something that can be changed," says