Why Will Power is Powerless for Dieting

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 will power. Unfortunately, people who rely on will power 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 famous for making significant discoveries about self-control and will power. In his very interesting book, Willpower he leads us through all the hidden challenges of weight loss.

One especially disheartening hidden challenge of losing weight is that weight is resistant to self-control. Both Oprah Winfrey and Newt Gingrich are unquestionably gifted with more self-control than most people are, yet in spite of that advantage, both have experienced a lifetime of shame and humiliation over their failed weight loss efforts.

The iron will and self-control that brought them success deserted these accomplished celebrities when applied to weight, and left both the center of public humiliation.

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 highly recommended book, The Secret Life of Fat, Sylvia Tara reveals that Gingrich has similar sentiments. When interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1995 shortly after his ascension to the top post of Speaker of the House she asked about his biggest embarrassment:

“I’m most embarrassed about my weight,” he said. Not the trumped up ethics investigation, nothing to do with any of the three marriages, not the stunning Republican losses under his tenure as Speaker.

None of that.

His weight.

“I know it’s entirely a function of my personality that I swim, I eat the right things and then either I have the chance to drink some Guinness or 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.

In the past obesity a sign of wealth and success. Tara tells us about 19th century men’s organizations that celebrated being overweight and accepted only “stout” men into their membership. Ladies Home Journal featured stories on how to gain weight and maintain “plumpness’ and in 1878 a book titled How to be Plump became popular.

During the Civil War soldiers averaged about 5’8” and weighed around 143 pounds.

By the early 1980’s men were about the same height as the Civil War, but their weight averaged forty pounds more at 183 pounds 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 the chance to overeat assures us that we cave.

Baumeister tells us that bookies in England, (where this kind of betting is legal), 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 define exactly what weight loss means, to the pound, they establish the period, and they identify the conditions under which they will attempt to lose.

Yet the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later. No, the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future. Almost about everyone fails.

Just like Oprah.

Baumeister got curious about this and set out to explore the challenges of weight loss and how even people with a proven 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 analyses.

Across dozens of studies, Baumeister found that people with proven reserves of superior self-control did slightly better than the average in controlling weight.

Slightly better.

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 high self-control group and the low self-control group.

How can self-control mean so little when it comes to weight loss? It seems to work in other areas of people’s lives. Losing weight is only a little more complicated than eating less and exercising more, so it seems impossible that self-control would be so meaningless.

What’s going on?

There are many reasons, but one probably familiar to all of us was given the title The What the Hell Effect.

Dieters lured to a taste testing experiment did not eat for a few hours before the experiment. Some were trying to lose weight while others were not. When they arrived at the lab, Baumeisters’ 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 and asked to rate the snacks.

The thing that stunned the investigators was that the dieters who received the huge milkshakes ate the most snacks. Experimenters repeated the procedure several times because they were sure they must have made a mistake.

But no, 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.”

That is what happens, 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 five hundred 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 rational that 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, and it doesn’t matter if a subsequent 500 calories comes after a five hundred calorie mistake. It’s still an additional 500 calories.

That’s rationalizing.

Alternatively, as I like to call it, Rational Lies. Sounds rational, but it isn’t.

If Rational Lies were all there were to losing weight we’d all be skinny. It would just be a matter of catching those rational lies when they try to fool us and getting back on our dieting track.

But there is a lot more to it than that.

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 taste test they were asked to watch Terms of Endearment. Half the participants were instructed to quell any emotions and the other half were told to freely express their emotions. Following the movie, they were shown to a small room, given several bowls containing varying amounts of ice cream, a rating from, and left alone.

Of course, the experimenters were actually measuring whether subduing ones emotions had any effect on how much was subsequently eaten. Each bowl of ice cream was carefully weighed before and after giving it to the subject.

The dieters in the “suppress emotion” condition ate almost twice as much ice cream as the dieters in the control condition. They had used up their ability to suppress their overeating behaviors by suppressing their emotional behaviors while watching the movie.

Still doubtful? Read on.

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 form a bowl of M&Ms. Following the documentary the women were asked to solve some (unsolvable) algebra problems.

Can you guess which group gave up on the algebra problems first?

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 over use.

In a twist on this experiment, experimenters added non-dieting volunteers to the mix. It turns out that non-dieters had no effect from snacks, no matter where they were located or what kind of movie they watched. No matter what condition the experimenters placed the non-dieters 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 of 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 contacting a high proportion of natural or artificial sugars. Candy, for example.

Resisting temptation takes self-control, and following periods in which self-control is needed glucose becomes diminished. 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. What 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 other times. This is why 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 for a sugary fix.

This is why the long-standing advice to avoid grocery shopping when hungry is so effective. This is is a form of structure – making changes in the environment or our own internal states in order to control our behavior.

Creating structure is the key to long-term weight loss, and it is what the next article will cover.

Stay tuned.


Sources mentioned in this article:

Baumeister, R. F., & Tierney, J. (2011). Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength. New York: Penguin Press.

Tara, S. (2017). The secret life of fat: The science behind the body’s least understood organ and what it means for you (First edition. ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company.





2 Replies to “Why Will Power is Powerless for Dieting”

    1. I’ve been a little under the weather lately, but should be posting an article about using structure to lose weight next week.

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