Stop Using Willpower to Lose Weight, It Never Works

Willpower and weightloss


Could having more willpower help you achieve your weight loss goals? A common misperception is that people who eat too much and gain weight lack willpower. The thinking is that if they only had a little more self-control, the weight would come off and stay off. If someone can’t stick to a healthy diet, they must lack willpower. People mistakenly believe that willpower alone is enough to keep them on the right track. It isn’t. In fact, studies show that relying on willpower alone is a poor way to achieve weight loss goals.

If you have ever tried to lose weight or maintain your ideal weight after reaching it, you know how challenging it can be. All around you are occasions where the focus is on eating – weddings, parties, family get-togethers, and holidays. They all feature food and lots of it. The key to resisting these temptations, or so they say, is to have willpower.

What is willpower, anyway? The dictionary definition of willpower is to “exert control” or “resist impulses.” It also means delaying gratification for a future goal, in this case, weight loss. That’s a tall task! The human body is a complex system with hormones and brain chemicals that affect everything from your appetite and metabolism to your mood. You must have an exceptionally strong mind and will to control such a complex system and few people have that all the time. Even the best mind control can’t always overcome the staggering power of appetite hormones out of control.

Your Supply of Willpower is Limited

As it turns out, willpower may be in limited supply. According to Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, authors of the book Willpower, after you exert willpower many times during the day, it depletes the ability to do so again. In one experiment, researchers asked subjects to make a series of choices involving delayed gratification (choose between getting $25 now, or $45 in a week).

In another experiment, they asked the subjects to control their emotions by doing another task called a Stroop task. The participants who did these tasks showed less persistence on subsequent tests that required more willpower. It seems we have a finite amount of willpower, and it runs low when you’re forced to use it too much.

So, if you tap into willpower too often, your willpower reserves run out. With so many temptations to indulge in any given day, it’s not surprising that people’s willpower batteries run down, and they throw caution to the wind and eat whatever strikes their fancy. They’re simply tired of controlling their impulses. What happens then? They feel guilty. Plus, they didn’t move toward learning to eat healthier. Eating begins to take on a negative connotation, and that’s dangerous! The key is to eat the right stuff rather than making food the enemy.

Can You Recharge Your Willpower Battery?

This study suggests there’s a limit to how much willpower the average person can generate at one time. Having to exert willpower too many times, depletes it and leads to a sense of frustration.  But is there a way to recharge your willpower battery?

According to some studies, exercise helps replenish willpower reserves. A study found that people who exercise have higher reserves of willpower, and hence better able to resist temptations. In the study, one group rode a stationary bike for 45 minutes, and another group rested for the same amount of time.

Researchers then offered the subjects a choice of snacks. Researchers offered one group chocolate chip cookies and the other fruit. It’s worth noting that this study didn’t measure actual willpower, but how people made choices. The results showed that people who had exercised were more likely to choose fruit over cookies. Exercise is a healthy habit and one that everyone needs, but it wouldn’t be healthy to overdo it to boost willpower reserves. Yet research shows people who work out make healthier food choices than those who don’t.

Some research also shows that sleep deprivation reduces willpower while getting enough high-quality sleep replenishes it. At the very least, lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep causes people to make less healthy food choices. Lack of sleep also stimulates appetite hormones, like ghrelin, that increase cravings for comfort foods and sugary items. The lack of willpower and a surge in appetite hormones is a bad combination for your waistline.

Is There a Better Approach to Losing Weight?

What can you learn from this research? Willpower will only take you so far and you have limited supplies of it. Don’t force yourself to resist something decadent and unhealthy. Instead, choose healthier substitutes, foods that you enjoy and that are better for you but still offer pleasure. Find recipes that feature healthier foods that still make you feel good.

Take small steps so that changing how you eat isn’t so daunting. Don’t try to give up all sugar and refined carbohydrates in a day or even a week. Cut back slowly. Make small substitutions, like replacing a refined carbohydrate or starch with a vegetable one week. Once you have that under your belt, replace the sugar beverages you drink with water or unsweetened tea.

Don’t try to make major strides overnight. Let each habit take hold and become part of your life. Then, make another tiny change. You don’t need major willpower to make small changes and stick with them, and the small habits you adopt are more sustainable. Plus, you learn healthier approaches to eating and weight control.

The Bottom Line

Don’t depend on willpower but take small sustainable steps towards changing your eating habits and losing weight. Make your goals small enough so they don’t require major feats of willpower and make sure they fit into your lifestyle.  It’s an approach you can live with for the long term, and you won’t need to depend on that pesky thing called willpower anymore to control your weight.


  • The New York Times. “Scientists Unmask Diet Myth: Willpower”
  • “Weight Regain May Not Be Due to Lack of Willpower.” 26 Oct. 2011, webmd.com/diet/news/20111026/weight-regain-may-not-be-due-to-lack-of-willpower.
  • Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister, John Tierney

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