Willpower.Â The word resurfaces from time to time from within the ocean of diet advice around us.Â Weâ€™re likely to feel its tug again soon, as an important new book calls willpower a muscle. That is, you can strengthen it with practice. And you can kill it with overexertion.
Years of research actually back these ideas.Â They obviously have a lot to say for those swimming through that diet advice.Â Willpower ‘muscle strength’ can indeed spell diet success or failure.Â As with a gym routine, many of us struggle to start and stick to it.Â However, even those who flex their muscles well in other situations can find themselves suddenly weak when it comes to food.Â How does the muscle metaphor translate to weight loss and diets?
The book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, draws on Dr. Baumeisterâ€™s decades of self-control research.Â The benefits of self-control have been well-documented.Â And studies have established that practice indeed bolsters self-control.Â Baumeisterâ€™s work goes farther, finding that self-control can flag when people are fatigued and stressed.Â And, importantly, this applies to the fatigue and stress of working to control oneself as well.Â This all strengthens the case against restrictive dieting, and for our efforts to change habits in small, persistent ways.
It can be hard to see, though, how this applies to thoseâ€”many–who say â€œIt feels like a force comes over me,” as they head for the brownies.Â â€œI just wasnâ€™t thinking,â€ as they hit Burger King; â€œI knew I was doing it but didnâ€™t care,â€ as they demolish the Doritos.
Further, whatâ€™s happening when a personâ€™s done well for months, then suddenly finds herself slipping back, regaining every lost pound?
Eating habits challenge willpower muscle-building in multiple, daunting ways.Â For starters, â€œyou can quit smoking or drinking altogether, but you always have to eat”Â asÂ many chronic overeaters point out.Â In other words, eating itself prods the desire for more.Â Once youâ€™re used to eating certain amounts, youâ€™ll be hungry â€˜til you get that amount, at least at first.Â And in the struggle to exert your willpower, hunger has an unfair advantage.Â So: overeating tweaks more hunger.Â On top of that, certain foods will themselves urge you to gorge.
Specifically, once youâ€™ve gotten used to foods â€œengineered to be ‘hyperpalatable*,’ you will want much more.Â Some of us experience a drive for these thatâ€™s as strong as an addictâ€™s for drugs.Â This includes most junk foods and fast foods, many canned or packaged supermarket foods, as well as chain restaurant food.Â In effect, these hard-to-control foods surround us as completely as that diet advice sea.
Itâ€™s as if weâ€™ve got to do twice the work to build muscle that should tone up with practice. Â A further complication can exist outside of our awareness, too. Say youâ€™ve built the muscle, as the person whoâ€™s followed a better diet for months.
Sheâ€™s gotten â€œcleanâ€ of junk food.Â Itâ€™s possible the muscle simply isnâ€™t strong enough yet.Â But itâ€™s also possibleâ€”and hereâ€™s a real complication when it comes to weight–that something about being thinner and in control feels uncomfortable.Â A personâ€™s self-image, perhaps as fat, perhaps as helpless over appetite, can feel ingrained and somehow â€œright.”Â Changing it feels unsettling.Â It builds anxiety if left unexamined. â€œI canâ€™t explain why, but it just feels like itâ€™s not for me,â€ one client noted recently.
Paying attention to how change feels can help.Â So can some of the ideas offered by Baumeister on how to build willpower.Â So too can some of the coping skills offered in self-help books and in therapy.Â Itâ€™s not that the willpower muscle canâ€™t build for healthier eating and weight.Â It just may take more time, effort, support, or self-awareness.
References and notes
- Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney, The Penguin Press, 2011
- *see The End of Overeating, by David Kessler, Rodale Press, 2009
- for self-control building tools, also see Eat Sanely: Get Off the Diet Roller Coaster for Good, by Terese Weinstein Katz, Ph.D., www.eatsanely.com