Diet myth #1: Willpower is all you need

Diet. Such an innocent word, that really just means “what you eat”, has become fraught with so much emotion, controversy and stigma. We all have a pretty good understanding of what “diet” has come to mean: to restrict, deprive, exclude or otherwise modify our daily food intake to reach a goal – usually to lose weight. But does dieting for weight loss really work? Are all the things we believe about weight loss dieting actually true? In this series I’ll be talking about some of the most common weight loss myths, and how they can hinder your weight-loss efforts.

Weight loss is a matter of willpower

Oh yes. We believe that in order to lose weight, we must be motivated, we must have willpower and we must persevere. This is what it takes. If we don’t have enough willpower to stick to our diet, our temptation will overcome us and we will fail.

Here’s the thing – willpower really only works for short-term struggles. You can use your willpower to achieve a difficult task, overcome physical pain or discomfort, or make it through the first day or two of a restrictive diet – but after that, willpower can’t really sustain most of us. There needs to be something else driving us, something to maintain that motivation. That’s why weight loss clinics promote the idea of regular group sessions, check-ins, weigh-ins etc to maintain a sense of accountability and motivation for their members – because they know without this, most people won’t persevere.

Willpower vs biology

There’s a big problem with this whole idea though – willpower, motivation, perseverance, discipline, whatever you try to use to maintain your adherence to a restrictive diet: you’re battling against your own biology, your instinct, your body to keep it up. As you reduce your calorie intake, your body automatically responds with some really helpful processes:

  1. It makes you think about food – like, all the time. If you’ve ever dieted, you’ll be pretty familiar with this. Thought you were going crazy? It’s just your normal human biology. Your body thinks you’ve entered a period of food scarcity, and so as a protective mechanism, it’s making food a central priority. You’ll be more conscious of food, more tempted by images of food, and hungrier than usual. This is a perfectly normal, expected response – it’s your body’s way of making sure you get enough to eat!
  2. It slows your metabolism down and starts being more efficient with the energy it gleans from your food – so you’re effectively getting more energy from your food intake than you used to – plus, in this thrifty mode, more of your caloric intake will be destined to be converted to fat, to start preparing for the imminent worsening of the food shortage (this is what evolution has taught our metabolism – if the food supply starts slowing down, chances are things will get worse before they get better).

So you can probably see that when you’re working against these factors, willpower alone is never going to stand a chance against the inherent brilliance of your body.

Which brings us to another, closely related myth about dieting:

Failure to lose weight (or keep it off) is a PERSONAL failure

i.e. it means you are weak, unmotivated, lack willpower etc… see above! So what is wrong with this statement? Let’s consider a couple of facts:

  • The most reliable method to GAIN weight, scientifically speaking, is to go on a diet. Yep, going on a weight-loss diet is the surest way to predict if a person will gain weight. So are we just a race of failures? Or is something more going on here?
  • The diet industry BENEFITS if its programs & products don’t work. People keep on coming back, trying something else, persevering – and the industry keeps on making money.

So if it’s not us that’s failing at the diets, could it be that the diets are failing us? We’ve already seen that we are basically fighting against our biology when we restrict our food intake to lose weight, so we know that there’s a fundamental flaw in the idea of weight-loss dieting. And on top of this, the sense of personal failure that comes with dieting unsuccessfully or dieting and then regaining weight, is significantly damaging. You only have to go through this a few times to feel really crappy about yourself, and to start attaching a great amount of importance to how you look, the food that you eat, and how your self-esteem is tied up in this.

And yet we keep getting this message that we need to diet in order to look good, feel good, be healthy, be likeable, be worthy, be socially acceptable. So we keep doing it and we keep failing.

Perhaps it’s time we started realising that the failure is not ours? That it might be time to start looking for a new approach?

Non-Diet approaches to health

There are a number of great resources available for exploring the ideas behind non-diet approaches to health. Here are a few for you to explore.

Dr Rick Kausman (“If Not Dieting”)

Health At Every Size (HAES)

Intuitive Eating (Evelyn Tribole & Elyse Resch)

I’d love to hear about your experiences & feedback – does this approach make sense to you? I love working with women to shift their focus from losing weight to gaining health – if you’d like to chat, or book an appointment, click click here and let’s get started!

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