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Ending the Myth of Willpower and Weight Loss

Written by Ali Donahue
Ending the Myth of Willpower and Weight Loss

Quick Look

You can stop blaming yourself for trying to lose weight and failing to keep it off. When you stop believing the lie that weight loss depends on willpower, you can start the process that actually does lead to healthy weight loss.

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The Full Story

You’ve probably seen the discouraging statistics around weight loss. Sometimes we imagine them in a movie trailer voice for a Tom Cruise action flick.

95 percent of diets fail… and the weight comes back within 1 to 5 years!

50 percent of Americans try to lose weight... four times every year!

60 percent of American try to lose weight... by exercising more and eating less! But only 40 percent eat less junk food! (Little do they know... those strategies don’t work!)

At least imagining the stats like this makes us laugh, and laughter is good.

But there’s a sad, inaccurate, and unhelpful idea underneath these statistics. The idea? That the failure to lose weight is a failure of willpower.

Diet failed? You probably didn’t stick with it. The fork was in your hand. Trying to lose weight again with the latest “best diet for weight loss”? You better have willpower this time. Exercising more and eating less? That’s going to take a ton of willpower. No willpower? Then you’ll be a yo-yo dieter.

We are done with this idea. So we’re going to end it. Right now. Ready? 

Weight loss has nothing to do with willpower.

Once more, for the nosebleed seats.


Here’s why.

Weight loss is really complicated — and it’s not personal.

If willpower were truly the key to lose weight easily, we’d all be at whatever weight we want. The fact that half of our country tries and tries and tries to lose the weight for good every year is actually a testament to our willpower. We keep trying through terrible odds and unyielding obstacles. What’s that if not willpower?

How and what we eat is connected to our weight, of course. If we can change both of those things over time, we can lose weight.

But how and what we eat come from a bunch of different factors. 

  1. We’re in the habit of meeting emotional needs with food.

  2. We’re in the habit of eating more than we need to be nourished.

  3. There is often food around us all the time, everywhere, from gas stations to office vending machines to fast food drive-thrus. We live in a 24/7 buffet of sugar, flour, salt, and animal fats.

  4. Sugar, flour, and food additives in nutrient-poor, calorie-dense processed foods are incredibly addictive. They are made to make you want them every time you eat. And they contribute to weight gain. 

  5. Over time, these substances also affect our brain function. For example, dopamine, the feel-good hormone of our brain is activated by sugar, flour, and processed foods. However, dopamine's reaction to these simple substances is so intense, over time our brain tries to regulate the stimulation by making dopamine receptors less responsive. Suddenly you need more of a substance to get the desired uptick in mood effect. Eventually, you need a lot of sugar, flour, and processed foods just to feel normal. (And here comes the extra weight.) 

  6. Anytime you change what you eat, your body responds in significant ways. Say you stop eating flour and sugar.? Your brain isn’t used to making typical levels of dopamine, and you end up feeling depressed! And what do you do when you’re depressed? You eat! (See number 1.) 

Trying to lose weight with willpower under these circumstances is like trying to compete in an Olympic luge event without a sled, racing suit, track, or coach. And saying to yourself, “I can do it! I have WILLPOWER!”


How to lose weight with a healing approach

Yes, your willingness to persist matters. That’s the motivation to stick with the ups and downs of change. It matters a lot. That part is up to you. 

But here’s the wonderful part. When you approach weight loss in an informed, healing way, not in a punishing or depriving or brain science-oblivious way, it’s a heck of a lot easier to keep persisting, even when things go sideways. 

Healing weight loss looks like this. 

  • You eat foods that heal your brain and are healthy weight loss foods. Whole plant-based foods have consistently been shown to support healthy brain function and weight loss.

  • You make it easy for yourself to eat these foods.

  • You have guides and mentors who help you understand the science behind your ups and downs. (Sadness and anger are really normal in weight loss! It’s not just you.)

  • You have a plan for what to eat each day.

  • You make small changes using proven behavior design methods.

  • You have in-person or online support to solve problems and help you have compassion and acceptance for yourself.

  • You learn daily habits to shift old eating patterns when you’re triggered by emotions or routines.

  • You practice gratitude. Think of gratitude as nutrition for your mental health. (Stay tuned for a coming blog on how gratitude supports weight loss.)

  • You take it one day, one meal, at a time.

As for your willpower? Meh. Let it do a million sit-ups in the corner to keep itself busy. You’ve got wonderful food to eat, and a beautiful life to live, one day, one meal, at a time.

Key Takeaways

  • Most diets don’t work. They fail people. 

  • Willpower is not why diets fail and people regain lost weight.

  • Weight loss is connected to much bigger issues. It’s not personal.

  • A healing approach to weight loss gives you the food for healthy weight loss and for a healthy brain, the mindset tools, and the support to lose weight and keep it off. It’s a healthy weight loss diet.


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