If you think saying ‘no’ to that chocolate cake is the only thing standing between you and shedding those last few pounds, you’re in good company: Surveys show most people identify a lack of willpower as the biggest obstacle in weight loss. But for as much as we toss the term around, does willpower really make or break our journey to a healthier lifestyle? The answer isn’t so black and white.
“When people think of willpower, they define it as denying themselves something they really want, but for whatever reason think they shouldn’t have,” says certified health coach Anna Dupree. But that approach can be problematic. Research shows that relying too much on willpower can backfire pretty easily, as the more you restrict yourself from certain foods, the more likely you are to crave them. So when you finally meet your temptation face-to-face—say at a happy hour or birthday party—you’ll end up eating three slices of cake instead of feeling satisfied with one.
“It’s not empowering and it’s not inspiring [to focus on willpower alone],” says Keri Glassman, M.S., R.D., C.D.N., founder of Nutritious Life. “It doesn’t help in the long run because when you don’t change your mindset, you just force yourself to do something, and eventually you wear out.”
Thinking things like I can’t ever eat a slice of pizza, or I won’t lose weight if I eat those chips, has the potential to destroy your relationship with food. It can also trigger a pattern of restrictive eating, which has been known to lead to certain eating disorders.
Plus, you use willpower in so many other moments throughout the day—like during your morning commute (you want to scream at the top of your lungs, but you know you shouldn’t) and in meetings at work (you want to tell your co-worker to pipe down, but you know you can’t)—that your mental muscle is often exhausted by the time you get home, making healthy food choices more difficult to stick to. And research shows that stress, insufficient sleep, and weight loss all increase your production of hunger hormones, making it physically harder to resist your favorite foods.
One review published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics points out that science has yet to answer whether it’s even physically possible to constantly suppress the urge to eat tempting foods. After all, your brain’s reward system (yes, the one that’s linked to sex, gambling, and substance abuse) plays a big role in food decisions, and it’s not exactly easy to fight.
And even after all that effort, willpower doesn’t have as much of an impact on your waistline or health as you might think. “People’s willpower does not predict their weight,” says Traci Mann, Ph.D., professor of social and health psychology at the University of Minnesota and author of Secrets from the Eating Lab. “It doesn’t matter how good or bad your willpower is; it’s not enough.”
Research shows that your physical environment plays a larger role in making and sticking to healthy lifestyle changes than a split second of mental strength, says Mann. So keeping chips and cookies out of your house is more important than turning down that bagel at a morning meeting.
The bottom line: No health, fitness, or weight-loss goal should ever rely on willpower alone. Use the following three tips to make your health journey less about willpower—and more about a lifestyle. Not only will you reach your goals quicker, but you’ll actually enjoy getting there.
1. Find Your True Motivation
Both Glassman and Dupree agree: Losing weight or getting healthy is all about mindset. Focus on your true motivation for wanting to make healthy lifestyle changes—whether it’s to be able to keep up with your kids or quit feeling so darn tired all the time. “It has to be something you have a deep-down desire to do,” says Dupree. “Instead of thinking about what you can’t have, think about what you’re trading it for.” For instance, you’re trading packaged foods (which might tank you energy or lead to weight gain) for nutrient-rich whole foods that give you more energy and help you feel fuller for longer so you can go on more family outings.
2. Focus On Simple And Gradual Changes
Overhauling your routine overnight is bound to stress you out. Instead, slowly swap out foods you’d like to eat less of (like packaged cookies and snacks) for foods you’d like to eat more of (like apples and carrots). When you don’t completely restrict yourself from day one, you’re more likely to see the changes you make as positive.
3. Practice Self-Care
Even when you’ve got your mind right, eating healthy, exercising, and getting enough sleep can still be tough—especially if your schedule is jam-packed! But you’re more likely to keep up with healthy lifestyle changes if you still make time to do things you enjoy, says Dupree.
So swap that gym session for a fitness class you really love, turn off your phone to read after dinner, or make breakfast with your kids on the weekend. The more fulfilled you feel, the more motivated you’ll be.