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Finding the Fun in the Weight-Loss Journey

Why Willpower Alone Isn't Enough for Permanent Weight Loss

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This article is the first installment in a two-part series. Read Part Two here.

Today is the day you've decided that you want to lose some weight. Maybe this is the first time you've tried.  Maybe, like me and many others, you've lost weight in the past, only to regain those pounds (and maybe more) later. Maybe you're one of the thousands of people who has tried every new diet book when it hits the shelves, in hopes that this one really has found the secret to easy, permanent weight loss, as the cover claims.

I did that for a long time. I also got myself a couple of master's degrees, hoping to better understand why we humans do what we do and how we can take charge of our own behavior. I was determined to figure out how to finally win my own battles with overeating.

During that time, I got very good at losing weight. As near as I can estimate, I've lost around 340 pounds total in my lifetime. There was the 60 pounds I lost in my senior year of high school, the 80 pounds I lost in my late 20s when I decided it would be nice to get married and start a family, and the roughly 200 pounds I lost in my 50s. Now 67, I weigh 210—not exactly svelte, but it works for me, and my doctor thinks it's great.

During those periods of intensive weight loss, I called on many different diet plans. Some worked a little better than others, but most of them did work—as long as I was willing and able to devote a lot of time and effort to following the plan down to the last detail. If you're able to commit and don't mind having to do it over again if you stop dieting and regain the weight, then you can stop reading right here. Just pick a diet plan and see how it works until you find the one that works for you.

But if you were paying attention to those weight-loss numbers above, you might be wondering: How much did this guy weigh when he started? Is what he says really going to help if I don't have 340 pounds to lose?

That's really the point here. I've lost 340 pounds, but I started at 240 pounds 50 years ago and I'm at 215 now. I can't even begin to estimate how many hours I spent during those 50 years worrying about my weight. Consider this: Of those 340 lost pounds, 315 were pounds I regained after losing weight with one diet plan or another. Along the way, my weight even got all the way up to 400 pounds, despite my best efforts. This is really what the experts mean when they say "diets don't work." If you've got enough determination to stick to it, almost any diet plan will help you lose some weight. It's that "sticking to it" part that's difficult, and it's even more difficult to keep the weight off after you stop dieting.

Dieting as a Dead End

Evidence shows that the large majority of people who go on diets encounter these realities, not just the "weak-willed" or people who have struggled with emotional eating and other problems. The fact is that the more restrictive the plan, the less likely it is to stick. Most people blame themselves for this. They assume they aren't motivated enough or don't have enough willpower.

Increasingly, though, scientific evidence is telling us that's not the problem. The biggest problem is that we simply aren't designed to handle chronic deprivation; we're designed to eat when we get the chance, and to eat what we like. This design worked well when people had to chase down their dinners or trek miles to find something edible. Back then, it was important to eat high-energy foods because it could be a while before you ate again. Those who survived and passed their genes on to us were those who had a strong sweet tooth, a preference for fatty, rich foods, and the ability to store quite a bit of fuel in their fat cells. But now, we live in a world where there's no need to get up and chase down dinner, and those evolved preferences of ours can easily get us into trouble.

With thousands of calories just a few steps away in the kitchen, now the problem is figuring out how to keep from eating too much. In her book "Secrets from the Eating Lab," Dr. Traci Mann, a professor of social and health psychology and director of The Mann Lab at the University of Minnesota, presents evidence showing how and why willpower alone isn’t usually enough to help everyone manage this mismatch between their current food environment and their innate preferences without becoming overweight.

When it comes to food and eating, willpower doesn't work like a muscle, which is to say it doesn't get stronger the more it is put to use. Mann's research shows that, while it's great for getting you out of bed in the morning when you'd rather not, willpower alone is not very effective when it comes to making good decisions over and over again when faced with temptations and distractions. It's no coincidence that so many of us start off the day with a good breakfast and intentions to eat well all day, only to find ourselves watching TV at night with a bag of chips in hand.
 
She goes on to describe how just "going on a diet" can itself be the cause of physiological and psychological reactions that actually work against losing body fat. For example, the stress people experience when they deprive themselves too much, or get upset because they ate too many calories or didn't lose their two pounds this week, can cause an increase of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood stream, which promotes fat storage. In fact, according to her research, as many as 50 percent of dieters eventually end up weighing more than they did before they started dieting to lose weight.

Waging a War Within?

So the question becomes: How do we avoid these problems associated with going on a diet while also losing weight? How do we win when we're constantly at war with our own innate preferences and psychology?

When you go on a diet, suddenly everything is about the calories in and out, nutrient ratios, the number you see on the scale, or the numbers you see on your exercise tracker. As Mann explains, this sort of preoccupation with "dieting" simply makes it harder to control your eating because it dilutes your willpower and your ability to focus on the choice in front of you at the moment. At the same time, eating a perfectly healthy food or meal can become a source of distress just because it has a couple hundred extra calories in it. A relaxing walk that could help you de-stress when you need to won’t appeal to you because it doesn’t burn enough calories. And seeing a bad number on the scale can send your stress level through the roof and your motivation down to the basement.

But that anxiety is not reality—it's just what happens to your mind when you're on a diet. There is no reason why a bad number on your food tracker or on some little box you stand on every morning has to be so upsetting that it sends your body into fat storage mode. Rather, your goal should be to create a healthy eating and exercise plan that you can live with long-term, making adjustments in your calorie intake as needed to accomplish your weight-loss goals along the way.

Learning to enjoy the journey is one big step in the right direction. It should come as no surprise that it is much easier for us to get ourselves to do something we truly want to do, even if it involves a little unpleasantness or difficulty, than it is to get ourselves not to do something we want to do—especially eating. Willpower is much stronger and more durable when it’s focused on something you want to accomplish. But, you have to pick those goals carefully. You may want to lose weight, but the problem with this is that losing weight isn’t something you can actually will yourself to do. It’s something that happens when you do other things. You don’t eat calories; you eat food. You don’t burn calories; you engage in certain activities that use up fuel.

If you want to lose weight and keep it off, remember this: The fun doesn't start after you lose the weight. Weight loss happens when you start having some fun with your eating and exercise. If your diet is made up mostly of low-calorie foods you don't really like, or wouldn't choose to eat if you didn't need to lose weight, it's probably not realistic for the long-term. Even if you manage to stick with it, you're likely to regain whatever weight you lose and then some when you go back to "normal" eating. The same logic applies to your fitness routine. If you don't like what you do for exercise enough to do it for its own sake, even when you don't need to burn extra calories, you won't stick with that, either.

Count calories and nutrients if it helps with healthier food choices and keeps your energy intake where it needs to be to accomplish your weight loss goals. But pick your foods and your activities because you enjoy them, they're good for you and you want them in your life. That's the secret to success.

In Part Two of this article series, discover specific ideas and strategies that make it easier to actually enjoy what you need to do to lose weight and keep it off.

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About The Author

Dean Anderson Dean Anderson
Dean Anderson has master's degrees in human services (behavioral psychology/stress management) and liberal studies. His interest in healthy living began at the age of 50 when he confronted his own morbid obesity and health issues. He joined SparkPeople and lost 150 pounds and regained his health. Dean has earned a personal training certification from ACE and received training as a lifestyle and weight management consultant. See all of Dean's articles.