What's Your Secret, Dr. Birdie? Willpower

By , SparkPeople Blogger

"You've lost over 100 pounds! What's your secret?"

I've heard that question countless times.  When I first lost the weight, my answer was always simple and the same: "diet and exercise."  Disappointed looks always followed and I would walk away thinking, "Why did I disappoint them? I was only trying to be honest and helpful!"  But, over time, I started to really think about how unsatisfying my answer must be to those who are serious about wanting to lose weight and change their lives.  I believe that everyone to some degree has an understanding that "diet and exercise" boils down to what we call here at SparkPeople "calories in vs. calories out."  I know that there are millions of people who are uninformed about how many calories they should consume in a day and even more if you throw in the concepts of nutrition and how to incorporate exercise into your daily lifestyle.  So, if the purely educational barriers are overcome, is this still enough for everyone to achieve long-term success?   

There will be a certain percentage of overweight people who, just by providing them with tools and accurate information about diet and exercise, will be able to successfully their reach weight loss and maintenance goals.  Kudos to them!  Unfortunately, I believe is that is a very small percentage and, to my dismay, I am not a member of that group.  You don’t end up weighing close to 300 pounds based solely on pure lack of knowledge about what it takes to create a calorie deficit!  Let me clarify to say that educating yourself about nutrition and exercise is important; what I am asserting is that knowledge of nutrition and exercise ALONE will not be effective for MOST of us to achieve our weight-loss goals.  This may be a bit shocking to hear, especially coming from someone who spends time and energy in the pursuit of educating people about "diet and exercise."  Knowledge about diet and exercise is the key to shedding weight and maintaining the lost pounds, but what I want to discuss today is how one places the key in the ignition to incite change and get excited about that knowledge.      

With these thoughts in mind I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on another concept that is widely associated with weight loss, willpower.  This is a core element that most believe to be paramount to the success of any weight-loss endeavor. 
What is willpower?  Willpower as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as "the power to control one's actions, impulses, or emotions." 

The ability to control one's actions and impulses!  That sounds exactly like what we need in vast quantity to lose and maintain our weight!  Those who have lost a significant amount of weight obviously had it in plentiful supply during their journey.  There are different paradigms that can be used to describe willpower.  Some believe that the amount you possess is predetermined at birth (like eye color).  Others believe that it resides in all of us whether we realize it or not and that we just need to learn how to tap into it.  The belief that that I am most fond of and interested in is that willpower is a resource that can be strengthened or squandered.  

Let's discuss a study that sheds light into what willpower is and take away some potentially helpful information that may help you on your quest to achieve weight loss and a permanent lifestyle change.  This study was not designed for the purpose of weight loss, but given that the whole science of weight loss and weight maintenance is incomplete at best I think it's OK to take a few liberties in order to try to understand why it's not easy to lose the weight and to keep it off.

One of my favorite willpower studies involves children and marshmallows, conducted in 1972 by Stanford University researcher Walter Mischel and colleagues.  
As a study into delayed gratification, researchers offered 4-year-old children a marshmallow.  The children were told that they could eat one now or have two marshmallows if they were able to wait for 15 minutes.  The scientists then put the kids alone in a room in front of the marshmallow and asked them to wait for 15 minutes to get a second one.  Not surprisingly, many of the little guys decided to have the one marshmallow early because the temptation was too great.  Inside the temptation room, some of the kids had almost no impulse control and decided to eat it immediately.  A few kids made it a few minutes only to cave in and eat the marshmallow early.   Thirty percent of the kids were able to look temptation in the face and make it the full 15 minutes.  What is interesting is that these "full 15 minute" kids were found, on follow up testing, to be more successful in areas such as SAT scores and social relationships.  I'm kind of thinking I would be in the "waited a few minutes, then gave in" group.  How about you? 

Here's the good news.  Mischel then wanted to know if the children were able to learn how to resist temptation.  The children were taught some mental tricks such as pretending the marshmallow is not real but only a picture of a cloud.  By using this imagery, many more kids were able to make the 15 minutes in order to get the prized second marshmallow.  Mischel concluded from his findings that "once you realize that willpower is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it."  Interesting, isn't it?  

How can we apply his research? This study is 40 years old and involves preschoolers, so it does not necessarily translate into what we are trying to accomplish here at SparkPeople, but I think that we can note that these findings in some ways mirror what we try to do when we attempt to modify our behavior while learning how to follow a healthy lifestyle.  I believe that it is extremely important to understand that willpower (the ability to control's ones actions, impulses, and emotions) is an extremely precious and valuable resource that can be eroded (through stress and temptation) or strengthened (through mental strategies like meditation or mental imagery, sparkteams, inspirational or success stories, etc.). 

Your ability to make permanent lifestyle changes will require that you solidify and maintain a supply of willpower because your long term success depends on it. 
Through my own experience I have found some things that erode my willpower (and cause me give up my second marshmallow!).  Among them:
  1. Stress in general.
  2. Keeping trigger foods in the home (100-calorie packs, sugary cereals, "low-calorie" desserts, cookies, chips, pizza, etc.). 
  3. Going certain places (bakeries, certain restaurants, birthday parties, etc.).
  4. Disorganization (I'm not a neat freak, but there is only so much mess I can tolerate).
  5. Procrastination.
These are just a few of the stressors in my life that can lead me to lose the ability to control my actions and impulses (erode my willpower).  I have spent quite a bit of time over the past few years coming up with solutions for every one of them.  How did I come up with my solutions?  Mostly through what many would describe as trial and error.  It probably took me eating about 20 boxes of 100-calorie snack packs in one sitting before I finally decided once and for all that they completely destroy my willpower and therefore they must not come back in to the home.  I could go on and on about the things that I have done to protect my willpower from erosion.  

I cannot claim that I haven't let my willpower reserves come close to or hit empty.  But, when that happens I try to use a few of these strategies to start getting it filled up again.  Through my own experience, I have found things that increase my willpower:
  1. My husband. He's an incredible troubleshooter! He always has a great solution to share!
  2. My family.  But, they can be a source of stress and erosion as well!
  3. SparkTeams! Support is vital.
  4. Mental strategies like meditation, prayer or mental imagery.  I have not yet achieved competency at meditation, but I see the merit in it and continue to work on becoming more consistent in practicing the art. 
  5. Inspirational stories.  I love weight-loss success stories, but anything that inspires works!
Unfortunately, there are no definitive resources that tell us exactly how the science of willpower plays into weight loss and maintenance.  Much more attention needs to be spent on describing effective strategies to improve willpower and also strategies that teach us how to avoid losing it.

Today, if I'm approached and someone asks me, "What's your secret?"  My answer is usually something like, "Diet and exercise, BUT that is only a piece of the puzzle.  You must minimize your stress in order to keep your willpower and motivation high enough to achieve the consistency that is required to reach your goals."  That's a lot wordier than "diet and exercise" yet it may still be unsatisfactory.   Why?  It has to do with the fact that losing weight and maintaining weight loss is a multifactorial endeavor that is not easily accomplished.  But, I believe that here at SparkPeople we have the tools that will enable you to not only master the diet and exercise piece of the puzzle but also work on other factors such as building and protecting your willpower.   Stick with us and you can and will find your way to success!

Never give up and keep sparking everyone!

What are some of the things that you have found that strengthen or erode your willpower?  What are some of the strategies that you have found through trial and error? 

Dr. Birdie Varnedore, M.D., is happy to offer her expertise to the SparkPeople community; however, she cannot offer specific medical advice to dailySpark readers. Please do not share confidential medical information here. If you have a personal question or a concern about your health, please contact your health-care provider.

Would you have eaten the marshmallow?

Click here to to redeem your SparkPoints
  You will earn 5 SparkPoints


KOALA_BEAR 12/17/2019
For me stress is a huge issue & as I got older, my reserves of strength - mentally & physically - weakened. Once I retired I made a commitment to get back to a healthy weight but not under a time constraint, that's just more pressure. I have lost 30 lbs & have more to go but I am on hiatus. Still tracking & maintaining until my hubby & I get relocated is the best I can do. I'm learning that decluttering not only my house & possessions plus reviewing my past life has been a helpful process as I revisit those memories. I've also been reconnecting w/ some people from my past & have intentions to reach out to many more.
Will power is important but being in the right frame of mind is more so. I'm stubborn so I can make this program work but first I have to care a lot & really feel it. As others have noted, emotions matter. I tend to operate on a logical level yet even for me, it's what lies underneath deep in our psyche at the gut level that counts. It must be satisfied or at the very least, recognized & acknowledged by some action or conscious gesture otherwise the food plan & activity schedule go right out the window. I think that's why stress is such a big issue as it interrupts that process & procrastination does too; it's all connected.
Having a routine to follow & backup strategies do help tho you may feel like you're just spinning your wheels unless you can get to the root of it all. Meantime as per Nike, just do it. I am slow & steady & intent on getting & staying healthy & fitter than I am today & feeling good. Like good art, I'll know it when I see (& feel) it. Report
CECELW 11/24/2019
I have heard of people losing 100 lbs before. That is just amazing. That's the equivalent of a human being! amazing! Report
thanks Report
Thank you. Great article. Report
Most people aren't satisfied with the answer because they want a magic bullet. They don't want to put in the work it requires to loose weight. I was a yo yo dieter for years. I finally was able to loose weight and keep it off when I realized that MY DRUG OF CHOICE WAS FOOD. I treated food like other addicts treated drugs or alcohol. I could go all day and not eat if I was busy. Let me get home and start trying to relieve the stress and I would over eat on soda, chips, dip, ice cream, whatever as long as it was junk food. When I realized I was treating food the way my father treated alcohol I was finally able to gain control. Doesn't mean I don't fall off the wagon sometimes but I realized I come from addictive people and my drug was food. The first step to weight loss is to figure out why you over eat. Then find a way to solve that then the calories in calories out will work. Report
Thank you. Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
I only eat burned marshmallows. T Report
Excellent Report
I am learning on my 3rd time around and as I reach the land and life of Maintenance, that Willpower IS a factor for me. I have LOST 11 pounds on the 2018 5% Summer Challenge [that was my 5% =-10.8 lbs plus more!] for 9 weeks and now on the 5% Fall Challenge another -1.6 lbs. in 3 weeks with just clean eating and food portion control + tracking everything! My willpower consists of writing Post-its on my FRIDGE of how MUCH I have LOST ,gently REMINDING me to watch my intake of food , increasing my FRUIT intake while DECREASING my BREAD and ICE CREAM INTAKE. Lastly, seeing my cute OUTFITS DAILY that I want to get back into HELPS ALOT as a part of my visualization to achievement . And it IS HAPPENING! ~Already I am DOWN 1 PANTS SIZE and back into my jeans, and a few of my outfits!!!! I am -5.8 lbs. from my GOAL WEIGHT! I will get there because I am WILLING TO WORK HARD ENOUGH to get it and to STAY THERE through SUSTAINING HARD WORK! Do NOT underestimate WILLPOWER! It CAN get you where you want to be if you EXERCISE that muscle of Willpower each day.Make one healthy choice.Then, make another . Report
I would not have made it to the few minutes mark. As soon as the door shut that marshmallow would be history! Fortunately I must have gained some sort of self control but not about all foods.

Trigger foods kind of melt any self control away. If my diet and exercise buddy leaves for parts unknown I really have to watch myself. I weigh daily now and that helps keep me in check to some degree.

I have been in maintenance for 8 years now so something has been working.

I loved Dr. Birdie's article! Report
Very interesting article. Another topic (and related to willpower) is gluttony: definition-excess in eating or drinking AND greedy or excessive indulgence...related to avarice.
This is a spiritual issue as well as a self-control issue. It would be interesting to study the gluttony issue in American adults in regards not just to food but to material things as well....is the food factor and material factor related somehow. Gluttony can manifest itself in so many ways.....not just food. Report
Willpower eroders is a great term. I intend to keep it in my vocabulary. Mine include baking & after dinner boredom. This article have me a lot to think about. Report
Nice in sight! Report
Thank you for giving me so much to think about. Human beings are complex and individual. Along with will power, we have to find a plan that works for our own body. Since we are all different, what works for one may not work for someone else. Report
This is a mind expanding article that offers the real possibility of change in lifestyle. If it's to be, it's up to me is a quote that resonates with the article.
Thank you for eye opening information. Report
This article really rang true to me and I enjoyed reading it, Thank you! Simply reading the definition of "will power" did it for me. And the listing of the "will power eroders" really makes sense. I plan to try and look at my habits and what erodes my will power and work from there. Meanwhile, I will remind myself of the simple definition of "Will Power" as to not forget that I already have it! Thank you so much for this article- it was great. Report
Willpower? This is so true. I am working on it. It was great reading about it and receiving tips on how to defeat those sources of erosion. Report
The one thing I do right now to keep my willpower strong is not keep certain treats in my home. I believe in allowing myself some little goodies in moderation, but there are some things for which the word "moderation" refuses to apply...like Twizzlers and Girl Scout cookies. (I avoid those things like the plague!) There is no such thing as a 2-cookie serving of GS Samoas! Out of sight usually means out of mind for me.

I'm working on the willpower to consistently exercise. I've been trying to talk myself into going to the gym after work since I got to work this morning. I don't know if the pep talks have been working...we'll see in about 2 1/2 hours!
Very helpful blog!
Thanks for all the insights. I find that stress and disorganization definitely hinder my weight loss efforts and meditation and prayer keep me motivated and focused.
As for that marshmallow study - I often wonder whether the kids who were able to wait so long were terribly fond of marshmallows. It may very well be that this was not that much of a temptation for them. COntrary to popular opinion, marshmallows are not the treat of choice for some people. Report
For me willpower is kind of like the explosive strength you can attain by weight lifting. It can get me over short-term humps, but unless I engineer my life to ease me past the moments of weakness, it is not enough. I can train to lift heavier and a bit longer, but I certainly can't hold the barbell up there indefinitely.

I recently wrote a blog post about all the strategies I've come up with to minimize binge triggers, probably similar to your list of individual solutions for stressors.


And yeah, when people ask me how I did it, I give the same answer, "diet and exercise" and I smile when they roll their eyes. Report
Great article.
I think there is more to getting healthy/fit then diet, exercise and even willpower. I think your mental state/emotions are the biggest part and is often why a lot of us are here in the first place.
I think part of the reason people get disappointed when they hear the "diet and exercise" response is that it takes away the ability to make excuses why they can't lose weight themselves. I've been on both sides, and I always though it took some special diet, pill, surgery, training regimen, etc. That's definitely not the case, and I can proudly say now that I've lost 120 lbs by eating less and moving more. That's it! No supplements or detoxes or any other myriad of things that make up a multi-billion dollar diet industry.

What's very funny is that even my own husband has (seriously) asked me the "What's your secret?" question, as if he weren't with me every step of the way. I guess that radical of a transformation still seems pretty unbelievable. Report
@ SEAJESS - That was funny! Thanks for the laugh!!! Report
I don't know what I would have done as a kid. But I never really liked marshmallows unless they were a part of s'mores. So I might have not cared either way! Report
Ah, but see maybe those kids who ate the first one knowing they wouldn't get a second one, were just practicing portion control..."just a small bit" of something you like, right? That's still tough for me even if I am eating the right things...portion distortion...:-) Report
I can certainly resist temptation when I am organized, uncluttered and in control of my environment. It falls apart when any of those things do, and that's my challenge these days.

I'm not sure I agree with the example given, though. It's easier for me to resist a piece of chocolate, say, if I know I can have two pieces in 15 minutes. It's resisting the chocolate altogether that's the challenge because, for me, one piece isn't enough!

I'm also enjoying the insight and reading references that Sparkers are sharing -- a few more tools to look into! Report
Planning ahead makes sense to me. I was told I would most likely never lose weight because I ate so little. We were poor but I never felt hungry. I was sent to a prestigous Med Center and was told to live with my weight I was the healthiest patient there. I have been able to lose almost 50 pounds . I have been doing the same things, Food and lots of exercise. I am now 68 years young and I wonder if I will lose the 5 pounds I need to lose to be classified as over weight instead of obese. Plateau is now 15 months I guess I am stuck in maintenance mode now. Thanks for the great BLOG Pat in Maine. Report
I would have eaten the marshmallow but not for the same reason the kids did. I would have waited awhile first, to see if I REALLY wanted it, then I would have eaten it because I certainly don't need a second marshmallow. And it has taken me a LONG time to get to this point! =) Report
A more realistic approach to losing weight.
Since becoming a mum and later a grannyo and also a foster carer I have always kept myself educated on diet and nutrition issues and also the benefit of exercise. It is ensuring I USE the knowledge for MYSELF that I struggle with Report
A good article except for the one about not going to birthdays parties, bakeries and certain restaurants, It's easy to learn self control if you avoid triggers, but are you learning self control? Preparing for these occasions would be a better solution. Just my thoughts. Report
Great article and insight. One of the biggest strategies that has helped me is learning to plan ahead, whether it's for how to handle situations I know I will have problems with (like parties and potlucks) or eating out (finding out as much as I can about the menu and nutrition). It's helped me stress less and stay in better control overall; life is going to happen, the unexpected will crop up, but the better I get at thinking ahead and having an action plan in place, the easier it is to handle the unexpected successfully. I've learned to take my "failures" and turn them into lessons so I do better the next time, too. Report
This blog is exactly what I need, thank you. Report
One of the best blogs I've read lately. Thank you! Report
Thanks for the operational definition of willpower and the pointers to learning how to improve it. Reminds me of the Jeff Galloway running programs. I'm training for a half marathon and a large part of the training is learning mental tricks to overcome the resistant part of the mind. Maybe I'll use the marshmallow cloud trick to persuade myself that running in the rain and wind is gong to the spa... Report
This article is insightful and timely. I've been having trouble staying focused this week, both with calories and calories out! While at the high-end of allowable calories, I just can't seem to get myself motivated to go to the gym OR exercise at home. I know full well the outcome of this situation. Thank you for helping me filter through, and leave with the tools I need to get back on track. Report
I really appreciated this article. I find one of the things that helps me the most may seem a bit warped, but it is anger. I see these things all around me that tempt me and have to come to grips with the fact that these are the things that made me fat in the first place. I have come to realize that I can eat anything I want but I have to decide DO I WANT TO? Do I want what it did to me before. One question that I have to keep in the forefront of my mind is "who's in charge here?" Is it me or will it be that delicious bag of BBQ chips or my friends urging me to eat "just this time". I DON'T want to go back to where I was before. It was WAY too hard getting here. That piece of cake is not worth the cost to me. Report
Do not like marshmellows so I would not have eaten any of them Report
There's a new book on Willpower that ties it to glucose levels, which makes resisting temptation even more complicated for dieters.
I think if I was 4 years old it would have been hard. As a teenager it would have been easy. When I developed a nut allergy it helped wean me off sweets & treats in a big way. So many had that "may contain" warning that I just avoided them and I started to stretch out the treat foods I could have because I would get sick of the same stuff if eaten too often. Nut allergy is better but I still have the habit. When I buy those 100 calorie treats it's for work/school lunches. I don't eat them when I'm at home. I'm weird eh? Report
Great article! My willpower to resist unhealthy foods is not always strong, but it's stronger when I am more motivated to lose weight and be healthy. So when I make up my mind that I'm going to eat healthier and I set a goal, and I'm really motivated, then I have more willpower to resist the temptation of sugary and starchy junk foods.
When I was young I never had to worry about my weight because I was always thin, and I had to develop the willpower over the years as I gained weight and got a sedentary job. Report
So many excellent comments! One thing that helps me tremendously is something I learned from here...make my weight loss and maintenance needs public! When family, friends and colleagues have a watchful eye, making good choices is easier. Accountability is key for me! Report
Hmm...if I knew someone was watching and 'scoring' me, I'd probably be able to wait. Living alone, no one (but me) is watching, and I can talk myself into anything, sigh. Report
The ability to control my actions sounds so simple but is so difficult. Everyday I struggle and I am always looking for ways to overcome myself. Report
If I really think about something, I can engage my willpower and make the 'right' decisions. I grew up with a sister (one of four) who always wanted to find out what our Christmas presents were going to be before Dec. 25. I, for one, was only too happy to wait, and hated that she wanted to impose her impatience on me and spoil my surprise. My husband sometimes evidences this impatience too and is usually annoyed or impressed at my willpower. I am happy that I am one of those who would have waited the fifteen minutes for the second marshmallow - even though they're not one of my favorite treats.

Thanks for an interesting blog. Report
I am on my way! As I read the comments I just want to cry that I am making choices that seem like real lifestyle changes. Thank you Lori for sharing Sparkpeople,,,,,,it's working!,,,,, Report
15 minutes?!?! No wonder only 30% of the kids made it that long! For a child of that age it is a lifetime! I think that the results of that test have very little to do with will power, but rather the kids were dying of boredom! A mature adult would have a hard enough time having to sit and stare at a marshmallow for that long, imagine what it would feel like for a 4 year old child! In Australia, they only make them wait for 2 minutes. But anyway, for me motivation is far more important than willpower when it comes to weight loss and maintenance. I can be very strong willed one moment and extremely weak willed the next. I can say no to chocolate mud cake practically being forced down my throat by my sabotaging sister, but I always have problems with food sneaking (even though I can usually keep it under control) and I have gone on the occasional binge. But motivation is always constant. Motivation along with knowledge about the calorie content and the consequences of eating certain types of food (such as sodium swell) is what keeps me going and what influences my will power.


As for me eating the first marshmallow? I have no idea! I would be able to wait now (marshmallows aren't that great anyway. I would need a stronger incentive), but I don't know if I could at that age. I think I would have eaten it just out of boredom!!
I have found the concept of willpower misleading and unhelpful. I have found the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) approch, which uses a technique called 'urge surfing' much more helpful. This is also a very effective way of dealing with stress.

Otherwise, I also aim not to have particular foods in the house - it's much easier to not eat them if they are not easily accessible. Surfing the urges is much easier if we don't put ourselves in situations where they arise! Report
I truly appreciated this article, as it reflects the reality that most of us here live with, rather than the rather tiresome and glib advice handed down by many dietitians.
And although I was familiar with the study on willpower, I'll bet it was news to a lot of people! Thanks, Dr. V.

I've found that what reinforces my will power is either doing something I really, truly enjoy OR tackling something that gives me visible, immediate results such as completing an annoying project and checking it off my list, clearing files, pitching out clutter, etc. Just waiting 20 minutes doesn't cut it for me. Sitting down with a cup of tea, my feet up and a garden catalog does :)

JIBBIE, I agree - Gary Taubes book is intriguing, as is his earlier work, Good Calories, Bad Calories.
Being prepared is something I'm learning in every new situation when I'm confronted with food or exercise. I've resolved to always carry a water bottle in my car which helps me resist stopping at the fast food joint. I'm going to take edamame beans (unshelled) into my next movie because I know I can't resist the popcorn. I've stopped circling the parking lot for a close spot and just park and walk. It's an every day learning that doesn't sink in without practice...weight loss is a journey Report