Common wisdom tells us that willpower is key in losing weight. That there’s only one way to succeed, you need to set your mind to it and fully commit: clean food, calorie restriction, exercise and healthy lifestyle.
If you don’t have the mental strength to do it, you’re doomed to fail. End of the story.
However, the concept of willpower in diet has been the subject of much criticism. Researchers have long rejected the idea that there’s some innate force that will keep you from resisting bad habits1.
To attribute dieting success or failure just to willpower - researchers say - is a simplification that ignores details of the numerous mechanisms in play behind a successful weight loss program.
Believing that only willpower can do the magic trick entails a further risk. If you assume that it’s just a matter of mental strength, you can feel less in control of your eating habits and conclude that, if it’s not your DNA, there’s nothing you can do about it.
That’s not it though. The success of dieting is made by the sum of several behavioral changes. Willpower is one of them but it’s not the only one. There’s the interaction of brain chemicals, behavioral conditioning, hormones, heredity and the influence of habits. All these factors are part of the diet equation2.
A recent study takes the argument further, and suggests that even if you have a bulletproof willpower you won’t actually need it to succeed.
It was found that the most effective way to beat temptations is to avoid facing them in the first place3. Precommitment, (i.e., the ability of preventing oneself from encountering temptation) is an effective self-control strategy; much more than willpower alone.
In other words, avoiding temptation all along increases the chances of success in dieting.
This means that all your focus should be on precommitment. Plan ahead, and don’t find yourself in a position where you need to rely just on your mental strength.
For instance, don’t put into your shopping cart jars of Nutella, cans of Pringles, packs of Chips Ahoy! or bags of Sour brite crawlers thinking “They’re not for me, I’m just planning on offering them when I have people over!”
Precommitment dictates that it’s better to leave those items on the grocery store shelves. If they end up in your kitchen cabinet “tragedy” may eventually occur. You’ll know they’re there, and if and when you’ll experience a down moment then you might find yourself in deep (deep in the Nutella jar, of course).
Even if you’re resolute as a general in a battlefield slaughtering his enemy's army, don’t trust yourself and precommit instead of just relying on your willpower.