Note: The information on this page is intended for informational use only. Do not use this post, or any other information on this site, to diagnose or treat any medical condition, or in lieu of professional medical advice from a certified personal physician. Always check with your doctor before undergoing any treatment or beginning any weight loss regimen.
Unless you’ve been living in a bubble occupied solely by hucksters and snake-oil salesmen, you’re aware of the fundamental truth that there are no magic bullets when it comes to losing weight. Weight loss, as we’ve said many times before, is about making permanent changes to your lifestyle: healthy eating, regular exercise, and a positive outlook.
Which is to say, losing weight is about willpower.
But willpower isn’t something people either have or lack, and this kind of thinking can often lead people to mistake setbacks or lapses of judgement as an irredeemable lack of personal willpower. This causes people to give up on a healthy lifestyle needlessly. Willpower, like anything else, is a skill that can be learned and honed over time, whether for weight loss or any other personal goal. But first you have to think about it the right way.
One of the first rigorous scientific studies was conducted in the 1960s by Walter Mischel. He and his team placed four-year-old children in a room, giving them a single marshmallow and telling them that if they waited fifteen minutes to eat it, they would be given as second one as well. Since any child knows that two marshmallows are better than one, their ability to wait for the second was taken as a sign of self-control. Some passed, some failed.
But it’s not as simple as some kids having an inherent ability to delay gratification: Participants were encouraged to think about either the “hot” or “cool” features of the marshmallows. Cool features were such as the marshmallows’ resemblance to other objects like pillows or clouds, or their shape and texture in general. Hot features included their taste and sweetness. Needless to say, children who focused on the cool features were better able to delay gratification and get the second marshmallow.
Psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, defines willpower as “the ability to do what you really want to do when part of you really doesn’t want to do it,” breaking it down into three conflicting elements:
Willpower comes from the ability, through mindfulness and self-care, to balance these three elements toward a greater purpose or goal. McGonigal notes that willpower is a personal resource that can be depleted or stretched too thin; just like a muscle gets worn out when it’s exercised, willpower can be weakened when it’s over-exerted (a concept otherwise known as “ego depletion”).
Finally, McGonigal teaches that self-control in humans is tied to group living, and that success or failure of willpower can spread within groups.
Looking at these different approaches to willpower, we can extract some meaningful lessons that can be applied to anyone’s weight loss journey.
If you’re tempted by junk food or and afternoon on the couch instead of at the gym, bolster your self-control by focusing on “cool” features like the children in the Marshmallow Test. Rather than the saltiness or taste of the junk food, try to think about what the recipe must be, or remember a previous time when you had a similar food and the situation surrounding that time. Instead of thinking about how comfortable your sofa is, remember that there’s not really anything that you want to watch on TV anyway. Keep your mind off of what’s tempting about what’s tempting, in other words.
Willpower is something that can be depleted if it’s over-used. While you can’t avoid every situation in life that required some of your reserved willpower, you can make smart decisions to avoid as many as possible. If your friends invite you to dinner at an all-you-can-eat buffet and a movie, tell them you’ll meet them at the theater instead. If your normal route home from work is lined with fast food drive-thrus, consider take an alternate road with better scenery.
It’s also important to get enough rest and healthy food. It’s harder to practice self-control when you’re tired and hungry. Get plenty of sleep and eat regular healthy meals.
Your decisions are hugely influenced by the people you spend time with. Encourage your friends and family to make positive lifestyle changes with you, and the support and encouragement you all offer one another can be invaluable resource in your weight loss efforts.
If you’re in Connecticut and looking for a little extra help in losing weight, Medical Weight Loss Solutions in Wallingford offers personalized, medically-supervised weight loss programs for teens and adults.*