Willpower Is a Weight-Loss Scam That’s Fueling the Diet Industry
Ever noticed how the most popular diets, intermittent fasting and keto included, always talk about what you can’t eat instead of what you should eat more of? The same negative words are used over and over again: “portion control,” “cut out,” “eat less,” “eliminate,” “detox,” and “no.” Most of us have tried multiple times to “cut out” certain foods — only to flounder. Any weight loss is temporary, or worse, totally nonexistent.
The food and diet industry has the upper hand here. They decide what to restrict, but you get one special sliver of responsibility called willpower. As long as you have the strength to “cut out,” “eat less,” “eliminate,” and “detox” … you can look like Gwyneth Paltrow, too!
But here’s what the food and diet industry doesn’t want you to know: The term “willpower” as it relates to the food you eat is a myth — and it’s one that sets you up for weight-loss failure.
Whole30, for example, advises cutting sugar, alcohol, grains, legumes, and dairy out of your diet for 30 days. Banning large swaths of food and beverage categories sounds so extreme, it has to work, right? No. There is zero scientific research to support these arbitrary restrictions. For example, beans, lentils, and whole grains are some of the most nutritious foods you can eat!
The super popular keto diet requires getting 10% or less of your total calories per day from carbohydrates, which means cutting out some of the foods with the highest amount of water and dietary fiber, like most fruits, root vegetables, and beans. It’s an extreme technique designed to temporarily move the scale down a few pounds. Besides eliminating the joy associated with eating real food, you’re very likely going to have to make exceptions for higher-carb foods when you have less control over your environment, like during holidays, vacations, or work functions. This is when willpower-associated language leaves you feeling completely and utterly crappy. You’re “weak,” “lazy,” and left feeling as though weight loss and better health is impossible.
Willpower is a quick-fix solution that can occasionally get you past a hankering for brownies at 4 p.m., but diets that include restriction depend on a mythical idea of control that ignores basic human biology: The more we restrict, the more likely we are to fail. In fact, a 2017 review found that conventional commercial diets bear no relationship to long-term health and weight management. So why is that, exactly? So many factors play a role in what you’re eating, why you’re eating, and where you physically are when you’re eating.
Yet, the more we focus on restricting what we eat as a means to achieve a goal, the less we wind up actually prioritizing our physical and mental health. Since one diet or another has told us that we need to rely on trusty willpower, we’re primed to blame ourselves even though we’ve been set up to fail. This is what leads to a spiral into fear, isolation, and shame — feelings that prime us for depression, anxiety, and weight-cycling.
Our lives are not made up of meal plans, diets, and calorie counting — they’re made up of experiences that provide enrichment and fulfillment in a multitude of ways. A more holistic approach to better health starts with the way we talk (and think) about food as it impacts our health.
If you’re with me on this one, then let’s take some of these triggers head on, and replace them with better language instead.
Repeat after me: There’s no such thing as “willpower.” Making more nutritious food choices does not mean having hard and fast rules about the types of foods you eat. Indulging sometimes is 100% a part of eating in a healthful way. While moderation is yet another trope (it’s too subjective to define for everyone!) knowing how you feel before, during, and after eating can help guide your own standard. Think of foods that taste great (but don’t always make you feel that great) as foods you eat sometimes — not always and certainly not never.
Replace “rules” with choices. Being in the driver’s seat when it comes to the food you consume is not some sort of test you have to ace — this is your life! And you have to eat in order to live, am I right?! Remember that your state of health changes by making better, more nutritious food choices more often.
Instead of “good” and “bad,” use breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, and dessert. Attributing value to the food you eat and ultimately, the way you feel is giving food way too much power. Judging yourself is, frankly, the last thing we need these days. Forget about “good” or “bad” foods, and lose the concept of “cheating” entirely. You eat meals that make up the course of your day — no food in isolation can make or break your state of health.
Consider biology versus “I can’t stop eating…” Lack of willpower usually boils down to three major reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with a bag of potato chips or whatever else seems irresistible to you personally: you’re dehydrated, you’ve skipped or shortchanged a meal, or you’re not getting enough sleep. Address those first, and you’re in better shape to take on the rest of the day.
Instead of “moderation,” think about more. More is more when it comes to produce. Simply choosing more veggies at meals or snacks and more fruit whenever it’s available puts you on the right track to better health.
Remember that you are responsible for upholding your priorities. When something seems irresistible, or when someone attempts to coerce you into doing something that doesn’t feel beneficial to your physical or mental health, remind yourself that you have a choice. You have the option of absolutely eating that irresistible brownie and loving it. It’s also your choice to say no to said brownies (food pushing can be a form of baseless condescension, too). Don’t fall victim — it’s your choice when to enjoy the foods you love.
Ultimately, restriction has no place in our messy, hectic, everyday lives. Yes, you will overeat sometimes. Yes, you will eat sugar when you weren’t planning to eat dessert. Yes, you will sometimes skip breakfast and wind up hoarding donuts in your desk drawer. So what? No one is immune to the realities of everyday life. One meal or day will not derail your state of health. Every time you eat is another chance to practice making choices that build self-confidence in the role you play in your personal health. Remember that, and you’re on the right track.