Willpower and Dieting

When ‘willpower’ came easy

This content is taken from Chapter 2 of Gut Feeling

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From a personal perspective, I have had long periods when ‘willpower’ has been really tough but also had periods when ‘willpower’ – in terms of eating – has come easy. There were two particular periods of a few months, after knee operations, when my appetite plummeted. I only wanted portion sizes less than half my normal size. It was great! Of course, I lost weight, but also I could eat what I liked – lots of ‘naughty but nice’ foods because I only wanted small quantities. I craved well-balanced food, including lots of vegetables. I could eat what I wanted, as much as I wanted, when I wanted, and still lose weight; all because my body had more urgent things to worry about. It was glorious.

It was so much nicer than my normal existence; my normal desires. If I had a choice to live like that all the time, then I would, in a flash. It was far, far more pleasurable than any food binge I have ever had.

Unfortunately, my body’s hormonal levels (something we shall explore later in the book) resumed once the physical recovery was completed. The first time my lack-of-appetite happened, I thought (for a while) it could be the new me; I was naive enough to think it might be something I could control, it could be a permanent change with a little willpower – but of course it didn’t work like that.

I also find ‘willpower’ comes extremely easily in other areas, such as gambling, drugs, or smoking. Or, to put it more accurately, I have no urges to do any of them – which makes them pretty easy to resist. Because I have no interest in gambling, I could lecture gamblers and tell them not to be so silly. I would put forward lots of good reasons, but the bottom line is my advice would be ignored because I have no real understanding of what drives gamblers. There are plenty of parallels in the obesity debate – lots of diet advice comes from people who know as much about putting on weight as I do about gambling.

One smug newspaper columnist boasted about there being “willpower, and then there is my willpower,” before banging on about their superiority in relation to food and drink. Of course, they had it the wrong way round. Their urge is a tiny, invisible itch whereas mine is a nasty, big, red, swollen, poisonous bite. Theirs can be easily ignored or sorted with a quick scratch, mine will irritate the hell out of me, or worse, unless there is an effective antidote or cream. Or cream cake.

So to sum up, the vast majority of fat people are not happy being fat. We hate it, it is horrible. We also understand the consequences.

The power of books

People show extraordinary willpower to lose weight, sometimes to lose weight again and again and again. And yet the end result is almost always failure – just how depressing do you think that is? Pretending not to care – to be happy fat people – is sometimes easier than confronting that reality of continual, heart-breaking failure.

I’ll answer Dr. Aronne’s question from the start of this chapter (“Trying 20 times and not succeeding — is that lack of willpower, or a problem that can’t be treated with willpower?”). It’s not lack of willpower, it is a problem which cannot be treated with willpower.

Despite that, there is only one treatment for obesity which is generally accepted – to go on a diet. So, next, I need to show why diets are not only failing as a treatment, they are making things worse.


[13] A series of surveys conducted at the University of Chicago by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and NORC, funded by ASMBS and used AmeriSpeak®.

[14] Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource? Baumeister, Roy F. ; Bratslavsky, Ellen ; Muraven, Mark ; Tice, Dianne M. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1998, Vol.74(5), pp.1252-1265

[15] The Unbearable Automaticity of Being. Bargh, John A. ; Chartrand, Tanya L. American Psychologist, 1999, Vol.54(7), pp.462-479

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