Willpower is a Myth: Why “Good Food” is Killing Your Fat Loss Efforts


So you want to lose fat?

Contrary to whatever crap you’ve heard floating around the ‘net about restricting this or that food, or cutting one food group out and watching the pounds magically melt away, there is only one way to achieve your goal: sustain a calorie deficit over a certain period of time until you reach your target.

That doesn’t make headlines, because it’s not as sexy as listening to the latest Insta babe talk about how cutting out gluten is the secret to her (starved) waistline, or listening to some fitness bullshit about how you need to ‘detoxify’ before you can lose fat.

Now, when I said sustain a calorie deficit over time – that is not meant to make it sound easy. And it’s even less easy in the context of our obesogenic food environment.

But are you just relying on willpower? Trying to adhere to this nebulous concept of “being good”, having the said Insta babe/fitness “guru” put a moral value on your food for you. This is a mistake. When it comes to setting up your diet, never, ever, rely on willpower.

You will lose.

This post will help you understand why those 5.30pm-home-from-work-fridge raids happen, and what you can do avoid them so you stay consistent with your diet.

We Are Hardwired to Chase Pleasure

Humans are complex beings, and we are hardwired with a very powerful internal reward system, which stimulates pleasure-seeking behaviours. There are two sides to our brain reward systems that act in concert in motivating our desire for food: ‘wanting’, driven by the neurotransmitter dopamine, and ‘liking’, driven by opioids and cannabinoids. [1]

‘Wanting’ is the reward and cue, as in “go on, that cheesecake looks so good, remember the last time you had it…” whereas ‘liking’ is the pleasurable response, as in “that was delish.”

These neurotransmitters exert such a powerful effect that the mechanisms involved in highly palatable food-reward behaviour are applicable to drug addiction. [2]

The point here is not that wanting or liking palatable foods makes us ‘addicts’: food addiction is overhyped, something I address in this article.

The point is that highly palatable foods, particularly foods high in sugar and fat, act as potent rewards that can promote overeating. [3,4]

This is why “clean eating” or food avoidance doesn’t stand a chance against our evolutionary hardwiring, particularly our drive for sweet, fat or salty foods. Without an understanding of this powerful reward system, you leave yourself open to be led into the same trap…believing willpower is enough.

Until it’s not.

Willpower is a Myth

The difficulty is that research has shown willpower to plummet relative to the number of choices we makes in a day, depleting our ability to self-regulate [5]. Self-control has been likened to a muscle that fatigues from use, and repeated studies have shown that our resource for self-control depletes after it has been exerted. [6,7]

In a nutshell, willpower is not absolute, or constant, and gets run down as the day goes on and we make more choices.

Interestingly, decision-making has been shown to reduce blood glucose levels, in turn depleting willpower [8].  Restoring blood glucose levels via sugary lemonade countered the depletion of self-control in this study, whereas artificial sweeteners did not, indicating that glucose is in fact the energy source that willpower draws on, as the primary fuel source for the brain.

This is where “decision fatigue” impacts on intentions, by  depleting the finite resource of willpower.

It’s why the moral value, “good food” vs. “bad food” approach will always fail. You’re asking your brain to take on too many changes, involving too many choices, and creating a situation where you’re relying on willpower to pull you through.

It won’t.

All or Nothing?

There is another strong reason why moral value, “good” vs. “bad” food approaches fail: the disinhibition effect. This loosely translates in dieting parlance as “well I’ve had one Oreo, my day is ruined, I might as well eat the box.”

While the evidence at this point remains correlational, a comprehensive 2011 literature review in the International Journal of Obesity highlighted a distinction in the research between rigid and flexible dietary restraint, with rigid, black-or-white, all-or-nothing approaches associated with disinhibited eating. [9]

In plain English, if you adopt an “good food/bad food” approach, and you end up eating something that’s not “good” and makes you think you’ve already ‘blown’ your diet, you’re more likely to overeat with reckless abandon.

Understanding these factors, it presents a strong argument for adopting a flexible approach to diet. And to never put a moral value on food.

To do this, you’ll need a framework to operate in. The following guidelines should help.

1. Start with the smallest possible adjustment:

Don’t tie your hands behind your back from the start. Make the smallest adjustment possible to get you going.

Take a look at your overall weekly intake, and make a small adjustment that is actually manageable. Start there.

Consider the following examples of small changes:

  • Skip breakfast, fast until lunch
  • Stop drinking calories – change your 400kcal foamy Starbucks frapp and ditch fruit juices
  • Fast from dinner to dinner 1-2 times per week
  • Don’t snack between meals

Start by making one, small, manageable adjustment and build from there.

It’s the sum of these small changes that will add up to make a difference.

2. Limit “Decision Fatigue”:

Barack Obama had only two suits. He didn’t deplete willpower making trivial decisions.

Neither should you.

Limit the decisions you have to make during the day, trivial stuff like what to wear and eat.

Stack the odds in your favour by conserving your limited resource of willpower for when you’ll need it, and game plan for when willpower is lowest i.e. in the evening after work, when that Dairy Milk is gonna stare you down, and win.

Keep your ‘10%’ foods for when you actually want them, and can enjoy them in the context of being flexible, not when your brains chemicals are driving you to them.

3. Be Flexible:

There is no such thing as good or bad food.

Don’t create a rigid mentality. 90% adherence is more than enough for any goal you have.

Forget the moral value stuff. If you are convinced you can’t have ice cream on a fat loss diet, you are listening to the wrong people. And they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Concluding Remarks

Going all out never works.

Willpower is easily depleted. And it doesn’t have any hope of overriding our internal reward system, our evolutionary hardwiring.

Being aware of these factors gives you the framework you need to kick the black or white view of health and nutrition to the curb.

Life happens in the grey, and it’s much more fun in there.

Start small and give yourself a few easy wins, prepare for when your willpower is low, and be flexible in allowing yourself the foods you want, no guilt involved.

Header image from:
[1] Berridge, KC. ‘Liking’ and ‘wanting’ food rewards: Brain substrates and roles in eating disorders. Physiol Behav. Jul 14, 2009; 97(5): 537–550. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2717031/
[2] Volkow ND, Wang JG, Fowler JS, Telang F. Overlapping neuronal circuits in addiction and obesity: evidence of systems pathology. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. Oct 12, 2008; 363(1507): 3191–3200. Available at  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2607335/
[3] Lenoir MSerre FCantin LAhmed SH. Intense Sweetness Surpasses Cocaine Reward. PLoS ONE. 2007; 2(8): e698. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17668074/
[4] Volkow ND, Wang JG, Baler RD. Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity. Trends Cogn Sci. Jan 2011; 15(1): 37–46. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3124340/
[5] Vohs KD, Baumeister RF, Schmeicel BJ, Twenge JM, Nelson NM, Tice DM. Making Choices Impairs Subsequent Self-Control: A Limited-Resource Account of Decision Making, Self-Regulation, and Active Initiative. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2008 May;94(5):883-98. Available at http://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/psp945883.pdf
[6] Baumeister RJ, Vohs KD, Tice DM. The Strength Model of Self-Control. Current Directions in Psychological Science 2007 16: 351. Available at http://www.carlsonschool.umn.edu/assets/166733.pdf
[7] Hagger MSWood CStiff CChatzisarantis NL. Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 2010 Jul;136(4):495-525. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20565167
[8] Gailliot MTBaumeister RFDeWall CNManer JKPlant EATice DMBrewer LESchmeichel BJ. Self-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007 Feb;92(2):325-36. Available at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17279852
[9] Johnson F, Pratt M, Wardle J. Dietary restraint and self-regulation in eating behaviour. International Journal of Obesity (2012) 36, 665–674. Available at http://www.tempestproject.eu/attachments/article/32/Johnson%20et%20al.%20-%202011%20-%20Int%20J%20Obes.pdf