Why You Don't Need Willpower to Lose Weight (and What You Need Instead).

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes.

Why you don't need willpower to lose weight.

Yes, I just said it. You don’t need willpower to lose weight.

You don't need willpower to stop eating junk food, eat less sugar, exercise or make healthy choices every day.

Let me tell you why, and even more: Let me tell you what you need instead.

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And this one  to learn about the 3 S for Success.

Why You Don't Need Willpower to Lose Weight

Be honest, how many times has this happened to you:

One day, you decide to start eating healthy and lose weight. You stick to your plan for some time.

Then a stressful and long day comes when you were so busy you didn't have time to have lunch.

By the end of the day, you are exhausted and starving, and a healthy home-cooked meal you were counting on this evening still needs to be prepared.

You can’t wait any longer. You heat up something out of a package in a microwave, or order a huge pizza (a stressful day), and maybe finish your dinner with a bowl of ice cream (a very stressful day).

Once full, you feel guilty about your unhealthy choices. You decide that you don’t have the willpower to do it. So you give up, thinking you won’t be able to make it anyways and eat some more ice cream.

Although I can’t say I’m proud of you in this situation, it is not the willpower that failed you.


Because the willpower you had was probably already gone after the first half of the day.

Not because you are weak, but simply because you are a human being with a limited amount of willpower, which you use for many decisions and activities during the day.

Need to keep your emotions under control and deal with your nagging boss?

Here goes some of your willpower.

Your toddler is throwing a tantrum, and you are trying to remain calm?

You are lucky if you still have any willpower left after that.

The bottom line: You cannot possibly count on willpower (or beat yourself up "because you don’t have any") when you are trying to lose weight.

Because life!

But what can you count on then? What are the key aspects of successful weight management?

3 "S" for Weight Management SucceSS

The key aspects of successful weight management are not that many. Actually, they are just three:

  1. Having the right state of mind.
  2. Having a system, a routine to organize and plan things ahead.
  3. Treating your sugar cravings like real addiction.

I call this concept "3 ‘S’ for Weight Management Success".

S1: Change Your State of Mind.

Have you heard the saying "What you think, you become"? I believe this is true.

But we all have seen motivational posters that are wrong. So I have here some scientific proof for you, too.

This article, "5 Steps To Changing Any Behavior.", published in Psychology Today describes a so called "stages of change model" - five stages you need to go through to successfully change any behavior.

Guess what?

It all starts in your mind. "Actions" is only the stage #4 of 5.

Imagine that you are a healthy person making healthy choices every single time. And when one of your choices is not as good as you would have liked, make the next one extra good!

Don’t make yourself believe that a meal, a day, a week, a holiday season or a month have been lost. Or that there is nothing else you can do.

From now on, you are not a person with unhealthy lifestyle trying to live healthy. You are a person with a healthy lifestyle whose choices sometimes need to be improved.

Don’t make yourself to go through the pain of starting over again and again. Don’t believe that you are not good enough and that you will never make it.

You are already a person who is making healthy choices, because this is who you have decided to be.

S2: Create a System: Organize and Plan Ahead

A system. This is exactly what will practically help exhausted and hungry you, with all your willpower used for days in advance.

It does require some changes in your routine, but as soon as you’ve done it for some time it will become your new habit and feel naturally.

Do This Once a Week

Before going out for your weekly grocery shopping, decide what you are going to cook this week and which ingredients you need for that.

You might think, "Where is the spontaneity? When did I become this boring person who plans their meals 7 days ahead?"

First of all, not boring. Organized.

Second of all, when you decided to get your weight under control.

Now, why is it important to know what you will be cooking during the week before you do the weekly groceries?

Because if one night you discover you are missing an ingredient to cook a meal, you’ll have to run to the store, which costs time and effort you might not have that day, chances are you will end up ordering in your favorite pizza XXL.

To be efficient and successful in your pursuit of the healthy grocery shopping needs some practice, but it's totally doable (find out how).

Do This Every Day

At that (rare) moment of the day when you are not too tired, hungry or distracted, think about your day tomorrow:

  • Plan all your meals and snacks for the day.
  • If you are taking some food with you to work, pack your bag in advance. Otherwise you might forget it in a hurry in the morning.
  • Think of everything that can possibly go wrong (you won’t have time for lunch, the babysitter will be late, etc.) and all the temptations you may suffer during the day (especially during the holiday season). Prepare for that, too.

Do the same for your exercise routine.

If at the end of the day you expect your willpower to take you to the gym, let me tell you: It won’t happen.

Decide ahead of time which days of the week are your exercise days so you don’t even have to consider if that’s an option or not.

S3: Treat Your Sugar Cravings as a Real Addiction.

Sugar is considered to be one of the major factors that contributes to overweight.

And although when you say "I’m addicted to chocolate!" you mean it as a joke, it is, sadly, not.

You think I’m exaggerating?

This research shows that "there is a high degree of overlap between brain regions involved in processing natural rewards and drugs of abuse."

And this research with the says-it-all title "Excessive sugar intake alters binding to dopamine and mu-opioid receptors in the brain" shows that sugar stimulates neural systems the way drug dependence does.

A real addiction.

Sounds serious, isn’t it?

You probably expect me to tell you that you must give up all your cookies, cakes and sodas immediately and for good.

I’m not going to do that. In fact, I would like to tell you quite the opposite.

Think about it. When you are addicted to something, what will happen if you give it up all at once?

Right, you will feel miserable, both physically and emotionally. It will take some time till your body adjusts, so this state may last for quite some time.

And who can tolerate being miserable for long, surrounded with all the sweet temptations?

Study shows: Withdrawal from sugar is as difficult as going 'cold turkey' from real drugs.

"Like other drugs of abuse, withdrawal from chronic sucrose exposure can result in an imbalance in dopamine levels and be as difficult as going 'cold turkey' from them.",

...say the scientists of Queensland University of Technology who conducted this world-first study that suggests that sugar addiction should be treated like drug abuse.

That’s why you shouldn’t give up sugar all at once but take it step-by-step.

For example, this week you can start with taking 2 spoons of sugar with your coffee instead of 3. Or switch your cereal to a brand that has less sugar in it. Or try low-sugar ice cream instead of regular one.

Anything that feels like doable. You pick.

One requirement though: This one thing you pick, you have to stick to it till it becomes your habit and feels natural, till you don’t crave more sugar in your coffee, for example.

Once you’ve reached that stage, you can try cutting on sugar in some other way. In fact, I wrote here about 15 ways to reduce your sugar intake. Pick something from that list, for example.

Don’t beat yourself up if you can’t always keep away from sugar. Remember, it’s an addiction that needs to be broken one step at a time.

A Note of Caution

Although it does look like it, this is not one of those posts with a ton of new things for you to start doing right now.

I believe it is all good advice (well, I wrote it after all), and if you follow it you will notice immediate progress.

However, I don’t want you to feel overwhelmed, especially if you are just at the beginning of your weight management journey.

Look at this article as a map, and at all the numerous pieces of advice as places you need to pass through to get to your goal.

It’s great to have a plan of how to get somewhere, but thinking that you have to get there in one day/week/month may drain your powers and make you demotivated before you even hit the road.

Take it one step at a time.

If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl... Martin Luther King Jr.

Share this! Motivate your friends to stick to their goals!

Over to You!

Was I able to motivate you? Or do you feel rather overwhelmed? 

Tell me about your personal challenges!

I'd love to hear from you!

About the Author

Arantxa Mateo

Arantxa is a trained biologist, nutrition specialist and weight management coach. Born in Spain, she spent 5 years in Australia before moving to the US. Her motto is "Food is a pleasure. Nobody deserves to be on a diet."

Find out more about Arantxa and 32 Mondays >>

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