The hardest part in any weight-loss journey is saying "no" to your favorite foods. While fine in moderation, classic late-night fare like pizza, ice cream, and cake aren't usually staples of a healthy weight-loss plan. On the other hand, what is life without pizza?
This is why most people end up giving in to temptation with a slice of pizza here and hot fudge sundae there. "Why don't you just have a little bit more willpower?" some people might ask. "If you really wanted to lose weight, you could say no."
The sheer willpower approach is enticing in part because it's a character judgment: If you succeed, you're somehow a "better" person, with more willpower, which is good! If not, you're a "worse" person, so why not dive back into that sundae? But there are more complex reasons why white-knuckling it won't help you lose weight in the long run. Here's why.
There are biological reasons you eat the way you do
You may think there are universally beloved foods (see: pizza, donuts, and fries), but everyone has a unique palate. This can lead to cravings for pickles and sharp cheddar cheese doused in chipotle hot sauce... for example.
"People assume that since eating is a behavior, it's completely under the control of our discipline. But like most human behavior, it's complex," says Dr. Eduardo Grunvald, program director at UC San Diego's Weight Management Program. "Cravings, appetite, hunger, food preferences, all have very strong biological foundations. We actually are driven to consume food based on our biology and specifically in our brains, in our central nervous system. It's all tied into our genetics, our emotional state, and our environment."
You don't have much control over your appetite, Dr. Grunvald says, since it's a physiological process. It's kind of like breathing -- sure, you can take long breaths, short breaths, deep breaths, and on, but you still have to breathe.
Same thing goes for eating. Some people naturally crave fruits and vegetables, while others have strong hankerings for the sugar- and fat-laden processed foods that are terrible for you. Some people rarely feel hungry, while others are ravenous multiple times a day; thanks to your genetics, there's no way to turn off these feelings.
Of course, people can control how they respond to their appetite, but when life gets in the way -- stress, hunger pangs, snacks in the break room -- it makes it that much harder to go against biology.
Willpower isn't a long-term strategy
Sure, ultimately you can choose to snack on baby carrots instead of potato chips, or order the kale salad instead of the bacon cheeseburger. But this weight-loss strategy only works for so long, especially if you are constantly faced with repeated temptations.
"We make hundreds of decisions every day that relate to whether I should consume something or not," Dr. Grunvald says. "You can do that for a short period of time, but just by willpower over the long term it doesn't work at all. It's a very challenging, complex problem that just doesn't work for most people."
You can only pass the free snack table at work so many times before you finally give in and grab that cookie or bag of pretzels. And when that happens, people tend to beat themselves up and wind up back at square one.
"Using self-control or willpower alone can lead to discouragement when the inevitable hiccups and setbacks happen," adds obesity medicine specialist Dr. Nitin Kumar of the Bariatric Endoscopy Institute. "If willpower is the weight-loss method, the implication is that weight gain is due to lack of willpower."
And that's simply not the case; people need to eat to survive, and Dr. Kumar says associating overeating with a personality flaw, like having a lack of self-control, isn't a productive way to approach weight loss in the long term. There are also a number of reasons why people could be overweight: genetics, lifestyle, environment, and overall health all play a role, which makes a one-size-fits-all approach like "have more willpower!" pretty ineffective.
So what are you supposed to do if willpower isn't the answer?
Focus on making your environment weight-loss-friendly
The biggest indicator if someone will be successful on a weight-loss plan isn't how much they work out, how many salads they eat, or how much sleep they get; Dr. Grunvald says it all boils down to your environment, especially the people closest to you.
"If you have poor-quality food in the home, it's going to be very difficult because eventually you're going to give in to consuming that," he says. "If you're trying to lose weight and your spouse isn't on board and they keep bringing in chips and cupcakes, it's going to be almost impossible because they're not helping you clean up your environment."
Instead of putting pressure on yourself to say "no" to these temptations, a more productive strategy is to not have these foods in front of you in the first place. Since we live in such an obesogenic world -- think of how many activities in your social life revolve around food, usually of the comfort variety -- learning to control your immediate surroundings is crucial for weight loss. It's not about saying no to a slice of pizza; it's about finding a way to not even be in front of the pizza. Social support, planning, and stimulus control are all skills Dr. Grunvald says are crucial to a successful weight-loss program. These are tactics that people need to not only learn, but also practice over and over before they become second-nature.
Treat weight loss (and maintenance) as a chronic condition, not a number to be achieved
Ultimately, losing weight and maintaining weight loss should be thought of as a chronic condition, not a short-term goal. Once you master all of the successful skills, it's about repeating them, day in and day out.
"When you stop treatment for a chronic condition, the condition relapses," Dr. Grunvald says. The same can be said for weight loss; after you clean up your environment, surround yourself with a supportive tribe, and master the skills of making healthy choices, it's important to keep incorporating these new skills into your everyday life. Otherwise you'll pile on the pounds you just lost.
There will always be room for a slice of pizza or scoop of your favorite ice cream here or there. It's just best to leave those out of sight, and therefore out of mind (and out of your mouth), most of the time.