Have you ever berated yourself for not having the willpower to stick to a diet?
You can stop punishing yourself right now, because dieting has nothing to do with willpower!
Research carried out by Professor Traci Mann at the University of Minnesota over a stretch of more than 20 years has culminated in her book Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again.
In this interview with the Washington Post, Mann sheds light on what people get wrong about weight and willpower.
The reason diets don’t work is not what people think. When you fail once again at your attempt to lose weight, it’s not your fault and it’s not a lack of willpower. There are many other factors at play.
Mann says there are so many biological changes taking place when you diet that that it becomes practically impossible to keep the weight off. These changes outweigh your self-control.
What are these biological changes?
The first is neurological. The brain starts seeing food differently: as soon as you embark on a diet food looks more tempting. The pasta bake that you could dismiss last week, now that you’re on a diet, looks absolutely delicious. Suddenly, and if you have ever tried to lose weight you’ll recognize this, food looks irresistible.
“It has increased reward value. So the thing you’re trying to resist becomes harder to resist,” Mann told the Washington Post.
The second is hormonal changes. Mann’s research has found unfortunate hormonal changes happen when we embark on a diet: the hormones that trigger the feeling that you’re full, decreases while the hormones responsible for hunger increase. Now that’s really a losing battle you’re fighting!
Then of course there are the metabolic changes that take place. When you go on a diet, your metabolism slows down as your body reacts by using calories more efficiently. Mann explains that when the body finds a way to operate on less, whatever is left over, is stored as fat, which of course is counterproductive.
So, when you go on a diet to lose weight you are mentally and emotionally at war with an invisible “enemy”: the processes in your body that you are not conscious of.
Here’s the key point:
“Dieting is actually a lot like starving, physically. It’s living like you’re starving. A lot of people do it, but what they’re actually doing is living as if they’re starving. They’re putting their body into that exact same state that it would be in if they were literally starving to death,” said Mann.
This is crazy. Why do this in a time of plenty? It sounds a lot like self-punishment.
But what about all the diets out there that people say work?
In the short term, diets work, but in the long term, these biological changes take over, said Mann.
A fascinating insight on the eternal foe: our elusive willpower.
Mann says when it comes to diet, willpower is not as useful as it might be in other spheres of life. She gives the example of being in a meeting when someone walks in with a plate of doughnuts. Now, if you’re on a diet, you don’t just resist the doughnuts as they are brought into the room, you resist them every time you look up and notice the plate. Consider how many times that might be, and every time involves willpower. Now, when you look up for the umpteenth time and decide to take one, all the other times you exercised your willpower, just become worthless in an instant, doesn’t it?
Thing is: you don’t get credit for all those times you did resist the temptation. Instead, you sit with the overwhelming realization that you have been defeated once again.