Does willpower work for weight loss? Read why willing yourself thinner ignores the complex biology of weight loss.
After you step on a scale and see a number that makes you unhappy or frustrated, do you blame yourself? If you only had more willpower to say no to that sushi splurge or blueberry cinnamon crumb cake at brunch, the scale might have shown a different number.
What you weigh is often viewed as something that’s within your complete control.
And when you feel your weight is out of your control, it can be easy to fall into a shame spiral. If you’re trying to lose weight, you might mistake willpower as your best weight-loss tool.
But the idea that you can will yourself thinner ignores the complexity of the biology of weight loss.
True, a strong desire to lose weight can push you to make the changes necessary to lose pounds initially, but this north-star purpose can lose its shine over time.
The willpower to sustain the diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes that encourage weight loss initially can wither away if your environment allows overeating, discourages physical activity, or makes adapting to new and healthier behaviors feel like an unrelenting sacrifice.
This is especially true for those who take drastic measures to drop weight—for example, following an extremely low-cal diet and barreling through Barry’s Bootcamp several times a week when you were previously sedentary.
Juice cleanses. Detox tea. Sipping bone broth to stave off hunger because you’re outside of your eating window. Keto plans that limit daily carb intake to 20 grams or less per day (for context, one medium-sized apple<sup>1</sup> contains 19 grams of carbs).
When you “go on a diet,” whether that’s ketogenic or another low-carb one, a vegan diet or a style of eating that restricts when you can eat, such as 16:8 intermittent fasting, you can cut or eliminate foods, reduce some macronutrients and increase others, and don’t allow yourself to ingest any significant calories during certain hours.
You may reduce calories and burn more than you eat, initiating weight loss. Restrictive regimens could result in dramatic and somewhat quick weight loss, but are they sustainable? More importantly, does your diet help you replace unhealthy habits with healthier ones—or are you just trading one unsound practice for another?
That said, you may find that a completely new style of eating works well for you. You feel better, look better, weigh less, and realize that, over time, you don’t miss the oozy slices of pizza and snoozing through morning exercise like you thought you would. If that’s the case, good for you. Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t look back.
More likely: You end up bingeing on kettle corn and wine while slumped on the couch, streaming your favorite show. Maybe you’ve lost some weight, but at this moment you may not care. You might feel fatigued, fed up, and compelled to ingest every available carb in the kitchen.
We can revert to our old habits after restrictive routines or when the weight has come off because it’s comfortable, requires less effort, and you might be sick of eating lettuce-wrapped tacos and skipping the nachos while you watch enviously as Dan munches gratifyingly on a tortilla chip dripping with queso, sour cream, barbacoa, and guac.
What causes this mental burnout, on a physiological level? Not surprisingly, scientific research doesn’t entirely agree on whether weight loss instigates compensatory mechanisms that can halt weight loss and hamper maintenance of the weight lost.
The compensation theory suggests that willpower can be counteracted after you start dropping pounds because your body reacts to the prolonged energy deficit by:
Follow the logic of the compensation theory and you might feel doomed.
It seems to suggest that losing weight triggers reactions in your body that make you want to eat more and burn less. If you keep eating more and conserving the extra energy rather than burning it, you’ll eventually gain back what you lost.
Explains why you need a heap of steak nachos right now, Dan’s surprised expression be damned… right?
Maybe, maybe not. Obesity and nutrition researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham suggest that after weight loss, energy expenditure and appetite reflect a normalization toward a lower body mass index.
The normalization theory posits that your body increases ghrelin secretion and feelings of hunger but also increases post-meal secretion of satiety peptides and feelings of fullness after eating as a means to achieve balance in appetite control. These physiological adaptations reflect a shift in your body getting used to lower body weight<sup>2</sup>, researchers argue.
Whether you can achieve balanced appetite control adjusted to your new body weight can depend on a variety of factors, including:
Weight loss maintenance is another topic that deserves a deep dive; the main takeaway is that willpower can only carry you so far. Physiological, behavioral, and metabolic changes<sup>3</sup> happen when you lose weight and the impact of these can vary and don’t necessarily happen because you lacked the willpower to keep pushing.
Some obesity researchers and doctors state that obesity is not the result of a lack of willpower or motivation<sup>4</sup>, but rather a chronic disease that requires individualized treatment.
Reframing obesity and the challenges of losing and maintaining a large amount of weight through a lens of disease treatment means that lifestyle interventions taken on alone at home may not lead to the most successful outcome for a cancer patient, so why should they apply to an obese one?
You may be wondering: Does dieting make you fatter?
It might depend on how overweight you were before you started the diet.
One study conducted on identical twins in Finland found that the twins who intentionally tried to lose weight one or more times in their teenage or young adult years significantly increased their odds of becoming overweight (body mass index >25) by 25 years of age. In short, the twins who dieted gained more weight<sup>5</sup> progressively than their twins who didn’t diet, and—the gut-punch—the dieters were not considered overweight to begin with.
Another study that followed up with 2,785 people 11 years after participation in the Finnish Health Survey 2000 found that dieters and those with previous weight loss had higher body mass indexes and waist circumferences<sup>6</sup> than the non-dieters years later.
This exasperating phenomenon is called fat overshooting, the potential to regain fat in a greater amount than you had before the diet. Seemingly worse: Fat overshooting may be more prevalent among dieters who started at a normal body weight versus those who are obese<sup>7</sup>.
Fat overshooting appears to be caused by a desynchronization in the recoveries of fat and lean tissue after a diet. If you didn’t have substantial weight to lose to begin with but wanted your six-pack to show, are an athlete who thought leaning out could improve performance… whatever the reason, after you go off your diet, your body can attempt to refill the fat and lean tissue stores you lost.
Most vexing: Your body refills fat stores first and doesn’t stop autoregulating<sup>8</sup> until your fat-free mass is restored. While your lean mass takes its time to rebuild, your fat mass continues to accumulate.
Even if you toughed it out with super intense workouts and eating only keto foods in an eight-hour window each day, when you release yourself from the exhausting regimen you might gain the fat back… and then some.
The willpower that pushed you to follow these extremes can’t stop your body’s autoregulation.
The solve? If you think it’s to resume the hard-knocks routine that got you here in the first place, maybe you should re-read this section.
Try a kinder, health-focused routine of a real-food, lower-glycemic diet with appropriate portions, plenty of water, stress reduction, focus on more quality sleep, and an exercise program that you enjoy. Plan to stay this course and see what it does to any excess body fat.