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Willpower is Overrated

Willpower. I’ve decided I hate this phrase, at least in how it applies to dieting. I see it thrown around a lot, usually by people who are not or never have been fat. “If only she had more willpower, she wouldn’t binge on Pringles like that.” Usually it’s used to blame a fat person’s obesity on their own weakness. Basically, I think this is bullshit.

I was categorizing all my old entries in this blog last week and ended up reading some posts from one to two years ago. Boy, I was gung-ho back then. I was determined to make a change. This was going to be it, for real this time! Hoo-rah! And then – nothing. After a couple weeks my balloon of optimism deflated with a big “Pffffllllbbbttttt!” like a whoopee cushion and I was back to my old ways.

Fast forward to today and I have somehow managed to maintain a steady weight loss for over nine months, something I have never done in my 4 or 5 previous attempts. So what’s different? Did magic fairies recharge my “will” battery at night? I don’t think so. I have as much willpower today as I did when I was fat and failing. After reading those entries I have no doubt that I wanted it back then as much as I want it now.

I think the biggest factor in my weight loss isn’t so much my desire to lose weight, which I’ve had all my life, or some amazing spurt of willpower that is causing my fat cells to dissolve. I think the most important thing is my current environment:

1) I have very easy access to a treadmill, so exercising is convenient. I don’t have to put myself out to hit a gym and I can walk no matter what the weather is like.

2) Everyone I live with is eating healthy. No one is bringing in junk food or baking cookies to possibly tempt me off my diet.

3) I have a routine 9-5 job, meaning I eat at the same times every day. This makes it very easy to plan what I will eat during the day and not consume too many calories.

4) I do not have to care for anyone else. If I had kids to take care of, other people’s laundry to do, or had to clean a household, I seriously don’t know if I’d be able to keep this up. Preparing food and exercising is time consuming. I spend at least an hour and a half to two hours of my day engaged in these activities. If I were a mom, hard-pressed for time, I might not be able to keep up.

5) I’ve found a diet that personally works for me and has eliminated most of the food cravings I used to get that would cause me to binge on a box of thin mints. Mmmm, thin mints.

6) I’ve started reading lots of weight loss blogs. This makes me part of a community that on a daily basis encourages me and reminds me that I’m not alone.

When you compare this environment to the environments I was in during my previous weight loss attempts, it becomes obvious why I had problems. When I was in college, my eating schedule was erratic because classes occurred at different times during the day. There was also a lot of junk food readily available everywhere. When I tried losing weight after college, my treadmill broke and I didn’t have money to buy a new one or to join a gym, totally sabotaging my efforts.

Sure, I could have found ways around these problems if I was totally, die-hard determined. But for most people it’s little things like this that will totally trip you up and cause you to fail. There will always be exceptional people who can overcome anything, like Oprah who went from a poor childhood to become the world’s first female African-American billionaire. But there’s only one Oprah. She’s a special case. What about the rest of us?

I don’t want to imply that willpower is completely unimportant in dieting. You obviously have to reach a point where you realize you need to make a change and actually go make that change. Sticking to your changes also takes a certain amount of will and dedication, but I don’t think it’s the most important thing. And when so many dieter’s fail, I don’t think it’s fair to say it’s completely their fault. Sure, part of it involves how dedicated they are to their effort. But it’s also a result of factors they literally can’t control.

I think the growing obesity epidemic backs up my hypothesis. Americans are fatter than ever. Is it because we have all had our willpower sucked out of our bodies in the past couple decades in some mystical Enron-like scandal? Probably not. It’s probably due to the increased consumption of processed foods and the proliferation of jobs and entertainment that do not require physical activity.

So if I had to chose between being a person with an extreme amount of willpower or being a person in an environment extremely conducive to weight loss, I would pass up the willpower for the better environment every time.

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Kirsten • November 2, 2005 at 3:23 am

I think you have a very good point there: a corollary to what I’ve read (I think on Stumptuous.com) about the maximum distance a gym should be from home or work, if you’re going to keep going – twelve minutes. (Which may be an exaggeration, but does make the point that if it’s easy to do once, you’ve a better chance of keeping on with it.)

“I do not have to care for anyone else” – I think that is a very important point, too. My boyfriend just moved in with me, and even though we are living in my parents’ house, so I don’t have to do very much shopping, cleaning etc, nonetheless I feel I have less time to exercise (and to blog – well, it helps with motivation!) Not that I want to spend less time with him… but you know what I mean…


kathryn • November 2, 2005 at 4:57 am

I’m so with you on this. To me, willpower is like you have the stuff you want dangled in front of you and you have to be strong all the time and say no. How much easier is it to put the stuff you want out of sight and forget about it!


hopefulloser • November 2, 2005 at 8:51 am

This is one of my favorite posts! I think you HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD!!!

I have nothing to add but “same here” :-)


Sarah • March 16, 2007 at 6:03 pm

I’m a new reader to your blog and this post happened to catch my eye. I’ve posted about willpower in my February 2007 archives called “The Dirty Liarmouth” if you want to read it sometime.


Jaimie • August 13, 2008 at 2:42 pm

I found you through a link on comcast of your Today show appearance. I’ve been reading your book and now going through your archives and you’re truly amazing! So inspirational! And a fantastic writer! This is the first comment I’ve made because I so agree with and relate to this entry. It does take a lot of time to cook healthy food and exercise. I’m married, work full time and have 2 small children. I’m determined to make it work though. I can’t keep using them as an excuse forever to not get healthy and lose weight. Thanks so much for sharing your story with the world! You’re awesome!


Katie Taylor • December 13, 2009 at 12:18 am

Hear, hear!! Very well said, Jennette. I came back to visit your blog because you were such a help and inspiration when I lost 125 pounds a few years back. At the time, I had a very uncomplicated life – I worked 30 hours a week with no outside responsibilities of any kind. I had plenty of time and energy to cultivate an environment conducive to weight loss (tidy, well-stocked kitchen, hours and hours free to exercise, a work commute I could easily make by bike, and even more easily add miles and hills to for extra fitness that fit neatly into my day. I stayed thin for about a year, at which point I left my job of seven years and simultaneously started running a 501(c)3 and working as a freelancer to support myself (the non-profit didn’t pay). The entire structure of my life fell apart – I found myself constantly having to disrupt my usual activities to meet some deadline or put out some fire. I worked all night more and more frequently and got sick more and more often (culminating in 6 months last year of going down sick again and again and again). I have endured more stress than I ever even thought possible before and…not surprisingly…I regained all that weight, with about 50 pounds’ interest. I don’t think anyone could look at my life and accuse me of having no willpower. I have a will of iron, and the success of my two businesses shows that clearly. I don’t know if it will be possible for me to do what I did again, back when my life was so much less complicated, but I am going to try. Very, very glad to have your blog to look back on for help. Also looking forward to reading the book (congrats on that!).


Comments are now closed on all PastaQueen entries. The blog is an archive only so I don't have to deal with spammers. For fresh discussions please visit my new blog at JennetteFulda.com.

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Jennette Fulda tells stories to the Internet about her life as a smartass, writer, weight-loss inspiration, chronic headache sufferer, and overall nice person (who is silently judging you). She does this at JennetteFulda.com now, but you can still have fun perusing her past here.

Disclaimer: I am not responsible for keyboards ruined by coffee spit-takes or forehead wrinkles caused by deep thought.

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