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.