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Finding the Self-Control to Lose Weight

Food restriction is not the answer.

Key points

  • Research has shown that people can't count on willpower alone to maintain a diet.
  • Awareness of how the emotional brain and executive brain function can change people's focus when losing weight.
  • Eating slowly and planning ahead can help people reach their weight loss goals.
Motortion / iStock
Source: Motortion / iStock

Often when someone decides it is time to lose weight, they are focused on wondering if they finally have the motivation that will help them stick with it. “I just need to find my motivation” is an oft-expressed refrain.

But, as Dr. Roy F. Baumeister and many others have discovered, motivation for many is synonymous with willpower. The assumption is that to lose weight, one has to restrict eating (aka diet), and that restriction will not be fun. In fact, it will be grueling, and require a lot of changes in eating patterns that will require nose-to-the-grindstone effort. Baumeister has shown many times in his research that willpower is something that is a finite resource. That is, it wanes as we use it, on a daily basis.

And yet many continue on that path of restriction, hoping that this attempt will be different.

Emotions vs. Self-Control

What is often overlooked in the diet process is the fact that we have an emotional brain and an executive brain. Back in 2006, psychologist Jonathan Haidt described our emotional brain as a very large elephant that likes to do what it wants. The elephant has a rider that is very much smaller in stature and strength compared to the elephant, but nonetheless has the task of trying to control it. The rider is likened to our executive brain, the prefrontal cortex.

It turns out that our emotional brain works incredibly fast. It produces reaction/judgment/emotion with lightning speed. This can be a fantastic survival mechanism, but it is not so conducive to allowing for the self-control required of those who are attempting to restrict their eating.

And, as noted by Daniel Akst in his book,Temptation, self-control and self-awareness go together. He references a quote from Yale psychologist John Bargh who talks about Bob Feller’s fastball in the context of behavior change: “You can’t hit what you can’t see.”

In fact, many, many studies regarding food consumption show that individuals can be easily manipulated into eating too much, not keeping track of what they eat, and underestimating what they eat.

Another salient observation, again by Roy Baumeister, is that dieting imposes a set of rules that rely on external cues rather than internal cues. If you don’t stick to the rules, then you have nothing left to guide you. If you want to change your eating behavior, you need to learn to be guided by your internal cues.

But there is a problem with this. Dieters, that is people who are restricting their eating, can misread their internal cues. Food restriction heightens awareness of, and attraction to, food. The assumption becomes that ever more willpower is required.

Is It Really about Will Power?

So, we circle back to the elephant and the rider. Is it really willpower that tames the unruly elephant? The elephant that wants immediate gratification? The elephant that sabotages our best-laid plans to eat reasonably? The elephant that bypasses self-awareness and self-control when faced with a situation where those around us are enjoying an all-you-can-eat buffet?

If you want to keep this simple and look at the big picture, you can go back to the observation that the elephant, the emotional brain, acts very, very, quickly. On the other hand, the executive brain takes longer to sift through information to make a considered plan of action.

Strategies to Develop Self-Control

Given that, there are three things we can do to overcome the elephant, to learn self-control and self-awareness.

  1. We can develop the habit, first and foremost, of slowing down when we eat. We often hear that it takes our stomachs about 20 minutes to start to give feedback to our brains on whether we are full or not. That is one reason to slow down. But the other one is to give our executive brain time to figure out what we are eating, why we are eating it, and whether or not the amount is in line with our actual needs and goals. In other words, taking the time to focus on the process of eating gives our brains time to become self-aware, and gives us a chance to focus on and accomplish a habit change.
  2. Monitoring. It works. Studies show that those who keep a food diary and weigh themselves daily are more apt to be successful at losing weight and keeping it off. While this at first seems like a rote thing to do to achieve success, it really means that those who monitor are keeping their focus on their goal of losing weight, day in and day out.
  3. Break down the task. In other words, make specific plans for specific situations, and practice those until they become habitual. An easy way to think about this is, “If X happens, then I will do Y.” An example of this would be, “If I go to the movies, I will get the small popcorn and eat it slowly.” In this way, it is possible to focus on only a few aspects of the larger issue. It gives your executive brain something specific to work on, plan for, and become accustomed to, rather than straining the system with global restrictions.

Unfortunately, we cannot ignore the fact that motivation and willpower still have to be involved. But, they can be used in a different way. They can be used to help us direct our focus to keep our eating and planning process slow and the tasks small. In this way, we do not squander our willpower away on a strict diet that we cannot stick with for the long haul.

A final thought. It also takes willpower and motivation to give up seeking the immediate gratification of losing weight quickly. But this can become easier if we can become aware of our human nature and how it relates to the goal we have of losing weight.


Haidt, Jonathan. (2012) The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Vintage Books, N.Y.

Baumeister, R.F. and Tierney, J. (2011) Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Penguin Group, N.Y.

Akst, D. (2011) Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess. Penguin Group, N.Y.

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