Here’s Why Losing Weight Isn’t About ‘Willpower’.
I’ve been in practice for almost 20 years, so I’ve had a hell of a lot of people complain to me about their lack of willpower and how this has made it impossible for them to lose or maintain their weight. They bemoan their inability to resist overeating, their yo-yo dieting habit, and how hard it is for them to lose weight – all the while criticizing themselves because clearly, it’s their fault entirely. Except no, it’s probably not. Weight loss and weight maintenance are far more complicated than ‘willpower’, and I’m going to explain to you why that is.
If I could change one perception about weight loss in general, this just might be it: weight loss has nothing to do with willpower. It has nothing to do with weakness, or how you can’t resist your mom’s cookies, or the fact that you think you’re a bad person for eating a funnel cake. Weight loss, and the act of maintaining an ideal body weight for you (note: your ideal weight might not be the same as your friends’, so stop comparing yourself to other people), involves a heck of a lot more than a weak or strong will. Unlike the emotional ‘willpower’ you’re blaming yourself for, weight loss and maintenance involves physiology and your body’s reaction to being on a diet. And trust me: your body does NOT like dieting. Oh no, it hates it.
All physiological reasons aside, using the idea of not having willpower to blame and demean yourself for your weight is a bad idea. Negative self-talk is sure to make you feel like a failure, and what happens when people feel like failures? They tend to eventually give up on their goals. Plus, negative self-talk is not only shitty, it may also affect your weight. Treating yourself like crap under any circumstances is never okay, people, so stop it.
Losing and maintaining weight does have emotional components too – like emotional eating. These have very real consequences, but here are the physiological parts that play a big role in your weight:
I think one of the most important factors in weight management are your hormones. Remember that time you cut your calories really low and you just couldn’t stop thinking about food? Yeah, that was your ghrelin talking. Ghrelin is your ‘hunger hormone’, and when your body perceives that you’re not feeding it properly (aka starving yourself), ghrelin leaps into action! Made in the stomach, ghrelin increases your appetite, essentially giving you the unshakable drive to eat. Ghrelin also helps your body store fat.
Hey, your body isn’t going to take starvation lying down; it’s going to fight to maintain homeostasis every miserable step of the way. Once you start a diet, ghrelin does its best to make you eat, and after you diet, you end up having more ghrelin in your blood than before you started.
And as if ghrelin wasn’t complicated enough, along comes your other appetite hormone, leptin. This hormone is produced by your fat cells, and it tells your body when to stop eating. So, sort of like the opposite of our friend ghrelin.
The issue with leptin and ghrelin is that when your body fat levels reach a certain point, the signals from these hormones to your body get disrupted. More body fat means more leptin, right? Well, not exactly. What we think happens in this situation is that the body doesn’t hear the leptin anymore, and therefore doesn’t get the signal to stop eating. In fact, your body thinks it’s starving because it’s not hearing the leptin, so you eat more.
Meanwhile, ghrelin levels in obese people appear to be low, which you’d think would curb appetite. Wrong again: it appears as though obese individuals are resistant to ghrelin, meaning they need less of it to feel hungry.
So here’s the cycle: you diet, your ghrelin levels rise, you eat more, you gain fat, you have more leptin, your body becomes resistant to leptin, making you eat more, you gain more fat, and so on.
How do you fix it? Avoid major caloric restriction! Although it might be tempting to go on a diet that will make you drop weight quickly, remember that your body will fight back. You might want to cut your intake and change the type of food you’re eating (i.e. from ultra-processed to minimally processed), but dieting clearly appears to affect our hormone levels. These in turn influence our appetite and desire to eat. When you cut calories you’ll be hungrier naturally, but there’s a difference between cutting and slashing, if you know what I mean.
If you find yourself hungry and obsessed with food during a diet, and unable to keep weight off, it’s time to take a difference approach (like not dieting). If you find a method of weight loss and maintenance that works for you and is sustainable, then that’s good, keep going. Some people find that a higher-protein way of eating (not necessarily a ‘diet’) doesn’t affect appetite as much and is more sustainable for the long-term. Whatever you do, I recommend eating as many plants as you can! (I had to put that in there!)
We’re just learning how much our gut bacteria is responsible for in our bodies. A recent study (full disclosure: it’s a mouse study, but very interesting) suggests that dieting disrupts the microbiome in our guts to actually promote rapid post-diet weight gain. Another study suggests that obese individuals have different, less diverse microbiota than non-obese people. This is definitely just an emerging area in terms of research and drawing conclusions, but improving the little bugs in your gut can’t be a bad thing.
How do you fix it? Again, avoiding over-restriction of calories seems to be key here. Also, nourish your microbiome with plenty of fresh foods, tons of fiber, less added sugar, and more fermented foods like kefir, kimchi, sourdough bread, and yogurt (unsweetened, of course).
Caloric restriction aka dieting can change your metabolic rate, so it’s slower. Remember what I said about your body fighting you back? Here it goes again – because its job is to save you from starvation. Taking less food in makes your body want to expend less energy out for its basic functions (aka Resting Metabolic Rate), so your body adapts to slow your metabolism down and use less calories overall. So efficient! Really, you can’t outsmart your body.
How do you fix it? First off, once again, don’t diet. If you’re eating lots of crappy ultra-processed foods, stop it! Swap them out for fresh foods, less-processed foods, and whole foods. Weight loss may be slower than on some crazy cleanse, but far less disruptive to your body and likely more sustainable, too. Weight loss and maintenance isn’t about the quick fix; it’s about changing habits long-term.
Do you get enough sleep? Not only does being tired weaken your resolve around food, but it also increases your ghrelin levels, making you hungry. It also spikes your cortisol (a stress hormone), causes impaired glucose metabolism, and decreases leptin. All of this can really sabotage your weight.
Considering that most of us are sleep deprived to some degree, I’m thinking that you need to turn off Netflix and go to bed, already.
How do you fix it? Go to BED! Also, better sleep hygiene. Go to bed and wake up at the same times, sleep in a dark room, and no phones/tv/ipad/computer before you sleep. Those of you with kids, I feel your pain. Do the best you can with the sleep thing.
Oh, genetics. Why do you cause us so many hassles! Your genetics are the one thing you have zero control over, and it’s useless to try to change them. Your normal (by normal, I mean healthy for YOU) weight is essentially genetically determined from birth, and so is your body shape. While you may be able to change both those things slightly, or temporarily, you’ll probably be fighting to maintain them in the long-term. It’s one thing to improve your diet and achieve your optimal, healthy weight; it’s completely another to have unrealistic goals that you have to fight your body for, every single day. No. Life is far too short to subject yourself to that emotional and physical duress on a continual basis.
How do you fix it? Really, you can’t. But you can fix your mindset, because if you’ve got unrealistic weight loss goals, those need to go. Don’t subject yourself to emotional and physical hardship every day. Not worth it. Being healthy, emotionally and physically, is far more important than dropping to an impossibly low weight.