Weight Loss: Why Willpower Alone Won’t Cut It

If you’re intent on permanent weight loss, dieting and willpower alone just won’t cut it, this according to a recent article in The Atlantic.

In a recent study done on contestants from the reality show The Biggest Loser, it was noted that most of them had, within six years of losing 100 to 200 pounds, gained most of it back and had significantly slowed metabolisms. The study showed that the body actively resists weight loss, and willpower alone is seldom strong enough to fight back.

Author of Why Diets Make Us Fat, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt, shared her experience at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

“My own history of yo-yo dieting started when I was 15 and lasted about three decades, I lost the same 15 pounds pretty much every year during that same period, and gained it back regular as clockwork.”

“Why is that we can’t just control our body weight?” Aamodt asked. “We all sort of think we can. You can decide whether to take that next bite of breakfast right? Why can’t we just keep that going over years? The answer is that your brain, like a number of poorly run institutions, is governed by committee.” Part of this “committee” is the brain’s reward system, and it appears a candy bar or packet of crisps ranks higher in the reward standings than a salad or celery stick.

Another player in the body’s weight loss fighting arsenal is the hypothalamus. This regulates what Aarmodt refers to as the body’s “weight thermostat.” This thermostat decides what the body’s “set point” regarding ideal weight is. When the body’s weight ventures too far off its set point, appetite and calorie usage are adjusted to correct it. This mechanism is constantly at work, she said.

The Hypothalamus controls the body's "weight thermostat" [Image via Shutterstock]
The Hypothalamus controls the body’s “weight thermostat”
[Image via Shutterstock]
As if this weren’t enough, the executive system, the area of the brain that is in control of planning and decision making, also gets in on the act.

“This is the area of the brain that you tend to think of as your secret weapon for weight loss,” Aamodt said. “Your secret weapon for weight loss takes a lot of vacations.” Studies have shown that any task requiring discipline and self-control makes it harder for you to fight urges later. The executive system’s functioning is impaired in times of stress, loneliness, and, you guessed it, hunger. “The basic answer to why people have so much trouble with dieting is they’re trying to use a system that tires easily to fight against brain systems that are always working, never take a day off.”

The result is that the metabolism eventually slows down and the weight returns, often leaving dieters weighing more than they originally did. This process can take years, making diets seem like the answer, keeping people in the yo-yo cycle of continuous weight loss and gain.

“When I say diets don’t work, I mean they don’t work five years later,” Aamodt said. “Two months later, they work great.”

In a study that followed thousands of preadolescents and adolescents for two years, it was found that frequent dieters were more prone to binge-eating.

“That’s probably just a biological response to repeated starvation,” Aamodt said.

In the light of the above, it would seem the battle to lose weight permanently is a continual struggle against nature. As history has shown time and time again, nature tends to win this battle, so what are the options? You could spend the rest of your life counting calories, sweating at the gym, riding the highs of weight loss, only to be broken by the return of the unwanted pounds, consumed by guilt, and then starting the process all over, or, alternatively, you can accept the fact that you are not, and never will be that picture of the perfect human form as prescribed by society.

It’s encouraging to note that you don’t necessarily have to lose weight to improve your general health and well-being. It was found in a study of people ranging from normal to obese that healthy habits implemented across the spectrum carried the same benefits regardless of weight.

Excercise
The habits mentioned in the study included eating five or more fruits and vegetables daily, exercising regularly, consuming alcohol in moderation, and not smoking. Aarmodt has been practicing these habits for the last six years, no diets, no weighing, and daily exercise. She now eats sensibly rather than focusing on weight loss and listens to her body.

“This allows many of us to enjoy food for the first time in our lives, because it’s always been a battleground,” she said.

[Photo via Shutterstock]