What is the role of willpower in losing weight?

Perhaps no single issue in the ongoing debate about how best to maintain a desired weight, and generally live a healthy life, is more controversial than the role of willpower. Many “experts” avoid the term altogether, and assure their readers and potential customers that willpower is an evil concept which blames the victim of unhealthy habits. I was very surprised, therefore, when I saw this article on willpower in the New York Times (“Tighten Your Belt, Strengthen Your Mind” April 2, 2008). Could it be there is something positive to say about the concept?

Here is an excerpt from Weight Managemet for Your Life regarding the role of willpower in weight management (pp. 26-27):

While it is beyond the scope of this book to discuss the many meanings over time of the terms “free will” and “intentionality,” and whether human beings actually possess any, I believe we are able to exercise freedom of choice and, in varying degrees, make unique decisions and valid commitments. Neuroimaging studies (“functional MRIs” which show brain activity as we perform tasks) demonstrate that conscious decision-making accounts for from twenty to fifty percent of brain activity, depending on the novelty and complexity of the task. Many of our everyday decisions are made in the pre-conscious mind – outside our immediate awareness, but readily brought into awareness. Thus, our willpower (also referred to as conscious volition, intentionality, or self-control) is a force we can call upon when necessary, and with some degree of freedom.

When people hear the term “willpower,” many envision Sisyphus, from Greek mythology, who was condemned to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a rock up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. That is because we usually only pay attention to our own willpower when we are having problems applying it to a difficult task. The majority of the time we use it without even being aware of it, such as when we decide to watch TV instead of reading, or vice versa. In the following sections, I will suggest ways to make willpower more accessible in order to increase your effectiveness in getting what you really want out of life.

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