By Vic Napier
No matter how dedicated people might be about losing weight, they rarely have a detailed plan in place for changing their eating behaviors. For the most part, they rely on willpower. Unfortunately, people who rely on willpower alone to lose weight will almost certainly fail, either in the short run, or in the long-term objective of staying slim.
Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist at Florida State University who is well-known for making significant discoveries about self-control and willpower. In his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, he examines the hidden challenges of weight loss. One of the most disheartening of these challenges is the fact that weight is remarkably resistant to self-control.
Let’s take two public figures as examples: Oprah Winfrey and Newt Gingrich. Both possess a strong sense of determination and purpose, yet both have experienced shame and humiliation over their failed weight-loss efforts. The iron will and self-control that brought them success in their careers was useless when it came to controlling their eating habits. In her magazine O, Oprah describes sitting at the Emmy Awards ceremony praying to lose to her talk-show rival, Phil Donahue: “I wouldn’t have to embarrass myself by rolling my fat butt out of my seat and walking down the aisle to the stage.”
In her excellent book The Secret Life of Fat, Sylvia Tara reveals that Gingrich has similar sentiments. In 1995, shortly after his ascension to the post of Speaker of the House, Barbara Walters asked him what he considered his biggest embarrassment. “I’m most embarrassed about my weight…I know it’s entirely a function of my personality that I swim, I eat the right things, and then I either have a chance to drink some Guinness or to eat some ice cream, and I cave.”
It hasn’t always been this way. Only recently has our weight skyrocketed and our efforts to manage it failed so miserably. During the Civil War soldiers averaged about 5’8” and weighed around 143 pounds. By the early 1980s men were about the same height as they were during the Civil War, but their weight averaged forty pounds more, according to the Centers for Disease Control. What happened? It seems that as soon as we have food in front of us we can’t help but gorge ourselves. As Gingrich says, just offering us the chance to overeat assures that we cave.
Baumeister tells us that bookies in England routinely give odds against anyone betting on weight loss. That is stunning when you consider that the people making the bets — the dieters and their friends — have control over just about everything. They determine the target weight loss, the amount of time allotted, and the conditions under which they will attempt to lose the weight. Yet the house wins about 80% of the time. Keep in mind that this does not include regaining weight months or years later: the bet is only about losing weight in the immediate future. Almost everyone fails.
Baumeister got curious about this, so he set out to explore the challenges of weight loss and why even those with a high level of self-control find it elusive. First, he did a meta-study. In a meta-study, the investigator does not do any experiments of their own. Instead, they look at experiments others have done, combine all the data collected in previous experiments, and subject it to new statistical analysis. Across dozens of studies, Baumeister found that people with proven reserves of self-control did only slightly better than the average person when attempting to control their weight.
Baumeister tested this finding by creating a 12-week weight loss program for undergrads at Florida State. He identified students with high self-control and followed them throughout the course. They did slightly better than the low self-control individuals, but not by much, and not for long. As the program wore on their self-control seemed to flag. In the end, there was little difference in weight loss between the two groups.
How can self-control be so insignificant when it comes to weight loss, yet so effective in other areas of people’s lives? There are many reasons, but one probably familiar to all of us has been dubbed the “what-the-hell effect” by researchers.