Try As You Might, You Can’t Keep Weight Off With Willpower

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Kale salad forever.
Kale salad forever.Photo: Pamela Joe McFarlane

Good news: If you have trouble keeping weight off, it’s not because you lack willpower. Bad news: It’s because your body wants you to gain it back.

Sandra Aamodt, a neuroscientist and the author of Why Diets Make Us Fat, told The Atlantic that people believe they can control their weight by resisting food, but in reality it’s a lot harder than it sounds.

Your body is actually designed to fight you when you try to lose weight or keep it off — your metabolism really does slow down and hunger increases, too. Not only that, but your brain has a reward system that favors high-calorie foods, plus its system that deals with planning and decision-making gets worn out when you do things that require self-control. This is known as your executive functioning system and it doesn’t work as well when you’re lonely, stressed, or — you guessed it — hungry, Aamodt says.

“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,” she told The Atlantic.

Diets do work in the short term, she says, but most people will gain the weight back over the next few years. So, no, willpower can’t help you keep weight off and experts believe working out is even less reliable than dieting. Thinking that self-control is the key to shedding pounds is not only unhelpful, but it perpetuates weight bias.

What are you supposed to do if you want to lose weight? You could diet — and likely feel hungry — for the rest of your life, or you could focus on your overall health. [Ducks for cover.]

No, really. Studies have found that women who dieted frequently were more likely to binge eat, which isn’t good for weight or your relationship with food. Aamodt’s New Year’s resolution in 2010 was to stop dieting and weighing herself and to work out every day. She’s kept it up six years later and also eats mindfully, enjoying her food instead of demonizing it. Imagine that.