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The science behind weight loss

Want to Lose Weight? You Don’t Need Willpower, You Need This

I recently read endurance athlete and nutrition writer Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults. For fun.

The purpose of this book is to dispel any notion that there is one perfect diet, and instead encourage its readers to eat more of the foods that are best for us (think fruits and veggies), a little less of the foods that aren’t quite as good for us (whole grains, nuts, dairy, high quality meats and seafood) and much, much less of the foods that don’t provide much in the nutritional realm (sweets, fried foods, I think you already know what I’m talking about here).

The concept and science behind the book are interesting and well-researched, and some of what I learned was new to me, and I think you’ll want to know about it.

Fitzgerald discusses research done by the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), which was founded in 1994 with the intent of finding out how those rare creatures, otherwise known as successful dieters, lost and kept off weight for the long term.

They identified three key behaviors that most people who lost 30 pounds or more and kept it off for at least a year engaged in: self-weighing, eating monotonously, and exercising regularly. Fitzgerald posits that these three key behaviors have nothing to do with willpower, rather, they are based entirely on another factor: motivation.

Why? Well, it’s relatively easy to figure out how to lose weight—you hear it everywhere: Eat less, move more. Often we blame our willpower for our inability to stick to this seemingly simple formula, but what if the reason our willpower doesn’t hold up is because it’s our motivation for making changes that we’re truly lacking?

According to Fitzgerald, the three most common motivators for those in the NWCR are an adverse medical event, reaching an all-time high weight, or seeing oneself in the mirror or in a photo and being upset by their appearance.

But if you have not experienced any of these events, or have not been motivated by them, how can you make your own motivation?

Write down all of the reasons why you want to lose weight. Write ‘em down, type ‘em out, just get them down. Now pick one to three of these reasons that really, really get you revved up. It could be “shallow,” like looking great on your next vacation, it could be serious, like getting your Type 2 Diabetes under control; it can be a combination of factors. Once you’ve identified these factors that pull at you, type them up in GIGANTIC LETTERS, print them out, and hang up the piece of paper somewhere you’ll see it. In fact, print out more than one copy so you can put one on your fridge, one in your pantry, one next to your sneakers, and one next to the day old birthday cake in the kitchen at work.

Give yourself external rewards and motivation. Yes, I mean bribe yourself. If you don’t have any life factors that are providing the motivation you need, make some up. If you stick to your eating and exercise program for seven straight days, you get a pedicure. If you stick to your eating and exercise program for 30 straight days, you get a new video game. Don’t make the rewards food-based; do make the rewards something you really want. Alternatively, you can withhold little things and use them to reward yourself, say, no checking your Facebook feed until you’ve completed your morning workout. You do what works for you!

Keep trying and keep searching for that magical motivation. Take heart – 90 percent of NWCR members reported that they had tried at least once before to lose weight and failed before they were successful (and I bet for many of them it was many more times than once!) If your motivators don’t work this time, give it another try when you get a new impulse.

Stop beating yourself up about your lack of willpower. As I covered just a few paragraphs ago, it appears that willpower may not be the key to losing weight, and in my experience, the harder you are on yourself about your lack of progress, the more likely you are to get upset and ultimately end up overeating.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.