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Written by: Matt Fitzgerald
Overweight is often attributed to a lack of willpower. And new research on the role of the brain in relation to body weight suggests that this may indeed be the case, at least to some extent. But the same research is also complicating the notion of willpower. It is generally assumed that willpower is a quality that every person is equally capable of exercising, and thus that those who do not exercise willpower choose not to. So when an overweight person’s weight is blamed on lack of willpower, that person is essentially being accused of choosing to be fat.
But consider the results of a recent study by researchers at the Oregon Research Institute. An MRI machine was used to monitor activity in the so-called reward center of the brains of normal-weight and overweight individuals immediately before they drank a milkshake and while they drank it. They found that, on average, overweight individuals exhibited greater activity in this area before they tasted the treat and less activity as they tasted it. In other words, overweight persons seemed to anticipate the pleasure of drinking a milkshake more intensely than normal-weight persons, but got less pleasure from the actual drinking experience.
The authors of the study hypothesized that this difference in the functioning of the reward center of the brain, which is believed to be largely genetically determined, could partly explain why overweight persons eat more-in other words, why overweight persons are overweight. Simply put, some of us are fated to be forever disappointed by the eating experience. The high associated with eating or drinking a treat never lives up to expectations, so we’re less satisfied and more disposed to try, try again for that elusive high. It appears, then, that some people really do have less willpower than others with respect to food. Does this mean that those with less hardwired willpower have no hope of staying lean, or becoming leaner if they’re already overweight? No it doesn’t. Eating behavior is affected by many factors beyond the genetically determined drive to eat. Those who are “hardwired” to eat more can become or stay lean by controlling some of these other factors in ways that counteract the drive to eat too much.
One of these factors is the social environment. Research has shown that fat people are more likely to have fat friends. Our eating behaviors are also influenced by food advertising and eating environments. For example, people tend to eat more in buffet restaurants and in restaurants that serve large portions. If you want to avoid gaining weight or to lose some of the weight you’ve already gained, spend more time in the company of people with healthy eating and exercise habits, which are likely to rub off on you to some degree. And avoid going to restaurants that encourage overeating. It is also possible to override the desire to eat to some degree with contradictory motivations-that is, motivations for rewards that are incompatible with overeating. For example, no matter how hardwired for fatness you may be, if I offered you one million dollars to lose 25 pounds you could surely do it.
Each of us is more or less on his own to discover the personal motivator(s) that will allow him to change his health habits without the application of “willpower”. There is no one-size-fits-all motivation to eat right. According to research, the most common motivation for starting a diet or exercise program is the desire to look better. However, the vast majority of these efforts end in failure, and the most common motivations behind successful weight loss efforts are different, and even differ by gender. Among men who lose a lot of weight and keep it off the most commonly cited motivator is negative health events (e.g. heart attacks). Among women, it’s social trauma (e.g. being ridiculed by coworkers). Therefore the best advice I can offer you is to go out of your way to have a heart attack or be subjected to public humiliation on account of how you look. Seriously, though, one of the most powerful ways you can set yourself up for success in weight management is to find the motivation to eat right and exercise that works best for you. It might be to become a better role model for your kids, or it might be a personal challenge such as running a marathon. There is no right or wrong motivator. If it works for you, it’s right, even if it doesn’t work for anyone else.
There’s another way to manage your weight by accounting for your natural drive to eat, and that’s to create a diet that satisfies your appetite and tastes without feeding you too many calories. For example, a recent study found that overweight individuals lost weight without dieting simply by drinking protein shakes twice a day. Protein shakes reduce appetite in a calorically efficient way. Consequently, when you snack on protein shakes you are less hungry at mealtimes and you eat less. There are lots of other tricks you can use to create a diet that is satisfying and not fattening. Eating frequently and increasing your fiber intake are among them.
You might not have much willpower to resist food and you might not be able to do much to increase it, but with methods such as those described in this article you can work around your lack of willpower and be just as lean as those lucky enough to be born with it.