Obesity and Willpower


Willpower is one of the most widely touted obesity cures. What is being said about it?

The Miriam Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, features the Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, where a study was conducted on the impact of self-control when a person is trying to eat less and lose weight. Dr. Patricia Leahey believes that nowhere near enough research has been done on this topic.

Here is the breakdown from writer Jessica Collins Grimes:

The Miriam research team found that individuals with more willpower — or self-control — lost more weight, were more physically active, consumed fewer calories from fat and had better attendance at weight loss group meetings. The same was true for participants who experienced an increase in self-control during a six-month behavioral weight loss treatment program.

Like much food-related research, this study harkened back to previous work on smoking cessation. Leahey says her team’s study is the first to look at “whether practicing acts of self-control during weight loss is linked to an increase in self-control and better weight loss outcomes.” She is a proponent of the will-as-muscle theory, saying:

The more you ‘exercise’ it by eating a low fat diet, working out even when you don’t feel like it, and going to group meetings when you’d rather stay home, the more you’ll increase and strengthen your self-control ‘muscle’ and quite possibly lose more weight and improve your health.

In other words, self-control is under your control, and the more you practice consciously inhibiting the desires and cravings that lead to overindulgence, the better at it you will become. Willpower is a learned skill that can be improved and increased by using… willpower. For some, this reasoning is a bit too circular.

But how does a person acquire enough willpower to work on increasing the willpower? Talking about a 2010 survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) once reported:

In 2009 and again this year, lacking willpower was cited as a barrier to adopting healthy behaviors when lifestyle changes were recommended by a health care provider. Yet the majority believes willpower can be learned as well as improved…

People recognize that willpower is a good thing, and believe their personal self-control and self-governance would increase if only they had more confidence and more energy. And more money. This is contrary to intuition and empirical experience, which both teach us that getting your hands on more money is not the path to temperance or moderation.

The very idea is almost humorous. Yet the APA says:

While the majority of adults (70 percent) believe willpower — defined by respondents as self-control/resisting temptations/urges, sticking to a decision and accomplishing a goal — is something that can be learned, many saw money as an important factor in willpower. Four in 10 adults said money would help them improve their willpower.

The commentary on the study dispenses faint praise, suggesting that at least people are willing to entertain the notion that something can help them, which is useful. Even if willpower is not actually the thing that can help, the very idea that something can help is a step in the right direction. Childhood Obesity News will look at that concept.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Can you ‘train’ yourself to have more willpower?,” EurekAlert, 01/24/13
Source: “Key Findings,” APA.org
Image by bitesizeinspiration (Omar Reyes).

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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