Why Willpower Won’t End Overeating

We often try to rely on willpower to stop overeating. We see lack of willpower as the biggest barrier to change. We end up thinking we are lazy, stupid and broken because it doesn’t work. In reality, willpower is never enough. Over the years, food has come to fill an emotional need for you. Whether it is comfort, avoidance or a sense of control in situations that are out of your control, the payoff with food is immense. Willpower does not stop the “reward” neurotransmitters in your brain when you think about food. Willpower does not step in when you are on automatic pilot. Willpower does not account for the emotional connection you have made to food and it certainly doesn’t meet the emotional need. So what does work?

  1. Identify your triggers. What are the big triggers for overeating? Often, there are conditioned responses associated with certain situations. Movies and popcorn just seem to go together, right? By recognizing ways that we have paired food with other activities in our lives and create new associations, we don’t need to rely on willpower to get ourselves through.
  2. “Play the tape through” by recognizing what will happen if you use food to meet your emotional needs. Not only will you still be left to deal with the problem, but you will have other consequences from overeating.
  3. Plan ahead. By creating a plan around what you need to do in a potentially triggering situation, you aren’t left trying to come up with solutions in the moment. This is particularly helpful because you aren’t in your most logical state of mind. It also prevents decision fatigue.
  4. Be flexible. Recognize that slips happen and don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself overeating. Instead, figure out where you got off track and make plan for how you want to deal with that situation in the future.

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis

Michelle Lewis has a Bachelor's degree in Psychology from Weber State University and a Master's degree in Social Work from the University of Utah. She has been working in the mental health field since 2001.

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