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Why weight loss through self-control is destined to fail

Self-control is important. It stops you blurting out insensitive things at dinner parties, helps you spend your money on your bills rather than making extravagant purchases and it prevents you from telling your boss what you really think of those last minutes changes of plan. It's a good strategy for short term use but as long term strategy it can be tiring, frustrating and ultimately unsuccessful. 

In a previous blog I talked about the difference between the conscious and unconscious minds so by now you might be familiar with the idea that your unconscious mind generates your emotions, impulses and habits in order to make suggestions to your conscious mind, which processes them through the slower, more effortful process of conscious thought, focused attention and planning. A system that typically serves us well. 

Now you can work against this natural order of the brain. You can use conscious effort to execute a plan despite your underlying impulses, in other words you can use self-control to resist your instincts. The problem with this is that it uses the limited bandwidth of your conscious mind. Your conscious mind requires slow, deliberate effort and this uses energy, causing problems when using this strategy to resist temptation in the long term. A nightmare for dieters and anyone looking to lose weight. 


Self-control is like a fuel tank

Several psychological studies have shown that people who are faced with demanding cognitive task whilst facing a temptation are more likely to give into that temptation.

In one experiment, subjects were given a list of numbers to concentrate on and memorise. They were subsequently offered the choice of two desserts, chocolate cake or a fruit salad. The results showed those subjects who had a long list of numbers to memorise chose the chocolate cake. It would seem that choice and the ability to exercise self-control draw upon the same pool of limited resources or in other words, if you have a lot on your (conscious) mind you will struggle to use self-control to resist temptation. 

Even if you successfully manage to resist temptation using self-control in a particular situation, studies by American social psychologist Roy Baumesiter suggests that this is tiring, meaning if you have to use your energy and concentration on one task, you have less mental energy when faced with subsequent challenges. This is known as 'ego depletion'. Resisting temptation in one situation reduces the available energy to use self-control to resist temptation in the next. This has troubling consequences for anyone wanting to use self-control for sticking to a diet because it shows that you deplete your resources for self-control the more you use it.

Which is more tempting to you right now?

Which is more tempting to you right now?

What kind of activities draw from this shared pool of energy?

To give you an idea, the kind of activities that deplete your energy for self-control are things that require voluntary effort such as: 

  • Physical activity, particularly those out of norm 
  • Cognitive tasks and mental activities 
  • Inhibiting emotions (including suppressing feelings and acting against your impulses) 

These all draw on same source of energy. The more you do each of these and deplete that energy the harder it becomes to exert that mental effort in further tasks and decisions. 

This increases the likelihood of impulsive behaviour such as: 

  • Deviating from a diet 
  • Making impulse purchases 
  • Reacting aggressively to being challenged 
  • Performing poorly in cognitive tasks and logical decision-making 


Can energy used by these tasks be replaced?

In a study by the same group, two groups were given a series of 'ego depleting' tasks to perform such as suppressing their emotions when watching a film or giving a speech expressing views that were completely contradictory to their own. One group was given regular lemonade made with sugar after the first task and the second group was given a lemonade made with sweetener. They were then given some further tasks to perform. 

In the subsequent tasks the regular lemonade group performed better than the group who drank the lemonade made with sweetener. It would seem that the sugary lemonade replaced the energy used in the ego depleting tasks, which may explain why we more likely to reach out for sugary treats when we when we have a lot of things on our minds that require our focus and attention. 


So should we just give in to our impulses?  

So we know that resisting your impulses creates a drain on your energy, which can cause us to crave sugary things, so should we just give into temptation? 

The only answer to this is "are your impulses working for you?".  

If they are then they are serving their intended purpose, no problem. But if they are causing you to be overweight, or even worse damaging your health, then you might want to take action.  

It's not about resisting urges, or giving into them. It's about understanding them. Those desires and impulses exist for a reason. The purpose of those impulses are positive, however, the logic behind the solutions we create to satisfy those impulses are not always sound. 

For example, you may have had a tough week and you might get to Friday and feel the desire the to reach out for some comfort food. You have three options: 

Fight the urge: as we know that this is draining and it feels unpleasant. 

Give into the urge: but this may contribute to overeating and other behaviour we what to stop. 

Understand the urge: if you are reaching our for comfort food what is that telling you?

What has happened during that week or that day that has caused you to want comfort? If you dealt with the purpose of the impulse, could you come up with a better way of meeting that need than putting on weight?

The urge to reach for comfort is correct, it's what we need. However, food as a solution for providing comfort, in this case, might be completely wrong for you. Is there a better way of achieving the same thing? 


Give it a go 

If you are finding your impulse to eat certain things or in certain situations is problematic, next time rather than try to resist that impulse try and understand it. You may find that if the cause of these impulses are dealt with they disappear altogether. 

Self-control is a wonderful thing. It helps you function as an adult and preserves relationships when you're asked: "does my bum look big in this?" but it's simply not a good long term strategy for successful weight loss.


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