Willpower is great thing. It can advance your career, keep you focused on your goals, help you accomplish new projects, and even help you overcome great obstacles. “I shall either find a way or make one,” said the legendary Carthaginian military commander Hannibal after his generals told him it would be impossible to cross the Alps’ steep ridges by elephant. Hannibal ignored the warnings, made the dangerous journey and marched into history.
While we can learn much from Hannibal’s classic triumph of mind over matter, when it comes to dieting willpower alone isn’t enough. How else to explain why some of our brightest and most accomplished citizens fail again and again at this most critical endeavor? Indeed, dieting is seldom about willpower. Need proof? Look no further than the weight loss misadventures of well-known celebrities.
Though its rare for any woman, especially one who’s had children, to stay the same dress size, singer, actress, mother of two, and Weight Watchers spokeswoman Jessica Simpson has seen her weight fluctuate more than the Stock Market. While she was pregnant with her first child, she reportedly gained more than 70 pounds, which she then lost. “Bridesmaids” star Rebel Wilson, who’s had to endure repeated comments about her weight, which veers between overweight and morbid obesity, actually signed on as a spokeswoman with Jenny Craig. Her stated goal was to lose 55 lbs. Though she initially lost 33 lbs., the Australian actress found it difficult to continue with her eating plan, and has repeatedly tweeted about binging on cupcakes and other junk food. Perhaps, no one has struggled more with weight than Oprah Winfrey, whose perennial battles with bulge have reached near epic proportions. It shouldn’t be that surprising that even the rich and famous, who frequently have private chefs and personal trainers at their beckon call, regain weight. In a country where the typical dieter makes 4-5 weight loss attempts per year they fit right in.
So what can you learn from these celebrity diet misadventures? That even highly successful and accomplished people are often no match for the Siren’s call of certain foods. As I told a legendary film executive, who was widely known as one his industry’s toughest negotiators, after he confided that he was contemplating a return to breadbaskets, “When in your life did you ever negotiate with a breadbasket and win?” My patient knew his history with breadbaskets and rather than a rely on an iron will, which had helped him succeed in so many other areas of his life, used to strategy to resist the call of the food that was the source of his struggles with weight. As a New York Times feature story pointed out, even the most determined dieters struggle to keep the weight off when they rely on willpower alone. For my patient, and thousands of others like him with a long history of abusing a particular food, they found that it was better not to start than to have a little. It’s not that they can’t have a certain food. They can have whatever they want. But my patients, the winners at weight control, realize that they might never have the life they want if they return to foods they have a long history of abusing. I don’t know Rebel Wilson’s food history, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that she has a long history of abusing baked goods. The same people gain back the same weight with the foods again and again!
Simply, willpower is fragile and subject to a great many factors that may be outside our conscious control. As I will repeat over and over on this website, those who succeed at weight control do not have more willpower than those who fail. Simply, they have better strategies! The winners at weight control—the elite group that have not only lose weight, but also keep it off—know that strategy is the key to unlocking the proverbial door to success. This elite five percent succeed because they use strategy not only to control food and correct mistakes, but most importantly, to the change the fundamental thinking and feelings about the place of food in their lives.