Could you lose weight using only your willpower to change your eating habits? Could you do it if you had to lose weight or die?  This question is not academic—obesity is the second leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. (Smoking remains #1.)  I do NOT mean slimming down by going on a diet--a temporary, restrictive plan—but by following a healthy eating plan for the rest of your life.  Could you do it?

Of course, readers, you and I could do it (a-hem).  But what about the rest of the people out there? What percentage could follow a healthy weight-loss plan using willpower alone?  The answer is mind-bending.  But first, let’s define what “using willpower” really means.

"Pure" willpower is the psychic energy that comes from your personal reason for change—your motivator. When you use willpower, you use the motivator emblazoned on your higher brain to guide your thoughts and actions. An example of almost-pure willpower would be going to an all-you-can-eat buffet and deliberately not eating all you can eat, just because you remember your motivator—health.

There’s no pure willpower, of course, because, as social beings, we are always influenced by others. But let’s say “willpower” means changing pretty much on your own, just by bringing your motivators to mind.

So, let’s get back to the original question.  What percentage of people can adopt healthier eating habits using willpower alone?  Take a guess.  Would you say most people?  About half?  25% or less?

I have a ballpark answer, and it’s this:  Only about 10% of people who want to make a healthy-eating change and maintain it for two years or more can do it just using willpower. 

I found this figure from the book, Change or Die, by Alan Deutschman.  Deutschman, a business journalist, studied people who’d had coronary bypass surgery and needed to make lifestyle changes—eat right and exercise, primarily.  You’d think these people would have a real incentive to use their willpower.  After all, they had to “change or die.”

But Deutschman quotes Dr. Edward Miller, CEO of the hospital at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School.: “If you look at people after coronary-artery bypass grafting two years later, ninety percent of them have not changed their lifestyle,” Miller said. “And that’s been studied over and over again... Even though they know they have a very bad disease and they know they should change their lifestyle, for whatever reason, they can’t.” 

Why can’t they?  Well, “healthy eating” is a complex habit change, involving many moving parts.  People need specific information, not just about mealtime planning, portion control, and healthy foods, but also about handling cravings and bouncing back from lapses, among other things.  “Fear of death,” while seemingly a powerful motivator, might be so scary that some patients, ironically, might turn to their favorite comfort foods to cope. Finally, once patients leave the hospital, they find themselves back in the environments that caused the over-eating in the first place.

By contrast, Deutschman takes a look at people with heart disease who entered a program to help them.  They added outside support—what I call changepower—to their willpower.  (In this case, they used Dean Ornish’s program.)  After 3 years, 77% of these patients had maintained healthy lifestyle changes.

Why do these patients succeed?  Patients who choose group support surround themselves with like-minded people, find new role models, and learn how to apply new information to daily life.  They practice new eating patterns and ways of thinking over and over again with people who will give them feedback.  By the end of the program, they've developed the "healthy eating habit."  They are still using willpower, but they are extending their will to include the power of others.

Any change starts with personal willpower. And we know more about willpower now than ever before, thanks to some excellent books that have recently steamed off the presses: The Willpower Instinct, by PT blogger Kelly McGonigal; Willpower, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney; The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg; the classic Changing for Good, by James Prochaska, Carlos DiClementi, and John Norcross; and my own book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success.  (I’ll share some of their research about increasing personal willpower in future blogs.)

Meanwhile, what do you do if you need to start eating right, say, to avoid type II diabetes, ward off knee problems, or feel more streamlined and vital?  Two points:  One, you need willpower, because you need to know why you want to change.  And two, willpower alone can be weak.  If you back it up with changepower, your chances of success will increase dramatically.  So consider a responsible support group that will teach you how to find pleasure and health in eating and use it until eating right becomes second nature to you.  Willpower is essential and powerful—but may not be enough to change a complex habit like healthy eating.    

(c) Meg Selig


Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life, by Alan Deutschman (2007). Los Angeles: Regan.

Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, by Meg Selig (2009). NY: Routledge.

Follow me on Facebook or Twitter.  Find my book, Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success, here.

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