Stop Blaming Lack of Willpower for Our Obesity Crisis

26/06/2012 17:47 BST | Updated 26/08/2012 10:12 BST

What is the secret to being slim?

Many people will tell you that it's willpower. If you have willpower you can resist temptation, only eat foods that are good for you and live a healthy lifestyle.

I don't agree with this. In fact I think the willpower myth has undermined our efforts to manage obesity.

This sort of attitude to willpower is exemplified in coverage of a recent Cancer UK press release. It was reported that "two-thirds of overweight people know they are at increased risk of cancer but don't have the willpower to lose weight."

And so the myth is perpetuated: you are overweight because you lack willpower.

Not only is this incorrect, but it feeds into more sinister narratives about willpower being related to moral fibre and that people who lack willpower are simply "greedy".

But why do so many people lack willpower? Because we are hardwired to eat food when we see it. Our ancestors didn't live in such abundant times. They didn't know where their next meal was coming from. It made survival sense to eat as much as you could, when you could, to tide you over for times when food was scarce.

Of course, that makes no sense now in this era of fast food and 24 hour supermarkets. But that's the way it is. Therefore lack of willpower isn't a failing. It isn't about greed. It's simply the way we evolved.

But in our society, willpower is exaggerated in its importance because of the preponderance of "diet-based" solutions for weight loss.

What is a diet? It's a short-term reduction in eating in order to achieve weight loss. What this practically translates to, is cutting back on what you usually eat, which often includes things that you enjoy. Of course, not eating things you enjoy requires willpower.

And while some people can maintain this for a short time, most people cannot maintain it forever. Hence the phenomenon of yoyo dieting and the general lack of success that people have with dieting.

We can blame the failure of diets to work on a collective lack of willpower. But is it really a failure of willpower or an underlying failure of the diet as a means to lose weight? I say it's the diet that's at fault. If you can't stick to a deprivation diet it's because the diet is unreasonable, not because of some terrible moral failing.

Diets are a short-term solution that rely too heavily on willpower. A far more sustainable approach is to change your habits. Rather than big drastic changes, you make small changes to your eating habits that you know you can maintain for the rest of your life. Accumulating these small changes over time is the key to long term weight loss.

And yet some would argue that even with a more measured sensible approach, don't you still need willpower if you are sitting in a chocolate shop and can't resist eating a truffle?

To this I would say, a much better alternative to gritting your teeth and resisting, is to avoid the situation altogether. It's much harder to be tempted by a truffle when you are nowhere near the chocolate shop.

What this means is, as a long term strategy, limiting your exposure to temptation is much more likely to succeed than relying on willpower.

Willpower is overrated. A lack of it is not the reason why we are suffering an obesity crisis. We think willpower is the answer because we still think that depriving yourself on a diet is the only way to lose weight. It isn't.