Finding the Self-Control to Eat Less

Often when someone decides it is time to lose weight, they are focused on wondering if they have the motivation and willpower to finally stick with it.  “I just need to find my motivation” is the oft-expressed refrain.

The assumption is that to lose weight, one has to restrict eating, and that restriction will not be fun.  In fact, it will be grueling, and require a lot of changes in eating patterns that will mean a nose-to-the-grindstone effort.  

But, a research psychologist by the name of Roy Baumeister has discovered and shown time and again that willpower is a finite resource that we have.  It wanes as we use it, on a daily basis. 

And yet, many continue on the path of restriction, hoping that this attempt will be different. 

The Elephant and the Rider

What is often overlooked in the diet process is the fact that we have an emotional brain and an executive brain.  Back in 2006 psychologist Jonathan Haidt described our emotional brain as a very large elephant that likes to do what it wants.  The elephant has a rider that is very much smaller in stature and strength compared to the elephant, but nonetheless has the task of trying to control it.  The rider is likened to our executive brain, the prefrontal cortex. 

It turns out that our emotional brains work incredibly fast.  They produce a reaction/judgment/emotion with lightning speed.  This can be a fantastic survival mechanism, but it is not so conducive to allowing for the self-control required of those who are attempting to restrict their eating. 

There are some other problems.  For example, Baumeister observed that dieting imposes a set of rules that rely on external cues rather than internal ones.  If you don’t follow the rules, you have nothing left to guide you.  However, if you want to progress to taking charge of the situation, you need to learn to be guided by your internal cues. 

BUT there is a problem with this as well.  Dieters can misread their internal cues.  Are they really hungry?  Or is it just time to eat?  How full are they getting?  What portion size will be satisfying?  On top of this, dieting in itself heightens awareness of, and attention to food.  Then, it seems that even more willpower is needed. 

Is It Really about Willpower?

So, we circle back to the elephant and the rider.  Is it really willpower that tames the unruly elephant?  The elephant that wants immediate gratification?  The elephant that sabotages our best laid plans to eat reasonably?  The elephant that bypasses self-awareness and self-control when faced with a situation where those around us are enjoying an all-you-can-eat buffet? 

If you want to keep it simple and look at the big picture, you can go back to the observation that the elephant, the emotional brain, acts very, very quickly.  On the other hand, the executive brain takes longer to sift through information to make a considered plan of action.

Strategies to Tame the Elephant

Given all this, there are at least three things we can do to overcome the elephant, and learn self-control and self-awareness.

  1. Slow down when you eat.  Not just because it takes our stomachs about 20 minutes to register how full we are.  Slowing down gives our executive brains (the rider) time to figure out what we are eating, why we are eating it, and whether or not the amount is in line with our actual needs and goals. This type of deliberate focus gives us a chance to accomplish a habit change.
  2. Monitoring.  It works.  Keeping a food diary and weighing yourself daily has been shown time and again to predict greater success with weight loss and weight maintenance.  While at first this may seem like just a rote exercise, it really means that those who monitor are keeping their focus on the goal of losing weight, day in and day out.  They are following through with small tasks that reinforce the focus.
  3. Break down the task.  In other words, make specific plans for specific situations and practice them until they become habitual.  An easy way to think about this is, “if X happens, then I will do Y.”  An example of this would be, “If I go to the movies, I will get the small popcorn and eat it slowly.”  In this way, it is possible to focus on only a few aspects of the larger issue.  Your brain becomes accustomed to it, rather than putting a strain on the system by making global restrictions.

Unfortunately, we cannot ignore the fact that motivation and willpower still have to be involved.  But, they can be used in a different way.  They can be used to help us direct our focus to keeping our eating and planning process slow and the tasks small.  In this way, we do not squander our willpower away on a strict diet that we cannot stick with for the long haul. 

A final thought:  It also takes willpower and motivation to give up seeking the immediate gratification of losing weight quickly.  But, this can become easier if we can become aware of our human nature and how it relates to the goal of losing weight.


There is a more in-depth version of this article published in Kristen’s Health and Human Nature Blog in Psychology Today, 9/21/21.

© 2021 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved
Photo Credit: Motortion / iStock

Design for Fitness - Personal Assessment

Similar Posts