When it comes to weight, there are various types of people. First, there are the people who are naturally slim and have been since they were children. They can eat like truck drivers and never put on a pound. My sister-in-law, Rose, falls into this category, and she is as pretty and as trim now as she was 20 years (or so!) ago when she married my brother. I sincerely hope that naturally slim people start each day giving thanks that they don’t have to worry and obsess about every single mouthful of food they eat. They hit the jackpot with body metabolism, and while I don’t exactly begrudge these people their good luck—all right, I’m a little bitter—I’m certainly envious.
Then there are the people who have small appetites. Somehow, they just don’t want to eat that much. They get full very fast, and their bodies seem to have an internal gauge that prevents them from overeating. These people are a complete mystery to me, and I have watched in astonishment as small-appetite friends have left half their desserts uneaten. (Guess who often eats the other half?) People who have small appetites don’t appear to struggle with portion control. It just comes naturally to them, and like their sisters and brothers blessed with fast metabolisms, I hope those with small appetites start each day giving thanks for this gift.
Next come the people with will power. They like to eat, but they are firm with themselves. One friend, in particular, comes to mind. She is well into her 60s, and what a terrific figure she has. She likes to cook, she likes to eat, and she has a good appetite, but she knows how to say no to herself. It’s not that she won’t eat dessert or chips; she just doesn’t eat them very often. I view this friend with something like the awe that I would reserve for a Zen master.
Finally—and I know the above list is not all inclusive—there is the majority, I think, people who love to eat and who have bodies that love to put on weight. Will power is touch and go; sometimes we have it, but often we don’t.
What’s up with will power, anyway? In the New York Times, just in time for the new year, John Tierney wrote a piece called “Be It Resolved.” The piece is about New Year’s resolutions in general and will power in specific, and there is good news and bad news. I always like to begin with good news: Those who make resolutions are much more likely to “make improvements than someone who hasn’t made a formal resolution.” It seems that a statement of intent really does make a difference. Here’s the bad news, which will come as no surprise: “By the end of January, a third will have broken their resolutions, and by July more than half will have lapsed.”
It all comes down to will power, to staying on course and not giving up. But according to Tierney, here’s the fascinating thing: Social scientists have come to believe that will power is not just a metaphor but rather “a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.” And “ego depletion” is what happens when you “exert self-control” over an extended period of time. In other words, you just plain get tired. (Doesn’t anyone who has ever dieted instinctively know this? You just plain get tired of keeping track of every single thing that you eat and of constantly saying no to yourself.)
But there are ways to deal with flagging will power—“ego depletion”—and Tierney suggests “that the way to keep a New Year’s resolution is to anticipate the limits of your willpower.” It seems that people who have the best will power arrange their lives so they are not constantly tempted by their favorite things. “They play offense, not defense, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises, conserve their energy and outsource as much self-control as they can.”
As Tierney notes, this is especially relevant for dieters. The more people diet, the less glucose they have in their systems, which, in turn, affects their will power. It really is a nasty cycle.
Tierney goes on to list a series of strategies to deal with the problem of will power, and, among other things, they range from setting a clear, single goal to precommitting yourself to finding ways of rewarding yourself when you reach a goal.
Tierney’s article is thought provoking, and it illustrates why people often fail to achieve the goals they really and truly want. Even for those who have never struggled with such things, the article is insightful, and I highly recommend it as I have only touched on its key issues in this post.
As for me and losing weight—I have adopted a strategy that instinctively takes flagging will power into consideration. But before I describe “my” system—actually it was developed by a man named Fats Goldberg—in the next post On Being Fat I want to write about another pitfall of dieting that science has recently shed light on—that is, how the body doesn’t like losing weight.