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March 18, 2012

The Oprah Paradox: why people with excellent self-discipline also have a hard time controlling their body weight

Willpower has typically been looked at as a trait that one has or has not. For decades, self-esteem was the concept that needed to be promoted while self-control was viewed as old-fashioned. But willpower is back in fashion as research has shown that it is a key positive factor predicting happiness and well-being.

I just finished reading the book 'Willpower' of Roy Baumeister and John Tierney (In Dutch: Wilskracht: De herontdekking van de grootste kracht van de mens). Roy Baumeister is a leading scientist in the field of willpower and self regulation and became widely known for the process of 'ego depletion'. Having too many choices will exhausten your self-control as we draw on the same source of willpower for various tasks, not just related tasks. That means that willpower is like a muscle which needs to be fuelled by sleep and food (glucose).
Wilskracht - Baumeister & Tierney

In chapter 10, Baumeister and Tierney discuss what they label the 'Oprah Paradox'. Oprah Winfrey must have had excellent self-discipline and willpower to achieve the success that she did. Nevertheless, even she has a hard time to consistently control her weight. The authors discuss this paradox by listing some reasons why dieters fail. In order not to eat, a dieter needs willpower. Willpower runs on glucose. So, to fuel willpower, a dieter needs to eat. In other words, dieters deprive themselves from what they need the most. Another big threat is that dieters often fall for the so-called 'what the hell effect'. A small slip in their diet will make them blow off the dieting rules entirely. Dieting is obviously not the solution. The authors argue for small manageble changes. Over time, these small changes will become habits and having good habits saves willpower.

Overall, this is a book absolutely worth reading as it clearly shows how important willpower is. In an entertaining way the authors offer advice on how to strengthen self-control and use willpower wisely. One of them is: never say never when it comes to dealing with tempting foods. It is better to tell yourself to eat a small portion later than forbid yourself to eat them at all. This postponement method allows the impulse to fade away and in this way encourages self-control.

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