Self-Discipline for Weight Loss: Does it work?

Over 20,000 men, women, and children have sought help for weight loss at the Center for Nutrition. Included in that group have been some of the most “successful” individuals in the region. Bankers, physicians, trial attorneys, CEO’s of corporations, health educators, dietitians, professional athletes, and politicians have all been patients of mine, typically showing up with a long history of weight loss failures.

Some of these individuals could give lectures on a disciplined lifestyle and “keys to success”, yet they each gained weight and could not lose it and keep it off. You see, self-discipline might appear to be the solution for unwanted weight gain, but it is only effective if it is used on the correct strategies. Being disciplined definitely does not predict having a normal weight.

I have tremendous respect and concern for individuals seeking to enhance their health by losing weight and improving nutrition. However, I know from years of working with such patients that weight loss long term is an extremely difficult undertaking.

People typically need assistance to be successful. Why can’t they use “self-discipline” to “stop eating so much” and “just get off the couch and exercise”? Unfortunately, research and my experience confirm that there are 3 reasons, all related to appetite, which predictably doom the most self-disciplined of dieters. Here they are….

Reason #1: Dieters almost always have an abnormal, excessive appetite – and it’s a chronic condition.

Appetite shows itself in different ways. For some it is overeating after long, tiring workdays. I call this “Fatigue Eating”, and it is very common.

Think about when you consume most of your calories. Is it before 4 pm, or after? For most people, as the day goes on, our ability to limit calories declines. We eat the most at the worst possible time, within hours of going to bed. Then we “hibernate” for the night, allowing those extra calories to be stored as fat. In overweight individuals, this “extra eating” goes beyond normal limits.

For others, it is overeating with stress or when we are in a bad mood. Eating “comfort foods” feels like good medicine, and it works for a few minutes! Mood is indeed altered by our favorite comfort foods, but the side effect of weight gain from the extra calories can destroy our health and sabotage any dieter.

We now know that excess appetite tendencies are determined by many factors, but 70% of it is simple genetics. Cravings for carbohydrates, sweets, or hearty, high calories meals can be a family tendency, driving weight gain in multiple family members. If people tend to be the same size and shape in your family, think genetics!

These and other long term “excess appetite” tendencies and chronic food cravings, typically driven by genetics or chronic stress and fatigue, don’t disappear just because someone starts a diet or because they have self-discipline. In fact, these tendencies are made worse by dieting, leading to the next factor.

Reason #2: Appetite INCREASES rapidly with Dieting.

Dieting makes people hungry. A recent nutrition research journal stated it this way, “acute caloric restriction results in rapid changes in appetite that result in compensatory eating…” In other words, put someone on a diet and they predictably want more food! Not only that, but dieters DO eat more food. Once the forced diet was over, dieters ate 81% more calories at snack time than the non-dieters.

“Compensatory eating” means that after dieting for a few days, people get more hungry, they want more food, and they enjoy their tasty favorite snacks more than ever. The result is predictable. Dieters eventually overeat to compensate for the calories they’ve “missed”. The result of typical self-diets is hunger and overeating, rather than lasting weight loss.

Reason #3: Appetite INCREASES rapidly with Exercise.

The same research study also showed that exercise can sabotage a diet. You see, when people increased their exercise, they got hungry and ate more, not less. The exercise group ate more because food gave a greater sense of pleasure and reward after an increase in exercise.

Our mothers knew this without an expensive research study. Remember the message, “Go out to play and work up an appetite for dinner.” It just makes sense. When we are more active, we get more hungry and then we eat more. Now you can see why self-discipline, an admirable and valuable character trait, is not a great answer for weight reduction if the focus is diet and exercise.

Summary: Think about your own motives for eating.

Do you have cravings and appetite struggles and find it difficult or impossible to suppress them with self-discipline? If so, you are not alone. Unhealthy food cravings can be there for a number of reasons, none of which include a lack of self-discipline.

Genetic tendencies, sleep deficiency, excessive stress, certain medications, nutrient deficiencies, and hormone disorders are just a few of the proven reasons for unwanted food cravings. Typical diets and exercise plans only aggravate the problem.

Self-discipline is great, but always seek resolution of unwanted cravings at their source of origin rather than trying to muster superhuman levels of self-control to manage them. Think through any unwanted cravings or excessive appetite you may have. If the source is not obvious, seek professional help.

Proper, personalized nutrition strategies, stress management, and the prudent use of appetite controlling medications can all be keys to success when used in a personalized medical weight loss plan.

Following a prescribed, medically designed, effective weight loss plan, using your self-discipline to stay consistent, is a great strategy for long-term success! Self-discipline CAN work, with proper strategies!

If you have struggled to lose weight and maintain the loss long term with typical diet and exercise strategies, I invite you to meet with one of our staff to assess and understand your appetite and metabolism challenges.

Learn more about how we can help you take control of your appetite and metabolism. Take the first step and schedule a no-obligation consultation with one of our friendly and encouraging staff here. Let us help you outline a combination of success strategies that can work for you!

For Optimum Health,

Rick Tague, M.D., M.P.H. & T.M.

Reference: Energy depletion by diet or aerobic exercise alone: impact of energy deficit modality on appetite parameters. AJCN 2016:103:1008-16

Rick Tague, M.D., M.P.H. & T.M. is a nutrition & weight loss specialist and the Founder & Medical Director of the Center for Nutrition and Preventive Medicine, P.A.

Dr. Tague is an Alpha Omega Alpha honors graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans. He also holds a Masters Degree in Public Health from Tulane. Dr. Tague is board certified by the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Family Medicine. His medical practice has focused on optimum health, nutrition, and weight loss since 1996.