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Lack of Willpower Drives Eating Behaviors

Lack of Willpower Drives Eating BehaviorsA new article laments that while most people know what they should do to maintain a healthy weight — they lack the willpower to battle the bulge.

University of Alberta researcher Robert Fisher says our eating habits are a result of the battle between two conflicting sets of norms — descriptive and injunctive.

Injunctive norms are beliefs of what are right or wrong or good or bad in terms of behaviors. These values arrive externally from groups such as family, peers or government, or educational materials. Whether or not a person adheres to those values determines whether the person is rewarded or punished within that group.

Descriptive norms, though, are those that define what most people do in terms of actions or behaviors. For example, while we know that eating cheeseburgers might be bad for us, the signs in our environment give us the green light to consume.

“Not only is fast-food advertising very prevalent, but you see fast food signs, restaurants and wrappers everywhere,” says Fisher.

“I think as a result, our baseline notion of what is normal is also changing. It’s a bigger part of our lives than it ever has been before and there’s no going back.”

Fisher’s article has been recently published in the journal Appetite.

The focus of Fisher’s study, developed with Laurette Dubé from McGill University, begins with the common beliefs Americans have with regards to “rules” about eating.

Responses such as not snacking, always eating breakfast and not wasting food were common responses.

In a series of studies, Fisher was able to combine his findings and compare them against factors such as eating behaviors, body satisfaction and social desirability.

Fisher was surprised to find that people with higher body mass indexes had stronger beliefs associated with the rules than people with lower BMIs. That is, these individuals had better knowledge of what were healthy verse unhealthy eating behaviors.

However, the missing element is that these individuals do not follow their individual belief structures.

Fisher says this is not rare as there are plenty of examples in society of people knowing what to do but acting in a contradictory manner.

“What we found is that if people undertake these behaviors, which are related to the norms, they tend to have a lower BMI,” said Fisher. “Having the beliefs alone is just not sufficient.”

Fisher says the issue of obesity seems to be of an almost epidemic nature in today’s society.

He believes the key to solving the problem is not about repeating the messages about harmful and good eating habits. He believes that issues such as impulsive eating can be curbed and changed, but what needs to be worked on is the resolve to follow the rules people already know and not give up.

“It’s not a knowledge problem. People know what they need to do. It’s just doing it or being motivated enough to do it, said Fisher. “It’s really about changing behaviors.

“You have to be both willing and able to change.”

Source: University of Alberta

Lack of Willpower Drives Eating Behaviors

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Lack of Willpower Drives Eating Behaviors. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 7 Nov 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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