“Ugh, why don’t fat people just eat less?”

158 Comments

If you’ve heard an ignorant comment like that, you’ve probably been to any of a thousand online forums.

overweight woman body in underwear

People love to demonize others for overspending and overeating, especially behind the anonymity of online commenting. Nothing drives me crazier than people who ignore decades of research to judge others for their supposed lack of willpower.

This is why you’ll see the personal-responsibility zealots who repeatedly chant, “Ugh, let’s talk about personal responsibility,” as if that simplistic argument explains why people who genuinely want to spend and eat less simply cannot.

This superb New York Times article offers more evidence of ancillary factors in behavioral change:

“I have grave concerns about how many of these television shows stigmatize overweight people by making them a spectacle,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. “They suggest that if you only try hard enough you can be thin. A far better message is that it’s hard to lose weight and that it’s not just willpower and personal responsibility, but that both biology and the environment are players.”

I’ve written about the similarities between food and personal finance before.

Former FDA commissioner David Kessler has written a terrific book describing how food companies systematically engineer foods to overeaten (including designing foods that can be swallowed quicker so we can consumer more and more in one sitting). These are tested, refined, and optimized processes, not mere accidents.

Most importantly, behavioral change is not simply about trying harder. Yes, effort is important, but whether it’s passive barriers or the variety of other reasons that illustrate how personal finance is not about more willpower, let’s be real: Behavioral change is incredibly complex and difficult.

Anyone who believes people overeat and overspend simply because of a lack of willpower is simplistically ignoring decades of research so they can ideologically mislead themselves.

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158 Comments

 
  1. First! (Thank you for making posts late at night, my RSS likes you.)

    BTW: If you had more willpower you would blog more often! Thanks Ramit!

  2. Ah, willpower.

    In one of my psych classes (way back when) there were a series of lectures on the psychology of marketing and the ways industry targets people. Weeks were spent on the topic. Most students were worried only about memorizing the details of each lecture long enough to take an exam, then forget them.

    I, however, came out of it with this: Large, successful businesses use well-trained psychologists (in marketing, engineering, where ever) to determine the best way to get money out of your pockets and into theirs. It’s easy, really. Just convince the customer that he needs whatever trivial product they have on the table and he’ll do anything to buy it.

    They are extremely effective and successful at their jobs.

    They work to break the willpower of potential customers to turn them into paying customers. They use some sneaky — sometimes scary — tactics to make people want more; the bigger, better, stronger, newest versions, upgrade, super-size, biggie-size.

    Indeed: willpower is hard thing to overcome: We buy more and eat more because we’ve been trained to over our lifetimes.

  3. I think the willpower to WANT to change is essential before any system will stick. In other words, no matter how mind-blowing a system is, it won’t amount to long-term change without the desire to change.

    However, people rarely point out the opposite (as you have). All the willpower in the world is utterly useless without a system that reinforces positive habits and makes it easy to maintain momentum.

    Ultimately, I think people need a combination of both. I’m not sure what inspired this post, but it had to be good. ;-)

  4. Seems like a rehashing of your old posts. Nonetheless, you make a great observation.

  5. Willpower is also difficult to battle when it’s supported by conditioning. My uncle grew up in Polish ghettos of WWII and taught me to always finish my plate. “Taught” might not even be the right word… I couldn’t leave the table without finishing the plate. Now it’s hard to break that almost pavlovian habit.

  6. Ramit, you’re not alone in the recent trend of cherry picking studies over the last thirty years to find the ones that forgive average people for being average. Nor are you alone in realizing that appealing to average folks is the straightest path to mass popularity/ sales.

    It still seems a bit disingenuous to suggest that “willpower” or “commitment” or “drive” or whatever is not a key part of the solution here. Willpower alone may be worthless without a good strategy, but no strategy is worth anything without the willpower to see it through.

    Assuming that someone has the wrong strategy is tantamount to calling them uninformed/ stupid. I’m not sure that insulting fat people/ poor savers in this way is better. Unless of course you’re selling them a plan.

  7. @Nate, re-read the second to last paragraph of his post…
    “Yes, effort is important, but whether it’s passive barriers or the variety of other reasons that illustrate how personal finance is not about more willpower, let’s be real: Behavioral change is incredibly complex and difficult.”

  8. It all starts with the mind… That’s where the battle is fought. That’s where it begins, willpower, strength to overcome and keep going, everything. Once YOU see it in your mind and then get all the willpower books and great planning ideas. Then and maybe then it may stick (the over spending and over eating). The mind is the battlefield… Just my two bits.

  9. It’s true enough that marketers have learned to take advantage of parts of human nature that are naturally unconscious processes. Still, we can gain awareness and learn to avoid some behaviors.

    One of the absolute scourges of American society is high fructose corn syrup soda. Just eliminating that one diabetes-promoting horror of tooth decay in a bottle can help people be healthier AND richer. Have your morning latte if you like, and quit feeding the soda machine instead.

    Ever notice how they push this garbage at fast food places? This is because “soft drinks” are the biggest profit center they have. I was in the grocery store the other day and there is a whole double-sided, extra wide aisle JUST for soda, right in the middle of the store. I have never been a soda drinker (I am not a big sweets person) and from my viewpoint this kind of marketing is really creepy.

    To something like this, we really can Just Say No.

  10. I’m so glad that everyone here has the quick fix for this problem. Willpower can be fleeting. For fat people, the hard part is keeping that willpower. Advertising tailors to our desires, and food ties in with a basic need. Twinkies are a different matter, but it still ties in with food. It’s easier to hide financial bloating than physical, but they run along the same basic guidelines.

  11. Thank you! I just read one article that vilifies fat people, and I was appalled by the attitude that the blogger has about them. Thank you for saying that it’s not about willpower.

    http://www.punchdebtintheface.com/2009/09/pf-diet.html

  12. Your article seems to be speaking out against making a spectacle of and the demonizing of people who are obese. Why then the typical headless, semi-nude fat body picture? Tactics like that are commonly used and serve to objectify and dehumanize people who are obese. I hope you will reconsider your use of this sensationalistic tactic.

  13. I’m messy. I’m deeply uncomfortable with my messiness, and I want to change, but it isn’t as easy as just putting my mind to it, despite what un-messy people might think.
    So when I have a friend who is overwhelmed by their spending habits, I resist the urge to tell them how easy it is. If it really were as simple as having more willpower, we’d all be superstars at everything.
    I loved this post: http://www.fluentself.com/blog/stuff/its-not-freaking-easy/ because it highlighted some of the same things.

  14. @Josh: If I change my “a key part” to “the key part”…

    Maybe he’s strictly attacking a strawman complainer who supposes that willpower is “easy”, but when he says behavioral change is “difficult” I read that as “requires effort/ willpower”.

    Here I’m just gonna be a ranting jerk, but this attitude that everyone should be forgiven for not trying and that there’s always an easier shortcut is toxic and ubiquitous in America. For all the complaints (“food companies make bad food” “it’s really hard not to run up a huge credit card debt” etc), there’s always a coddler there to agree with the whining and pretend that America is super exceptional and that Americans overeat and overspend for special reasons that the rest of the developed world just doesn’t understand.

    That said, I liked the book, even if very little of it applies directly to my expat life. It seems like his plans work by automating and obviating the need for willpower. A perfect strategy for the apparent target reader, who has concretely demonstrated willpower issues by running up substantial credit card debt. I think Ramit’s work in this regard is a great thing However, I am hugely bummed that this situation and the associated character flaws have come to be taken for granted “back home”.

  15. Seriously? You’re arguing with comments on fat loss websites? Without showing any examples… Do you have a quota to fill in blogging? Why did you waste your time and ours writing nonsense in response to nothing? You’ll never find a credible source worth arguing with who says willpower alone is enough.

  16. Ahh, nuance. Impossible != hard. Proving that 95% will fail at a task != proving that a task is impossible. In fact it proves that a task is possible and yet hard. A good definition of “hard” would be something where most people fail and a few with superior methods and/or abilities succeed.

    Decades of research have not proved that losing weight “by sheer willpower” is impossible. In fact, research has proven it is possible, but it’s also hard, meaning that most people will fail if they rely on sheer willpower.

    So the people bemoaning the lack of willpower of the obese, aren’t ignorant; they’re just insensitive. Their fault is belittling an average person for being average and not being extraordinary. They are also most likely hypocritical, since they probably don’t exhibit any more willpower than the obese, but are just less biology prone to gaining weight.

    In the end I think you’re doing a great service, Ramit. By designing and promoting better methods you are making it easier for people to succeed and thus actually causing more people to succeed. But I hate to see an untruth (that hard == impossible) promulgated by smart people.

  17. I’ve read a lot of research on High Fructose Corn Syrup. The material is completely evil. It actually rewires the brain to crave more and the stomach doesn’t send any signals to the brain that it’s full after eating the substance. It’s tough to avoid, as it’s so pervasive in practically all pre-packaged foods. I go out of my way now to inspect ingredients and avoid eating it and more importantly, I try and minimize our childrens’ exposure to it.

    1/3 of adults in the US are obese. Not just overweight, but obese. There is truly a crisis in our country (and we wonder why our health care expenditures exceed that of other countries)?

    No easy solution and it’s not just the food companies’ fault or consumers’ fault or the government. It’s a mixture of complex issues. But at a minimum, if you can just replace some packaged food with fresh fruits and vegetables, take a walk over lunch instead of surfing the internet and excercise portion control, it’s a step in the right direction.

    Little changes can have a profound impact over time.

  18. Ramit,

    I agree with this article completely, but would also like to add a simple argument to drive home the point that the view that “will power” can explain obesity makes little sense. Most of us have had poison ivy or insect bites which itch – producing the urge to scratch. We don’t look at people with poison ivy or insect bites and judge them for scratching. We simply can acknowledge that they have a condition which creates an urge that we ourselves do not possess, leading to a behavior in them that we have no urge to indulge ourselves. We do not say “well they chose to itch, so they chose to scratch” – in fact it seems nonsense. Simple as that, behavior follows urge. What is hunger if not an itch? Can we not infer that those with a higher BMI are simply hungrier than those with a lower BMI? With equal amounts of willpower, would not the hungriest person be the fattest? Wouldn’t a hungry thin person need above average will power to stay slim? Is it sensible to demand anyone have above average anything? If not, mustn’t we absolve fat people of being weak? I know this seems silly, being so simplistic – but to me, the simplest answer usually has an element of truth. Of course the question remains as to why your average person is hungrier now than in the past, the obesity problem being worse now. You commented on marketing and food availability, but I don’t think that explains everything. Comparing our culture to those cultures having less of a problem with obesity, I’d bet on stress as a huge culprit in the obesity epidemic. I know that stress causes me to eat.

  19. Thanks for touching on this point, however I would have to say that this article can only speak for people who are “genetically fat”, but can’t speak for all of those people who are just fat because they are lazy and have no will power. Taking a look at the obesity rates by country, is it REALLY the case that people in the Netherlands are so much more genetically superior that they can manage to be obese at 1/3 the rate of Americans? Highly doubtful. I’m assuming the majority of your readers are adults in the U.S. and thanks to that demographics ability to be 60% overweight, you’re preaching to the choir on this one. If you can manage your finances, you can manage your food, and your hunger, and your eating. Like anything else in life, practice goes a long way, and small things add up.

    Here’s one simple example:
    1 beer a day = 140 calories x 365days/year = 17lbs /year

    Think about it.

  20. Ramit,

    The only acceptable reason for people to be overweight is a medical condition. The rest of your post should be about choice, not willpower. If people make poor choices, they will have poor results. Including the choice to eat the engineered foods from the food companies. One does not have to eat such foods.

    You say that “Behavioral change is incredibly complex and difficult.” … that is a true statement. Here is another equally true statement … Behavioral change is incredibly easy. Ramit, your statement is a statement of belief not actually fact. Henry Ford put it this way … “If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.” So why not encourage your readers with a new paradigm of thought … that they CAN do something, instead of encouraging them to believe that something will be too hard to accomplish.

    Finally, I would like to direct people to an awesome book … ‘Excuses Begone’; by Wayne Dyer. It captures the essence of our personal responsibility of choice. For myself, and many of my friends, the book has been a transformational moment in our lives. (PS. I am not Wayne Dyer nor do I know him personally)

    Before anyone flames this post, read ‘Excuses Begone’ first. Then feel free to flame the post.

    Signed,
    A former believer that life is difficult.

    @Tom … two reasons that we are hungrier now or at least think we are — 1) our body craves nutrition but our poor food choices, the ones from the food companies, have little nutrition, so our bodies still crave necessary nutrients, 2) too many people have an urge to eat because they cover up their real problems and use food as their security blanket.

    Food is fuel to our bodies, nothing more. If someone puts in bad fuel, bad things will happen.

    • All right Secant, I want you to choose to be buff (6-pack, please, with less than 5% body fat), make $350k/year minimum, travel at least 3 months/year to exotic locations, date multiple women every week, and speak at least 6 languages. Excuses be gone! Lemme know if any of this is unreasonable.

  21. I agree with Baker. Yes, the evil food corporations are out there trying desperately to make us fatter so we will consume more. But what we all put into our mouths can be totally separate from what those corporations are telling us to eat. Almost everyone in this country has access to fresh vegetables, fruits & meats. Those that don’t deserve to be treated in a completely separate post with a much longer, detailed explanation.

    I feel that letting fat people play victim just creates a cycle of poor nutrition and weight management. Just as boo-hooing everyone that spends away every penny they earn isn’t going to help those people climb out of debt. Both solutions are simple, even if they’re not easy.

    But the point is you have to want it. And yes, I do truly believe that many fat people are unwilling to put in the work it takes to become healthy. Information is cheaper now than it has ever been in the history of the world. There are endless resources available to counteract the negative effects all the “decades of research” point to. It’s easier to do nothing and I believe that’s why fat people stay fat.

    I’d also like to note that I am somewhat overweight myself and have been dieting for several months now. It’s not easy but it is simple.

  22. Tom,

    Here’s my main problem with your argument. Willpower is neither equally distributed nor static. There are some people who have both the biological propensity to be obese and the willpower to overcome that propensity and be thin. Behavior does not follow urge. Behavior tends to follow urge. It’s a subtle yet important different.

    Messages have an affect on willpower. If you encourage someone not to try harder, they will tend not to try harder. If you encourage someone to try harder, they will tend to try harder.

    Telling an obese person that they can’t help their condition is both false and harmful. Telling an obese person that they are biologically more prone to obesity and thus would have to work harder and/or smarter to be thin is both true and helpful. Giving an obese person better methods for getting this is better still.

    A more scientific way to frame this would be to say it is erroneous to assume a person with a higher BMI is hungrier. There is a correlation between hunger and BMI, but there are also other factors involved which mean that some hungry people have low BMIs and some non-hungry people have higher BMIs.

  23. Sometimes the people who overspend just do not understand and can be educated.

    That’s not a matter of will power.

  24. I agree that self control is a large part of losing weight, however there are major influences of the environment to consider.

    When I was younger I was quite thin, and happy about it. Then I was given medicine with weight gain side effects; 70 pounds in 2 months. It altered my chemistry. After a few years, my chemistry began to return to normal, and I found myself in serious need to re-find my old body.

    I began the process. (Spoiler alert) the basic truth to weight loss is to expend more calories than you in-take. I follow this for my own life (currently). For the first 6 months, I had lost 50 pounds. I still have 20 to go.

    Social events picked up, like birthdays and other dinner invites. And no amount of explaining what I need to do to maintain self-control will convince some people. For example, I was at a friend’s house the other day, and they were offering me “food” left and right. Candy, ice cream, bread, left over pasta, etc. I maintained that I was fine/had dinner (and therefore my food in-take for the day), and declined. Then suddenly, my friend took a muffin out of the container and placed it in front of me and told me to eat it (this was not an offer but a command). It suddenly become beyond my will-power, unless I wish to risk offending.

    In situations like this, it is is hard to maintain self-control, which is why I have declined many social events. I also try to avoid buffets, it just makes you spend more money than your food is worth, or you over eat just to get your money’s worth.

    So, while the fact of burning more calories than eating is simple, execution of it is anything but simple. It is a lot of hard work to figure out how to get some people to understand, while not wanting to have to explain myself over and over. So I say good luck to those who embark on the journey that is weight loss. I am just glad my husband is supportive of my efforts, and that is a big help.

  25. Behavioral change is hard not because it is hard, but because of the way people go about doing it.

    I’ve gone from 20% body fat to 12%, and still decreasing. Not sure where it will stop.

    I’ve gone from dating a new girl once a year to a new one every two weeks.

    I travel once every month to a new city, and spend a month twice a year to go back home.

    I went from speaking 2.5 languages (the third I could read well, but not really converse in) to around 4. I feel like adding Spanish now and making that 5.

    Just to look at the challenge you gave secant :)

    Behavioral change becomes easy when you take small steps and internalize them. A thousand mile journey starts with a single step – Lao Tzu.

    You want to lose weight?

    Step 1: Join the gym
    Step 2: Go 3 times a week for around half an hour each – you don’t want to kill yourself the first week or so.
    Step 3: After two weeks, start going 4 times a week for an hour.
    Step 4: Try not to eat an hour before you go to the gym for two weeks.
    Step 5: Try not to eat a hour after you go to the gym for the next two weeks.
    Step 6: Try not to eat two hours before you go to the gym for the next two weeks.
    Step 7: Change your afternoon Venti startbucks to a grande.

    etc. etc. Spread this over a year. You WILL internalize those behaviors.

    What most people do is try to diet, cut down on everything, go to the gym 5 times a week. And they get exhausted after less than a month. And then they get accused of not having the will-power to stick to something.

    Same goes for dating.

    If you try to make these changes all at once, you WILL fail.

  26. I’m going to have to agree with Secant and ggeezz on this one. I refuse to believe that someone cannot maintain a healthy body weight if they truly have the willpower to do so. Ramit, I think you know as well as I that the things you listed in your comment are not the equal to watching what you eat and being active. I chose to watch what I eat, work out, and to keep my finances in order. If I lose sight of any of these things they start to fall out of place. It is not easy to keep up with these things but it is a priority of mine. If you don’t make being fit or being aware of your finances (not necessarily successful or rich) a priority in your life than you can just expect to be obese or expect to forever be in debt. Part of the problem with modern day Americans is that no one wants to take responsibility for what is truly their fault. I do not enable anyone, my advice is always suck it up, take responsibility, and do what you have to do to change your situation.

  27. @Ramit

    That is unreasonable. Going from fat to thin is about movement within the normal range of body weight. Your list of items are all characteristics you would find in the top 1% or so. You don’t have to be an outlier to be in shape. Go visit a country where people can’t afford to be fat, see how many people are “suffering” from the “epidemic” that is obesity.

    Genetics can surely make it so that you have to work harder than the next guy for the same results, but it’s not an excuse to stop working.

    • Scadman, I agree with your last sentence — I’m not excusing effort or trying. Let’s be very clear about that. This is not an excuse, but an explanation.

      But to say that behavioral change is “easy” or “you can just go to the gym 5x/week!” makes several crucial errors: It implies that people are like you (generic “you”), have the same access as you, have the same motivation (and motivation is a very, very complex topic that is not the same as the average person on the street defines it), and basically assumes that the plural of anecdote is data. If it works for any of these posters, great. But I’m certain that (1) nobody has their entire life under complete control, and (2) people are different than you.

      Finally, I don’t know what your definitions are, but “going from fat to thin is about movement within the normal range of body weight” is laughable unless we’re talking about a 5-lb difference. I’m sure if it were, tens of millions of people would have already done it. See my bookmarks on health for more.

  28. I’m very on the fence about this:
    I am overweight, but I don’t eat a lot. I also don’t work out (at all). I’m not gaining weight because I realized my intake was too much for my lack of exercise to handle…otherwise I’d be a big balloon. I also know that, if I just started working out, even if only for 20-30 min/day, I would start to lose weight.

    BUT! I also know that I am genetically pre-disposed to be heavier. I wear my weight well, and I’ve always been heavier than I look (yay for me), but I do come from a long line of “healthy” women: larger, broader, and very curvy.

    So even if (when) I start working out, I will never be a size 0, or even a size 8…I will never be what other women consider “thin”. I will be “thinner” than I am, but my body is not made to be “thin”, and I have to accept that.

    Willpower is essential (obvious to me because I have so little), and taking responsibility for your actions. The truth is: losing weight is HARD, not necessarily because it’s complicated or because it’s not natural for our bodies to be healthy, but because our CULTURE and our COUNTRY is one of excess, with food on every corner and a determination to “take it easy” because “you’ve earned it”.

  29. Wow. Fat people suck. I’m glad the socialist grandmother-killing death panels are going to eliminate them.

    I hate fat people. You know who else I hate? People who are nice to fat people! And you know who should go to jail? PEOPLE WHO HAVE SEX WITH FAT PEOPLE! They are contributing to the fatness by making more fat people, and telling those fatties it’s ok that they are fat. How criminal! How unconscionable!

    Fat is failure, right? And we are Americans: failure is intolerable.

    /sarcasm.

  30. @ Ramit

    First of all, did you read the book ‘Excuse Begone’ or are you just flaming for the sake of flaming … if you are flaming, then I, and probably others, will not take your post too seriously.

    About your request … Your request is not unreasonable and is doable. Please remember though, it has to be my choice, not yours. Which is the point of my first post … it is about choice. What I want in my life will be different than someone else … just don’t tell someone that their choice will be difficult or a seed of doubt will be planted that will grow into becoming an obstacle or an excuse.

    Another point to my first post is this … bad choices mean bad consequences. Period. People should take responsibility for being whatever they are … fat, happy, sad, 5% body fat, or whatever. You see, the older someone becomes the more they are the product of their choices. Meaning that we probably didn’t know better as a child, but we can now. The one caveat to this is education … people just can’t be expected know what they don’t know.

    This part might fall on deaf ears … I had been making bad choices in my life. I took responsibility for those choices and brought love into my life. The world is a new place now. I have lost the weight (both, body weight and emotional weight) of my previous bad choices because I am making new choices. The choice that made the biggest difference was the choice of love.

    Ramit, please read ‘Excuses Begone’, I don’t think that you would have another post like the one above, especially if you read the book. It didn’t feel as though you were expressing any kind of love … and, if you can see your way to flaming love, then I would really encourage you to read the book.

    I will offer you this … if you want have a discussion, by phone, I am open to it. You see, I can’t think of a better thing to do than to bring more love into this world.

  31. Rammit your post is fully out of proportion to the conversation.

    The willpower and time required to avoid obesity are on quite a different level than making 350k a year or speaking 6 languages. These things of course could be done, but the work required would be immense. To compare something that would take a decade or more of work to put together and put it next to “skipping desert and walking a mile a day” is absurd.

  32. I was referring to the fact that if you happen to weigh 235lbs you would be considered an otherwise average dude, who some might describe as overweight.

    If you lose 50 lbs you’ll still be seen as an average dude. BOTH of these weights can be found in the “normal” range of weight, thus you have moved within the normal range

    However, if you go from being average to having less than 5% body fat and a six pack, and you’re making $350,000 etc. You have moved from the normal range to the outlying range.

    We’re talking a 1 standard deviation movement vs. a 3 standard deviation movement.

  33. Free will vs. determinism argument, and not a very good argument at that.

    Environment plays a role, sure. No one is disputing that certain individuals are more prone to obesity, or that obesity causing foods aren’t scientifically tweaked.

    But to suggest that weight loss is improbably, or impossible, is pathetically false on its face and an insult to the countless thousands that have won the battle.

    Determinism fail.

  34. In my experience, losing the 20 lbs I gained in college and getting my finances in order was mostly attributed to a mindshift. Just denying myself things I wanted and forcing myself to do things I did not want to do didn’t get me anywhere.

    The good behaviors never lasted for long until I became conscious about my actions–what interest was costing me, how debt was holding me back, where my food really came from, how much I truly needed to eat to be full, etc. NOW it’s easy…it’s second nature. There was a time when it definitely wasn’t, when I thought it was impossible for me to lose weight and maybe I was meant to be bigger.

    As for marketers and the junk in our food–yeah, we’re sort of set up to lose. I’d tell anyone who wants to lose weight to start by learning about where their food comes from and how it’s made. Watch documentaries like King Corn. The cards might be stacked against you, but it is what it is, and it’s not going to change, so you have to change. Educating yourself is a good first step.

  35. Willpower may be genetic, too. Although I struggle with many things, once I set my mind to something it is easier for me than for others. It is how I have been vegetarian for 8+ years, got a PhD before I was 30, and weigh 132 lbs. It is easy for me, as someone with great willpower when I’m motivated (and there are definitely things I do not do because I am NOT motivated to do them) to judge others who do not possess that willpower.

    But my judgment will certainly not grant them the willpower they lack.

  36. Ramit,

    Loved this post, not because I need an excuse for my own shortcomings, but because of the truth that sheer willpower only goes so far, and the fact that we all have areas of our lives that we are weak at.

    I liken the willpower argument to telling an alcoholic to just stop drinking or telling someone with an phobia to just stop worrying so much! It is an oversimplification that is easy to make from the outside.

    I believe we would all do well to acknowledge that whether it is weight-loss, money management, intellect, or countless other fields we’d like to realize success in, that positive thinking and personal willpower are sometimes not enough.

    At the risk of alienating myself from many other readers of this blogt, I’d like to quote on of the most humbly influential men in all of history (whether you agree with his message or not, you cannot deny his success in influencing the masses for all generations), and that is the Apostle Paul. This was his dilemma:

    “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do… For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do…”

    We would all do well to stop kidding ourselves that we’ve got our act so together,and with how great our ability to think and will ourselves to change really is, and humbly admit that changing the way we are is difficult, takes time, other people’s help, AND a great deal of persistence (willpower if you want to call it that).

    Thanks,

    Ryan

  37. The last thing that we need is an article telling people that it’s okay to be fat because it’s probably out of your control away. What exactly are fat people supposed to take away from this?

    Give up.

    The powerful corporations of the world are conspiring against you to make you a size 20. If only it weren’t for bad glands and a giant capitalistic conspiracy, you too could fit in to a normal-size car.

    How did those thin people do it? They must have a friend on the inside that told them how to break the hypnotic messages of mass media. Perhaps they’re superheros. Maybe they’ve got TWO thyroids.

    If only I were that LUCKY.

    We each have to choose what we want to be. If we aren’t there yet, then what we’re doing isn’t working or we haven’t done it long enough so we may need to do something else. The only “trick” is the “something else” part. We have to make those choices intelligently, or we’ll be stuck in that loop forever.

  38. I look to my two brothers for an example of genetics. They’re both close to the same height (Baby Brother is a little taller, but that’s neither here nor there). They both ate the same amount of food growing up (approximately). Older Brother liked to read books. Baby Brother could never sit still.

    Baby Brother stuggles with obesity. Older Brother is thin. The difference is that my father’s family has a high metabolism. My mom’s family has a low metabolism (she ended up on medication because it was so low). It really depended on what set of genes they inherited.

    The thing here is, Baby Brother has to work much harder to stay in shape than Older Brother would. Could Baby Brother do it? Of course, but it wouldn’t be as easy for him. That’s what I got out of this post: it’s easy to judge someone else for not doing something that we think should be easy. The thing is: what’s easy for me might not be easy for you.

  39. @Lance who said Part of the problem with modern day Americans is that no one wants to take responsibility for what is truly their fault

    Thank you, for laying the truth out bare and clear for all to read !

    Yes, it is about time that we Americans take responsibility for what is truly our fault, starting with an apology from George Tenet for the death of 3000 plus residents in 2001.

  40. Yesterday I was watching my kid play in a soccer game between local middle school teams. Here in the South the weather is still hot and humid and the kids are all running like madmen.

    Some of the kids were soaked in sweat, others were dry as a bone. Why the difference? Were the sweaty kids working harder? Do the dry kids take better care of their hygeine? Neither–it’s physiology!

    It’s the same reason some are tall and others short, why some have brown eyes and others blue. It’s different for all of us, and it also has something to do with obesity. Some people are just prone to it. They may be less heavy if they eat less and excercise more, but they’ll never be thin.

    Ever see a person a year after they lost a ton of weight? Usually they’ve gained it all back, and sometimes extra. The medical community is now coming around to the idea that consistent management of weight is more important than weigh levels.

    We can all stand to be less judgmental. If we’re happy with how we are fine. If we’re not, we can do what we can within the limits of our own physiology to improve ourselves, but we really need to have more empathy for other peoples problems. If obesity isn’t a problem for you, consider yourself blessed and be humble about it.

    Ramit, great post. This is a deep topic!

  41. @ heyitsmesj who says

    Wow. Fat people suck.

    Really ? If so, then do Skinny people Swallow ?

  42. In part the dialogue here is an example of people talking around each other.

    I have seen people argue that obesity is 100% dependent on biology and environment and that no amount of willpower will help an obese person to become thin. These people are wrong, but I didn’t notice anyone here promoting that opinion.

    I have also seen people argue that obesity is 100% dependent on willpower, that biology is a negligible factor if a factor at all. These people are also wrong, but I didn’t notice anyone here promoting that opinion either.

    But people do think that one position is more prevalent and/or the stronger influence. We talk around each other when we aim our comments at someone who has taken a 100% position, even though the person we are talking to has expressed a “more prevalent” position. Considering how the factors interact, and how the factors apply in different degrees in every person, I don’t think it makes sense to speak of how one is more prevalent or more influential.

    I’m only taking issue with Ramit’s last paragraph. The implication is that no amount of willpower will keep you from overeating. This is false. With enough willpower you can stop overeating. To prove something is possible it only needs to be done once and yet we have thousands of examples. BUT, what most people need to realize is that they are probably not going to have enough willpower to do it by willpower alone. They need to recognize their odds are much better if they follow a smarter plan AND keep their willpower as high as possible by staying motivated.

    That is, instead of being told it is impossible by willpower alone (a lie), people need to be told it’s extremely hard by willpower alone, so do X to supplement your willpower.

  43. Question to all of you touting weight loss approaches that work (and that don’t work)

    Why are most French people skinny ?. Are you telling me that they don’t have any of the physiology, willpower and food industry issues that America is allegedly having, which by implication exonerates us of all responsibilities for not getting obese ??? PLEASE.

  44. Note: This is actually a financial issue, and last time I checked this was also a financial blog geared around saving money and being financially sound..etc. See: costs of healthcare for obese vs. fit person. I’d also like to point out that in an effort to save even more money in my own life I cut down dramatically on money spent dining out. this in turn, led to me losing 12lbs after 5 weeks….and counting.

    “Government studies even show that every one point increase in body-mass-index or BMI can mean a $1,000 drop in net worth.”

    *http://www.cbn.com/cbnnews/healthscience/2008/July/The-High-Cost-of-Being-Obese-/

  45. Aren’t effort and choices and ignoring advertising all a DIRECT result of willpower?

    You seem to be arguing that willpower means just wishing something to be true. Of course wishing that the weight will go away is not going to do anything.

    Also, personal finance vs. losing weight is a faulty comparison. You don’t always have control over your expenses (emergencies, unforeseen costs) but you have control over what goes in your mouth.

  46. “Anyone who believes people overeat and overspend simply because of a lack of willpower is simplistically ignoring decades of research so they can ideologically mislead themselves.”

    The funny thing about this quote is that it can work both ways. There are those who will read this article and this quote to validate their feelings that they can’t lose weight or they can’t spend less. Their ideology is one of victim hood and they will “ideologically mislead themselves” too. (“It’s not my fault I’m obese, look at my genes and look at how the food companies rig my food!!!!”)

    What people need to take from this is that there is a middle ground. Oversimplifying this in either direction — it’s all your fault OR it’s not my fault at all, will only hurt you.

  47. Question: Is the picture above a man or woman?

  48. Chad (47)–Good catch on the French. They eat a lot of REAL butter and have a high consumption of wine–we’re told those are poison for the waistline on this side of the pond! And statistically the French also live longer than we do.

    Obviously, there are some cultural issues involved. Being less car dependent, they do tend to walk a lot more.

    I wouldn’t write off behavior as a cause of obesity, but it’s at least equally clear that biology and culture do play a huge part.

  49. Also to be noted, there are MANY skinny people that are incredibly unhealthy.

  50. Delurking to say this is an insightful, fair and compassionate post. I’ve been both overweight and thin (now in my 50′s and somewhere in between). I think there are people who have never struggled with weight or who were able to lose the weight somewhat easily (keeping it off long term is another matter) who make themselves feel better by reducing obesity to a matter of character and strength of will.

    We need to help Americans eat better, exercise and lose weight without vilifying anyone who doesn’t fit our narrow definition of thin.

    The country has gone haywire on its anti-obesity campaign by ostracizing and name-calling. Instead of addressing the condition of obesity, we heap shame on fellow humans who happen to be obese. The latest is Dr. Toby Cosgrove, head of Cleveland Clinic issuing a statement that he wouldn’t hire the overweight if he could get away with it. WSJ – http://tinyurl.com/knlatm

    Slippery slope, I say.

  51. And once again, everyone immediately begins debating minutiae instead of mentally adapting this post to your specific situation and FOCUSING on the TAKEAWAY.

  52. @Honey,

    Perhaps everyone is “debating minutiae” in part (or in whole) due to the sensational title and the equally outrageous photo that goes with it ?

    You’ve got to hand it to Ramit. He has ended up with the most comments per hour on this post, than on any of his other posts. Maybe the wedding post comes close, but not quite ;)

    Nice one Ramit !

  53. To everyone:

    Unless someone has a medical condition, or heredity, that supports being fat or skinny … then one’s condition has come about because of the choices that they have made. Even your heredity can be affected, to some degree, by your choices.

    Make different choices and have a different consequence. My assumption here is that we are all adults and as such have free will to choose. Please share, if you don’t think that you have a choice about what goes in your mouth and how much exercise that you do.

    The bigger question, and one that isn’t being discussed, is why are people making their own choices.

  54. @ Chad – well, obviously. :-) Which only proves Ramit’s point, IMO.

    Which is why I think it’s AWESOME. Much like one of my highly commented posts on stay at home moms and prostitution:

    http://honeyandlance.com/are-stay-at-home-moms-really-just-prostitutes

  55. Why is it so difficult to believe that people’s bodies respond differently to the same foods and activities?

    We all know about the poor poor thin person who keeps trying to gain weight but just can’t. That’s just their physiology. But let’s throw some smug judgment on the people who eat what you eat and exercise how your exercise but are still overweight anyway.

    Fat != glutton without any willpower. Weight gain is far more nuanced and complex than that.

  56. Kristen,

    See my post at #46. No one here has said that people’s bodies don’t respond differently to the same foods and activities.

  57. Hi Honey,

    Read your post, LOVE it (and your name too… Honey ;)

  58. Quote Ramit: “All right Secant, I want you to choose to be buff (6-pack, please, with less than 5% body fat), make $350k/year minimum, travel at least 3 months/year to exotic locations, date multiple women every week, and speak at least 6 languages. Excuses be gone! Lemme know if any of this is unreasonable.”

    I am actually working on goals identical or similar to these. Despite my problems with self-discipline I believe Secant is right. I can be done.

  59. So smokers who continue to smoke despite all the health issues just need more willpower. Alcoholics and drug addicts who still use just need more willpower. The cat hoarder down the street just needs more willpower to say no to taking in more strays. The gambler just needs more willpower to quit playing those slot machines. And that guy who obsessively washes his hands? He’s got free will and choice. Why can’t they all just stop?

  60. @ Chad, thanks, you should stop on by more often!

    Yeah, I like my name too ;-) Ha! I am pretty sure my partner, Lance, is the same Lance that posted above, though I can’t be sure. His name’s also pretty awesome.

  61. PawPrint,

    There are different degrees of addiction. In each of those of cases you can find people who stopped using sheer willpower. They are more or less rare corresponding to how strong each addiction is.

    But the point is not that addicted people “just need more willpower.” Yes, extraordinary willpower would do the trick, but extraordinary willpower is by definition uncommon, so most people aren’t going to stop by willpower alone.

  62. @ramit: Anyone who’s studied behavioral change, social psych, or motivation, please go comment on my post. Or I’m gonna go NUTS. http://bit.ly/QpSN5

    Okay, here we go :)

    Dear Ramit, dear commenters

    Changing an excessive behavior can often be summerized as trying harder. But that’s not all!

    Typically, your behavior is the sum of your attitudes and your social inhibitions. Your attitudes being what you know, what you feel and what you want. There’s a lot of psychological studies that re-order those concepts in different patterns, but overall that’s the cocktail.

    I’m an ‘over’-weakling. I have a hard time to not overspend AND overeat. An interesting point would be that my parents are overspenders and overeaters as well. So are my grand-parents. Well, family values is one top factor in the process of building attitudes.

    Then bring on the stage our modern psycho-marketing, and you’ve got chronic over-addiction everywhere.

    Changing attitudes is a tricky process, but it can be achieved. The human brain likes to be in consistancy. You have to change each and every component of your attitude in order to change your behavior.

    In the case of overeating, following a diet will not do, just eating less for a week or so will not do. Because behavior is but one component of your life. You have to A) know how it will affect your life, help you feel better, etc. (cognitive compononent), B) feeling good about what you’re going to change in your life, you can’t change your behavior if you feel bad about it (that would be the affective component) and C) actually change the behavior, while doing A) and B). (behavorial component).

    By changing those three components of your attitude simultaneously, any lack of motivation will be dragged by the brain, which will try to keep your mind in consistancy. Add up a little bit of social commitment, as Ramit adviced in a lot of his posts, and you’ve got a perfect attitude-changing cocktail.

    It’s more complex than just “having more willpower”, but it works. That’s how the mind works.

    –Alex
    @alexandreboutet

  63. 98% Americans will rather try Hydroxycut type magic pills before they
    eat less.

  64. @Ricky That’s right. And that won’t work. That’s because it looks easy, and they are lazy.

    Being lazy is a normal in their case. They’ve tried to change their behaviors without changing their attitudes, and failed in the process.

    Psychology studies showed that if you trap a dog in a cage, with a switch that MIGHT open the door, the dogs who first tried to pull a fake switch won’t try anymore, even days later, in another cage in another experiment.

    When you fail at something, you tend to underestimate the chances of a possible success. That’s the part where you need self-motivation.

  65. I’m an HIV prevention researcher and we talk behavior change all the time. Getting people to use condoms has a lot in common with getting people to eat healthier. I’m pretty sure similar principles apply to saving money. It’s not just about deciding one day to be healthy/rich. You have to constantly choose it over and over and over again. You have to decide to use a condom or be careful about your partners, to choose veggies over fries, to save for later rather than spend now at absolutely every turn. Binging once on ding dongs one night in front of the tv when you normally make healthy decisions isn’t going to make you obese, but not using a condom once can actually kill you. Most of the things we do as “interventions” in behavior change have attenuating results after 6 months are so. Because behavior change is hard! And it requires all of the things you’re already talking about: willpower, persistence, and making consistent choices to do things that are less fun/delicious/expensive than what your friends are doing. A lot of it has to do with outcome expectancies: I know what I can get away with and what I can’t (e.g., getting an STD or becoming obese), so it makes me more or less likely to adhere to what I “should” do (assuming we all know what we should be doing and that’s a big assumption). This is classic decision analysis. Research into social norms is becoming a hot topic too (even though it’s harder to measure), because some studies show that the biggest predictor of someone using condoms is whether or not their friends use condoms. By the way, it’s harder to measure because it’s not necessarily about what their friends ACTUALLY believe, but what the individual THINKS their friends believe – there’s often a big difference.

    • Thank GOD we have someone who knows what they’re talking about in these comments. I was getting tempted to shut comments down unless you could prove that you’ve read at least THREE books on behavioral change and tried to change (and measure) the behavior of 10 people. Jesus christ

      Everyone else please read PS’s comments because there is a ton of insight buried in that monster paragraph. Also read bookmarks on persuasion and psychology

  66. As a social psychologist, I have to disagree with a claim made earlier that Ramit “cherry-picks” the research that fits his claim; the research really does show that willpower is not enough on its own to change behavior. Motivation may be necessary to change behavior, of course, but it in no way is all that you need, and more motivation does not necessarily equal more change. And I’ve yet to see any research at all which suggests that motivation is a sufficient condition for behavioral change. A necessary condition, perhaps, but sufficient, absolutely not.

    I also think that people are misconstruing the post; Ramit never said that willpower wasn’t important. What he did say is behavioral change requires a lot more than willpower (again, back to what I said earlier about willpower being a necessary but not a sufficient condition). But I guess it’s easier to argue against such an extreme claim, than the more moderate claim that Ramit actually made.

    There’s something else about willpower that I think people may not know or realize. Willpower is not some unlimited source of power that anyone can just take and take from. Willpower is limited, meaning that if you use it all up on one task or even a varitey of tasks, you have none left over for a subsequent task. Or at least, not unless you wait for it to build up again.

    Research by Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice (1998) provides a great example of this concept. Participants came in to what they believed was a study of taste perceptions and were sat at tables with two piles of food; one was a bowl of raddishes, the other was chocolate chip cookies and chocolate candies. Different participants were given different instructions. Some were told not to eat anything (control), some were told to eat at least a few raddishes (but were not allowed to eat the cookies or candy), and some were told to eat at least a few cookies or candies (but were not allowed to eat the radishes). The participants then were given anagrams to solve and were timed on how long they worked on them. Compared to the radishes participants, the control participants and the sweets participants spent more than double the amount of time working on the anagrams before giving up. Because the radishes participants had used up so much of their willpower resisting a pleasant task (eating the sweets) and forcing themselves to do an unpleasant task (eating the radishes), they had less willpower left to work on the anagram task, compared to the sweets and control participants.

    Because willpower is a limited resource, Muravan and Baumeister have likened it until a muscle. Like a muscle, you can only work your willpower to a certain extent. Then you have to let it rest for a while to regain its strength before you pick up the weights/engage in willpower-depleting tasks again.

    Now let’s apply this research to another example. Say you’ve put in a long day at work, trying to meet a deadline or a sales goal, or dealing with disgruntled customers all day. It’s time to head home but you have to stop by the store to pick up a few things. As you walk by the deli section of the store, the pre-made fried chicken and mashed potato dinner meals smell really good. And you’re very tired and hungry. Now all of us readers probably realize that, If you’re watching your diet and your budget, what you should do is ignore the smell of that delicious food, pick up ONLY what was on your shopping list, and then go home and prepare yourself a healthy dinner. After all, if prepared correctly with items you’ve already paid for and have at home, you’re saving both calories and money. But when you’ve used so much energy and willpower at work all day, do you really want to go home and use even more energy to cookin a tasty-enough, healthy meal, when you could just save yourself some time and energy and buy the pre-made dinner from the deli (which, to a lot of people would be more than just “tasty-enough”)? I think we’d all like to think that we’d take the smarter option, but we often feel differently in different situations and those decisions become much harder when our more rational motivations are being clouded by our fatigue and hunger.

    The thing is, by taking this attitude that more than willpower is necessary to control your diet and finances, you’re not taking a defeatist attitude or necessarily “coddling” people who don’t always make the right decisions. You’re really just preparing yourself to make better choices. By knowing that you can’t always rely on sheer willpower, you can try to set yourself up to avoid situations in which you will have to rely on depleted willpower. For example, a solution to the above problem reveals itself when one thinks about willpower as a limited resource. If we know that we’re likely to make poor food and money choices when we’re tired and hungry, we can make our food in advance and divide it into healthy portions. That way, when we come home from work exhausted, we already have our dinner. That way, we don’t have to draw on our already depleted willpower — and then when there’s not enough willpower there, decide we’re too tired and instead order take-out. As another example, if you enjoy window-shopping but don’t want to succumb to the temptation to buy something out of your budget, go on a day off work or during some other time when you’re not likely to have depleted all your energy and willpower already. Or don’t go to places whose items are out of your budget, or to places where you know the salesman are really really persuasive. Or, have a friend come with you, and tell them ahead of time to not let you get suckered into buying something you know you shouldn’t. Or carry only a limited amount of cash and give your friend your credit card so you can’t use it.

    I find it interesting that some people seem to think that motivation is all that one needs to succeed, but then can’t offer any viable solutions. What would the willpower spokespeople suggest to people who overspend and overeat? Just get more willpower? How do you do that? If you don’t have enough willpower to resist over-eating and over-spending, why would you have enough willpower to get more willpower? I think it’s clear that just getting more willpower isn’t the best (or even an attainable) solution. On the other hand, if you know that there’s more to behavior change than willpower, you’re not defeated by the fact that you may have too little of it — you can find ways to work around it.

    • T plz email me immediately so i can marry you

      of course, as we know from audience factors, the people who would most benefit from your comment won’t be motivated enough to read an opposing argument. a beautifully ironic fact.

  67. A spokeperson in the documentary Supersize me!!! told it was the fault of fat people.

  68. Ramit,

    Your last post was assumptive at best … you assume that all of these posters, myself included, have not studied, or been involved with, psychology or read the requisite 3 books. Who has made you judge and jury on this topic about what is right and wrong?

    PS’s comments are good ones, so are many others.

    My offer still stands to have a conversation about this topic.

  69. Wow Darwin,

    What you wrote about HFCS is completely sick! I read it to my husband and from now on, we’re going to do our best to avoid it. We try to make most of our food from scratch because we’ve read some equally horrific things about MSG.

    Oh, look. Did I just form a habit?

    Seriously, all kidding aside. It’s easy to form healthy habits when they build upon pre-existing habits (as in my case), when they don’t threaten your self-esteem (my case again) and when they aren’t complicated by other people’s bad habits (hubby’s case too). It also helps to have a natural interest/curiousity about healthy habits.

    So if (like so many):
    –you don’t cook/are afraid of your kitchen
    –you are constantly exposed to fat=ugly, diet=lame, junk food=cool media
    –you rely on people you don’t know to make your food
    –you don’t obsess over labels (you almost have to these days)
    –you’re self-conscious about your weight and you don’t want to think about it a la Bridget Jones
    –dieting and excercise make you feel bad about yourself/more aware of your non-socially acceptable problem
    –being fat makes you feel like a bad/weak/lame person
    –everyone around you is eating nonsense and/or forcing cookies/beer/soda down your throat
    –all your friends and co-workers want fried chicken alfredo for lunch

    …it’s going to be really, really hard to change your eating habits.

    On the other hand, if you . . .
    –have been a health nut since the second grade when your dad got his first cholesterol check
    –are interested in anything and everything “slow food”
    –don’t own a TV, and therefore, don’t have to listen to the never-ending lame fuss that OCD non-healthy thin people make about non-healthy fat people
    –roll your eyes when people equate skinny with healthy
    –love to cook, make everything from scratch and take it as a personal offense when anything in your fridge goes moldy
    –aren’t afraid of being called a hippie, a mormon, a freak, a nazi, sheltered, out of touch with modern culture or whatever people with diet insecurities call you
    –marry someone who’s also a health nut

    …it’s pretty easy to form a healthy habit.

  70. For once I am actually mystified as to the purpose of the article. Did you just want to start a big discussion? I don’t get it. Was it really supposed to be a pschological scaregasm that the system is always stacked one way? Totally at a loss here.

  71. Ramit,

    There are also countless studies over the last few decades documenting the increased caloric intake and decreased activity of the average American. It is simple math. These surely are contributing factors.

    I know that genetics play a part in many people’s struggles, but the fact is that many people do not actually “struggle” – because to struggle they would have to put forth some sort of effort – put down the pizza and get up off the couch.

    Lifestyle is certainly the number one factor – genetics play a secondary role in being overweight or obese.

  72. To carry your groceries, do you constantly train yourself so that you can hold all the items at once, or do you use a cart?

    A lot of research shows that humans have almost *no* ability to predict how they will react in highly emotional situations-see the chapter “Emotion in Decision Making” in Predictably irrational. It makes a lot more sense to try and make decisions that avoid having to use willpower, than to try to exercise willpower every time you are tempted.

    And people should be taught to make decisions based on their psychology, rather than to just try and exercise willpower. Mindless evangelism to increase one’s willpower doesn’t work-education on how to use your willpower wisely (like with passive barriers) does.

  73. Oh, and as a sidenote, I just remembered something else: developmental psychologists have found that young children often believe that if they want something enough or think about it hard enough, it will happen. If I remember correctly, they call this phenomenon, “magical thinking.” I do believe willpower is necessary for financial success, but as stated above, it’s not enough, and I would hope that as adults we would be careful not to engage in magical thinking. ;)

    P.S. Ramit, thanks, I’m so glad you liked the comment, but I’m already married. :)

  74. I posted this on your facebook, but thought I’d add it here for your commentor’s benefit

    “I actually do think its easy to lose weight. Step 1) realize you are the way you are because of years of choices. Step 2) realize better choices lead to better results. Step 3) keep at it

    That’s how I went from 305+lbs to 160lbs now, and also how I’ve succeeded in business & done well with investments. It also leads to successful relationships”

    asked Ramit: “On your 3-step process, where do you think most people are likely to fail? Why?

    I continue: “Step 1. It took me years of being fat, & telling myself that it was ok. I was able to rationalize that I was big boned, or jovial, or it was ok because I knew ppl who were in worse shape, etc. When I realized that my decisions had led me to where I was, and that future decisions would either a) make me fatter or b) make me smaller, I decided to make better choices

    I sought out an accountability partner, a friend. I sought out experts – my naturalist, my strength & fitness trainer, even Tony Robbins.

    I chose to learn how to make better decisions, and I lost 90lbs in a year (and 150+lbs total) by making better choices, one choice at a time

    When I realize I control my actions, it reminds me that I have the conscious ability to choose better (or not so great) actions. Everything either moves me closer or further away from my goals; its my choice.

    As to ‘why’ people stay away from taking responsibility, I think its because that’s the easier choice.

    If you’re having a ‘cash flow problem’, it seems easier to say the economy determines my income, than to realize you don’t provide enough value to enough ppl. The latter means you’re failing. The former means you’re a victim. It seems easier to many ppl to blame your parents/teachers/boss than to take responsibility for your attitude, actions & results.”

  75. As for willpower…

    In AA they say that the first step is admitting you have a problem.

    Here, “I am fat” is not the only problem. If a person realizes “I am influenced by advertising, I eat fastfood a few times a week and I realize that it is bad for me, I do not exercise on a regular basis, I hold on to misguided values instilled in me during my childhood…” the list could go on and on and on.

    A person who comes to these realizations has a responsibility to make changes in his/her own life and stop complaining about the outside influences (excluding genetics, which can be overcome, although it is VERY hard to do). Get up and do something about it!

    Of course it will not be over night, which is why admitting the problem/problems is the FIRST step in a long process. This can apply to health, finance, work, whatever.

  76. I was a research assistant on a personality psych project as an undergrad and I was surprised that the literature shows personality traits are mostly static throughout the adult years.

    The situation of over-spending and over-eating also seems like self abuse to me. Like
    any abusive relationship, there’s a
    phenomenon called Learned Helplessness.
    That is, when one suffers through abuse, the
    tendency is to stay in old patterns of
    behavior because the known pain is better
    than the unknown, and after awhile one’s self
    esteem is such that you think you’re not
    worthy of anything better. It’s a violent cycle,
    and self-esteem is an important element in
    willpower.

    Making major, long-term change for the better requires a total paradigm shift, which is different from mere willpower.

  77. @ Benjamin Bach … agreed … thank you.

    Most of all … Congratulations! Keep up the great work.

  78. If willpower was the simple answer for losing weight, then so it’s true that willpower will solve most things. Poverty. Beauty. Happiness. Loneliness. Depression. Personality disorders. Athletic ability. Wealth. Marriage problems. Compassion. Learning a new language. Baldness. Smoking.

    We all wish for simple answers…. but rarely are they to be found. Another night at the gym listening to a “Power of Positive Thinking” tape won’t do much good for the 90% or so who seesaw back and forth with weight problems.

    I applaud those who can muscle through… but you’re the exception to the rule.

    And, yes, I’m a slightly overweight, balding guy that can only speak one language. But I’m thinking positively these conditions will soon change :>)

  79. MrPackGoat – the key isn’t to be “thinking positively” that you will get different results, it’s to change your nutrition & fitness levels (if your goal is health), buy a book on learning italian (if you want to learn a new language) and so on.

    Standing in your garden, thinking ‘there are no weeds, there are no weeds, there are no weeds’ will not ensure a clean garden. You have to do the work to get the result.

  80. I can’t help myself from commenting on this. I think obese people should be in the same general category as smokers. It’s perfectly legal, but it’s unhealthy, and should be frowned upon. Obese people shouldn’t be treated as though they are handicapped any more than someone who gets lung cancer from smoking. [/end rant]

  81. No matter what anyone says, no matter what you believe, no matter how much you’re accepted or rejected, at the end of the day, who’s putting the food in your mouth, and who has to live with the consequences? Unless you can answer that question, everything else is moot.

  82. Running on “willpower” juice is an awful plan for accomplishing long term goals. One of the many lessons I learnt from Dan Ariely’s behavioral economics class at b-school: It is hard to change human behavior compared to changing the rules of the game (the environment) and/or the incentives we set for ourselves.

  83. @vanderlei #34
    I see no reason why it should take a decade to learn to speak 6 languages. I’m in the process of learning my 6th. Just like personal finance and weight loss, it depends on the person.

    @Kevin #52
    Their habits are very, very different than ours. You are totally correct that their culture plays a huge role. I went over there this spring weighing 150 lbs. and was told on my first day of attending high school during an exchange program that I was a fat pig and that I shouldn’t ever eat. It was a big cultural difference. Another was walking everywhere, which was really healthy.

    @secant
    I agree that choices have something to do with it. I do have a medical condition, so my obesity was contributed to by an inherited condition. Thank goodness the medicine worked.

  84. Insinuating that individuals are powerless against the temptations put in front of them by the big, bad, capitalist corporations is dangerous. It leads down the path of … what? the government administering our daily food intake to exactly what we need, and no more, since we are “powerless” to do this for ourselves? The government doling out a spending allowance each month so we don’t overspend, since we’re powerless there too? Sounds Big Brother like to me.

    And PS, before you repeat your (rude & condescending reply to Mike, IMO) and tell me I missed the point of the post…I didn’t miss it, and neither did he. If that wasn’t what you meant to convey, than YOU wrote a poorly written post. Quit blaming everyone else for “not getting your point” and maybe work on making your point a little more clearly.

  85. People who are very overweight have a complicated relationship with food, and understanding this relationship requires a much deeper, and more holistic explanation than “willpower” or even behavioral change, can provide. For most people who are severly obese (which medically, for example, I would guess the woman in this picture would fit this category), food isn’t just food, its not just lack of willpower, its a serious addiction. And not an addiction to the taste of food, but on a much deeper level. For example, let’s say a kid is neglected and abused early in life and is left with important emotional and physical needs that are not being met in developmentally healthy/normal ways. Overeating can become a mal-adapted coping mechanism, that is actually serving a real need a person has to stuff down issues, to feel, to escape pain. I think its not “willpower” that makes it hard to stop eating, its the underlying issues that food is masking, that, at least at some point in the person’s life, are even harder…. and we need to compasionatly address this with psychotherapy to help people heal from the underlying issues, and not just treat (much less demonize and place blame) the symptoms.

    People who have undergone gastric bypass surgery are much more likely to then develop an alcohol or drug addiction. Why? In my opion it makes perfect sense…. because you remove one coping mechanism without actually helping people to cope with the pain that is behind all that weight.

  86. Although I tend to lean towards the gung ho “personal responsibility” camp I also strongly agree with you in that it is very difficult to try and measure someone else’s level of internal personal responsibility/motivation/willpower because as you have put so well in an earlier comment:


    But to say that behavioral change is “easy” or “you can just go to the gym 5x/week!” makes several crucial errors: It implies that people are like you (generic “you”), have the same access as you, have the same motivation (and motivation is a very, very complex topic that is not the same as the average person on the street defines it), and basically assumes that the plural of anecdote is data. If it works for any of these posters, great. But I’m certain that (1) nobody has their entire life under complete control, and (2) people are different than you.

    While I am still very much a strong believer in personal responsibility I think everyone (myself included) could do well to realize that it very well could be that someone down the street who is struggling in a certain area, whether it be with weight issues or financial issues, could very well have exactly the same amount of internal willpower as we have but yet their personal situation requires an even greater amount of internal willpower than we even have in order to accomplish the same result that we could accomplish with our lower level of willpower. All that to say that: yes, personal responsibility is still key for all of us but at no point should we start to stoop to the level of being quick to point out others who we potentially mistakenly perceive as having less internal willpower than us based only on what we can see externally.

  87. Has everyone here (secant, etc) read Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink? Because that book is full of excellent research on how overeating has much less to do with so-called “willpower” and much more to do with other factors you may not even think about — portion size you probably have thought of, but what about how loud the music is in the restaurant you’re in? Louder, faster music has been shown to cause people to eat faster, and in the end, consume more calories. The best example in his book is of a now-famous research study where two groups of people are served soup. One group has a regular bowl of soup, and the other group had “bottomless” bowls of soup that were — unbeknownst to the eaters — being refilled from a contraption under the table so the bowls were never empty. The second group ate 73% more soup but did not report being any more full than the group with regular soup bowls. Why didn’t the second group just stop eating at one bowl??!?!? THOSE FATTIES SHOULD JUST HAVE PUT DOWN THE SOUP SPOON

    Anyway, the point is that people who say losing weight or having excellent personal finances are all just about willpower are the same people who say that advertising doesn’t affect them at all (yeah, I’m talking to you wearing the GAP shirt). Of course people can make choices, but to some degree, this idea of “willpower” is an illusion. We are all manipulated by outside factors, whether we believe we are or not. What we CAN do is study the shit out of this stuff so we can do our best to understand it, and employ tactics that help fight it. Ramit’s book is full of this type of stuff – spend a little of that “willpower” automating your finances now so lack of it in the future doesn’t cause you to eff it all up with one moment of weakness or laziness. He obviously thinks success is possible, but that you need a better plan than to “put down the pizza and get up off the couch.”

  88. I believe that environment is def a factor but I don’t believe that just because your parents are fat and poor you will get some sort of mythical fat and broke genes that will prohibit you from losing weight and making money. In the nature vs nurture argument I side with the people who feel that the nurturing you get at home / environment is what has the largest deciding factors on how you turn out. Of course if you grow up w/ people w/ poor spending habits and eating habits you’ll eat and spend poorly as well.

    I feel it’s more a matter of education than willpower. People don’t generally try to figure out why they make the decisions they make. People have always been fat and poor, throughout history – we’ve always had people who were successful and people who weren’t. We waste a lot of classroom time teaching kids things that they never use again after they get out of high school, when perhaps we should have some better nutritional classes and finance classes, perhaps our parents should do a better job at home – although many of them were never taught these things as well.

    One thing that pisses me off though is when people RANT about PEOPLE WHO RANT and now I’m ranting about people who rant about people who rant and getting pissed off at myself. :) thanks for another interesting post Ramit. Even though I don’t always agree with you, you do have some good topics to discuss.

  89. These are some of the longest comments I’ve ever read on a blog. That’s all, I have nothing of value to add.

  90. I’ve cherry-picked a comment, but it does illustrate my point.

    T said:

    the research really does show that willpower is not enough on its own to change behavior.

    I’m not sure if you’ve worded this wrong or not. Taken at face value, this sentence means it’s impossible to change behavior with willpower alone. In general research does not and cannot prove that something is impossible. If you want to prove that running a mile in 3:30 is impossible, finding more people that cannot do it does not bolster your case. And it only takes one person doing it to prove it is possible. Even if no one has ever done it, that still doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

    Sometimes people spend a long time researching a question, discover some great things, and then forget which question they were answering. In this case you’ve found that willpower alone doesn’t work for 99% of people, but if you do XYZ it works for 50% of people. That’s a great discovery and we should trumpet XYZ from the tops of mountains.

    So yes, T’s post is full of insightful and true information, but it’s marred by the fact that it starts off with a statement that is obviously false.

  91. Are you familiar with the Transtheoretical Model?

    It states there are 5 steps a person must go through before a negative behavior becomes a positive behavior. These steps are cyclical, and relapse into a previous stage can happen at any time.

    The stages are:

    Precontemplation: I don’t know there is a problem; or I know there is a problem and I don’t want to change.
    Contemplation: I know there is a problem, I know it must be changed, but haven’t taken steps to change it.
    Preparation: I know there is a problem and have taken steps to change, but those changes don’t last very long.
    Action: I know there is a problem and have made significant changes. These changes are working, but I still need to make a conscious effort.
    Maintenance: The problem is gone, and the changes I’ve made are now routine.

    As a fitness professional, I spend a lot of time working with clients who want to change their bodies for the better. Clients seek me out because something has happened in their lives to spark the need to change, usually an extrinsic motivation — high blood pressure, their best friend’s wedding, bikini season — and the steps they’ve taken up until this point are not working. Clients come to me in the Preparation stage and it is my job to move them through the Action stage into the Maintenance stage with as little relapse as possible.

    I do this guiding their process and removing obstacles to their success.

    None of it works, however, unless the client wants to change. It is highly unlikely someone in the Precontemplative stage will make better choices or change their habits. And it is just as unlikely that someone in the Preparation stage will make lasting change without learning new skills. Working with me helps speed up that skill acquisition.

    It is true that willpower, motivation and energy are all finite. And if we are genuinely ready to make changes in our lives, it is our duty to each other to help teach the skills we need to succeed.

  92. So, over the last 15 years or so, I had put on about 70 pounds, from a starting point of pretty fit. I finally came to the realization that I was no longer stocky, or just a big guy, but quite fat heading for scary fat. Over the last 5 months, I’ve lost about 35 pounds, and expect that the next 35 shouldn’t be too difficult.

    How? By following the “No-S Diet” (really a sustainable eating plan, more than a diet). It is the invention of Reinhard Engels, a computer programmer, and it can be summed up in 14 words- “No snacks, no seconds, no sweets- except (sometimes) on days that start with S.” Days that start with S are Saturdays, Sundays, special or social days like major holidays and birthdays, and sick days.

    I mention this not to shill for the plan (which requires no purchases of any sort, anyway), but to point out the paralles to Ramit’s money philosophy.

    One could restate the No-S Diet in his terms. One- Automate: by eating three square meals a day, you elimate most of the choice-making and agonizing over minor details. It’s easy to keep rough track of what you’re eating, and the simplification tends to lead to better choices naturally. Two- Negotiate: By establishing only one “forbidden” food, i.e. sweets on weekdays, you get a big gain with minimal followup. Other than that, you go on living your life. Three- Guilt-free eating: once you have established control over your consumption, you can enjoy the pizza at lunch, if that’s what you want, or the ice cream on Saturday. You avoid resentment and rationalization, since the wait for food you enjoy is usually only hours, or maybe a few days for sweets. I’m almost never hungry on weekdays, until just before mealtime, when I have a (literally) healthy appetite.

    With my new found “will-power,” I’ve been going to the gym again, and enjoying it. The power of habit is immense, as is the power of positive feedback. Just my two cents.

  93. Ugh! Why can’t BMW drivers just park normal !?!

    (they must have some kind of predisposition…)

  94. I must say that I am surprised that an article like this would even come from Ramit. Compassion? Understanding? Ramit is usually more of a put up or shut up, survival of the fittest (or smartest) type of guy. He seems to have little time for complainers or people who make excuses rather than take responsibility.

    Seems like he read something and was influenced by it, similar to people taking statistics, articles, whatever mass-generated info is out there, and then running with it.

    You can find “studies” to support whatever you want.

    Bring back the old Ramit!

  95. The point expressed in this blog post is tailored to a scant few of exceptional circumstances. That is, the exception rather than the rule. The perversion, or complete disregard for the line in between is a large contributing factor behind obesity culture in the US. You’re telling people it’s OK to be fat because it’s hard to not be fat because it’s difficult and complex. Perhaps not your intention, but that’s the result. Willpower can’t be emphasized enough in this struggle. You’re clouding the lines of good logic here.

    All of this crybaby nonsense blaming processed food giants’ business practices for alarming obesity rates is pure caca. They’re a business, they distribute a product for revenue. Get over it. Don’t eat their fake-food products or find the willpower to exercise moderation.

    Bad financial habits: spending more than one earns.
    Bad eating habits: eating more than one burns.

    I’ve typically (and quietly) enjoyed this blog for a while, but as someone who found the pure willpower to stop making excuses and lose more than 20% body fat and 50 lbs in the past year, this post manages to both belittle those efforts and be completely laughable at the same time.

    A simplistic view? Perhaps, but I believe Da Vinci stated, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

    ugh.

  96. @Corey who said “…Obese people shouldn’t be treated as though they are handicapped…”

    RIGHT ON ! Remember the furore that was created in the media when some of the airlines started charging for 2 seats for fat people ?! I wondered at that time if any of those people who were “outraged” ever had the good fortune of an obese fat person seated next to them by the airhostess.

    Most uncomfortable experience, especially on a long flight coast to coast. I have had more than my share of experiences. But even in that situation, the air staff is very “kind” and “polite” to the fat passenger, because expressing their true feelings and asking the passenger to purchase the extra ticket, or camp out in the toilet rooms would amount to a lawsuit from the fat person(s) and also be deemed as an “inappropriate” response / treatment by the staff !

  97. @W Congratulations on your weight loss. Remember though, that there is no zealot like the newly converted. Will you be able to maintain your loss indefinitely? Do you want to do so though “pure willpower,” which sounds quite taxing? Or, have you established strong habits and an intelligent strategy which will make it fairly easy, even automatic?

    The plan I mentioned above is explicitly modeled on traditional food culture. The common element of “fit populations” such as the Japanese, the French, or Americans forty years ago is a social norm of eating meals (not snacks) at set times, usually in a group. One could also argue that each culture encouraged regular, moderate exercise such as walking. Other than the huge amounts of added sugar consumed in soft drinks and “snack foods,” I don’t believe there are inherently bad foods. The Japanese eat a lot of rice (carbs), the French eat fat, and Americans in 1965 ate lots of both (meatloaf and potatoes). Yet none had an “obesity epidemic.” And none focused on “pure willpower” to remain fit. The culture took care of it for them.

  98. You cannot lose weight, get rich, or do anything that requires sustained effort, without willpower.

    Fat people who wish they weren’t fat (no matter what they publicly say about it), but choose to continue the habits that cause their obesity, or more accurately, don’t choose to adopt habits that would make them lose weight, lack willpower. You can dress it up any way you like, but ultimately, they have simply given up.

    Unfortunately, the popular, exclusive conception of willpower is that of a stubborn, stupid, “run into the same brick wall again,but faster this time” mentality. Life isn’t Dragonball, where victory is won simply by gritting your teeth and shouting really, really loud at your target.

    Willpower can mean you step back, identify your point of failure, revise your plan, and try again, and keep trying different, more effective ways, until you get it right.

    It is much, much harder to spend less than you earn, than to eat less than you burn. A dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to, and people are losing jobs. There’s no inflation in the currency of calories. Jogging still “pays” the same, and sugar still “costs” the same, as a hundred, a thousand years ago.

  99. Zeeezaloo! I was thinking why did Ramit take 20 lines to explain “Behavioral change is incredibly complex and difficult”, but looking at the slew of comments, their depth & breadth – it makes sense!

    One Q though – If we are likening personal finance to overeating with lack of will power, then if we garner enough Will Power for personal finance, would it translate towards your eating habits & vice versa! Yikes!

  100. http://news.yahoo.com/s/livescience/exhaustedhowtogetyourwillpowerback

    New article on willpower – with scientific evidence to support it.

  101. @Marc

    Thanks. I cited pure willpower, but let it be clear that I’m referring to the use of willpower as fuel for a lifestyle change. I simply stopped eating so much crap and got into an active routine.

    I was the cliche of the teenager who played sports year-round and ate whatever was unfortunate enough to cross my path. Then I began a career, traveled, got married, became sedentary, and learned to indulge indiscriminately. I still considered myself athletic, but all of that weight piled on in a matter of two or three years.

    Then I got sick of sucking in the gut in futility, panting up stairs, not wanting to take my shirt off at the beach (I currently live in Hawaii), regretting what I just ate, making empty promises to myself, listening to stern warnings from health care professionals at annual checkups, feeling ridiculous in huge clothes that were tight at the waist/thighs yet baggy everywhere else, making excuses, petty arguments with my wife over my eating “splurges” which were becoming increasingly frequent, resorting to self-deprecating jokes to mask the pain, hating clothes shopping, chafing thighs, sweating at the least bit of exertion, feeling sluggish and lethargic, waking up with a sore throat as a result of snoring, not feeling like walking my dog, hearing crap from my wife for never walking the dog, resting my guitar on my belly, the sensation of “jiggling”, generally feeling like a hypocrite (due to my “past life” as an athlete), and even denying my wife intimacy at times because I wasn’t comfortable with my body (this hurts to admit).

    Then one day in February, I weighed myself at 218 (I’m 71″) and measured my waist at 42″. I took a long, painful look in the mirror. Consulting an online calculator put me around 30% body fat with the word “obese” attached. Still in denial, I did some reading. Yep, obese.

    I traded in my fast food and other poisons for real, high nutritional-content food with short ingredients lists that don’t read like a chemistry lab supply closet. To my shock, this actually decreased my monthly food expenditures; our nutrition plan costs us about $75/week (my wife is already a health hippie), saving us about $100/month on groceries, not to mention impulse meals around town. I never drank sodas or other sugar beverages before (I can’t imagine how much worse I’d have been) except when out drinking, but I did increase my daily water intake from 1-2 liters to 5-7 liters.

    I combined this with a regiment of regular exercise at home combining resistance, strength, cardio, core work, and flexibility. There was no starvation or fad or unhealthy practice involved. In fact, I eat more now than I did before.

    I’m now around 165 lbs, 32″ waist, and just under 10% body fat. Of significance is the fact that I’m extremely comfortable with my routine and diet, with zero inclination to return to the old ways. Sure, I indulge occasionally, but I’ve learned how to apply moderation. Also, I’ve ditched my sedentary lifestyle in favor of being outdoors.

    So ya, big lifestyle change. Oh, and I ditched TV 2.5 years ago; I’m sure that helped. Interestingly enough, the past year also marks my commitment to eliminating debt. I’ve paid off both credit cards, a vehicle and a half (with the other half in sight), fully funding both our Roths, got to work on the emergency fund, and even found room for a trip to Europe this winter. Willpower is a beast.

    @Ramit, I speak 5 languages at varying degrees of fluency and earn less than $350K/year…Give me a year or two, I’m still young. As for dating multiple women each week, I won’t comment on your system of values (or mine when I was 22) :)

  102. That comparison of overeating to financial slobbery is fascinating. Thanks for the article.

  103. Bigger question is why does it cost so much damn money to lose weight. Why the hell does it cost more to eat less? Even if you don’t change what you eat and just eat less… you’ll lose weight. Just as if you spend a little less on your current habits, you’ll save a little. Dieters often get trapped in the same kind of boat as people who use brokers… paying more whether you get results or not….

  104. I think I defy this conventional wisdom… my finances keep getting in better shape while I keep gaining weight!

  105. Interesting comparison. I’d say it has to do with anything that is deeply ingrained and emotionally reinforced. Overeating, gambling, money woes etc. they all have pleasure/pain centers and usually the thing that gives the most reward instantly…is the hardest to overcome.

  106. [...] I Will Teach you to be Rich asks, Ugh, Why Don’t Fat People Just Eat Less? [...]

  107. @Sarah… Ramit has a degree in psychology, so yes he was influenced by something he read.

    The whole point of this article is that the vast majority of the studies show that behavioral change is complicated. I think the reason why there are so many crazy comments on this post is because it sounds a little too one-sided, though. BUT Ramit’s object was not to describe the complex factors that lead to obesity, it was to give some of the angry people here a wake-up call. Looks like it didn’t work…

  108. I don’t know if it’s been mentioned but, in America at least, cheaper food is unhealthier food. Ironically enough, in these tough times it wouldn’t be surprising to see obesity rates go up. Also, folks eat more when they’re depressed.

  109. I think others commenting are discounting the environmental factors that surround the financial and dietary questions.

    The American people have been systematically tricked into believing they have more spending/earning power due to insanely cheap imported products from China, when in fact their earning and purchasing power has gone down significantly with regards to food, energy, housing, education, and healthcare. This is why people go into debt. It’s not a choice for many middle-class families these days.

    In a similar vein, our food has been engineered to contain boat-loads of corn syrup, highly refined ingredients, etc.

  110. @W

    You’re amazing. That’s really all I have to say.

  111. I don’t buy this. The people that argue that the marketing companies force us to buy and overeat have flawed arguments as just as many people don’t give in to these pitches.

    Second, most overweight or indebted folks make excuses for their woes. The overweight blame food companies, family, heredity, etc. while indebted blame the economy, boss or someone else for their problems. Once they realize they are where they are due to their choices then they can take action to rectify it.

  112. Ramit,
    If you are going to talk about means and averages (as in “The average couple spends X on their wedding” or “For the average person, motivation has X effect size on nutritional habits”), please indicate standard deviation, median and mode of the populations of which you speak.

    Given the response to your claims of “people are destined to be average in this way” or “you, specifically, will do the average thing when it comes to this topic,” I’m led to believe that you may be talking about bimodal distributions, distributions skewed by outliers, or distributions with very large standard deviations.

    Let’s take your wedding post for example. You claim that since the mean cost of an American wedding is $28,000, every savvy young person should create a monthly savings plan to save $28,000 by the time they turn 27 (why not $14K since two people are involved?). You base this claim on the idea that people usually regress to the mean.

    But you make the assumption that you are talking about a normal, non-skewed distribution. In other words, you don’t take into account the fact that, let’s say, 5% of couples have weddings that cost well over $200,000 and these people are factored into the mean. If you factor these people out, the average wedding costs might be much lower. Listing a median wedding cost in the ballpark of $28,000, would have no doubt strengthened your argument.

    Secondly, half the couples getting married could be having small, simple $6000 weddings and half the couples could be having $50,000 weddings. These figures would still average to $28k, but indicate vastly different savings strategies. Bimodal distribution.

    Thirdly, even if your distribution is symmetrical, you can’t expect everyone to be exactly at the mean. But people do have about a 68% chance of being within one standard deviation of the mean. A standard deviation of $27,000 yields a vastly different conclusion than a standard deviation of $100. ( 68% of weddings cost between $1000 and $55,000 vs $27,900 and $28,100).

    BTW, if you read meta-analysis on Fishbien and Ajzen type interventions, behavioral effect sizes are pretty darn low even when effect sizes for changes in knowledge, attitudes and perceptions of social norms are decent sized. And for things like condom use, there isn’t even a proper behavioral effect size measure. And because of this, we have no idea if interventions actually work, let alone what aspects of interventions work. We can’t know anything about anything, if we can’t even measure and standardize a DV.

    Point being, even the stuff we think we know about behavioral change because it’s been published in a peer reviewed journals is stuff we really, really don’t know.

  113. As a few people (W @107 for instance) have shown, it’s not about “willpower” at all. It’s about being fed up enough with the current state of affairs and really committing to a change. People may desire to not be fat or in debt, but until they commit to doing everything in their power to change, it’s probably not going to change. Being “lazy” is easier and less scary. I’m “lazy” in many areas of my own life. Changing behaviors may be hard, but I would argue that *deciding* to fully change behaviors is harder still for most people. (This year I committed myself to “not being fat anymore”, found a great tool with which to count calories, and dropped 3 pant sizes.)

  114. @W
    Amazing. Well done. Your initial comment re: willpower made me wonder whether you had gone off the deep end with some unhealthy/unsustainable diet or exercise routine. From your story, obviously not. It seems like the consensus developing in this thread is that willpower is important if it means: recognizing the problem, taking personal responsibility, finding a smart system, and most of all, following through! The payoff, though, is that once well launched, continuing progress doesn’t have to be painful. In fact, it shouldn’t be.

  115. This is just like asking, “why can’t a drug addict just stop?” Many overweight people are addicted to food, just like many people are addicted to spending. I used to be one of those judgmental types who believed it was only about self-control and will power. Now, as I am struggling to lose about 20 pounds, I see that change is difficult, especially when the human psyche and emotions are involved.

  116. That woman looks familiar, and I’m not kidding!

    Why can’t they eat less is the million dollar question!

  117. @Bobby

    A lot of crap food is cheap, yeh. But so is a lot of good food. Look again at your grocery store, there are plenty of great foods that are healthy and very affordable. Not to mention the long-term money you’ll save by eating better.

    A lot of people try saying that eating healthy is too expensive and use it as an excuse. That’s exactly what it is… an excuse.

  118. Ramit,
    I liked this post but thought it could have benefited from some minor tweaks. For me, the major points of your book and blog have been:

    1. Start investing in yourself today, no matter the amount (i.e. save $50/month)
    2. Focus on achievable but big win modifications to your behaviours to support personal growth (i.e. stop using credit cards while saving $50/month).
    3. Create support systems to achieve your goals (i.e. automate your finances).

    Throughout the book and blog, I find these points are both explicitly and implicitly mentioned. However, I think this post could have benefited from making your major themes explicit. Based on reading comments, its seems like the discussion got a bit side tracked on some of your support – “food companies engineer food to be overeaten” – rather than what I thought was the major point of the post – “behavioural change is not simply about trying harder”.

    Making the theme of your materials more explicit could have looked something like, “behavioural change is not simply about trying harder, its about identifying and overcoming challenges by setting achievable goals and developing systems to support those goals.” Or something like that…

    I completely agree that it is not reasonable to just tell someone to stop eating less when their environment is conducive to over eating. Instead, the advice, in my humble opinion, should be to start small (just like investing $50/month). For instance, don’t eat at fast food restaurants, pack your own lunch; Read a book on healthy eating; begin some form of light physical activity like afternoon walks. Each of these suggestions can be compounded later for further gains by increasing one’s efforts. I do not mean to imply that each of these suggestions is easy, that depends on the individual, but they are all minor when compared to the drastic change of “eat less”.

    Anyways, great post, I’ve begun a blog myself on this very topic (inspired by iwillteachyoutoberich) though it’s still in its earliest form.

    I hope my two cents helps out in some way or stimulates further discussion.
    Pete

  119. Am I the only one that interpreted “W”‘s comment as one gloating in self-love and pompous touting of alleged accomplishments ?

    @W, glad you were able to share it with the rest of us and thanks for making us feel like under-achievers.

    p.s. are you related to the original Dubya ??

  120. Being influenced by advertising… Driving by Burger King and stopping when you can just keep driving… Waiting until next week to start that diet or exercise program… Buying sugary and fatty foods instead of fruit and veggies… These all may be instilled in us by commercials, our parents, whatever… but wouldn’t all of these things be the OPPOSITE of willpower? Or, to put it another way, A LACK OF WILLPOWER?

    And Chad… give the guy a break!

  121. Here is the link to a post more along the lines of what I have come to expect from Ramit:

    http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/we-love-to-debate-minutiae/

    Here are some quotes from it:

    “When it comes to weight loss, 99.99% of people only need to know 2 things: Eat healthier and exercise more. Only Olympic athletes need to know more.”

    “I prefer to do it another way. Let the fools debate the details. I’d rather get something done by keeping it simple and actually doing it.”

    “Who wins at the end of the day? The self-satisfied people who heatedly debate some obscure details? Or the people who sidestep the entire debate, recognize the underlying essence of the issue, and quietly get it done?”

  122. Kirk Kinder (117)–Have to disagree!

    Most people have some sort of addiction–a coping device if you prefer–to fight bordem, make them feel “good” (or dull pain), or fill the gap between who the want to be and who they are.

    It can take the form of over eating, over spending, using drugs or alcohol, watching sports 24/7, shopping, partying–you name it.

    There are consequences to all of these, and one problem with overeaters, is that they tend to carry the results of their coping device with them for all to see. Most other coping devices allow people to hide it, including the overpsenders.

    I think cultural/marketing forces DO play a heavy role in all coping devices/bad habits, food being not the least of which.

    Also, which coping device we rely on–and again, we all have at least one–is often determined or influenced by genetics and/or upbringing.

  123. Yes, Chad. My divulging the fact that I was at times reluctant to get cozy with my wife is totally an example of gloating.

    My successes were based on digging deep to find the willpower to both accept the fact that things I don’t like about my life are my own fault and to also effect change. It’s easy as hell to say that, but I assure you it’s far more difficult in practice. I believe this is a major breaking point for most people, ultimately leading to relapse. Only after I learned to come 100% clean with myself was I able to finally escape the cycle of self-loathing and empty compensation consuming me.

    If me relating a few details (on the internet) of my personal discovery of how stupid and irresponsible I was to ignore reality for so long, plus the painful journey I labored to improve somehow threatens your ability to be comfortable with yourself, then perhaps my above point concerning turning the blame inward as a vehicle for change and inner peace might be of use to you.

  124. Will power IS tough… that’s why it’s called willpower. I still believe personal responsibility plays a role.

  125. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

    “Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over, expecting different results each time.” – Einstein, I think.

  126. There are 3,500 calories in one pound of fat. Eat less, or expend more, than 500 calories per day than your requirement and you will lose 1lb of fat per week, 52lbs per year! It’s that simple. Saying that the food industry fooled you into eating more is just insulting to fat people, and i’ve already insulted them enough.

    This is the worst blog i’ve read on this site. When I first found this site a few years back, it was a great source for personal finance. Now it’s just crap advice and “How to save money…IN MY BOOK” and “I like pies, read more…IN MY BOOK”, “Read my book…IN MY BOOK.” Time to unsubscribe from the mailing list.

  127. Thank you, Ramit, for posting this entry and for calling people on their ignorance in the comments. I don’t know what’s wrong with people in this country–or maybe it’s people in general–that makes them so unable to empathize. Everyone has their own personal failures, but god forbid they extend that to understand the reasons behind others’ struggles.

    You people are all on this site because you feel you don’t have enough money. Why aren’t you making more of it? It is, after all, just a matter of willpower. You could take a night job. Start your own side business. Why haven’t you done it? And if you have, why aren’t you richer? Come on, let’s hear your whiny excuses.

    I hope this doesn’t derail into an off-topic discussion, but I want to say that this is the same kind of thinking that allows for all the torture and abuse that goes on in prisons today. The same kind of thinking that keeps the poor in their place. You self-righteous, heartless hypocrites should try walking a mile in someone else’s shoes for a change. Or even just earnestly *talking* to one of those people you’re bashing as lazy. You might learn something.

  128. @imelda Holier-than-thou much? If you bothered to read and think about what others have written, you might have noticed that there were thoughtful reasons to disagree with some of what Ramit wrote.

    You ask, “You could take a night job. Start your own side business. Why haven’t you done it? And if you have, why aren’t you richer? Come on, let’s hear your whiny excuses.” Did you think maybe some of the people here have, or are the process of doing so, and that they are taking steps to improve their lives rather than complaining about things beyond their control?

    *I* hope this doesn’t derail into an off-topic discussion, but I want to say that this is the same kind of thinking that allows for enablers like yourself to help the poor, fat, or otherwise unenviable mire themselves in excuses, self-pity, and misdirected energy on things beyond individual control.

    Try looking up “Manchausen syndrome by proxy.” You might learn something.

  129. hmmm i don’t know if I agree. I have studied kinesiology and psychology and I tend to think that, with the exception of extreme cases, people are just making the problem more complex, and adding excuses. It is quite simply, dedication, exercise and better nutrition habits. I understand it is an addiction, but that is in the extreme cases.

    with proper budget planning one will realize how much money can be saved with a lifestyle change

  130. Funny if you look at the very popular show biggest looser they show extremely over weight people who change there diet, exercise a ton and what do you know they all loose weight. Let me guess they don’t have that special overweight DNA do they. The simple fact is you can cherry pick all the studies you want but in the end. A diet that is healthy and life style that is full of exercise does not equal extreme weight. Get real people and stop making excuses your costing your country Billions!

  131. @Antoine: “Did you think maybe some of the people here have, or are the process of doing so, and that they are taking steps to improve their lives rather than complaining about things beyond their control? ”
    Hmmm…. I wonder why the diet industry in this country is a billion-dollar business?

    I’ll tell you what’s “holier-than-thou”: all of these commenters who assume that they would do so much better than someone else in a bad situation, so anyone who is fat or poor is obviously lazy. That’s self-righteousness, the true laziness. Go talk to these people you bash. Work with them. You might learn something.

    Losing weight is not a matter of “eat less, exercise more.” It’s emotional, it’s visceral, it’s behavioral. Assuming that fat people are lazy is unrealistic and ignores human nature. How anyone can read scientific studies, like the one T describes in comment #70, and not realize this simply baffles me. Moreover, if the food conglomerates and insurance company lobbyists have nothing to do with our obesity problems, as so many people insist, then please tell me what it is about Americans that makes us so fat? Why are we so lazy, when most of the rest of the developed world enjoys healthier bodies and longer lifespans?

    I’m not dismissing personal responsibility. Most overweight people are trying to lose weight, as they should, and they must keep trying. I am simply acknowledging that we can’t put the blame on the strength of their characters. Let’s acknowledge that there are many, many factors to this, and that, as Ramit has said before, “eat less, exercise more” is effectively a useless statement.

    (PS: there’s no such person as an “enabler” of poverty. Berk.)

  132. @imelda –

    Obviously the people coming to this site have realized their problem/problems and are DOING SOMETHING about it instead of sitting around making excuses. I am sure willpower helped them to get started.

    Your words did not reach the right people – those who are too lazy to make change, whether it be financial OR health – those types of people don’t even bother to seek advice in a place like this, I am sure.

    I have read comments from many, many people on Ramit’s posts and some other finance blogs about how horrible people’s financial habits were (could be eating habits if we are talking about being fat) or how people had their priorities screwed up (could be like sitting watching TV instead of going for a walk) and then one day they just decided to make a change, take control, stop making excuses, and they are happier, wealthier and even healthier in some cases. So who exactly were you refering to? Those coming to this site are the ones actually doing something to change their own situation instead of blaming everything or everyone but themselves.

  133. @imelda – actually it was Ramit who said, to paraphrase, eat less and exercise more is all people need to know to lose weight, in another blog post, of course.

  134. @ Sarah: Yes, he has said that this is the simple solution, which I’m not saying I disagree with (I don’t know all the science behind weight loss). He has also said that human nature is to debate the minutiae, experience barriers, and struggle to change, which is my whole point.

    PS– Antoine, I’m really sorry about the “berk” comment above. I really didn’t mean it. Wish we could edit comments here…

  135. @ Joshua, #138 – Most of what the Biggest Loser contestants lose is water weight, and they use a variety of very unhealthy methods, including “cleanses” that are not officially “drugs” in order to make weigh-in. The first winner, Ryan Benson, regained THIRTY POUNDS in FIVE DAYS after the show, simply by rehydrating himself: http://www.diet-blog.com/archives/2007/07/04/the_biggest_loser_where_are_they_now.php

    Also, there is no “willpower” involved in their weight loss. Their diets are created for them and they are then monitored 24 hours a day to make sure they don’t deviate. Their workouts are also created for them and they spend 4-5 hours per day in the presence of a professional personal trainer.

  136. I think we need some clarification here.

    Many people here have said things along the lines of, “Well, if it is all willpower, then I can just think myself thin, sexy, and rich.”

    That is not what is meant by willpower. That is “positive thinking”. I am assuming many of the people here mean the willpower to do what needs to be done. You can’t “will” yourself healthy, and no one here has said you can. But, people have said a stronger willpower to fight impulses, fight the effects of advertising, eat healthier food, go to the gym, take a walk, whatever, would be a large part of the solution to the problem.

    “willpower – the trait of resolutely controlling your own behavior

    synonyms: self-command, self-possession, will power, self-will, self-control, firmness of purpose, resoluteness, resolve, firmness, resolution – the trait of being resolute OPPOSITE: weakness” – from thefreedictionary.com

  137. I have been making the push to incorporate almost all natural foods into my diet with little to no processed foods. Along with other things that I have read, I have to doubt that processed foods are engineered to be addictive is the. You don’t overly crave natural food (anything that is not processed) like you do processed. Once you are full on natural foods you usually can stop. Willpower is a hard part of it, the food companies do a good job of making their food appealing.
    Thanks for the great post.

    http://www.jamisonstudio.com/2009/10/compulsive-overeating/

  138. [...] -http://www.iwillteachyoutoberich.com/blog/ugh-why-dont-fat-people-just-eat-less/ [...]

  139. There was a recent article in the NYTimes related to this discussion; folks might be interested in reading: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/health/22well.html?ref=nutrition

    A notable quote that I’m sure most of you won’t believe but is backed by that wacky thing called science:
    “Most obesity researchers now agree that metabolic differences, not willpower, are the driving forces behind weight and appetite control.”

  140. Hey look it’s Noon, and that means the lady (the lady who looks gorgeous in her wedding photos she displays on her desk, but is now overweight and disgusting) in the cube across from me is ordering her favorite takeout for lunch again. Boy would I be ignorant if I made a statement like “she could just eat less and lose weight”.

  141. @imelda Does that wacky thing called science say anything about how to lose the weight that wasn’t the fat person’s fault to gain? Who puts the food in a person’s mouth, and who benefits from losing weight or suffers from gaining it?

  142. @imelda “Hmmm…. I wonder why the diet industry in this country is a billion-dollar business?”

    I’d say it’s because people are looking for easy solutions rather than doing what’s necessary.

    “Go talk to these people you bash. Work with them. You might learn something.”

    Find one instance where I bashed anyone in this discussion, and I’ll consider it.

    “Losing weight is not a matter of “eat less, exercise more.” It’s emotional, it’s visceral, it’s behavioral.”

    And at the end of all that emotional, visceral, behavioral [whatever], if we separate thsoe who lose weight from those who didn’t, guess what the difference is? Those who lose weight ate less calories than they spent, one way or another.

    “Assuming that fat people are lazy is unrealistic and ignores human nature.”

    You keep bringing up “lazy,” and I don’t know why.

    “Moreover, if the food conglomerates and insurance company lobbyists have nothing to do with our obesity problems, as so many people insist”

    Throughout your response, you’ve made up a number of straw men, citing arguments that were never made. It leads me to believe you simply aren’t listening to anything anyone’s saying because you’re blinded by your self-righteousness.

    “I’m not dismissing personal responsibility.”

    Yeah, actually, you are.

    “Most overweight people are trying to lose weight, as they should, and they must keep trying.”

    No, they aren’t. They’re wishing that they were thinner, but they aren’t *trying* anything, or trying things that are so ridiculous (See your comment about “billion-dollar business” above.) that they may as well not.

    “I am simply acknowledging that we can’t put the blame on the strength of their characters.”

    I’m saying blaming anyone or anything is a waste of time and energy.

    “Let’s acknowledge that there are many, many factors to this, and that, as Ramit has said before, “eat less, exercise more” is effectively a useless statement.”

    Let’s not, because no matter how you end up doing it, that’s the only way you’re going to lose weight, short of terminal illness or gastric bypass.

    “(PS: there’s no such person as an “enabler” of poverty. Berk.)”

    I might be offended if I knew what “Berk” meant.

  143. @imelda “there’s no such person as an “enabler” of poverty” I suppose there’s no one with that title in the government, but I’d say that welfare and food stamps actually do enable poverty.

    Think of someone who earns just enough money to qualify for government handouts. What motivation does he have to work harder for a raise? Why would he try to save money, and earn more, when it’s going to cost him “free” money? There was an article in the newspaper last week about a family of six who gets $1200 a month in food stamps, and they were complaining because the 4 kids are going to miss out on 17 school lunches a year due to cutbacks. They can’t feed a family of 6 on $1200 a month? Really? And what motivation do they have to work their way out of their poverty, when it would cost them $14,400 a year (tax-free, mind you) if they saved money or got a raise? Why would they clip coupons or shop for cheaper deals, when they have to use it or lose it?

    There’s your enabler of poverty.

  144. Argh. Antoine, the majority of my arguments were not in response to your comments. They were in response to the various other commenters. Before you accuse me of “making up straw men,” try actually reading the comments. See comment 40, for example, for one of the many instances of people dismissing the food industry’s culpability in the obesity epidemic.

    I actually laughed at your explanation of what an enabler of poverty is. Yes, I do in fact understand that people (like you) believe that social services are “enablers” of poverty. What I also understand is that to use the word “enabler” is to imply that being poor is a personal choice, which it is not. And that the purpose of using such a word is to derail the conversation from the importance and efficacy of social services. But you and I will never agree on that, and I will agree to disagree if you will (or even if you won’t).

    Finally, don’t tell me I am dismissing personal responsibility. If i say I’m not, then I’m inherently not. I am, however, desperately trying to get people to acknowledge other influences. Because, generally, the people who say “people need to take personal responsibility” or “welfare enables laziness among the poor” are the people who oppose medicare and social security, who oppose laws that regulate food companies, who, ultimately, have no interest in helping because, duh, if you stop helping them they’ll be forced to work their way out of poverty or being fat, won’t they? As far as I’m concerned, they are these people: http://politicalirony.com/2008/08/08/a-concise-history-of-black-white-relations-in-the-us/ (feel free to replace ‘white’ and ‘black’ with ‘rich’ and ‘poor’)

    PS, I find it hysterical that you call people who go on diets “ridiculous” and dismiss their efforts. They just can’t win, can they?

  145. @imelda “I find it hysterical that you call people who go on diets “ridiculous” and dismiss their efforts. They just can’t win, can they?”

    Taking the one word “ridiculous” from what I said out of the context of my response to your statement, in which I essentially agreed with your statement about the diet industry selling stupid shit to fat people? You’re just not even trying to discuss ideas, are you?

    “Finally, don’t tell me I am dismissing personal responsibility. If i say I’m not, then I’m inherently not.”

    If this is the kind of reasoning you’re bringing to the table, which, from the rest of your statements, seems all you’re capable of, I’m done with you. Keep blathering your nonsense, I’m done replying.

  146. As a fat man,I must say everytime when I eat foods,I never feel that I am full,I just want to eat more.

  147. @Antoine: Way to avoid responding to any of my points. Nice evasion!

    You ridiculed fat people by saying: “No, they aren’t. They’re wishing that they were thinner, but they aren’t *trying* anything, or trying things that are so ridiculous (See your comment about “billion-dollar business” above.) that they may as well not.”

    In no way does that comment acknowledge the tremendous efforts people take to lose weight. You dismiss their work, saying “they may as well not” even try, so that you can continue to insult them, saying that they “mire themselves in excuses, self-pity, and misdirected energy on things beyond individual control.” This, even after I made the point about diets that patently contradicts such an ignorant statement.

    You’re not winning this argument, buddy. Dropping out was a wise move.

    @Avery: That’s an extremely common phenomenon. You might be interested in the book “The End of Overeating” by David Kessler, here: http://www.amazon.com/End-Overeating-Insatiable-American-Appetite/dp/1605297852/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1255377726&sr=8-1.

  148. Who Cares! So What! I am a fat man, myself. I personally think that food ( unhealthy food, in particular) is bliss and the source of all happiness and love!

  149. Plus, all excercise is torture and the source of all sadness and hate!

  150. [...] online nerds, love to claim that our entire financial situation is our responsibility. In “Ugh, why don’t fat people just eat less?” I showed why this is patently [...]

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