We Have Met the Enemy

Now that a few months have passed since the New Year, what is the state of your resolution to lose weight? If it is a just a painful memory, you might be pondering the strength of your willpower and concluding that it is shamefully weak. In fact, it’s not, according to Daniel Akst, the author of We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess. Although a full two-thirds of us are overweight, our willpower is no weaker than that of the slim generations that preceded us. It’s just that we’re up against temptations that we never evolved to resist, in an environment that seduces rather than sustains us.

In his book, Akst explores “the problem of the appetites, the problem of moderation in a time of freedom and affluence, in a landscape of great temptation.” With regard to over-eating specifically, he says, “We evolved to like fats and sweets. It was an evolutionary adaptation that helped us survive and reproduce in an environment of scarcity. Of course, today we live in an environment of unbelievable plenty.”

The result is that our instinctual desire to eat fats and sweets, called our first order preference, wars with our intellectual desire to avoid sweets and be slim, called our second order preference. And it is Akst’s conclusion that if we rely on willpower alone to resist our first order preference to eat unhealthy foods, our second order preference to not eat them will surely be overwhelmed. Our decisions tend to fold when they come up against our drives. Even St. Paul wrote, “I do not do what I would like to do, but instead I do what I hate.”

There are a number of reasons why we can’t expect willpower to prevail in the current landscape of plentiful temptation, where everything has become cheaper, easier, and faster. It’s not just that we were formed by evolution to have a drive to eat high calorie foods, or that today’s foods are so much more tempting than berries and buffalo fat. Akst presents the studies and theories that explain why our willpower is inadequate to the self-restraint tasks of today. It turns out that even the willpower that we do have is finite. Studies show that it becomes depleted after being exercised: If you use it on preventing yourself from over-spending your credit card, you don’t have enough left to resist a consolatory cupcake.

But what are we to do, then, to keep ourselves from caving? As Akst notes, “It’s easy to say just eat less, or do this, or do that, but the question is, how can you cause yourself to accomplish that when you have these cravings, when you instinctively want foods and drink?” What we need to do, he advises, is develop certain skills, skills that can keep us out of situations where our willpower will falter. “Basically,” he says, “what you want to do is take this out of the realm of willpower and put it into an area of skill, because skill can be learned and mastered, and these are not difficult skills.”

“We all have choices,” he says, “and our responsibility is to put ourselves in the position where we can make the right ones. That’s really the challenge….Our essential natures are not all that malleable, so we’re stuck with them. You can’t change your human nature, but you can change your environment.”

Changing your environment, even in very simple ways, is the basis of Akst’s skill set for succeeding in the face of willpower’s shortcomings. For example, he says, “Stay out of places that are trouble, stay out of bakeries. If you’re not supposed to drink beer, make sure you don’t have it in the house.”

Although he has libertarian leanings, he has also “come to believe that the government needs to do more, because I just don’t think it’s a fair fight. When you have two-thirds of the population weighing more than it should, that may be a sign that people can’t cope. I would like to see the government give us more of a chance to constrain our own behavior. For example, maybe we could volunteer to be taxed based upon a change in our body weight.”

Such a tax would be a form of precommitment, another technique that Akst advocates. If there are options ahead that you’d rather not take, foreclose on them ahead of time, because you won’t be able to rely on willpower when the time comes. Akst also explains the roles of loneliness, fatigue, access to nature, and help from others in our ability to control our appetites. “It’s hubris,” Akst says, “to think that each of us can conquer these kinds of things solely by ourselves, solely with will power.”

Diet books are all well and good, but generally they just provide a list of proper food choices. They don’t tell you how to keep yourself from eating foods that aren’t on the list. If you are seriously interested in losing weight for the sake of your health, you might want to read Akst’s book. It’s not just about weight, as it covers our responses to temptations of all sorts. But it will give you a deeper understanding of why you do what you don’t want to do, and it will give you a toolbox of skills to help you do what you actually want to.

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