Your Environment Matters More Than Your Willpower

I come from a Vietnamese background, but was born and raised in Canada. 

Did you know that Vietnam has the lowest obesity rate in the world? Canada on the other hand has one of the highest obesity rates in the world. 

Image from factsmaps.com

The reason? Environment. 

Your Environment Impacts How Much You Weigh

When I say environment, I’m not talking about the weather. I’m talking about what’s around you. Your friends and family, where you work, what you do in your free time, the culture you live in. The environment of how accessible food is to you, and how often you are bombarded with messages about food. These external things affect how much you weigh (and your ability to lose weight) more than you can imagine. 

I’ve visited my family in Vietnam quite a few times in my life, both when I was overweight, and when I was thin. Weight is not a taboo topic there. My cousins would see me, give me a big hug, and then say “Andrew! You’re so fat! You need to get thinner!” 

I remember being asked outright how much I weighed. I told them I didn’t know. They brought out the bathroom scale so we could all find out. 

There’s a lot of pressure to be thin in Vietnam, even more pressure than in the Western world. One of the cultural differences between Vietnam and Canada is that in Vietnam, they’ll judge you about your weight right in front of your face, so shame and embarrassment might motivate you to get thin. In the Western world people will just judge you behind your back, so you feel less direct peer pressure. Harsh, but you know it’s true. 

Of course, that’s just one difference. There are plenty more, such as how little processed and greasy food Vietnamese people eat compared to Westerners, how much exercise is done, and how people live. The fact is, the environment of Western culture is designed to make you fat. Companies spend billions of dollars ensuring that the food they make is incredibly addictive, and then billions more on marketing to manipulate you into craving it. There are more and more office (and now home) based jobs where people sit in chairs all day, inactive. We work longer than ever before and have an infinite amount of obligations (and distractions), reducing the time we have to exercise or to cook a healthy meal. These facets of Western culture are seeping into Vietnamese culture as well, and obesity levels are increasing in Vietnam.

Being someone influenced by both cultures, it’s clear to me. For many people, environment is a bigger factor than willpower or genetics (although these factors certainly matter too). 

Willpower Matters, but Less Than You Think

As I lost weight, people started noticing. People would start complimenting me on my progress. One thing that was regularly said was that I must have had a lot of willpower. 

It really hit me how absurd that statement was when one of my old friends told me that she wished she had my willpower. She loved food just like me, yet throughout the years, I noticed that 90% of the time when we went out I would order huge meals like the giant spaghetti and meatball plate while she would have a chicken salad. I would fill three plates up during potlucks while she had one. SHE was the one that had willpower all her life to stay thin. My LACK of willpower was the reason I gained 100 pounds more than I should have in the first place!

I still have terrible willpower. Surprise me with a delicious meal or a treat and odds are I’m going to eat it all. I’ll eat all the samples at Costco simply because they’re free even after a huge dinner. Put a plate of food in front of me even though I’m not hungry and it’ll slowly disappear. 

40 oz steak night at my local pub. I ate the entire thing, and dessert too. My ability to eat everything in front of me is a large reason I got obese in the first place.

If your genetics or your willpower let you stay thin without a need to change your environment, good for you. For those of you like me with less willpower, consider modifying your environment. 

Change Your Environment to Reduce the Need for Willpower 

Although you may not be able to change your environment entirely, you often don’t need to make drastic changes. Even small changes can make a big difference, especially if those changes can be permanent.  

I’ll share with you a silly but effective example. I had a great executive assistant who always knew what was going on in the office. Whenever there was free food available, she was nice enough to drop by my office and let me know there were snacks available to grab. Like a robot, I would grab some food, whether or not I was hungry.

One day I realized that snacking at work limited my weight loss progress, so I politely told my executive assistant to stop telling me about free food in the office. Once she stopped, I stopped eating excess calories at work. This simple change probably prevented me from eating 500 calories or so a week. Added up, those excess calories would be around 7.5 pounds of weight loss every year. All without the need to adjust my willpower. Remove the source (or awareness) of the temptation, remove the need to use willpower to resist it.

Ideas to Change Your Environment

Does looking at the snacks in your pantry cause you temptation? Does free food in the office kitchen tempt you to eat even if you’re not hungry? Do you get your morning coffee at a place that sells sweet treats, tempting you to get one? If you can remove snacks from your pantry, avoid walking around the office kitchen, and make coffee at home instead of getting it at Starbucks, the less willpower you will need to use to resist temptations. I just use these as examples, and it may be impossible to change your environment completely, but some of us sure don’t make it easier for ourselves to lose weight with all of the snacks we store in our houses.

Another example: I love potato chips and we generally have a bag or two in our house. There were points during my journey where I refused to have chips in the house. Other times when I couldn’t resist buying them at the grocery store (probably because they were on sale and it’s hard for me to resist a deal), I put the potato chips beside my bicycle trainer, forcing me to walk downstairs and look at my exercise equipment before grabbing a needless snack.

changing my environment to reduce snacking.
Putting the snacks beside my bike trainer, adding just a little bit of resistance in my environment to make it harder to needlessly snack.

I took it even further, putting a bag of low calorie mini rice cakes beside the chips, and made a rule that for every potato chip I ate, I had to eat a rice cake too. It may sound a bit ridiculous, but all of these slight changes in environment supported a reduction in temptation and therefore reduced the need to use up willpower. Let’s say this prevents me from eating 200 calories a week: that’s three pounds a year with a tiny environmental change.

Consider changing your environment so that the things that support you with weight loss are easier to do, and the things that prevent you from losing weight are harder to do. Here are a few ideas.

If You Don’t Change Your Environment, Your Weight May Return

I’ve seen it again and again, and this is a major reason why fad diets, diet clinics, and other temporary measures may work in the short term, but rarely in the long term. The only way to permanently change your weight is to permanently change your lifestyle. An environmental change can support that lifestyle change.

If you go on a milkshake diet, you’re changing your lifestyle temporarily and you may lose weight to start. When you go back to normal food though and change your lifestyle right back to before, the weight will come back.

If you go to a diet clinic but then go back to your normal ways after you end the session, you’re going to regain the weight.

Every environment has a “natural” weight connected with it. For example, the environment where my natural weight was 250 pounds was one where I had zero incentive to exercise, didn’t weigh myself regularly, had snack foods available at any given moment, didn’t plan my meals, and was constantly bombarded with advertisements to eat, eat, eat. The environment where my natural weight is 160 pounds is one where I take walks with my family regularly, I weigh myself daily and track my weight with the Luuze app, snacks are not regularly available, and I’m regularly reminded of my Defining Motivation to stay healthy.

You can use willpower to lose weight, but if your environment’s “natural” weight is higher than the weight you want to be, your willpower and your environment will be at constant war. More often than not, your environment will win. It’s better to adjust your environment to one that has a “natural” weight that is aligned with the weight that you want to be, so your willpower can take a break.

And as I showed with some of my examples above, even small environmental changes can make a huge difference. What small changes can you make in your life right now to change your environment permanently?

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