Why Willpower is a Myth in the Self-Discipline of Losing Weight
A lesson from the Japanese supermarket on how to successfully eat in moderation
Where is the pint-size ice cream in Japan?
When I first moved to Japan and went grocery shopping, I was confused by what I saw. Or perhaps it’d be more accurate to say by what was lacking:
Where is the pint-size ice cream?
The freezer section was generously large and there were dozens of different flavors and types to choose from, but none of them were in the classic pint-size I was used to seeing in the United States. They had small cups, cones, ice cream bars and sandwiches. They had a wide variety of novel flavors like strawberry panna cotta, affogato, and roasted green tea with brown sugar swirls — but nothing bigger than in a single-serving size.
After a few minutes of searching up and down the aisle, I caught an employee stocking the shelves and asked, “Excuse me mister, do you have any pint-size ice cream?”
“Yes, we do. Please follow me this way.”
So they do! Maybe it’s stored in a different part of the store.
But he led me to where I first began my search, and gestured toward the bottom corner shelf of the freezer. “Our large sizes are here. I hope you find what you were searching for!” He gestured toward two flavors: Vanilla and chocolate. In a generic brand.
Eating in moderation as nature, not a battle of the wills
Even as I got used to living in Japan and visited more grocery stores, I found myself facing similar fates: pint-size ice cream only available in chocolate and vanilla, green tea if I was lucky. But sometimes they didn’t even have that, and forget about finding anything gallon-size.
I began to understand how a developed country like Japan could maintain an obesity rate of a mere 4.2%, whereas other developed countries were facing epidemics of rapidly rising obesity rates.
It bothered me at first, but it was a blessing in disguise: I grew used to buying my ice cream one at a time, and found myself appreciating the single-serving nature of the desserts in Japan. What was once a haul instead became an occasional pick-me-up to look forward to at the end of the day.
A standard single-serving cup of ice cream is quite small — just 110ml and can be wrapped around the palm of your hand — but upon finishing it, opening a second cup would seem unnecessary.
I no longer had to analyze nutrition labels to figure out what a single serving was, or visually compute what that would look like on my plate. I barely noticed the change, but small became standard.
The single-serving nature of desserts made it harder to eat a lot of it, but that was a really good thing for my health — I would choose to enjoy instead of binge desserts, and I found myself losing weight because of it.
I felt less stressed about my eating and began to let go of my obsessions to eat “perfectly”, helping me make healthy choices without relapse. I began to understand how a developed country like Japan could maintain an obesity rate of a mere 4.2%, whereas other developed countries were facing epidemics of rapidly rising obesity rates.
For I certainly wasn’t eating salads all the time and it is hard to argue that ice cream is healthy, but the positive changes of adopting moderation are undeniable. I finally understood that this is what healthy eating should feel like.
Just 110ml and can be wrapped around the palm of your hand.
The successful road to lifelong health is the sustainable one
Desserts can be intimidating when it comes to how to incorporate them in a healthy diet. We are attuned to the voices that criticize us to eat less sugar and cut down on fats, so much so that we are often pressured into becoming fearful of them.
But self-discipline that is based on willpower does little to change our habits.
So instead of forcing yourself onto another diet, first consider ways you can design the environment around you to nudge yourself in a helpful direction, whether that be buying single-serving snacks just a few at a time or choosing smaller plates for your house.
For when we live in an environment where self-discipline is not based on willpower, but on habit, then living healthfully becomes living naturally.