Diet. Cheat. Give Up. Repeat.
If that cycle sounds familiar to you, welcome to the world of chronic dieting. Diets, because of their restrictive nature, impose an all-or-nothing mind-set that sets us up to fail. Breaking the rules of a diet typically leads to a new cycle of overeating, which in turn leads to yet another diet.
Janet Polivy, then a graduate student, along with C. Peter Herman, a psychology professor, began studying the psychological effects of dieting at Northwestern University in the 1970s. Their research was inspired by a student who mentioned that her sorority sisters dieted all day, but at night “ate everything in sight.” The observation led to a series of fascinating experiments that highlighted the psychological changes that occur when people begin to restrict their eating.
“Dieters show cognitive differences in how they view things,” said Dr. Polivy, now a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto. “It’s not just being on a diet per se. It’s these chronic dieters who are always on and off diets. It becomes part of their identity.”
The studies were initially criticized for discouraging people from losing weight. Today, though, a growing number of scientists recognize the psychological toll of dieting, which can often backfire and cause people to overeat.
The ‘What-the-Hell’ Effect
In a series of experiments involving milkshakes and pudding, Dr. Polivy and Dr. Herman discovered that dieters reacted differently to foods from those who are not on a diet. In the studies, participants thought they were being asked to taste and rate different foods. To start, some people were given milkshakes, and everyone was asked to taste and rate cookies, cakes or nuts.
After filling up on a milkshake, most of the testers ate less. But the dieters in the group did the opposite. If they had the shake first, they actually ate more during the taste test. It appeared that because they had “blown” their diet anyway, they decided they might as well just eat more food.
In another group of studies, participants were given dishes of chocolate pudding before tasting sandwiches. In one round, the participants were told what they were eating: either a decadent 600-calorie pudding, or a diet-conscious 300-calorie pudding. In another round, the researchers switched the bowls but lied about the calorie count.
Again, the dieters behaved in an unexpected way. If they ate the diet pudding, or thought they were eating it, they ate less afterward. But when they ate the 600-calorie bowl — or thought they had — they ended up eating more sandwiches. “They thought their diets were broken, so off they went,” Dr. Polivy said.
The researchers called this cycle of dieting, breaking the diet and then overeating the “what-the-hell” effect.
“If you’re a dieter, once you’ve had a milkshake, all bets are off,” Dr. Polivy said. “It’s: ‘Oh, what the hell. I can’t stick to my diet now. I already broke it, so now I might as well go eat everything in sight.’”
Learning to Eat Intuitively
The “what-the-hell” effect studies were an early source of inspiration to Evelyn Tribole, a registered dietitian and a co-author of the popular book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Anti-Diet Approach,” now in its fourth edition.
“When they wrote about the ‘what-the-hell’ effect, they were describing my patients,” Ms. Tribole said. “They felt like: ‘I blew it. I did something wrong. I’m going to eat all the foods.’”
Ms. Tribole and her co-author, Elyse Resch, developed the intuitive eating approach to teach people how to stop dieting and to instead tune in to their bodies’ needs. She notes that we listen to many of our body’s biological signals, like having a full bladder. But we often tend to ignore our body’s signals about hunger, fullness and satisfaction.
Intuitive eating offers a set of 10 guiding principles to help us better tune in to these hunger signals and eliminate external factors that prevent us from listening to them. “These are not rules; this is not pass or fail,” Ms. Tribole said. “These are guideposts to help you along the way.”
Take the Eat Well Challenge
For this week’s Eat Well Challenge, I asked Ms. Tribole to give us mini-challenges related to the 10 principles of intuitive eating. She emphasized that it’s best to not try all of them at once. Go slow and see which might work for you. “There’s not one way to do intuitive eating,” she said. ((Times subscribers can sign up for the Eat Well Challenge through the Well newsletter and receive extra advice by texting the word “Hi” to 917-810-3302 for a link to join.)
1. Reject the diet mentality. Play a game of “I spy diet culture.” Look for the signs of diet culture in your life. Is it coming from your doctor? Your family members? Yourself? Get rid of diet books, and stop following social media accounts that focus on diet culture and weight loss.
2. Honor your hunger. Think about what hunger feels like to you. Is it always a rumble in your stomach? Does your mood change? Do you get hangry? When you feel super hungry this week, notice it and think about why it happens. Did you go for a long stretch without eating?
3. Make peace with food. Make a list of all the foods you don’t allow yourself to eat (excluding any food allergies). Now, give yourself permission to eat them. Start with one food and pay close attention to how it tastes and makes you feel. You may discover that you don’t enjoy the food as much as you thought — or rediscover how much you love the food and give yourself permission to start enjoying it again.
4. Challenge the food police. Years of dieting can teach us that we’re “good” for eating vegetables and “bad” for eating cake. Make a list of all the rules you have around eating. Do you avoid carbs? Never enjoy dessert? Count calories in your head all day? What happens if you break a rule? Do you binge on a food and then beat yourself up for it? The goal here is to bring awareness to how much brain space is devoted to policing the foods you eat, and how these food rules can get in the way of mindful eating.
5. Discover the satisfaction factor. Ask yourself a simple question: What does having a satisfying meal look like to you? Think about the components of that meal, and how you want to feel when you finish. Your meal might involve particular foods, or it could be a picnic in the park, an evening at a favorite restaurant or a potluck or barbecue with amazing friends or family members.
6. Feel your fullness. Check in with your body midway through a meal or snack. Ask two questions: How is it tasting? Where’s my hunger and fullness right now? Ms. Tribole notes that some people find this exercise difficult, and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. “It’s OK that this is fuzzy,” she said. “People want to land this right away, but it doesn’t have to be precise.”
7. Cope with your emotions with kindness. Check in with your emotions by asking two questions: What am I feeling right now? What do I need right now? The answer might be that you need a break, a distraction (like watching a funny video), a phone call with a friend, a nap, a walk. Or you might actually be hungry. Chronic dieting can create a tendency to react to emotions by eating. The goal of this exercise is to expand your toolbox for coping with those emotions.
8. Respect your body. Refrain from body comments about yourself and others. Take a mindful moment to think about body comments you’ve made to others and body thoughts you’ve had about yourself. The goal of this exercise is to accept your genetic blueprint. You don’t beat yourself up about your shoe size or your height. Stop blaming yourself for your body size. Body diversity is part of nature, and research shows that weight is largely beyond our conscious control.
9. Feel the difference of movement. Focus on how it feels when you move, whether it’s doing housework, walking to the mailbox or working out. And here’s a twist: Think about how you feel when you’re not moving, too. Rest is important! The goal of this exercise is to stop computing the calories we might burn during exercise and movement, and start focusing on how good movement makes us feel.
10. Honor your health with gentle nutrition. Pick a vegetable and find a new recipe to make it delicious. Diets often teach us that so-called “healthy foods” should be relatively tasteless. Ms. Tribole notes that many of her clients have developed a dislike of vegetables as a result of diets that include plain boiled vegetables or salad without dressing. The concept of gentle nutrition, she explains, boils down to this: “Make food choices that honor your health and taste buds while making you feel well.”