Successful Dieting in Tempting Environments: Mission Impossible?

Whereas many dieters are successful in losing weight in the short run, most fail in maintaining weight loss over time (Jeffery et al., 2000). One group seems especially unsuccessful in controlling food intake: Chronic dieters(or restrained eaters; Herman & Polivy, 1980): highly motivated to restrict their calorie intake in order to control their body weight. However, they are rather unsuccessful dieters as they are not only known for their food restriction, but also for their repeated lapses of restraint." Why is it so difficult for chronic dieters (from now on simply referred to as “dieters”) to meet their dieting goals? It has been proposed that a “toxic environment” where palatable (calorically-dense) foods are highly visible and available is responsible for these difficulties in weight control and the increase in obesity (Wadden, Brownell, & Foster, 2002). Indeed, environmental cues such as the sight, smell, or taste of palatable food easily disrupt dieters’ self-control(Fedoroff, Polivy, & Herman, 1997, 2003; Harris, Bargh, & Brownell, 2009; Herman & Mack, 1975). For instance, Fedoroff and colleagues (1997) exposed participants to the smell of pizza prior to taking part in a pizza taste test. It was found that such a cue more strongly affected the eating behavior of dieters than of normal eaters: Dieters consumed more pizza after smelling it. However, not all dieters fail to resist temptations. There are dieters who are successful in controlling their food intake. In this article, we review research on the psychological processes underlying the failures and successes of dieters in resisting food temptations. Additionally, we discuss how we may boost self-control to prevent dieters from giving in to temptation.

Why Most Dieters Fail

Recent explanations of dieters’ self-regulatory failures adopted the idea that eating is often driven by anticipated pleasure rather than people’s need for calories (Lowe & Butryn, 2007; see Stroebe, 2008, for a review of theories and research).The goal conflict model of eating (Stroebe, Mensink, Aarts, Schut, & Kruglanski, 2008) proposes that dieters’ difficulties in resisting food temptations results from a conflict between two incompatible goals: The eating enjoyment goal and the dieting goal. Although dieters want to enjoy the pleasure of eating palatable food, they also want to lose (or at least not gain) weight. Environmental cues signaling palatable food have a strong positive incentive value for dieters. Think of, for instance, signs of fast food restaurant or delicious cakes on display in the window of a bakery. According to the goal conflict model, such cues spontaneously activate (prime) the eating enjoyment goal in dieters (increase its cognitive accessibility, while inhibiting the dieting goal (decrease its cognitive accessibility; Shah, Friedman, & Kruglanski, 2002). As a result, the eating behavior of dieters will be guided by their eating enjoyment goal instead of their dieting goal, which can explain why many dieters cannot resist temptations. Thus, we plan to order a salad, but after seeing all kinds of palatable dishes on the restaurant’s menu, we spontaneously forget that we are dieting and order the hamburger with fries instead.

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