Monday, 18 February 2013

Dieters eat just as much as others but suffer more guilt

People who self-identify as dieters are an unhappy bunch on the whole. They usually score high on measures of depression and anxiety and low on self-esteem. A new study provides a clue as to why. Jessie de Witt Huberts and her colleagues tested three groups of female students and found the "restrained eaters" (they reported dieting more often and being conscious of their food intake) ate just as much as other students. They also experienced a lot more guilt, especially in relation to eating. In essence, these are people who seem to constantly set themselves up for failure, while also robbing themselves of the pleasures of eating. "Despite their good intentions," the researchers said, "restraint eaters seem to gain nothing and lose twice."

The research took place across three studies, all following a similar procedure. Dozens of female undergrads were invited to a lab to take part in what they thought was a food-tasting session for a supermarket chain. They were left alone for ten minutes to sample high and low calorie food, like chips and apple slices. Then they were asked questions about their emotions, including their guilt, and about their attitudes towards food, including how much they diet and how often they worry about what they're eating.

Checking the food afterwards, the researchers found that the restrained eaters - those who dieted often and who fretted about their consumption - had eaten just as much as the other participants, including just as much high-calorie food. But crucially, they felt more guilty afterwards, especially in relation to their recent indulgence.

This study doesn't prove that being a restrained eater causes increased guilt. It's possible there's one or more other factors that cause a person to watch what they eat and to experience more guilt. One could also argue that the set-up was a little unfair on the restrained eaters - they'd been asked to taste the food, after all; perhaps they do exert more control over their intake in everyday life.

Nonetheless, the results are certainly intriguing, and help explain why restrained eaters tend to experience psychological problems and why they tend to develop problematic eating habits. In effect, it appears these people are locked into a vicious circle. Guilt after over-eating likely encourages them to renew their promises to eat less. And when they fail again to reduce their eating, yet more guilt ensues, this time more intense than before. Given that "45 per cent of young girls currently report dieting", the researchers said it's imperative that we learn more about why so-called restrained eaters experience such negative outcomes.


de Witt Huberts, J., Evers, C., and de Ridder, D. (2012). Double trouble: restrained eaters do not eat less and feel worse. Psychology and Health, 1-15 DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2012.751106

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.


Anonymous said...

From your description of the experiments, we should expect the restrained eaters to feel guilty, but for a different reason. More likely: All of the subjects felt a sense of obligation to test the foods and so all ate similar amounts. Naturally, the restrained eaters felt more guilty about it.

Unknown said...

Well, they had ten minutes to taste the food. I suppose you might imagine the restrained eaters would eat less during that time. Also, the researchers thought the restrained eaters might favour tasting the low calorie food and eat more of that. But there were no differences in consumption across the restrained and not-restrained eaters. But I agree, we don't know from this study whether restrained eaters manage to control their intake at other times - as I mentioned in the penultimate paragraph.

Heather Deckard said...

This experiment is very interesting. It catches my eye because I never thought about the fact that dieters can taste the difference between low and high calorie foods. One thing to think about with this experiment is what has happened in their life before coming to this experiment? They could have done something or experienced something before they came to do this experiment that has caused them to feel guilty, it may not be from just tasting the foods. If dieters do feel guilty from tasting the higher calorie foods it could have something to do with the cell body, also called the Soma. The Soma contains structures that manufacture proteins and process nutrients, providing energy the neuron needs to function. If dieters know the different tastes between high and low calorie foods they might be able to tell if their energy level is different. If they are not used to an energy shift it might cause them to feel depressed or guilty because they are experiencing new feelings. This is a definitely and interesting experiment to think about.

Anonymous said...

People who have dieted for a long time know exactly which foods are high calorie and which are low calorie without being told. For me if given the choice in a controlled situation dieters are more likely to go for the high calorie foods as a preference because they have been given permission to have them, after all its an experiment they should conform. They will feel guilty afterwards because they know that in order to stick to the diet they are following, or accept they are overweight, they feel they should not have eaten the high calorie food.

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